Land of the Brave and Free
I originally wrote the following article for the Summer 2010 issue of Surrender to the Flow, which as far as I know is still the only Phish lot fanzine out there (and still free on tour!). Many thanks to Christy, the editor at STTF, for giving me permission to reprint this here. The question she posed was simple: describe your favorite Phish jam. Yet as I made clear in the introduction, that’s not the easiest task in the world.
When prompted to give my favorite Phish song, I’ll tell you it’s “Tela” without hesitating. Ask me my favorite show and I’ll likely end up telling you 12/31/95. But my favorite single jam? That’s much harder to pinpoint.
Probably this is because Phish jams are so varied in their style, their mood, and of course their number. Generally speaking, my favorite jams come out of Bathtub Gins, Ghosts, and Bowies, yet I’d just start a laundry list of dates if you asked me to pick one. I almost picked the legendary “Halley’s”->”NICU”->”Slave” from 12/14/95. But ultimately, there’s one jam that I keep returning to, one that I used to permanently keep on my old, small 8GB iPod, one that I turn to when needing something to take me away: the 4/3/98 “Roses Are Free.” As good a contender for my favorite jam as any.
When I sat down to try to figure out exactly what makes it so spectacular, I was pleasantly surprised. Unlike so many of my most-beloved jams – the 12/29/94 “Bowie,” the Went “Gin,” the 7/13/03 “Seven Below” – the Island Tour “Roses” doesn’t travel all that far in harmony, rhythm, or melody from the basic chords of the song. The real beauty of this jam lies in how Phish listens to and communicates with each other, how they blend subtle elements of funk, blues, psychedelia, and rock to create something that is, without a doubt, one of the best examples of Phish succeeding as a whole rather than a set of parts.
“Roses” is in Bb major, and the jam begins innocently by vamping on that one chord (timings correspond to the LivePhish track “Nassau Jam”). Gradually, Trey starts adding little riffs featuring the note Db, a member of the Bb minor pentatonic, or “blues” scale. Around 2:00, Trey turns on the wah-wah, still in that Bb minor blues, a funky blues jam rather than the in-your-face porno funk of Fall ’97.
Gradually the texture thins out, Fishman tightens up the beat, Mike brings a more pointed sound to his bass, and Trey begins a muted, staccato riff. Mike’s bass is still blues but with a strong minor feel, he’s actually alternating between major chord arpeggios and minor chord ones. Page starts adding in some electronic, synthesizer noise, one of the hallmarks of the funky ’97 sound that most often reared its head during “Ghost”. At 8:30, it’s dark, minor, eerie quietness. But still bluesy. And still funky. This is what makes it so good – it’s dabbling in all these styles at once.
Page starts to add another harmonic key area, a bluesy F chord that will have important implications later, on top of the Bb minor soundworld. And with the start-stop jamming at 11:00, the fun aspect really comes out.
At 11:34, Trey slowly strums a Bb minor ninth chord, essentially adding Page’s earlier F minor chord on top of the already present Bb minor chord. Ninth chords have a jazzy sound to our ears, and with that gesture, Trey brings the jam out of the funk.
Yet the basic rhythm and Mike’s bass stay locked into the groove, and so the amalgamation continues: jazzy psychedelia, funk, blues, rock, all at once. Around 13:00 Trey begins soloing in F minor, which feels so natural coming out of the Bb minor harmony, and the melancholy sweeps over. The last minute or so of the following clip is probably my favorite section of this jam.
As this section builds and builds, the rest of the band’s rhythms begin getting more agitated, creating exciting polymeters. Mike oscillates between F and Ab, which are main elements of F minor but which also offer a way out of this darkness. And it’s at this point that Trey performs the jam’s ultimate coup-de-gras: he takes Mike and Page up on their offer and pivots into the blissful world of Ab mixolydian.
This mixolydian scale is like a major scale but with a flat seventh degree, which takes away the feeling of being forced to resolve, of being forced to teleologically complete itself. It just exists there, as if rotating on a pedestal for us to bask in the joyful sound of a major key without having to go anywhere. Not coincidentally, it is the scale Jerry Garcia uses most often to give us his most powerfully soaring jams. Trey’s slowly played descending mixolydian scales around 16:40, in his purest, most un-distorted tone, are the apotheosis of this jam, the god-like light that overloads our cerebral cortexes. For almost five minutes, they milk this for all its worth, before a little noisy space brings them out of this jam and into Piper.
Phish’s musical communication is brilliant in this improvisation, constantly taking cues from one another on stylistic changes, and subtle harmonic shifts. Even in the end, they end up not at all far from where they began a half hour before with the intro to “Roses Are Free,” merely moving a whole step down from the opening Bb major by way of Bb minor and F. There are other jams where Phish communicates well, and sometimes their cues to switch styles, chords, riffs, or rhythms are much more aggressive and intense, creating meaningful but abrupt juxtapositions. This jam is the opposite: its shifts are so fluid, its flow is so steady, and its styles are so linked to one another that you barely notice the changes – you just keep dancing, smiling, freak out a little, and then smile some more. That’s why it’s my favorite jam. Here’s the entire thing for your enjoyment, broken into 2 videos because this thing is just a beast.
I know I’m not alone in my love for this jam. It’s perennially cited as an all-time favorite amongst those who love the ’97-’98 sound. What especially makes it so wonderful is that it’s the second set opener in what is one of my favorite single sets of Phish. This is one of those classic 4-song behemoths that showed up frequently from ’97-’99, when the band was so locked in and interested in creative improvisation that they largely eschewed song structures in favor of wild experimentation. The “Piper” that follows leads into one of the darkest and most evil-sounding jams I’ve ever heard Phish play, while the ensuing “Loving Cup” rescues the set from the depths and adds shimmering, joyous brightness to it all. After almost 45 minutes of cerebral cortex-searing psychedelia, the familiar blues rock comes right at the moment you need it to, just on the cusp of total freakout.
And then the “Antelope” that closes this set. My oh my, that “Antelope.” It has the now-infamous “Carini’s gonna get ya” opening, inserted because Pete Carini had recently chased down a fan who ran up onto the stage during the “Loving Cup” peak. Then Trey asks Kuroda to kill the lights for the jam. Then the jam is one of the most ferocious “Antelopes” out there. And then they go for a super-slow reggae section, followed by one of my favorite tricks – the silent jam during the ending where they only play the punctuating last chords of the 4-bar phrase.
I love the arc of this set, encoring with “Carini” after all the Carini-related nonsense during the “Antelope,” and then closing the encore with, of all things, “Tweezer Reprise” despite not having played “Tweezer” at this show! The energy was just too heavy for them to play anything else. But it all starts with the delicate interplay and seamless blend of funk, blues, rock and psychedelia in this monumental “Roses” jam. Push it into third if you know you’re gonna climb that hill.