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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2006/07/20
by David Steinberg

Band Levels

While coming back from Tea Leaf Green in Arcata, I was thinking about what it meant for me to drive 1200 miles in a weekend to see a band. Traveling to see a band is a big step in a relationship, but should I be taking them home (at least in CD form) to meet my parents or could this still be just a passing fling?
As I see it, there are about 13 levels of liking a band [1]:
1: Putting your life on hold in order to see as many shows as humanly possible. This includes such things as choosing jobs and careers based solely around being able to get time off for tour, quitting jobs (or trying to get laid off) for tour, holding off buying a house or having kids until after you get a few tours, and other acts of complete insanity. I’ve done a few of these myself.
2: Never taking a vacation that’s unrelated to seeing the band.
3: Trying to do at least a run of every tour, no matter where you might have to travel to make it possible.
4: Being willing to travel to somewhere horrible to see the band (e.g. Camden, Phoenix in July, etc.)
5: Using the band as an excuse to travel somewhere nice that you want to go to but would otherwise never get around to seeing (e.g. SCI’s Alaska run. Jamcruise is the ultimate example of this sort of urge.).
6: Would see any show within an easy drive of your house – about six hours or so. [2]
7: Would see any show in your town.
8 Would see a show in your town if they played a nice venue.
9: Would see a show in your town if they played a nice venue and weren’t expensive.
10: Would see a show in your town if they played a nice venue and you were comped.
11: Would see a show in your town if they played a nice venue and you were comped and you had no other plans and it was on a weekend and a lot of your friends would be there.
12: Would see a show if it involved absolutely no effort on your end whatsoever.
13: If they were playing a free private show for you in your backyard, you’d call the police to get them shut down.
The advantage of making a list like this is that it expands the options for discussion. All too often, we talk as though the only options are for a band to be tour worthy or to be completely horrid.
Take 70 Volt Parade for example. They weren’t a bad band by any means. I’d say that they were a solid level 9 band. Where they got into trouble with the fans was that they were marketed as a 7 or 8. Expectations were raised higher than the band was capable of delivering. Making the matter worse is that right now there are a slew of really good bands on that level. Trey’s problem wasn’t that his band sucked, but that his band was marketed a level or two too high. That’s not only a kinder sentiment, but talking in terms of levels is constructive criticism instead of bashing.
Armed with this new way of thinking, it was time to head east to see GRAB/Phuo/Whatever the Hell You Want To Call This Band with Phil and Friends. Already there was pressure on this band since – due to a rather bizarre tour that had it over saturating the northeast and playing absolutely nowhere else – we were going to Camden to see the first show. Would this lineup live up to its level 4 billing?
Mike, Trey, and the Duo played first this night. I had some idea what to expect from the previous trio shows. Unfortunately, I was completely mistaken. What I thought was that they were going to take the already established trio sound and add a guitarist. Instead, it was as though they took 70 Volt Parade and replaced everyone but the guitarist. The new band did play the Shine era songs a lot better than any other band, but the material held them back.
Don’t get me wrong, the jams were very good and held some incredible peaks, but this band doesn’t revolve around their jams. They’re a song based band; few of their songs crack ten minutes. There’s nothing wrong with playing short songs, but there are two real routes to success – you can either write incredible songs or you can mainly focus on your jams [3]. While GRAB’s songs weren’t bad, they largely didn’t leave much of an impression. There’s a great feeling at a show when a band starts up a song and you jump up and scream because you’re getting a song that you love. Those moments were completely lacking. Opening chords were usually met with ennui. The Phuo is a vocal heavy band, but I’m having a difficult time thinking of any line that would work well on a t-shirt or bumper sticker.
Perhaps it wouldn’t be quite as noticeable if there weren’t three sources of great songs that were being ignored or underutilized. Between Phish, Mike’s solo material, and the Duo’s work, there’s a lot of potential for improving the setlists. Even if the Phish material were to be completely retired [4], Clone, Inside In, and Sixty Six Steps have plenty of songs that would have added to the rotation. Why ‘Car Carrier Blues’ and ‘Beltless Buckler’ were played once and then ignored [5] is beyond me.
While the Phuo fell short of my expectations due to their song selection, I knew that wouldn’t be the issue with Phil. I stopped seeing Phil and Friends around 2001 when he was stuck in southern rock mode, but the last few webcasts were quite impressive.
Where Trey seems pretty obsessive about what he plays and what message it would send to choose a song, the underlying philosophy of Phil is that he just doesn’t care. Not only is every song that the Grateful Dead ever played [6] fair game, but so is the complete Ryan Adams catalog and some random Beatles song and whatever strikes Phil’s fancy that evening. There really are no rules at all. What Phil’s playing reminds me of more than anything else is a jazz ensemble. It’s not really nostalgic because the songs are played differently and in different orders than the Grateful Dead would play them in, but neither is it completely independent of the history that band established. Phil uses the Grateful Dead as a template, but he’s doing a lot more deconstructing than recreation.
Perhaps the most notable moment of this was during the first set. ‘Bird Song’ was played in the middle of the set. This is a song about one of the big questions – why is it that someone [7] comes into our life, finds a way of making it better, and then dies? How is that fair? What’s the meaning behind that?
Hunter’s answer is that we should be glad that she was ever there in the first place. The song accepts that we should feel the grief but not only the grief, ‘Laugh in the sunshine/ Sing, cry in the dark/ Fly through the night.’ As played by the Dead, first it establishes the grief, then it builds to an incredible peak to remind us that life can go on, and triumphantly invites us to take what was good with the singing of ‘Don’t cry now/Don’t you cry/ Don’t you cry/Anymore.’ The song gives us a quick tour through the stages of grief, a perfect way of ending the first set.
Phil started out with that model but then switched it up. At the return to the first verse, he changed the gender of the death on us. ‘All I know is something like a bird within him sing/ All I know he sang a little while and then flew on.’
Janis is a distant tragedy to most of us. We’ve seen Festival Express and listen to the discs, but she doesn’t have a very direct relationship to our lives. However, anyone attending a Phil and Friends show has a Jerry shaped hole in our souls. Changing the song to be about him (and doing so in a rather subtle way, you’d have to be paying close attention to notice the lyric shift) was powerful. It made the despair more relevant to our lives and therefore made the redemption of the end of the song more important. The return to ‘Don’t cry now’ helped us to purge our still remaining sadness over Jerry’s death.
That is, it would have helped us to purge if it had been played. Phil had a different plan. Rather than take us to the depths in order to have exhilaration stand out sharper when we got there, this song segued into Ryan Adam’s ‘Bartering Lines.’ Instead of giving us a path back to joy, we’re being left in the withering pines. I felt many things about that artistic choice. I was surprised, upset, and a little bit angry. What I most definitely did not feel was nostalgia. The Dead song catalog might be Phil’s canvas, but he’s using it to create powerful pieces.
The set fortunately did not end on that moment of despair. For the first time on the tour, Trey came out to play with Phil. During ‘All Along the Watchtower,’ Trey played like he understood we were currently in the long dark night of the soul. Like any good mystic, Trey pointed us to the way out of that spiritual dilemma. By the time the break came, we were suddenly fortified. The memory of the crisis lingered, but we were free from its trap and ready to explore.
Phil’s first set was filled with interesting music and things to think about. That’s a good thing. The second set was a little different. We were out of the pit and headed straight for Nirvana. I have seen a lot of good music over the past few years. I’ve been happy to get shows that I liked, but – without even noticing it – I have forgotten that there’s another level of musical bliss. There are shows that move you, shows that are easily worth the $40 that you spend on a ticket, shows that make the work week easier to get through, but then there are the other kinds of shows. Sometimes music takes a direct path between you and the pleasure circuits of your brain.
While the entire second set of this concert is incredible, the highlight is clearly the ‘St. Stephen.’ Even if you were deaf, you would have known that something incredible happened there. After Trey’s big solo, people were high fiving each other. Others were jumping up and down or just standing there with their jaw completely dropped. After years of seeing fun concerts, we had one that was a powerful religious experience.
For the past two years, things have been exceedingly weird between Trey and us. You can’t mention his name these days without getting into discussions about drug addiction and what artists owe their fans – not to mention what fans owe the artist – and the contrast between having an artistic vision that you want mirrored as precisely as possible versus being part of a group of coequal members and the differences between maturing and selling out. Trey hasn’t been an artist nearly as much as he’s been a metaphor and springboard for some interesting conversations. Concert reviews started with political policy statements about where they stood in the debate between, ‘Phish songs should be off limit,’ and, ‘Trey has the right to play whatever song he wants.’
For two hours in Camden, that wasn’t the case. What we had there was the reason we all cared in the first place. Instead of Trey the metaphor, we had Trey the best guitarist in the world. It’s been two years since I’ve had one of those nights where I spend an entire set in a state of pure bliss. I had forgotten just how good music could make you feel. Perhaps it took playing with someone who just plays what he wants regardless of what people say about his song selection to liberate Trey from the fight.
While the other two concerts we saw didn’t reach the peaks of Camden, it hardly seemed to matter. We were present for the kind of show that even the best bands can only reach on occasion, a night where great musicians play wonderful material using skills that they didn’t even know that they had.
What this lineup worthy of the level 4 sacrifice I made? Let’s see. The Phuo? They’re a fun band. They’re easily level 9 and on a good day could definitely reach 8 or 7. Phil and Friends is pretty damn good these days. They’re level 5 no question. Those bands are both good, but there was a third unannounced but hoped for band on the bill. Phil and Friends with Trey? They’re level 1. Announce a tour with that lineup and it might just be time for me to see if I can exercise those old touring skills. It’s one for three, two for five, right?
[1] Originally I had much fewer levels, replacing some of the middle ones with adjustments for venue size and ticket cost, but it sounded way too much like a role playing game. When I found myself referring to a +1 Venue of Smallness, I knew that a dark path was being traveled.
[2] If you don’t consider a six hour drive to see music, ‘easy,’ you might be reading the wrong website.
[3] Of course, you can also have great jams that come out of incredible songs; that’s how bands reach level 1.
[4] As of the writing of this column, it is just coming out that ‘Mexican Cousin’ was played in Atlanta. Apparently Phish songs are no longer off limits, although I’m sure that many people would have preferred a different song to be played.
[5] Again, as of this writing.
[6] ...or recorded or covered or had a brief conversation about backstage…
[7] Janis Joplin in this case.
David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capitol Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at
He is the stats section editor
for The Phish Companion and is on the board of directors for the Netspace Foundation. You can read more of his thoughts at

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