There’s been a lot of frustration about this current phase of Phish. Over and over again you can hear the cry. “Where are my JAMS?!?!” The contrast from the previous phase of Phish couldn’t be greater. In 2003 and 2004 songs were played mainly as quick breathers between the jams. It felt like more a sense of obligation than anything. “Well we probably should play a couple of these things, right?” If anything, the flaw of the current era is the exact opposite. Jams are truncated to go into another song. The first leg of summer and now the fall tour are showing that maybe this isn’t a problem after all, but rather a new direction.
Actually, it started last winter. They found out that they were close to the record for most songs in a year, and suddenly decided to break it. The first set of December 30th was filled with all sorts of exciting bust outs and debuts. That spirit carried over to the summer. First random covers – Tom Waits? Joni Mitchell? – suddenly got thrown in the middle of sets. Then they decided to raid their own back catalog. Even songs like “Fuck Your Face” that had exactly one known live appearance (and we don’t even know the date of it for sure) were suddenly options to be thrown into rotation. It was a love letter to their entire catalog.
The defining show of the summer – and perhaps the genesis of the new style – happened at Merriweather Post Pavilion. Responding to a sign requesting “I Saw It Again,” the band took the request quite literally. You’ll see it again alright! The entire set weaved in and out of that song with constant teases and an eventual complete return.
While the rest of the year hasn’t had quite the setlist intrigue, one thing did remain constant. While the long jams were still gone – there has yet to be a 20 minute jam in 2010 – there was a playing around with the structure that remained. Rather than having static songs followed by unrelated jam sections, the two started to merge a bit. “A Day in the Life” suddenly had a new Page intro section. “Prince Caspian” had its outro jam go into strange and unusual places on the Dawn Treader. A vocal jam section in “Wolfman’s Brother” or “Limb By Limb?” Sure! Why not? Hey, let’s put a beautiful quiet jam in the middle of a “Reba,” and throw in a little “Manteca” tease! Now that they’ve gone back and rediscovered how much they love their material, they’re excited to play with their toys. Every song seems open to a new interpretation or arrangement.
When the jam sections do come, they’re more inspired by the song mentality. Let’s be honest here. A lot of the long jams are padded by aimless periods. Eventually they go to exciting places, making the whole journey worthwhile, but it’s a rare megajam that didn’t have a few minutes where it was ok to zone out. The sections are shorter now, and while that means that a beautiful jam can be cut off when you’d really want to listen to it for a few minutes more, it also makes them feel much longer versions. The Broomfield “Ghost” goes to more places than jams twice their length.
What all of this is accomplishing is creating a Phish that rewards fans who are paying attention. The shows are almost becoming a puzzle where they throw in a brief clue or two of a “Birds of a Feather” jam and then suddenly go into the jam a minute later. Sometimes they’re red herrings (e.g. the Broomfield “TMWSIY” intro jam that was just a trick of the style they were playing), but between the teases and jams and the subtle rearrangements – not to mention the fact that jams can happen at any times instead of just the usual spots – there’s never a time where it’s really safe to stop paying attention. Is there a reason right now why even “Bouncing” or “Sample” couldn’t have something incredible happen in the middle of it? This is what makes song based improvisation so exciting. Anything can happen at any moment, and what will come is likely to be something that will surprise and delight, e.g. hey, let’s play “’Wilson’ and ‘Guyute’ at the same time in the middle of a ‘Bowie!’”
Admittedly this column is being written on the morning after Utica, after three strong and interesting shows with jams and teases and setlist games have been played, but it’s not like these shows have come out of nowhere. Even the first night of Broomfield had a “Back into ‘Makisupa!’” moment. Right now Phish have discovered yet another way to reinvent themselves. Everything is in play, be it an obscure Phish song or some great song they heard on the radio driving to the venue, at any point in the show. Every song is open to change. No need to inquire. We can still have fun!
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 Capital Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at http://www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html and he’s on the board of directors for The Mockingbird Foundation. He occasionally posts at the Phish.net blog and has a daily update on the Phish Stats Facebook page