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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2010/10/23
by David Steinberg

Defining 3.0

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 and he’s on the board of directors for The Mockingbird Foundation. He occasionally posts at the blog and has a daily update on the Phish Stats Facebook page


There are 12 comments associated with this post

Chris October 25, 2010, 10:22:57

Great article…could not agree more! Can’t wait for AC!

TheRevengeOfHarryHood420BuriedSomewhereInNewJersey October 25, 2010, 10:33:38

I concur. I like this new phase of Phish a lot and find it very interesting. Like you say, you have to pay attention or you miss it. Right now, I’m listening to the Augusta Gin. Around the 9 minute mark it is going to a nice happy place. It won’t be there long, so you better not blink. In other words, it isn’t the Fleezer. Now, I also believe that the long jams will be back. They could not have gotten to the place they are at now without those jams back in summer of 95, the long funky grooves of 97 and later, and the insanity of 2003 & 2004. It was great to go into the mine and bring back shiny gems even if you did get your face dirty with coal and grime. It was worth it. Now there is an urgency, a playfulness, and a collective awareness that overwhelms the need to go into the mine. What I saw in Charleston’s second set (of 10/16) was a band in absolute command of their abilities. And they were professional! Get this! They finished a minute before midnight! I doubt if the band in 2003 had any idea what time it was when they were on stage.
I’ll post to see if this works.

Adam October 25, 2010, 10:48:23

Dave- I agree with you. I think they are going in a new direction with the types of jams—like super dense, never idle jams—but going back to the early 90’s by playing short jams with interesting segues and set position. I think the total unexpectedness of songs in a set is worthy of note, too.

KOW October 25, 2010, 11:08:56

There was a time (when both bands were still active) when Phish jams were compared to Dead jams by the saying “with the Dead it’s all about the journey, with Phish it’s about getting there”. Well I think Phish went into the journey/exploration trend for a while and now it seems they have gotten back to arriving at the destination in a proficient manner otherwise they get off the bus (jam).

TheRevengeOfHarryHood420BuriedSomewhereInNewJersey October 25, 2010, 11:19:05

What is my long-winded point? I think when Mike talks about being “present and focused” in his Making of Moss video, by extension it also refers to the current state of Phish – a good thing. And to put it bluntly, present and focused hasn’t always been the way with Phish, but with Phish – versus some other scenes – it has always been primarily about the music. Fortunately, the nefarious forces are at bay and we have our band back, playing like troubadours from Gamehendge again, on a mission to save the Lizards. Though honestly I’m more for Wilson than Forbin in the GH politics, it’s good to have the Phish back. With that in mind – on a personal note – I do want to see those long insane jams again. I am one of the insane people that never sat down during Big Cypress (really – and I was sober). I never found the long-winded jams boring. I am a patient listener, ready for thrills, frustrated when they move on before I’ve had my fill, but I am fine… They will eventually be going back to the mine and the gems they bring back are going to be even more luminous. Peace from Florida, TheRevengeOfHarryHood420BuriedSomewhereInNewJersey

KTK October 27, 2010, 15:06:06

this is an awful article. you are a phish apologist. stop making excuses for their fear of improvisation. trey pulls back whenever things are about to get interesting and it is awful. it is a watered down and inferior version of phish and they are shitting all over their legacy.

Mitch October 27, 2010, 14:02:49

Great article Dave.
Agreed – you really can’t risk not paying attention. I was at Utica and was listening again last night with headphones. There were so many more teases and false starts that were likely unheard at the time.
The Slave from Utica was picture perfect at almost 12 minutes. It went everywhere and back.
While the jams may be shorter in full duration I agree that what we are getting is more ‘efficient’; they go more places in less time. And oh, the places they’re going!
Peace from Canada

Ian October 27, 2010, 15:18:35

I’ve been saying this since the Merriweather show. A perfect example was the perplexed looks on people’s faces wandering out of the Broomfield shows. People were literally unsure whether what they heard was good or bad because the shows were not filled with the crescendos that many expected. It was however, maniacal in its intricacy and tough to pick up on unless you listen to it again. Which is even easier now that you can just redeem your ticket stub for a copy of the show!

Kyle October 28, 2010, 17:30:15

@ktg. Shitting all over their Legacy??!! Come on they did that in 2.0. Ive seen at least 2-5 shows every tour and they have done nothing but impress. They give us what we want when we least expect it. Sure sometimes the rotation is rough but this fall tour has been the best since 99. We are all welcome to our opinions but come on Utica Maine and YES Manchester were off the charts. Ive been around since 94 and they honestly look and sound like they love what they are doing. 1.0 was the best 2.0 was a mess and 3.0 is steady like a rock. All you jaded fans stay home and I will take your tickets bc they could leave us again at any point then all you bitching spoiled jaded fans will once again blame everything on Trey. If you want a long Jam listen to the Seven Below from Albany and shut you f’in face.

KTG October 28, 2010, 20:13:13

i have abandonment issues. I bitch and moan and i have no clue what i’m bitching and moaning about. I haven’t been to a show since 1999. I’m a jaded butt hurt phag man. I blame trey for me being so ghey. I blame trey for everything because it just works for me. I love sucking on wOOk wang. jersey shore rules.

Emkay October 30, 2010, 17:43:04

great analysis. “conceptual continuity” was part of Frank Zappa’s approach and I think that Phish’s incorporation of the past – let it be within the setlists or the songs themselves – indicate a Zappa cover album on Halloween.

Ferchinator October 31, 2010, 15:01:24

I am happy Phish has been back and getting better with every show, in 2009 and 2010. This band, its music, the fans, and the entire scene morphs every day and I enjoy every form it takes. Every day, I learn more and more about the band that I first saw in 1995, and, like a sponge, I cannot get enough. I was at the show in Utica, on the floor, and the band was having the best time teasing us with Guyutes aplenty! We are going to look back at this time (labeled 3.0, for now) of Phish and possibly find the band at its peak. For now, just enjoy the ride, like Phish is doing! I know I will.

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