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Published: 2004/02/28
by Jesse Jarnow

Featured Columnist: Jesse JarnowIn a Blissful Torrent

1.

A few weeks ago, something pretty cool happened. A friend gave me almost two
gigabytes worth of bootleg Bob Dylan recordings in mp3. In addition to the
two
pre-blackout shows at Manhattan's Hammerstein Ballroom last August, he
gave me three fan-compiled bootlegs: Time out of Theft, The
Genuine Bootleg Series, and The Genuine Never-Ending Tour Covers,
1988-2000. The first is a collection of studio covers recorded for
soundtracks between 1997's Time Out of Mind and 2001’s "Love and
Theft"; the middle is six-disc set of studio outtakes not
included on the official Bootleg Series 1-3; but it is the latter
that is most interesting.

Since 1988, Dylan has toured extensively every year, and included a
surprising range of covers in his set — ranging from contemporary folk-pop
(Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah") to old-tyme string-band numbers ("Arthur
McBride") to classic rock (The Beatles' "Nowhere Man") and on down the line.
There've been a lot. Nine disc's worth, specifically, categorized by genre
and adorned with handsome (and detailed) liner notes. While it may, on one
hand, seem perfectly logical that one should organize the material as such,
it came as a bit of a shock to me that people would actually organize it at
all. I've collected live tapes and studio outtakes for years, but have
always experienced them simply as dated artifacts: "this tape was recorded
on this date, in this place, and that is how you must fit it in to your
conception of this musician."

This, I think, comes from the fact that most of my trading experience comes
from the world of Phish and Grateful Dead shows, where people – even the
bands themselves, on their official releases – seem quite reluctant to split
up the material for fear that something might be lost by changing the
context. One simply doesn't see Phishheads cobbling together thematic
compilations for trade — or, at least, see them very frequently. Yet.

2.

Around this time, I also began to use the ubiquitous (or, at least, widely
babbled about) iTunes software with some regularity. Simply, it's a fairly
elegant way to store and organize mp3s. When I was a tape trader, I took
pleasure in labeling my cassettes, creating elaborate J-cards with
calligrophied segue marks and annotation. To me, that organizational
obsessiveness was part of the appeal of tape trading — one that was lost
with the movement of music into the digital realm, but regained (in part)
with the introduction of iTunes. When one drops a song into iTunes, if it's
not instantly recognized (and sorted) by the totally bitching Internet Music
Database feature, one is free to label it. Typing song titles into a
database has supplanted the ritual of writing on a J-card, but it's still
just as pleasurable.

After staring at the Dylan tracklists for a bit, I began to wonder how one
might go about assembling a thematic collection for a band like Phish.
Coincidentally, the technology that allows one to curate these anthologies
with ease is now part of iTunes: The Playlist. It's an important step up
from the mix tape in that one can play with the track order, or add new bits
and bobs to the collection without having to recopy the cassette or reburn
the disc. It is, in short, quite flexible, and – more importantly – expandable. History can, and does, change with the discovery of new
artifacts. Once the mp3s are on the computer, all ya have to do is drag and
drop.

My first instinct was to make a "Stash" collection — to, in a sense, trace
a single idea ("Stash") through the band over a long period of time (from
its debut in 1990 to the present). I dropped some versions of the song into
a playlist, and listened to them. It was great, of course, for all the
reasons that "Stash" is great: a song that, since 1998 at least, the band
has used as a springboard for really peculiar rhythmic jams quite unlike
anything else in their repertoire. But listening to it with the versions
arranged chronologically was still fundamentally a time-based experience. It
was nice, but it wasn't revelatory.

In a moment of what first seemed like masochism, I decided to make a
playlist featuring only songs the band has debuted since returning from
their two-year hiatus in late 2002 — songs that are widely viewed (at least
by myself and most of the people I seem to encounter) with deep suspicion.
But the fact of the matter is that they are viewed with suspicion at all.
People who actively criticize numbers off of 2002's sloppy-arse Round
Room like "Mexican Cousin" and "Friday" by contrasting them with the
band's beloved older material actually care enough about Phish to have an
opinion about them.

If they are to truly continue keeping up with the band, uncynically and
without a sense of mere obligation, then they should probably pay attention
to the band's new songs. Regardless of their quality, the band has
debuted well over a dozen songs in the past year and a half. And even if the
numbers don't immediately jump out of Phish's live sets, it's clear that the
band, at least, thinks that they're onto something. It's kind of hard to
figure out what, though. They're not making it any easier on themselves (or,
more accurately, on anybody who wants to tune in) by releasing the new songs
on half-assed albums like Round Room, which just invite offensive
criticism given their partially formed nature, or by tucking the new numbers
into sets right next to warhorses like "You Enjoy Myself" and "Runaway Jim."

But, one can pull them out into their own playlist (which, typing
this now and ostensibly trying to convince you to try it yourself seems more
like sadomasochism than simple self-hatred). Anyway, I did it. Separated
from all of Phish's old skins that co-exist in the live set, it is the
opposite of the "Stash" project — here, tracing several different ideas
through one single period of time. I've made several discoveries. The first,
and most important, is that the band really is onto a direction,
though one that might be hard to describe (and even harder to describe as
"good").

Trey Anastasio is writing more complex songs than he has in quite some
years, with numbers like "Spices" containing composed sections along the
lines of his earliest work, albeit far more consonant and less jarring
and/or humorous, and book-ended by fairly lame verses. Almost all of the new
songs contain portions of composed music and are arranged far more
intricately than they might first seem. But, with one or two exceptions,
they still seem terribly wussy, even when they're trying to rock. The polite
word, I suppose, is "mature," but fuck it. Then again, "If I Could," from
1994's reviled-at-first "Hoist," sounded wussy at first, too. And it still
is. But, now, it sounds innocent – a remnant of an earlier Phish – and is
actually quite beautiful to listen to.

So, yes, I've been listening, and am surprised to say that I've been
enjoying myself — though I do have to frequently enforce a "no skip" rule.

3.

All of this worked me into a fair frenzy. It'd been a while since I'd been
into the idea of really acquiring live material. But iTunes and its
playlists relit the flame. So, I finally investigated BitTorrent, the
latest/greatest/bitchingist/heppest file trading system. Holy shit. Nearly
every time I go to the BT message board at SharingTheGroove.org, I discover
things that I want that I didn't even know existed (demos for David
Byrne and Brian Eno's groundbreaking 1980 album My Life In The Bush of
Ghosts, for example), things that boggle me (a Dolby 5.1 mix of Phish's
New Year's 1995 concert at Madison Square Garden), and a constant supply of
surprise by the true breadth of what hippies seem to be listening to these
days.

SharingTheGroove features a good 'n' jambandy Photoshop graphic at the top
of the page: a collage featuring the heads of folks like Anastasio, Jerry
Garcia, Michael Kang, Warren Haynes, and the like. Heady, right? But going
to the front page of the BT board, one can grab torrents for shows by AC/DC
(rock!), several compilations of music cylinders from the first part of the
20th century (weird!), contemporary folk singer Nanci Griffith (at the Royal
Albert Hall!), metal god Rob Halford (in Rio!), reggae hero Peter Tosh ('83
soundboard, dude!), two shows by perpetual prog-dorks Dream Theater (thanks,
but…), indie folkstress Beth Orton (oh word?), and a recent compilation of
The Grateful Dead covering The Beatles (right on!). And that's just about
half of the first page. Right now, I'm downloading a frickin'
Mountain Goats show from last week. (Sorry for all the
italics, it's late, and I'm getting worked up.)

The point, if I hadn't made it before, is that this is just ridiculous.

One of my problems with trading shows by FTP and, later, via Furthur (which
I, admittedly, never succeeded in hooking up), is that it took some of the
communication out of it. There was no more trading tapelists and haggling by
email, no more random items tossed into packages. With BitTorrent, though,
some element of the human returns with the arrival of message boards, where
people again can discuss the music they're exchanging, as opposed to simply
posting and downloading with anonymity. BitTorrent is adding some of the
democracy back to tape trading. (Or, more accurately, live file trading.)

It's a fair bit ironic that BitTorrent's popularity is exploding when it is.
There's been much hullabaloo about the death of the album. File downloading
will not only kill the physical CD industry, some argue, but the artistic
form of the complete album itself. Even if the record industry doesn't die,
and it probably won't, the idea of the single song again seems to be the
dominant one. That's pretty neat, I think, and – as much as I love the album – it can only mean good things in the grand scheme. It will force people to
think about music in fresh ways. (And, really, the album isn't going
anywhere in the sense that people are going to stop making them, they
just might not be predominant form.)

So, yes, the album is disappearing. But, at the same time, BitTorrent's
popularity suggests something far on the opposite side of the spectrum from
the single: complete performances. And if somebody is interested in getting
one complete performance by a band, odds are that he's obsessive
enough to be interested in getting more than one, which means – if
one accepts BitTorrent's popularity – that people are interested in
exploring entire bodies of work. That's rad. In that sense, SharingTheGroove
is a living history of musicians' work — Stones' rehearsals, David Byrne
demos, one-off side projects.

It's not really important to listen to Phish. But it's fun, and – really – rewarding. To invest one's self into the work of a band or individual
(doesn't matter who), to study how they can create their own context and
evolve within it, can be a valuable skill as a working listener. And
that’s important. It’s time to fire up another "Stash."

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