Featured Column: The State of the Phish
We are currently between legs of Phish’s summer tour. That seems like a good place to pause and reflect. This tour has been inspiring a lot of conversation about whether Phish is “back” and what that would mean to begin with. The way I see it, Phish is a three-legged stool. Some eras emphasized different aspects of the band than others, but the essence of Phish is the contrast between their songs, their personalities, and improvisational force.
The song catalog can be judged in two ways: what they play and if they play their songs well. The one thing that the first leg really accomplished was the sheer number of distinctive songs played. While a few songs were overplayed, when nearly every show has a song or two that’s only played that night, it makes it really tempting to get in your car and hop on tour. While it prevents a show from being special just because it had a bust out or two – think about how legendary the Sweet Jane or Shaggy Dog sets would have been if they were the only songs returned on the tour – it adds extra potential to every show when there’s always a sense that the next song could be anything.
When you have 200 songs in rotation, there’s a risk of some sloppiness; Sweet Jane was a song that had people calling for a do-over. Still though, train wrecks have been largely avoided. While we haven’t quite seen a composition nailed the way the Great Woods Divided Sky was last year (perhaps in part due to the infrequency that that and You Enjoy Myself have been played), the disasters have also been minimized.
If there’s one thing that’s really missing, it’s new songs. There’s been a call since last year for there to be new originals, but even more surprising is the lack of new covers. Other than The Gambler – played because they got Kenny Rogers to guest at Bonnaroo – not one song has been debuted in 2012. Even covers like Blister in the Sun had previous performances. According to a clip in Rolling Stone, the plan is to go into the studio this fall and create songs from scratch, but that shouldn’t prevent the wacky covers from happening. As interesting as it is to see how many songs they can play without debuting any, the moment of confusion when no one knows what is being played has been missed.
If there’s one thing the first leg had in spades, it’s the band’s personality shining through. From the tucking experiment to the joking about Fishman only being able to play songs that start with him in Cincinnati to the Marco Polo games in Antelope to trying to bring the “Whooooo”s from Twist into other songs in Atlantic City, Phish are clearly enjoying themselves on this tour. The excitement they’re bringing to the stage is contagious and helps to lower the barrier between fan and band. Phish likes to play jokes but there were two ways how that went. Most of the time we were either in on the joke (such as with the secret language) or it was designed to mess with our minds a bit for fun (John Popper’s wheelchair being lowered onto a trampoline in the H.O.R.D.E. tour or Sara(h) from Pittsburgh in Miami 2009). In either case, there was a feeling of being on the same page as the band, the sort of interaction you have with your friends.
When I think of the Dark Years of Phish, yes I think of Coventry and Vegas, but what also comes to mind is Bittersweet Motel. A major theme of that movie – and obviously it was edited to tell a narrative that may or may not be accurate – was of the band acting like the fans were an annoying hindrance to their lives. Now we’re back to feeling like we’re inside, like we know them as people not just as entertainers. Is it an illusion to some degree? Sure. But it’s a more fun one than having the all-powerful band and us taking the roles of fan or critic. Hopefully it’s not too late to reestablish a healthy relationship between the sides; what has existed with a large part of the fan base actively hating the men on stage is non-sustainable.
It’s somewhat amusing that we went directly from a period where everything was awful except for the jams to one where the only thing left to complain about is the absence of extended periods of improvisation.
The seeds for that might have been planted in an interview Trey gave to the New York Times way back at Hampton. He talked about how musicians helped people to forget tough economic situations. So many of the massive jams of the past had long periods of sheer tedium. Sometimes it took pushing through that to get to the peaks. The new sensibility is that jams aren’t allowed to be dull. It’s rare that there are 5-10 minutes of noodling, hoping that someone will come up with an idea that they can run with. This goes both ways. It means that the infamous ripcording happens when someone feels that the direction is lost. On the other hand the jams that do happen tend to be punchier, more focused. Between the SPAC Piper, the Cincinnati Twist, the Worcester Carini and Roses, the calypso tinged Pittsburgh Light, and the Alpine Fee, there were plenty of interesting jams coming out of different songs. None of them came close to 20 minutes – the SPAC Piper clocks in as the longest non-composition of the tour at 15:31 – but they managed to do a lot in their shorter slots. It would be nice to have a few songs extended a bit more, but it’s hard to complain with what they’re doing with the time they’re allotting.
What all of these three elements – song selection, banter and goofiness, and jams – have in common is that they add to the surprise factor of shows. People focus on the jamming side of things, but what keeps us coming back is more generic than that. The novelty factor is simply having our expectations subverted, preferably in a good way. There’s a feeling that anything can happen at a show these days, the next song could be something that hasn’t been played in years or maybe would lead to some bizarre band interaction or perhaps would have a jam in a song that doesn’t usually contain them. Just about everyone who has attended part of this leg is busy trying to find ways to add shows to their summer. Keep us guessing and we’ll keep on coming.
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