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Published: 2012/07/28
by David Steinberg

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.

Song Catalog

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.

Personality

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.

Improvisation

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

Comments

There are 36 comments associated with this post

AK July 29, 2012, 21:11:41

Steingberg, I can’t believe I’m catching you making a mistake! But it wasn’t Willie Nelson at Bonnaroo – it was Kenny Rogers. Your flawless reputation is now tainted. ;)

gpvogt July 29, 2012, 21:13:46

Kenny Rogers was the gambler.

Tortuga July 29, 2012, 23:39:20

I have to disagree with you on so many levels here. The band is as good as they’ve been since their return. They could quite possibly be at the high water mark of their career. Take a look at the entire picture not just what you see/hear on stage. It’s an honor to be a phan again!

Agent Stardog July 29, 2012, 23:42:50

Maybe he had a momentary lapse of reason that is foreshadowing a Willie sit-in!

Buster Yarborough July 29, 2012, 23:59:55

Had to stop reading afteri read you disinformation.

Critter July 30, 2012, 00:07:58

Great post, thank you. I only get to go to one show this year in SF but it’s gonna be well worth the wait!

Critter July 30, 2012, 00:10:07

Agent Stardog? Woah.. I think I jammed with you in SF or Oakland once? Small world.

god July 30, 2012, 09:08:48

whoever commented that they might be at the high water mark of their career never saw a show in December 95, period.

Walsh July 30, 2012, 09:44:28

Cincy Twist, clocking in at 21:24, is the longest jam of the tour.

zzyzx July 30, 2012, 10:01:48

Yeah, that Kenny Rodgers/Willie Nelson thing was just a brainfart. They serve the same purpose right (older, bearded country singer with crossover appeal)? ;) Walsh: How do you get 21:24 for the Twist? Live Phish has it at 14:12 and while you could probably move 3 minutes from KDF over to the Twist, you sure can’t move 7.

Phortin July 30, 2012, 11:58:45

Nice work. I hope we see a few new covers in the 2nd leg like in 2010’s 1st. The possibilities are endless and they may hit gold like they did with ‘Golden Age’.

Walsh July 30, 2012, 12:06:22

ZZyzx…Im listening right now, Im in minute 18, and its all Twist, no KDF. Its definitely NOT 14 minutes, sounds like a complete 21 minute type II Twist to me.

Walsh July 30, 2012, 12:13:03

and even if you only move three minutes over from KDF instead of 7, still makes it longer than SPAC Piper.

zzyzx July 30, 2012, 12:14:03

Now I’m curious Walsh. Kill Devil Falls’s final chorus is at 9:01 of that track on Live Phish. There’s a weird space thing from 9:01 to 11:21 and then Twist comes in. At 14:13 the track clearly is over and Halley’s Comet is sung. You’re listening to 6/22/12 right? What recording?

Walsh July 30, 2012, 12:19:13

Yeah, 6/22/12 set II. Its the LP recording, and my KDF is 11:20, and goes right into a 21:25 Twist, according to my Ipod. Upon digging on PT I found that LivePhish kinda shit the bed on track times for this show, so im not entirely sure who is correct here. At the 21 min mark, the track is clearly over and Halleys begins. super confused as to how they could possible mislabel 7 minutes of jamming…

Walsh July 30, 2012, 12:36:03

stand corrected, that shit aint 21:25. Still not sure how long it really is though, I’ll accept 14:12 for now, guess it decides where you cut KDF off. Kinda pissed that Live Phish’s mislabeling got me semi-owned in a phish debate…

zzyzx July 30, 2012, 12:38:25

Well I also timed the show live and made this comment, “Kdf> twist FTW. I’ll be interested to see where they put the space jam. If they put it with the Twist we’re looking at around 17 m,” so I know that the 21 minute thing is false.

Satan Himself July 30, 2012, 14:06:53

You must be a serious pleb to say ‘The Phish’.

hammurderer July 30, 2012, 14:13:26

another element is trey’s playing style. he’s clearly more patient, present, and melodic in this past leg. it’s almost vindication after the dark days of early 2000s. i don’t think there’s ever been a period where he and mike have both played with such high confidence. it’s a great development that i think the band is really excited about. purely subjective, but that’s what my ear says.

timber_jerry July 30, 2012, 15:04:26

I agree with pretty much all of that except for the section where you talk about the “what has existed with a large part of the fan base actively hating the men on stage is non-sustainable.” I don’t think thats true at all. I think the majority of PT hates on the band…and the majority of PT are spoiled clueless 16-20 year olds who think if the band doesn’t play a show that sounds like 11/17/97 or something from the Island Tour than the band isnt jamming! Those kids will NEVER truly get Phish and they missed the boat on the old days, so they hate on EVERYTHING they can hate on. Older fans like myself know a great version of a song when we hear it. The band doesn’t have to play a song for 15-20 mins for it to be “jammed” or even great. Listen to Moma Dance from 12/31/09,or anything from the first set of 6/11/10, or Stealing Time and Ocelot from 6/24/10…not to mention almost anything from Leg I this summer. What the author said about the band being able to do more now in a short period of time than they use to do in 20 mins is 100% correct. If your a “fan” and your hating on the band then your not doing it right. If Trey flubs something, all is NOT lost!

Matt July 30, 2012, 15:21:17

It’s tough to take a step back and look at things objectively..especially since we all devout so much of our lives to a band. But this is pretty spot on.

bri July 30, 2012, 15:24:50

i’m laughing at noobs arguing with the timer. high water mark….where do you guys GET these thoughts? for me, i’m over the gimmicks and compositions…i want to hear those four communicating musically…regardless of “where it goes” i was never happier than at fleezer or worcester jim….or any of the long jams prior to 3.0

Kye July 30, 2012, 19:21:04

Jambansd and relix are so fucking annoying its not even funny. let phish be phish I understand you idiots cant make money without giving your shit opinions on the best jam band since the dead. Even the so called dark years and yes i was at vegas and it sucked same with coventery it was bc trey was wasted. now he is healthy and jambandsstill bitches. all this article means is more cash for the idiots at this site and there bs mag that was decent at one point called relix which i still read but can see how terrible and mainstream it has went. I use to have mad respect for relix and jambands but considering 90 percent of the bands it discusses isnt even close to a jam band or even an up and coming jam band this site means nothing. this site is as bad as stub hub or worse

kye July 30, 2012, 19:27:39

If you go on pt you are a noob straight up SOP for eva and if you dont know and cant be positive then stay away. I just hate how jambands acts like they are a jamband site but are 90 percent indie. AM I wrong???? Phish makes these god awful so called journalist $$$ so they will say anything. Im not saying they are wrong but they need money lets write about phish

smiley July 30, 2012, 19:34:37

timber_jerry’s post is correct…the upbeat rock from the mid nineties to the long intricate jams of the late nineties were great…but they are not better than going to a couple of shows with friends and hearing great music…of which there is a lot in this world

Larry! July 30, 2012, 21:09:24

Kye,
Everything is ok. Breathe.
David, kinda harsh calling The Phish “stool,” man! Boy! Everyone else: I’ve been told, “you just have to listen to a lot of Phish…” by someone who obviously knew.
Go Light, Larry

Matt July 31, 2012, 03:44:29

I haven’t perused the mag or website in a # of years but the article was very well written. Part of fan interaction is critiquing and analyzing the band, and if you can do it well I have no qualms with you earning money off it. Although we may detract from a performance from time to time, anyone who was at Coventry can agree we are all extremely lucky the band is playing at this level right now.

DarthJanus August 1, 2012, 00:33:34

Amused by the PT hate. There is good and bad in everything. Met some great phans there over the last 12 years. More importantly, Phish is playing great. Can’t wait for Dicks.

JAYBO August 1, 2012, 11:00:41

moving forward phriends….

Roving Reporter August 1, 2012, 11:32:17

I liked the opinions here in the commentary. I like Phish. I like Phish shows. I also like Vermont sharp cheddah. Can’t we just all have our own opinions without ripping someone else’s to bits?

Irish Rover August 1, 2012, 12:50:03

Phish Phan since 1988….They’re playing great these days…however, Tweezer needs to stay on the bus more often these days. Maybe even take a whole tour off.

PosterNutbag August 2, 2012, 15:12:50

Great state of the union address. Nailed it.

brandon August 3, 2012, 09:15:21

Do you all know who David Steinberg is? I think he is entitled to an opinion about Phish and while you may disagree with him, I bet he has seen more Phish shows than everyone posting here combined.

Darren August 8, 2012, 08:57:58

“but even more surprising is the lack of new covers” – YOu are correct. I believe the reason is livephish. The good thing with livephish is you can download the song the same night. The bad news is that it sometimes crushes the cover aspect to a setlist. Copyrights are involved and timing makes it painful. It’s much easier to play a song that has been covered in the past. Just my 2 cents.

Andrew August 8, 2012, 14:03:27

http://www.thosedarnkids.net/2012/08/07/things-are-getting-phishy/ phish is starting the second leg of their tour…and its rad

Adam Knott August 19, 2012, 22:23:31

I look at it like this. I’m grew up and still live about 10 min from deer creek. My first show was in 96 there and yes it was a little different, but isn’t that what it’s all about?? I think so! Like you guys said all these youg kids have no idea what there talking about. I, and I truly believe that it’s all about them going out there now and doing what ever makes them happy. Yes I’ve see some crazy super long Jame and special quests(as well as Big Cypress), but I keep on coming back cause its still a blast, and weather jams are 25 min or 7 to 8 mins long, it’s still something I could never do but it sure is fun to watch it happen right before your eyes! I’ll leave you all with this, I kinda got into a mind argument about how this 16 year old kid over heard me saying that the 3 night DC run in 2000 was one of the best shows and times I’ve ever head, and 7/11/2000 Moby Dick show is one of my favorites. He tried to tell us all that it was not great at all. Then we asked, we’re you there all 3 nights?? Of course he wasn’t! And if any of you were there at DC in 2000, you all know what I’m talking about!! See you all out in Denver in a few weeks!!

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