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Published: 2001/12/19
by Jesse Jarnow

Live Phish 06 – Phish

Elektra Records 62707-2

It might be said that the kinds of people who listen to Phish with an addictively attentive ear have, by this point, taken what they needed from the band and moved on. Or maybe not. I'm not sure where I stand myself. Some nights, I'm perfectly okay with never seeing Phish again. Other nights, I listen to the CDs – always the CDs now, and rarely the scores of tapes sitting in the closet – and hear (and understand) the parts I always imagined were there.

When I do listen to Phish, I listen with a historical sense, of a story or cycle at least temporarily completed. I think of the arc, of where things began to wind down. I've taken to calling the fall of 1998, somewhat derisively, Phish's "populist period", which began roughly in early 1997 with the introduction of funk and consistently random rock covers into the sets, and lasted 'til the beginning of the hiatus. The fall of '98 was an early peak of it — the first time that it was really noticeable as a definite directional shift, and not just a disturbing ecstasy hangover after the Island Tour. It's documented well on "Hampton Comes Alive".

Phish was always way into the in-jokes, ranging from the secret language to the Hold Your Head Up themes that sandwiched Jon Fishman’s vocal shots. In 1997, the band released "Slip, Stich, and Pass", whose liner notes featured jokes that the band didn’t share with anyone — cryptic nicknames and the blurred face of someone hanging out backstage. Then, suddenly, nearly as the album came out, the band was sharing their jokes with everyone — covers of the Beastie Boys’ Sabotage, covering "Dark Side Of The Moon" two days after Halloween, Fish wearing a viking helmet onstage. The band was making out-jokes, ones that could be appreciated by most anyone who wandered in off the street.

The second set of "Live Phish 06" is a veritable spontaneous symphony of such things, replete with leitmotifs and themes and whatnot. The Ventures' Wipeout – a frat rock classic so good that it’s gone through bad and right back to good again (to paraphrase "Ghost World") – acts as an overture. From there, they slip into Chalkdust Torture — which contains about ten seconds of my favorite Phish playing when Mike Gordon creates a spontaneous harmony part as Trey Anastasio reintroduces the Wipeout theme. It goes on like that, through a one-time run-through of the English Beat’s Mirror In The Bathroom; the light relief of Dog Log, Sanity, and Buffalo Bill; the screeching peaks of Mike’s Song and Weekapaug Groove; the quiet dynamics of I am Hydrogen and the ambient improvisation that emerges out of the melting Weekapaug Groove.

It is all also completely accessible, and there ain't nothing wrong with that. It is, however, pidgin Phish. When one hears the sequences, it is obvious that there is something at play above and beyond the simple songs. The transitions are too weird. One is made aware of a language behind it that’s taken some years to develop. It is instantly recognizable as such. And, mostly through the constant interspersel of Wipeout, it is fairly easy to understand — like hearing somebody speak Pig Latin, even if you're not initially familiar with the language the person is cannibalizing.

Listening, from Wipeout through Buffalo Bill, is like watching a French film with subtitles. There is obviously a language at work, but it’s in need of translation. However, the instruction is big and plain for all to see, such that one gets a bit bored with the transparency of the lesson after a certain point. The third disc, however – especially the jam that comes oozing out of the tail end of Weekapaug Groove – is like watching a French film without subtitles, relying only on the instinctual melody of the dialect to grasp its beauty.

That said, sluggishness abounds, especially during the first set, which is mightily boring — ditto for when the band actually settles down to jam during the second set (not really until Mike’s Song). Ah, yes, and that's another complaint to register: as interesting as the show may be historically – for what it represents and the fun it is to listen to – there's a painful shortage of thoughtful improvisation here. Thus, the show isn't so much an achievement as it is the simple fulfillment and exploitation of a blueprint.

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