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Published: 2002/11/23
by Jesse Jarnow

Live Phish 15: October 31, 1996

Elektra Records 62808-2

A lot has been made of the impact that Phish's Halloween 1996 cover of the
Talking Heads' Remain In Light would have on their direction in the
next four years, but it is often forgotten how incredible that set is on its
own. It's mind-blowing. Phish never arranged anything better than this
in their career. Never even came close. The music is obscenely rich in
detail, never cluttered, and brilliant. Despite the Phishiness they imbued
on the Velvet Underground's Loaded in 1998 (simply by jamming on some
of the songs), it was Remain In Light that they made their own most
completely. It somehow manages to be satisfying in a completely different
way than the revolutionary original, staying true to the spirit without ever
becoming too wishy-washy.

Though the band (augmented by Santana percussionist Karl Perazzo and horn
players Dave Grippo and Gary Gazaway) jammed a little bit on the album, they
mostly stuck to the Heads' original arrangements. Where the original
Remain In Light is a seamless whole, the syncopation between the
instruments sounding disembodied and inhuman, Phish's version breathes.
Listen to the interplay between Trey Anastasio's guitar and Page McConnell's
two keyboard lines on the opening "Born Under Punches". Or, on "Once In A
Lifetime", check out the random bass notes sung by Mike Gordon under
the verses of the tune! Listen to the burbling keyboards as they morph into
organs! Listen to the doubled guitar and horn parts under the "same as it
ever was" refrain (playing a hook practically buried in the original mix)!
All of this and "Once In A Lifetime" is still probably the weakest
interpretation.

It's been said before, but there's a wonderful minimalism to Remain In
Light: Anastasio, McConnell, and Gordon play far fewer notes than they
do in most Phish songs. In many places, each is assigned to a three or four
note figure, repeated in varying interlocking combinations with the other
parts (a technique Lake Trout has employed successfully in many of their
recent songs). It's a kind of minimalism that's perfectly suited to Phish's
talents: sparse, but also incredibly busy (mostly on the part of Perazzo and
Jon Fishman).

It's a kind of complexity that's rewarding because it doesn't wear it on its
sleeve. The arrangements don't revel in how intelligent they are, in how
layered they are, because – in their original setting, the studio – they
weren’t that complex. Or, at the very least, they weren't that
viruoustic. Everything that occurs on Remain In Light is perfectly
within the realm of believability for a band working within the confines of
a recording studio. For a band inherently limited by the scope of live
performance, Phish manage to create the feeling of a luxurious infinity.

After the chaotic first half of the album, the second side is a bit of a
shock to the system. It's slow and almost ambient. The band doesn't quite
sink their teeth into the Brian Eno-produced Fourth World weirdness of it
all. It would take another two years for the band to really feel the impact
of it. On Live Phish 16, the Loaded show, the very first jam
out of the gate after the Loaded set – a space-filled run at
"Wolfman's Brother" – owes far more to Remain In Light than it does
to the set that proceeded it. A direct connection between the two might be
found in Fishman's use of the vacuum cleaner. Where the vacuum is almost the
quintessential Phish gimmick, it also found its first serious,
semi-musique concr, use in their version of Remain In
Light's "The Overload" — a technique employed in the '98 "Wolfman's".

In the wake of the Remain In Light, the band's other two sets sound
positively one-dimensional. There's something quite locked in about the way
the band organized their improvisation before Remain In Light. In a
way, it was simple and obvious: they moved as one. A lot of what they did
relied on what might be dubbed "chasing", which finds its composed
doppelganger in the composed section of "Reba". In this kind of improv, band
members doubled each others' parts, created odd harmonies, sped up and
slowed down, etc.. It was a music created by active and aggressive listening
and complementary addition. This is what the band does throughout the first
and third sets of the Halloween '96 show.

The kind of improvisation suggested by Remain In Light is very
different. Again, it begins with active and aggressive listening. But,
instead of focusing on a real time commentary to what the other members of
the band might be doing, a band member will focus on the rhythmic holes left
by the others. The net result can easily be mistaken for funk. The band
seems to do this a bit during the second set, but not enough to demonstrate
that they were doing it on purpose. During "Simple", Anastasio plays an odd
effected guitar figure that rises and falls through the upper registers
without bearing much literal resemblance to what the rest of the band is
doing, though it fits handsomely.

Ultimately, the band would never entirely embrace this approach. Indeed, the
music on Remain In Light pretty much accurately reflects the sound of
a deep paranoia and disconnection between musicians — something that never
overwhelmed Phish. Still, Remain In Light is not only the beginning
of something new, but also something magical in its own right. Where Phish
were always the definition of sympathetic musicians (sometimes to a fault),
glorious at creating forward motion, with Remain In Light they gained
the ability to play in relation to each other, as opposed to simply
with each other.

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