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Published: 2007/01/21
by Randy Ray

Headphones Jam – Phish

"In this place we learn to wait"

- “Tomorrow’s Song,” Jon Fishman

The latest pearl from the Live Phish archive is a 47-minute jam from an Undermind pre-production session that produced “Maggie’s Revenge” and an iTunes-only outtake, “Tiny.” The jam is reminiscent of prior late-night Phish festival explorations; however, the journey is filled with as much fresh, repeat listening treasure as its sonic brethren. Originally, the track was a bonus gift for the winner of a contest to visit Trey Anastasio’s Barn studio last fall. Given a choice between keeping the track or donating it to Phish Nation so that everyone could hear the jam, the winner chose the latter and selected a charitable organization. Proceeds from the track release go to Ocean’s Harbor House, a New Jersey safe haven for youth, ages 10-21.

One can almost hear the closing segment of this jam — especially the final minute — as a taut, ambient, funk-on-speed intro to Undermind’s “A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing.” Indeed, I tacked that onto my own Phishmishmash version and made it a 55-minute slice of pre-Second Hiatus bliss. In retrospect, there has always been an alternate universe version of Phish, a Greil Marcus-Lipstick Traces detour of sorts. Whereas some older fans quibbled about the lack of tension-and-release in post-1995 gigs, the band was quietly creating a completely different image to continue as an artistic force.

The key era-bending event has always been considered the March 1st, 1997 gig ultimately mined for Slip, Stitch and Pass. The show featured a new kind of feel and rhythm for the band, almost as if their influences had always been James Brown, Tower of Power and P-Funk instead of the prior Genesis, King Crimson and Grateful Dead touchstones. They continued this cow funk pathVermont dairy reference, digwith the Great Went’s “Harry Hood,” formally “burning” the old Phish with an “Art Jam” (while they incinerated a specially constructed tower on the concert grounds). They followed it in 1998, with a so-called "Ring of Fire Jam" at 1998’s Lemonwheel. The dark abyss of “Wolfman’s Brother,” in Vegas on Halloween 1998, was a controversial version that overdosed on days to come. Could the band venture as deep into ambient space as they wanted and continue to involve the audience? Long-ass jams would continue on New Year's 1999 at Big Cypress, the IT festival soundcheck in 2003 (not to mention their jam atop an air traffic control tower), and elsewhere.

Now, we have the next great piece of the anthropological puzzle, the aptly titled “Headphones Jam.” “The band is called Phish,” said Trey Anastasio in Specimens of Beauty, “because Fish is the drummer. If I went and saw Phish, I’d being watching Fish.” And that statement from the band’s leader in the 26-minute Danny Clinch film, which accompanied Undermind, is certainly evident throughout the jam.

Rising above all of the intense electric rumination is the strong sense that Fishman is way up in the mix for a damned good reason. He propels the rhythm forward, restrains the beat, accelerates with perfect tone and precision and, perhaps most importantly, enhances the complex sonic strands of the other members by embracing tempo changes. This is Fishman’s masterpiece and it serves as yet another valid bullet point to demonstrate that Phish, albeit quite different from prior incarnations, were still firing on all cylinders in 2004 — a fateful year which would see Anastasio post a “We’re done” message to fans just three months after these fascinating Undermind sessions.

The jam begins very slowly, as these things are wont to do, and proceeds into a Fishman/Gordon/McConnell scene which only vaguely has Anastasio imagery. Actually, Trey is fairly restrained and nonchalant in the mix throughout. This initial prognosis can be very misleading. After repeated examination, Anastasio is actually feeding first Fishman, then Gordon, and ultimately, McConnell with tone, tempo and phrasing modulations that echo themes and project the piece into the ether. Anastasio becomes much more prominent in the mix at the mid-point but, like he did so often post-1997, he allows his bandmates to extrapolate ideas from his suggestions while inserting their own parallel universe dialogue. The 16-minute mark provides a familiar melody but other than that most of the hooks are improvisatory and seduce wayward themes rather than overtly blanketing the headphones with an aura of point-counterpoint-resolution.

At the 33-minute mark a distinct “Midnight Rambler” tease by Trey is punctuated and morphed into a trance riff and after that it is burnbaybeeburn as the band has found one of their deep, 20,000 leagues under the sea, raunchy grooves grounded in hard funk rock. At the 40-minute mark, Jon Fishman is back in charge as he duels with Anastasio and McConnell to keep it tight, fast and melodic while Gordon glides on the periphery before he finally layers a thick bassline into the climatic five minute jam finale. Quite frankly, the entire jam is all about forward movement with 47 minutes and 32 seconds appearing a bit brief by the time one reaches the coda — that ain’t easy, man. In this place we learn to wait and if “Headphones Jam” is an indication of future archival releases well, it’s a mighty fine place as the buzz of what was still represents what could be.

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