The Victor Disc – Phish
On December 19, 2002, less than two weeks before Phish returned to New York’s Madison Square Garden on New Year’s Eve to end their first hiatus, the band made an appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman. Phish played “All of These Dreams,” a track from their Round Room album, which was recorded in four days, two months earlier. The song seemed like an oddly inappropriate way to re-introduce themselves to a mixed-bag Letterman audience, but the band clicked nonetheless in their brief appearance.
However, perhaps the real story at the time was that the four musicians had already played earlier in the day, just past midnight for several hours, in a New York recording studio. Trey Anastasio and Page McConnell entered the studio, spontaneously phoned Mike Gordon and Jon Fishman, and subsequently spun over two hours of improvisations. The next year, in a Rolling Stone cover story, Anastasio stated that The Victor Disc, as it came to be known (nodding to 1999’s The Siket Disc, also a recording centered on studio improvisations named for its engineer), was to be their next album. Alas, the recordings were never released and the legend grew about the sessions.
Until quite recently, that is. A complete recording of The Victor Disc has surfaced which shows some extraordinary passageways, brief moments of inspiration, and generally a band searching for their muse after returning from a two-year hiatus. To be sure, the cow funk was long gone, ambient space was yet to be completely re-interpreted, and, instead, the four musicians concentrated on individual excursions within the group mind. The shorter tracks leaked previously over the years (“Lazy and Red,” “Den of Iniquity,” and “Bubble Wrap”) do not accurately portray the adventurous wormholes traveled during these sessions. Indeed, on this complete recording, one gets a sense that Phish is just one huge eight-armed beast. Anastasio, in particular, comes across as merely a component within a great improv machine, and he rarely leads nor initiates momentum shifts with his guitar during the jams like he had done so often in the past.
Instead, on the longer improvisations which stand out (“Victor Jam Session,” "Sky Train Wand,” "Blue Over Yellow,” “Guantanamo Strut,” and “Last Victor Jam”), you can hear Page McConnell and Mike Gordon leading jams underneath, betwixt, and surrounding Anastasio guitar textures. In fact, McConnell’s playing on the longer tracks is a prominent color shading in the mix. The pianist shifts easily from quirky fills to lush jazz terrains to spirited riffs, and his re-appearance as a key component in Phish’s intense jams was a very welcome factor back in 2003. Gordon also pushes the band into shifting gears while adding his own bass tonal commentary to ideas which sometimes never gel, or coagulate, but slowly move forward into a more scenic area of space. Fishman, on drums, plays off the band, developing a groove, as on “Sky Train Wand,” but also more than willing to bounce off an Anastasio musical thought just as easily as he adds textures while paralleling the musings of his other bandmates. “35 minute jam” is neither 35 minutes, nor a jam, and it appears to be unsuccessful attempts by the band to explore their thought process. It doesn’t cohere as poignantly as the other longer tracks such as “Blue Over Yellow,” which may be the standout track on this elusive bit of the Phish story.
The legend of these sessions speaks for itself. Some of the playing on these recordings is quite experimental, exploratory, and exhilaratingPhish hallmarksand some of these tracks are a welcome addition to their canon. When it doesn’t work, the tracks slowly fade out ala a brief snippet of a festival soundcheck where the band has traveled its course with a particular idea. However, when Phish are on during The Victor Disc, Anastasio is offering and enhancing languid layers, McConnell is searching for ways to elevate a tune’s potential, Gordon is confident in his patience while developing a unique idea, and Fishman is gliding through it all with wonderful punctuation marks of his own while never being obtrusive like so many of his lesser percussive brethren, a decent portion of these recordingsat least the five longer tracks highlighted abovemanage to create a fascinating improvisatory experience, albeit nothing extraordinarily essential, and another beautiful little doorway into the Phish experience.