[If you're not a Phish fan, you might find this piece slow going. Indeed you might hate all 6,000 words of it. But toward the end (in 'Kind of New') it does get into more abstract consideration of improvisation and what I've elsewhere glibly called 'improvisatory consciousness.' That part might be of interest to Ye Olde General Reader. Well, YOGR isn't the only Reader, as you (all?) know.]
Phish's first touring year since their 2004 breakup at Coventry is nearly over. The four-show New Year's run in Miama remains; no more dates have been announced, though rumours of a spring tour in Europe have been circulating since summer. It's been a strange, wonderful, somewhat disconcerting year for both band and fans. I'd like to take a moment to look back, if I may.
The triumphant Hampton shows in early March marked the first Phish performances in nearly five years - and they sounded like it.
Throughout their first decade together the band had kept a legendary practice schedule, incorporating both fiendishly complex improvisatory exercises and rigorous technical work. After Coventry, all four members said they missed the band's epic rehearsals most of all; even the group's conversations were simultaneous outpourings of energy from all four players, hard to follow for anyone who hadn't developed the quartet's group listening skills.
Yet their rehearsal habits had fallen off around 1998, ushering in a new era of improvisatory freedom while afflicting some of their more demanding compositions with a frustrating sloppiness. The 2002 return show at Madison Square Garden was marred by technical weakness, and while the boys shored up their playing in time for the spring 2003 tour, it was a worrisome sign. Their 2004 playing sometimes had a perfunctory quality - the band's improvisatory chops were still there but the compositions had lost a step and more. The group's original approach to improvisation - 'seeding the ear' with complex written tunes, then improvising as if to extend the compositions, each player contributing to a giant ever-changing chord - had fallen away entirely. As good as some of the 2004 jams were, there was an inescapable 'sameness' to the music, obviously due at least in part to the inattentiveness of the song-performances themselves.
The four musicians were obviously trying to honour some musical spirit, but by failing to honour the songs, they lost something essential to the band's identity. And everything about the band suffered. The 2004 breakup was about returning music to the center of their lives.
Well, Hampton was a message for believers and nonbelievers alike. After five years away, the boys had resolved to embrace their old identity, playing the hell out of some great songs and letting their improvisations spring naturally from the written tunes. Phish had decided to become a working band again: practicing like professionals and facing the songs themselves first.
And so if you're a Phish fan, your opinion of the March '09 Hampton performances probably depends, in part, on whether you listen to Phish for the 'jams' or the...well, the everything else, I suppose. If you don't need a 30-minute free improvisation to make your Phish experience complete, then Hampton might've been a religious experience for you. The performances were impeccable, the songlist a Greatest Hits of the Early Days (more than a hundred songs in three nights with no repeats). As for the jams, well...
By the old counting method, there was really only one 'jam' to speak of, a 23-minute 'Down With Disease' on the third night that stands up to most of the long tunes from later in the year. You got a couple of segues, including a fine Twist > 2001 > Moma Dance that same night, but nothing a late-90's fan would consider a 'jammed-out' set. (Ugh, I hate the way we Phish fans talk about music.)
What you did hear was ferocious playing on every song, the sound of a band hell-bent on wringing every drop of energy and excitement out of every note of a three-hour show. Not for nothing did the boys begin their first show back with the oft-requested 'Fluffhead,' a demonically complex schizostylish multipart composition that stretches out over sixteen minutes and hadn't been played since 2000. The boys were taking pride in their music, not just in whatever structure or statement the moment yielded but in the work of music-making itself, the thousands and thousands of hours they'd put in over their twenty-five years as friends and colleagues. (The boys have played 'Fluffhead' more times in 2009 than in any touring year since 1994.)
My favourite part of the Hampton shows is the audience's reaction to 'Fluffhead.' That should tell you something about why I listen to Phish shows.
I saw five shows this summer, three of them on the frustrating and/but fun June tour. That run of 15 shows didn't quite feel like a warmup - it felt like the band was having trouble finding its feet, or its nerve. Or in any case the bandleader was. You can't blame Trey Anastasio for being a little gun-shy; sobriety is a new world, and middle-aged men don't generally have a great track record playing rock'n'roll, much less open-ended group improvisation. But Phish fans are spoiled (some more than others): we're accustomed to onstage miracles, and expected Trey to snap its fingers and transport us back to Big Cypress, or Fall '97, or...something. Something we knew.
But the summer's outings didn't quite feel like 'shows.' They felt like 'concerts.'
After a joyful runthrough of their biggest 'jam tunes' without a big jam at Fenway, the boys headed down to Jones Beach for a string of shows that set the template for early summer: energetic playing, plenty of uptempo guitar rock with a relatively shallow intensity curve,[*] abrupt and choppy song-transitions, awkward segues, spectacular musicianship, a constant feeling of renewal and rediscovery, and here and there a splash of unexpected, even unprecedented beauty (e.g. the 6/2 'If I Could' and 'Hood'). Second sets started loud, the big opener would drift into spacey electronic ambience, and we'd set out in a string of upbeat tunes guaranteed to bring smiles and never worry you for even a second - never induce the vertiginous sensations that come with completely losing sight of the song being played, surrendering to both the expressive potential of the improvisatory moment and the possibility of total structural transmutation. We heard plenty of beautiful things but never quite spoke a new musical language.
Was it a good tour? Yes. The average Phish show is light years beyond what most bands could even dream of doing onstage; even the worst Phish shows generally offer some transcendent moment (think of the 'Steam Jam' at Coventry, or Phish's 'ska' song at the Melkweg in 1996).
Was it a good Phish tour? Depends on what you mean. On paper it's a little disappointing, but that's just paper. The shows were generously and empathetically played, the energy remained positive, and every night you spent three hours with a big smile on your face. Phish know (have always known) how to send the folks home feeling good. But while the band must be praised for taking the Big Risk - getting onstage in the first place, sharing a lifetime of music with 20,000 nitpicking fanatics - the structure and form of the music weren't risky in June. You knew 'Ghost' would open out into midtempo major chords, 'Bowie' would follow the standard progression over 11-12 minutes, 'Bag' would steer clear of funk, 'Drowned' would go long but not transform, and even 'Tweezer' - one of the band's long-form psychedelic mainstays - would almost certainly crescendo from busy funk-rock to a roaring climax. Those tunes used to threaten fans! On the one hand you have to admire the skill and love with which the quartet accomplished these things - it's easy to be blasé about a song as intricate as 'Bowie' but you know it's miracle every time it's played without error, never mind with the passionate ferocity of the 'standard progression over 11-12 minutes.'
On the other hand, while I can't know what the experience of making this music is like for the band members, I know that the most intense connections between band and fans have generally been formed through the medium of improvisation - specifically through what fans have long called 'Type II' jamming or 'open' playing, the long-form free improv that idiots call 'noodling' and attentive listeners know as some of the most cohesive and focused collective improv ever played by four human beings. At their mid/late-90's best, Phish could develop and flesh out and transform fully improvised song structures onstage, in the improvisatory moment, while regularly referencing both a given jam's point of departure and a host of possible destinations - displaying both the independent spirit of outsider artists and the instincts of practiced stage entertainers. They were, and are, just that goddamn good.
And if you can play music that complex and that joyful off the cuff while still doing justice to a repertoire of hundreds of careful compositions, why in the world would you choose just one or the other?
Well whaddaya know, someone turned up the dial.
The last few shows of Early Summer Tour had offered up some encouraging, even surprising 'Type II' improvisation: the Crosseyed > Disease > Bug > Piper > Wading from Alpine Valley, Ocean > Drowned > Twist at Deer Creek, even the frustrating but promising Disease > Free and Piper > Circus at Star Lake. The song structures shook without shattering, but you could tell the boys were sitting into a groove, rediscovering their shared creative language, heading somewhere together. And the 'Type I' stuff - the comparatively 'structured' or 'closed' jamming - was spectacular, arguably as good as it had ever been. Trey was less fleet but had a lot more to say; five years away from Phish had only deepened his melodicism, empathy, and restraint. Page and Mike were better musicians than they'd ever been, and if Page's vocals had lost a step his keyboard work had moved a big step beyond anything he'd done before. As for Fishman - well, he's one of the best drummers in rock'n'roll history, and it made sense that an overweight drummer would need some time to get things together.
So by the end of June it looked like the warmup period was ending and the 'real Phish' was returning. The first set of tour followed the early-summer pattern: a well-executed runthrough of uplifting tunes to work off nervous energy. Setbreak - then the moment of truth. Had they shaken off the cobwebs? Were we in for some 1992 Phish, some 1994? Or - inshallah - some of the old late-90's hot sauce?
Answer: none of the above.
Mike's > Hydrogen > Weekapaug, Ghost > Wolfman's, Limb, Billy, Coil > Bowie
If you're a Phish fan, then that setlist is gold on paper, but a big question remains: that arrow between 'Ghost' and 'Wolfman's Brother,' is it an arrow? Or an arrow? A stop/start 'segue' or an honest-to-god improvised bridge between unrelated songs? As ever, the tape tells the tale: the two songs run together in a half-hour explosion of sound, and though it's not a proper segue, it's a damn good sign. 'Ghost' flies unexpectedly low to the ground for a delicate few minutes before getting nasty in what sounds like a Fatboy Slim-inspired major chord blowout; where an early-summer 'Ghost' would have petered out, the Red Rocks version cools out into a tinkling full-band dance groove (with Mike cheerfully teasing Page's as-yet unplayed new tune 'Windy City'). Some comic rock ensues, 'Wolfman's Brother' steps out of the circus tent, the ensuing jam spirals up the octaves into a reprise of the 'Ghost' jam, and voila: 30 minutes of summer bliss.
The rest of the set is basically gravy, though 'Bowie' is yet another perfectly-played nonessential 'Type I' fireball. And that's how the tour started.
The next night offered up the cleanest single transition of the year - a Drowned > Crosseyed stomper to open Set II - and even an irritating guest shot from former Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann two nights later couldn't dampen the fandom's spirit. The second sets weren't as fluid or exploratory as they had been even in 2004, but something new was happening.
I won't bore you with the details of the August mini-tour. Suffice it to say Phish played at levels of complexity, empathy, and musical courage far outstripping their early-2009 playing. By the time the late-tour Hartford and SPAC shows rolled around, fans were ready for story-song bustouts, ethereal Type II explorations, hysterical improvised covers...even a few doses of 'cow funk' to recall the 'good kind of weird' of the late 90's. The music was taking (familiar) forms not yet explored in 2009, and new varieties of musical interaction were revealing themselves; the somewhat pro forma ambient interludes of June began to differentiate themselves, growing more complex, with Fishman in particular (finally) pushing the band to explore darker interstices between songs. Mike's bass work was more complex than ever, while Page was busting out synth sounds no one had heard him use before; the bold rock numbers had more dynamic range than in June, though they didn't yet cover as much ground as in 2003.
The most worrisome early-summer element - Trey's maddening new habit of bailing suddenly on promising open-ended improvisations just as they threatened to burst forth into structural experimentation - recurred several times during the tour, alas. His impatience/fear/frustration/something killed the glorious Hartford 'Disease' as surely as it had demolished two promising Set II jams at Star Lake and the brilliant prematurely-terminated Chicago 'Number Line'; it was as if he was specifically targeting any jam reminiscent of the hypnagogic madness of 2003-04. But for the most part the jams were far looser and more complex than the Hampton or early-summer material. That abortive Chicago 'Number Line,' in the end, was replaced with maybe the year's most ferocious improv - a roaring 'Carini' that Trey abandoned in favour of an unimpressive 'Jibboo' - and you can't get There without visiting Halfway There first, right?
Several elements of the old Phish were still missing, notably the hourlong series of segues and linked improvisations that are the hallmark of the all-time great shows (e.g. 12/6/97, 12/30/93, 6/19/04, 6/14/00, etc.). But it was and is churlish to complain about such joyful music being somehow 'wrong'; it seemed the boys had settled on a style of play and were committed to deepening it as they went, rather than trying (and maybe, frighteningly, failing) to regain the old free-playing magic right out of the gate.
You must remember this:
From the fans' perspective, the 'great shows' are objects unto themselves, captured and encapsulated on discrete recordings. On tape, each song becomes its own object, with its own terms, and (particularly in the era of CD-R's and mp3's) a great open-ended improvisation can be thought of as somehow distinct from the compositions and juxtapositions and interregna - and even 'boring old Type I shit' - which come before. For the musicians, meanwhile, every single moment is part of a complex ongoing creative process, the written tunes as much as the open-ended improvisations; it's not as if different 'amounts of creativity' go into the free stuff and the written material. It's all part of the show, which is ultimately a $50 entertainment being presented to a concert audience.
Phish fans' view of the band is distorted somewhat by the practice of completist tape-trading.[**] I know that I dismiss (or bitch about) any show without a form-busting improvisation; yet that's a categorical complaint rather than an experiential observation. I've had wonderful times at shows with nothing but structured jams (Buffalo '96), and been bored out of my skull by Phish's most avant-garde explorations.[***] What I want is a specific category or quality of experience; yet the music exists and is inextricably linked to a time and place, a mood, sets of expectations and practices, complex time-series lasting days months years...if you can repeat Trey's lyrical mantra ('the trick was to surrender to the flow') and rip on an 'average' Phish show in the same breath then you've perfected a perversely admirable form of hypocrisy that will, given time and air, devour you. A live recording is only a record of an experience, a memory whose clarity correlates directly with its narrowness.
So if we're being honest we can admit that Phish's summer shows were filled to overflowing with expertly-performed music of such joyful intensity and focus as to render most other modern rock lazily superfluous. There were some spectacular jams in the mix, no question, but I'm very slowly coming to realize that the memory of the experience relates only incidentally to the thing itself - and the 'quality' of a free improvisation on tape bears almost no relation to the nature of the performance experience. I'm starting to see that this does not mean the taped music is 'clearer' in some positive way - only that the experience and the artifact focus your consciousness different. Two different kinds of listening - and in analysis, two different kinds of talk.
Well, it was a good tour; I was lucky to catch two of the last three shows; things seemed to be getting better every day.
As ever, Halloween was a major turning point for Phish in 2009. Their epic cover of the Stones' Exile on Main Street is some of the most inspired, unabashedly American[&] Phish in a long long time, granted unexpected depth and poignancy by the backup vocals of Sharon Jones and Saunda Williams and some raucous sounds from the three-piece horn section. But the weekend as a whole was packed with top-notch playing, particularly the exploratory improvisation of 10/30 II and 11/1 III. The final set of the weekend saw the wildest 'Light' yet dissolve into a bleak ambient moonscape in the middle of a deep, dark Mike's > 2001 > Light > Slave run. (Never before have Phish sounded so much like the Flaming Lips.) There was even a first-ever acoustic Phish set, which unexpectedly proved that the band could tour successfully on acoustic instruments if they wanted.
The musical signs at F8 were encouraging. The first night's 'Stash' moved seamlessly in and out of a glowing major-chord jam; the unwinding jam at the end of (yet another unfinished) 'Down with Disease' took longer than expected to transform into 'Prince Caspian'; the Wolfman's > Piper combination covered vast musical ground, folding in a spellbinding jam that foreshadowed the next night's 'Just Want to See His Face'; and 10/30 climaxed with probably the best all-around 'Harry Hood' since the return. After the Halloween set the boys opened the throttle for a dynamite third-night 'Undermind' (with Trey losing his mind a little, quite pleasantly, during the guitar solo) and the aforementioned pitch-black third set. As for the cover itself, the musical costume brought forth the best in all four musicians, particularly Page, who dug deep to come up with some of his best concert vocals ever.
Having climbed that mountain, the lads faced their last, scariest open question: in the dark and chill of Fall Tour would they finally kick off the dust and take the improvisatory risks for which they're justly famed? Could night finally fall?
The Detroit tour opener sent mixed but encouraging signals: the first-set '46 Days' was an 11-minute dose of eerie, atmospheric swamp funk, with the band taking no risks but the biggest one - boredom. It was fantastic. The obligatory Set II 'Disease' offered the first full-band take on Trey's repeated eastern-mode solo tropes from summer, a beautifully intricate bit of scalar mischief faintly reminiscent of 2/26/03's epic 'Stash.' 'Taste' was superb, and the show-closing 'Mike's Groove' was pure old-fashioned noise. Good news, it seemed.
The next show was even better, revolving around the awesome dance-off of Tweezer > Light > Back on the Train > Possum (starting with a particularly patient and empathetic 'Tweezer') and climaxing in a unique show-closing 'YEM' that echoed the final minutes of the colossal 6/19/04 'Piper.' It seemed the funk had returned in altered form, along with a newfound willingness to sit back and let things happen at their own pace, and the boys were finally delivering on the promise of late summer and F8.
There was even some old-school silliness to be found, like the 'Big Black Furry Creature from Mars' that closed a glorious Drowned > Twist > Piper run in Syracuse and the goofy 'Tomorrow's Song' in Albany. The Philly 'Disease' cooled into some new crystalline form then segued into a glowing 'Twenty Years Later'; the first Albany show offered a rousing take on 'Golden Age' by indie stars TV on the Radio and a sweetly restrained 'Piper' before closing with a ridiculous 'Coil'/'I Been Around' combo.
The first set on 11/28 in Albany was above-average stuff, wandering through a loopy setlist ('Sanity,' 'Walk Away,' 'Uncle Pen,' and 'Vultures' in one set? Weird!) and peaking with a fragmentary, dissociative 'Split Open and Melt.' After setbreak the boys returned and started in on what looked to be a typical 'Seven Below,' with Trey signaling to return to the head around the 7:30 mark. Nothing new.
Forty minutes later the lads slammed the brakes on an improbable Seven Below > Ghost combo that was immediately the must-hear jam of 2009. 'Type II,' pure and simple. The 'Seven Below' seemed to inhabit a more coherent version of the band's mid-90's 'psych-rock' universe; 'Ghost' was pure rock'n'roll fire, covering some of the same ground as recent performances of 'Rock & Roll' and 'Down with Disease' but with a willful open-endedness that no one had heard from the band since 2004. Modulations, rhythmic complications, and tempo shifts abounded; sixteen minutes into 'Ghost' the band emerged from a mezzo forte interlude with a conscious collective let's go and simply roared into six minutes of pure climactic thrashing, which dissolved into a minute of sublime end-credits ambient melodies and then a deafening ovation from the crowd.
Let's be honest here: the 11/28 spaceways journey isn't the best jamming the band's done, not by a long shot. In fact it might not be the best jamming they've done this year. In terms of musical content it broke no new ground. But it was far and away the most hair-raising moment of possibility since the return at Hampton (and I consider myself blessed to have been in attendance). The rest of that second set showed that the band was as electrified by the experience as the crowd: Trey was particularly fired up, bouncing around and smiling like a fool for the rest of the set, leading the band through blistering versions of 'Wolfman's Brother' and 'Julius' before calling down a devastating 'YEM' encore that ended in literal midnight-campfire primal screams from all four performers.
The paradox of 2009 Phish is this: after the breakthrough in Albany it seemed we'd get more wide-open 'Type II' jamming, but this did not @#$%ing happen. After a wild party in Phish's old Portland stomping grounds, band and fans returned to Madison Square Garden for what everyone assumed would be the intergalactic shows that had been waiting all year just around the corner. And there were some sublime moments in NYC that weekend, starting with the marvelously dark 12/2 'Light' (the band's guaranteed winner for '09), which primed the room for a blissful 'Slave' and raunchy bottom-heavy 'Tweezer.' The boys brought some funk on 12/3 and fluid jamming on 12/4 (R&R > Seven Below > Twist is the thing to hear). Then the tour closer in Charlottesville delivered a kind of Greatest Hits '09: 'Tweezer' for funk, 'Light' for the dark stuff, 'Piper' for the uptempo blaze, 'Free' for a sloppy kiss from Mike Gordon, even a couple of Stones tunes to send everyone off.
But the 11/28 Albany monstrosity was apparently a one-off event: a deliberate choice by the band, or rather a series of such choices made in the moment of nervous excitement, to push through the membrane and breathe unfiltered air for the better part of an hour. There was so much great music on offer in Fall Tour, yet there was a palpable disappointment among fans, the return of a shoddy old disreputable metric of evaluation: length, of all things. Never mind that we got more 20-minute versions of 'Disease' than 12-minute ones, or that 'Light' blossomed instantly into a heavy-duty jam vehicle, or that 'Tweezer' was starting to display the stylistic variety that characterized its pre-1997 appearances. The loud hardcore fans wanted the unhinged free improv of 2003-04 (or 1997-99), and so a lot of us didn't notice that the band was arguably playing as well as they had at any point in their career - just in a style the fans didn't know what to do with anymore.
I admit, I was thrilled by the Albany show, and disappointed that it wasn't repeated in NYC. But that's obviously stupid and childish! They're improvisatory musicians working hard to stay in the moment, to honour each night's possibilities in turn. Would they be worth listening to if they revisited the Great Jams of Yesteryear?
Kind of New
My favourite Phish recordings all wander far afield from the band's 'normal' in-concert playing. The towering Mike's > setbreak > Weekapaug > Sea and Sand from NYE '95 is one of the (consensus) all-time great Phish moments, and its two parts both leave behind their familiar structures to get deep into full-band structural experimentation. Really new music - new categories, even. In the 2/28/03 'Tweezer' there's a moment that clearly translates to Trey saying Hey, I've got an idea and bursting the bonds of song structure; the full band follows authoritatively. On 12/6/97 the boys seemed to commit to following every musical notion beyond the boundaries of individual songs, resulting in a series of flawless segues between songs bearing no immediate resemblance. And you can dance to (most of) it!
What appeals about those moments, exactly?
Obviously the content of the improvisation is appealing. Few people name the 8/3/03 '46 Days' as their favourite Phish performance, though it's one of the purest expressions of shared trust and far-flung cocreation in the band's live catalogue. Partly that's because the music itself is at times maddening: abstract, repetitive, formless, sludgy. It's not upbeat rock or nasty funk or anthemic guitar-driven midtempo wailing, and those are the three 'styles' (along with twinkling melodic/ambient interludes) that get the 'phans' grooving. (Listen now to that 11/28 Seven Below > Ghost and tell me whether those fifty minutes consist of much anything else.)
In terms of improvisatory seriousness and depth, that '46 Days' is one of the band's best performances. But its content keeps it under the radar. The 'best ever' moments dwell in pleasing styles, like the NYE '95 pseudo-reggae break in 'Weekapaug,' the molasses-rock of 2/28/03, or the long funk journey of 12/6/97. Their music is accessible. And here's the crucial thing: it's accessible even in retrospect, so its reputation can grow as the fanbase gets intimately familiar with it.
Yet what's on tape is only a portion of the experience. The 12/9/95 'silent jam' makes no sense on tape but it's arguably Phish's finest hour, a moment of collective attention and intention so focused that the band literally didn't have to play their instruments to keep the 'jam' going. This same dynamic obtains in the band's choices for official live releases. They've made a bunch of disappointing picks - not least the boring Hampton Comes Alive, which is a party album that's also a documentary of a party. The band picked the show on the strength of their experience of it, rather than its 'value' to repeated tape-listeners. (I've never listened to the whole thing. I can't.)
The longest jams of 2003 are beloved of Phish's hardcore 'jam'-chasers but bore most fans - and frankly much of the music from summer '03 onward suffers from an inescapable sameness. 'The jamming was good,' as the era's boosters insist - and I agree - but what exactly does that mean? The band was playing sloppily, their jams following the same form night after night. By 2004 every single long improvisation sounded quite the same, but the seeds of that misfortune were sown in summer '03, when Phish's jams reached their most distended and saggy and the 'purpose' of the music seemed to have more to do with hypnotic trance than complex cocreation. Maybe that's your cup of tea - but if you want a specific kind of music and will be disappointed with anything else, how can you judge the band's other work, the stuff that's not in your chosen style?
Fact is, Phish '09 are playing perfectly within their style - but the style itself doesn't immediately appeal to the fans who hopped on the bus in 1995-99, when 'psychedelic' experimentation, funk minimalism, and eerie ambient post-electronica dominated the band's palette. We'd like to be able to criticize the band as performers, but it's hard to abstract your fitness metrics when you're so personally connected to one style or period. I see all post-1997 Phish through the lens of that year, which distorts my understanding (as all fictions must).
What I want is the illusion of a 'new style' within the parameters of the familiar. If the music changes too much then I don't know what to call it, which block to jump off of, what to ask for (or how to tell whether I've gotten it). In retrospect, Radiohead's Kid A is a daring and definitive statement, a masterpiece. At the time it was hard to make out the music over the wailing sounds of 'Where are the guitars?' Miles caught flak for 'abandoning jazz' when he was just busy reinventing it. Dylan had that whole thing with his electric guitar. (God, folkies are so boring...) Phish fans want surprises, demand them, but they only know to look for them at a certain scale - scale is a fiction too but let's leave that aside - and if the band makes a macrostructural shift, like retreating from the hypnagogic jamming of '04 to a more songbook-driven style, or playing with an entirely new sonic palette (as in 2003-04), or debuting a host of new songs and abandoning the familiar old material...well, it can hurt. In early summer '97 the fans were up in arms about the 'retiring' of several classic old Phish songs - even as the group was reinventing itself night after night on a tour that transformed their whole improvisatory character. (Not surprisingly, this teacup-tempest happened while the band was away in Europe, and most fans were unable to go to the shows to be reassured that things would be OK. When the tao is lost, men start to speak of good and evil.)
Listening to improvised music on tape makes it easy to complain about what it isn't, to long for its imagined past, its 'normal' character. (Think of the insane, inane catcalls of 'anti-jazz' that greeted Trane and Dolphy in the early 60's.) As I listened in turn to each Phish '09 show I kept wanting 'more 1997,' 'more jamming,' 'more experimentation.' But this is a category error, a lamely, depressingly familiar one. I want the boys to do exactly what they're doing - get onstage and play the hell out of every song - but I also want them somehow to be something they're currently not: their younger selves. Only one of those imperatives can be obeyed without losing one's soul. You can't extort feelings from another human - can't make anyone feel better by saying 'feel better,' nor force someone to stop being afraid - but you can give them opportunities to do new things, to make (rather than adopt) a new identity.
Why aren't Phish's improvisations as lengthy as they once were? Well, the boys are making an effort to do more with every moment, and the result of that commitment - for the moment - is dense music that revels in the sonic possibilities inherent in each song-structure. So the songs don't go as long as in 2003-04 because the boys are performing musical feats that don't require that length. Why so few classic seamless segues? Because they don't feel like fumbling around in musical netherspace for ten minutes at a time.
Are they living up to their new principles? Absolutely. Is the music joyful and honest? Yes it is. Are they capable of the old freeform improvisation? Yes, I believe so - but they're focusing on a different scale nowadays, and given the fluidity and empathy of their playing right now, it makes sense that they'd want to dwell on each individual song-character longer rather than diving straight into freeform abstraction as they once did. I miss the purely funky Fall '97 stuff, but the fact is, within a year of that tour the band had grown audibly bored with it, Trey in particular - listen to the vicious ambient jams of 12/28/98 for evidence of that. In the long term, there are no destinations in music, only moments of transition. ('Nature knows neither creation nor destruction. Only transformation.')
They say the greatest Phish show of all time is 12/31/99 - the millennium show at Big Cypress, a seven-hour single set full of so much wide-open jamming it hardly resembles even the other shows from that well-regarded month. It took the band ten years to recover from their peak experience at that show. The way they finally overcame the expectations it created - the perceived need for More and Bigger Jams, the ongoing hedonistic party vibe that (mixed with an unhealthy business environment where every employee of Phish(tm) was a friend of the band) nearly destroyed Trey Anastasio - was to travel back in time to an earlier version of themselves, the rehearsal-loving nerd rockers whose pride in their weird original American songbook was uplifting and infectious. Where they go from this point is anyone's guess, but the point is not to guess. The music isn't about getting somewhere; its purpose is ongoing realization. No goal you (or I) could assign the band could possibly approach the depth and power of what they'll achieve on their own, in their own time, if they're playing honestly and listening hard.
That's true of each of us too. Authentic expression doesn't correspond accurately to some category - you can't be 'authentically indie' or 'authentically punk.' That's the whole point. Authenticity is the ineffable quality beyond category. ('Nothing is more punk than a polo shirt and khakis, in the right crowd.' God, punks are so boring...) Are the members of Phish playing and improvising authentically right now? Do they surrender themselves - their 'selves' - for a shot at something like grace? Maybe. I think so. I hope so. I find hoping graceful in its way. And it's not a plan, which is - after all - kind of the point.
I've quite enjoyed Phish's 2009 music and I look forward to hearing what they do next week in Miami. I don't know what to expect and that's one form of freedom. What I feel is one form of happiness among many; I wish you your choice of the stuff as well, and happy holidays to you.
[*] Compare the original version of 'Limb by Limb' to its post-Ghost arrangement: the latter starts the jam off at much greater intensity and percussive weight rather than drifting serenely out. At times it felt like a version of that transformation had been applied to every single Phish song in 2009. 'Bowie' starts off just a touch louder than before, 'Seven Below' is denser from the start, 'Hood' leaps right into hearty playing from Trey instead of dwelling in pleasant I-V-IV ambience for a few minutes, and the 'cow funk' is nowhere to be seen - meaning songs like 'Gin' and 'Gumbo' get no rhythm-interlock passage leading into the guitar-led crescendo, not that 'Gumbo' saw any jamming this summer anyhow, while 'Wolfman's Brother' and 'Suzy Greenberg' and 'Tube' showed up in their busy 2003-04 incarnations rather than as the atmospheric groovefests they once were.
[**] I use 'tape' to mean 'live recording in any medium'; I first heard Phish in 1993 or so, went to my first show on 12/7/95 (Niagara, baby!), and came up in the heyday of the Phish tape-trading scene - at the critical point when tape trees and blanks/postage deals were common, shows circulated as quickly as possible given the physical medium, tape-spinning parties were common, and digital downloads were purely theoretical. I like the word 'tape'; it reminds of what acquiring a copy of a recent show used to mean. My fastest acquisition time back then was summer 1997 - I heard the 7/1 and 7/2/97 shows by the middle of July. Now I download shows three hours after the lights come up. Honestly, it all feels a little stupid. I don't know that I want the old days back, but I think on them fondly, and even miss them.
[***] After the explosive, experimental 11/29/98 Worcester show I didn't bother seeing the band again for nearly two years - and then only because I was invited by a cute girl. That show, 9/11/00 at Great Woods, featured a five-song second set full of expansive ambient/textural jams, and I didn't give a damn about any of it. And the girl? Well, she didn't give a damn about me. You win some, you lose some.
[&] Funny that, huh?