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Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Phish in the age of 3.0

2009, the year that marked Phish's return from a five-year hiatus, has come and gone. The end result? Phish is back! The band performed some 48 shows over five distinct periods: their official reunion at the Hampton Colisseum, an early summer tour, a late summer tour, Festival 8, a fall tour, and the new years run in Miami just last week. According to this also marked Phish's most diverse year in all of their 26 so far with over 244 unique songs played in 2009. And while the band has always prided themselves on the diversity of their set lists, I think it goes a little deeper in the age of Phish 3.0. Unlike years past where a die-hard fan could determine the band's mood based on the length of their jams and how they segued from one song to the next, 2009 was completely unique. Song choice played a much larger role for the group than it ever has, and the jamming, while still prevalent, became more concise. While many could contend that this marks the end of the Phish "we all know and love," I would argue against that. The band is communicating in a new way while still using the same language, it just may take a more active listener to appreciate it.

We all know Phish has always had a secret language in their music. From elements as simple as the "Wilson" or "Hood" chant to more complex ideas like the band-audience chess games or big ball jam, there's been no shortage of interactive communication. While many of these zany rituals have all but disappeared today, the fans still have their own show traditions they follow. Glow stick wars still happen every time "Harry Hood" is played, and people still dress as their favorite songs in hopes that one day Phish will grant them their request*. Parke Puterbaugh explored it even further in his 2009 book PHiSH: the biography commenting:

At a 1992 show in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Phish clued their audience in on the secret language and taught them cues created specifically for the fans. The best-known of these involved a snatch of The Simpsons theme song, at which point the crowd loudly responded "d'oh!" like Homer Simpson. Upon hearing a riff from the Byrds' "Turn! Turn! Turn!" the crowd members were expected to turn around. The point of all this seeming nonsense was to deepen the band's relationship with the audience and confound the uninitiated. The sharing of secret language encouraged audience members to become more than casual fans. They were now band-schooled and ritually involved in the enterprise, conferring a certain element of "membership" upon them while confusing newbies and non-initiates who popped into shows out of curiosity.

The problem in 2009, however, was reconnecting with their audience after the break, while at the same time trying to initiate a new group of fans (and a new album) all at once. So realistically speaking, even if the band had wanted to do a 60-minute Runaway Jim, they would run the risk of alienating their new audience members, while at the same time losing the attention of the faithful^. This, in turn, gave them a chance to cultivate the jams inside their new songs, with Backwards Down The Number Line (BDTNL) becoming the song they felt most comfortable with as the year progressed. BDTNL culminated in a 13 minute jam at Festival 8 which many argued was the best jam of their new material they had heard all year long.

Still, there are more specific instances that seem to fit the notion that the band's set list was the largest factor in determining the mood of the band that night. Take the June 16 show in St. Louis, Missouri for example. This show was Phish's smallest show in years. It was also a small indoor show, unlike virtually every other that summer. Many heads agree that this was the weakest show of Phish 3.0 thus far. The band may have recognized the off-night as well, because the encore was nothing short of redeeming. They began with an acapella rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner. After the tune, Page even added a "play ball," as a nod to one of America's greatest baseball towns, a direct communication with the audience who lapped it up as expected. They then proceeded to bust out McGrupp And The Watchful Hosemasters, a song that had not been played since 2003, some 46 shows and one hiatus previously. Finally, they closed with While My Guitar Gently Weeps, another rarity for fans, and one of the only Beatles covers Phish keeps in their repertoire today.

Later that summer, the band took on Hartford, Connecticut, and a similar yet different event occurred. Phish has always loved Hartford, and as one could surmise, past set lists have always reflected that. The band was also 2 dates away from completing their first summer tour in 6 years at that point, so it goes without saying that they were relaxed and in a good mood. The events that followed however, no one could have guessed. After the crowd erupted at the mention of Icculus's name in the first set Forbins > Mockingbird (the only one of the year), the band rewarded them in the second set with their first performance of Icculus since 1999:

Phish then took on Festival 8, and the 5th official musical costume of their career**. As far as a mood being dictated by song choice goes, the veil was paper thin here. "Loving Cup" has been a Phish staple since 1993, and the Stones had been a major influence on the group, especially Trey and Page, as noted in the Phishbill handed out before the show:

"The part where Jagger sings, 'On stage the band has got problems/They're a bag of nerves on first nights' - I definitely relate to that," McConnell admits. "I feel like I've had emotional relationships with these songs my whole life, even if I didn't always know what Jagger was saying."

Indeed, the same metaphor can be translated from Phish's relationship with Exile on Main Street to the audience's relationship with Phish. The '09 Halloween show served as an indulgent night for the group, but also for the audience. The band was playing the songs they loved that affected them in their youth. In turn, they were bestowing the same thing upon their audience, letting their fans live through the last vestiges of Phish's youth.

Fall tour was no surprise either. Many argue that Cincinnati now serves as an archetype of what Phish 3.0 can be. A 2-night greatest-hits clinic in a city that Trey commented "we wish we could spend a week in," the show was filled with songs that have been played hundreds of times at this point, but all with a new found fervor and enthusiasm. While the rest of fall tour was energetic and diverse as well, there was substance to what the band did in Cincy. They proved that the same songs they had always been doing still had as much life as any rarity or new cut off Joy.

The year culminated at the end of their run in Miami last week as Phish played "Loving Cup" as their final encore of the year, cementing Festival 8 in my mind as their favorite memory of the year. Not to say that the new years run wasn't without it's diverse set lists as well. Corrina and Tela made their first appearances of the year, as did a handful of other songs with them, successfully making this Phish's most diverse year to date.

Now that it's all said and done though, we can reflect back on the year that was. Loving Cup certainly serves as a metaphor for the year, and I think it's safe to say that the band will be hard pressed to deliver anything like the year that was 2009 again. I highly doubt we'll see another musical costume in the future, however. If we do, expect it to be another nod to both the band's roots and their legions of dedicated fans, who will follow them from phish to Phish 3.0 and on and on in successive upgrades to come. That still begs one enormous question however: what will 2010 bring us?

*My fall 2009 "I Demand a Demand" poster was not noticed, but then the band went and played it in Miami anyway, the first performance since November 14, 1996 (392 shows prior).

^I, for one, am always in favor of a 60 minute Runaway Jim. But it's not for everyone, even the most ardent fan can tire of a jam if they aren't in the mood to hear it.

**Though it is rarely included in the collection of "musical costumes," Phish covered Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon in 1998 a mere 2 days after they had covered The Velvet Underground's Loaded.

[Follow Great Scott! on twitter]


Super Josh said...

I would just like to add that runaway jim is my favorite phish tune, and they could jam it for 2 hours if they wanted. Also, I'm pissed at TAB's tour sched...nothing west of KC I is up with that Trey?!

Aduas said...

The debut of Golden Age cover in Albany also showed they are still willing to take risks. Something most 3.0 bands don't do.

Scott Towler said...

Josh- I too could listen to Runaway Jim til the...well...dogs come home.

Aduas- Yeah, that was crazy. An awesome nod for the band to make to what they like on the contemporary scene. It had me wondering if MGMT might surface for them as well, given their prominence in the Festival 8 album countdown.

Mr Fabulous said...

I was at both nights of Cincy, and I can attest that you speak the truth. Two very special nights. The Cincy Tweezer ranks as my favorite 09 moment. said...

Great Review BRAVO!!!!!
well stated, well written and well asked!


Jeremy said...

The version of "Backwards Down The Number Line" performed on Halloween was 12 minutes and 18 seconds long in its entirety; there was no "25 minute jam" as you report.

Thanks for this (otherwise) careful and well thought out argument. It reads to me, though, like one long rationalization fe the fact Phish was less comortable improvising onstage this year than they have been in many years. (I think you have to go back to 1992 to find the last year with this little Type 2 jamming.) If you have to cite Page yelling "play ball" after the Star Spangled Banner as a lauded example of "direct communication with the audience," these are lean times indeed.

I happily give Phish a "mulligan" for 2009 as the plain fact of their return outweights the strictly artistic achievement, but this post seems like another trying to turn it back on the fans, as if the fault is in our listening or attitudes rather than the band's plainly evident, and fully understandable, improvisational rustiness.

Scott Towler said...


Must have been the drugs then. ha!

Super Josh said...

Isn't it always the drugs?

Anonymous said...

i could not disagree more about jeremy's comments. 2009 was a great year. all the shows i saw were amazing. miami was truly epic. phish is what YOU make it. if you do it right, the moment never ends.

phish is bigger than what internet losers like jeremy think. sucks to be you brah. truly your loss and yours alone.

Scott Towler said...

I'm glad you said that Anonymous, cause I couldn't agree more.

Anonymous said...

Forgot to talk about shows in albany they were some of the best

Anonymous said...

I also was at Cincy with old and new fans alike. And they brought it like no other fall tour show. It felt like a bendiction. To the past and the future. See you at trey

Sylvan Educators Association said...

how about a crowd participation show with songs like Wilson, Stash all the way to Meatstick where the audience is involved.D'oh

Anonymous said...

Maybe it wasn't noticed at all the shows, but the 8 i saw looked like the band was enjoying what they were doing and not holding anything back. I think that is the standard i set because if they are enjoying it, most of the time, the audience is too.

Anonymous said...

having phish together playing music is more important than what some stupid "super phish phan" thinks of a particular night or years worth of music, I am so sick of "phans" shitting on their so called favorite band, I for one could care less if phish reaches the epic heights of 93 thru and the vibrancy(sic) of our favorite musicians is the most important aspect of phish's remaining years, as long as they are having fun and making music on their terms.... not on yours brah!

Simon said...

I agree with most of what Jeremy said, actually. Most of the shows I saw this year had no exploratory jamming whatsoever, and eventually I found that disappointing. It was amazing to see them out there, and the energy was fantastic, but I hope they revisit the kind of group improvisation which is my favorite part of Phish.

I wish we could accept others' views, even when they're not glowing. Sad to be called an "internet loser" or accused of "shitting on the band" for stating an honest opinion.


Anonymous said...

It could be improvisational rustiness. The death of phish is mostly attributable to Trey's pedal. It's not the compressor, its some effect pedal, whenever Trey gets nervous, lost or lazy during the jam he kicks on that bullshit effect pedal. It's ruined jam after jam of what were the greats. Get rid of that effect pedal and Phish will come back. Trey is Wilson.

Anonymous said...

Phish has more than surpassed my expectations in 2009. Based on the mediocrity of the shows between the end of the hiatus and the breakup, I was skeptical about how they would sound coming back. Needless to say, my doubts have been erased.
Fish is as solid as ever. Page has improved and is more liberal in his approach. Mike has taken his playing to a new level, which I believe is a result of the continuous pattern of improvement he's shown for the last 15 years. Trey, now sober, is much more consistent that he has been in the past. Let's be honest, his playing doesn't reach the soaring heights it once did, but neither does he ever sound awful. The only thing that has suffered is the vocals, but that was never the band's strong suit.
Most importantly, they are all in a good place mentally and they really seem to be enjoying it again. I can't wait to see what the future holds for the boys!

Anonymous said...

people saying ''the death of phish'' are straight up toolbags. some people are so selfish they forgot how to enjoy the music or have fun. they forget what phish is all about. these toolbags make me sick. good riddance.

kevin r hollo said...

So typical. As soon as a reader/listener chimes in with anything other than syncophantic praise, they are chastised and derided for being a "hater" or a selfish fan who only wants the band for themselves.

Grow the fuck up.

Jeremy nailed it, and he did it with class and aplomb. Scott, I too appreciate your attempt but I think it's quite telling that there's a whole lot of "reaching" going on.

I've never encountered another genre of art (this goes for film, music, visual arts, graphic design, etc) where the vanguard of said genre is given so much slack. Yes, Trey went through a harrowing drug experience (still going through? who knows). Yes, they were on a hiatus. And yes, things change. I'm ok with that, ultimately.

But this band was founded on a few important principles, and you don't have to open Putersbaugh's book to figure out that they've long since abandoned many of those priniciples. The dearth of audience interaction is one such signpost. Scott, you write about a need for inclusiveness and affirmation, but then point to the band's historical legacy ofavant-guard tactics for disturbing/alienating those who aren't in on the joke.

And the joke's the thing. Phish used to be funny, and can be still, but that dark, cerebral humor when mixed with the deadly serious improvisation and playing was a terrifying and powerful remmedy for what ailed most pop music through the '90s.

It's not even about comparisons, of pointing to a certain year or show or song and saying this is better than this. The Antelope I danced to in Cincinnati this fall was a wonderful moment, and captured a bit of that ferocious energy that used to be a hallmark of the band. Trey's playing, however, for the most part, is a real struggle to listen to. And even well-versed fans like Jeremy Goodwin is posting snippets of solos on blogs that to my ears sound like shit! I'm sorry, I play several instruments and I've always had a good ear for music, and that dude is really struggling to play what he's "hearing" in his head and heart.

I wish these guys the best, I really do, I've spent a lot of time and energy in the phish community over the last 18 years trying to make it a better place. But part of that betterment means being honest and critical. And as long as those opposing opinions are so obstinately shut down, well, then this community will be forever stuck in a rut.

kevin r hollo

Anonymous said...

i couldn't understand what kevin r hollo said nor do i care. another interbeb know it all. numb to reality. unable to enjoy the little things in life without being uber douchy critical. i bet this guy rates his bowel movements on a scale of one to 10. uber douche.

Scott Towler said...

"i bet this guy rates his bowel movements on a scale of one to 10."



LetsGoCaps said...

'09 sounded great to me! Couldn't be happier to catch 5 in a year. That is something I haven't been able to do since '96(work/kids).

For all the people so bummed out about "how bad phish is", do the rest of us a favor and stop going to shows. Not because you're not entitled to your opinions, but to make eaiser for the rest of us to get tickets. You don't appear to be having fun anyway.

Ticket stress sucks!

eric said...

I first saw fish in Chicago in a small bar named biddy mulligans that was not sold out and held less than 500 people on 4-13-1991. I then saw them 3 more times. Only one of those shows, the 91 was at all fun or enjoyable. The others, mostly in LA, were actually terrible. I really lost interest in them. Then came Joy and Trey's pathway back to humanity. When I heard Joy I heard what I needed to hear. A beautiful gift of healing shared with others, open, naked, and clear. Then they announced an acoustic set. I was not going to fest 8 but when the said the words Acoustic set I got erect. (haha).
It takes some serious balls to put yourself out there like they did. I have been all the major shows in the past 30 years, from Floyd playing the wall live, the last dead shows in chicago to ultravox and gary newman -haha -he says slightly red faced... Festival 8 was a massive gift for this old battered soul.. and perhaps for me it was more like festival 4.5 as I could only do so much in a weekend, it was VERY healing of my body and soul. Phriends, if there is one thing an old deadhead can suggest to you all, who watched the band deteriorate before his eyes between 82 and 95... is if you are hypercritical, and complaining about the little stuff, reconsider your participation, cause you have seem to many shows or listened to one too many tapes. These are humans plan and true... and if you can find gamehendge then it can find you.

Jon Pasternak said...

2 more great moments of 2009:
1) 3rd night of Red Rocks 8/1/09 is also noteworthy, as the band starts midway through the first set signaling the next song to each other by hand signal only. Included are hand signals for Guyute, Tube and PYITE (Trey fake pounches Page in the eye!). And any show with Esther, Dirt and Hood in the 2d set is magical.
2) 3rd night MSG 12/4/09 1st set contains many rarities (Glide, Dinner & A Movie), and Trey absolutely loses it during the set closing First Tube. He's jumping up and down and doing the guitar feedback/point at the end. The crowd goes nuts for another 5 minutes after it finishes. The energy of the Garden and the band feeding off it was truly amazing. 12/3 2d set was way old school and classic as well.

Brooks said...

I'm posting mobile so let's keep it short...

If you listen to Zeppelin in "77" you will
get you head blown off (badgeholders or destroyer)
Then listen to Zeppelin in Berlin on their
final tour - yeah....Jimmy Page did regress -
It's called getting old...

Yes - early 90's Phish is raw, agressive, and
fun.... The Haiti release is incredible with
the Archie Bunker teases & such.....

I attended 15 shows in 2009 and enjoyed
every single note - sweet & sour.....
The band played as a unit in 2009 and
it was a joyous sight to see....

You are not a phan if you dont enjoy:

1) Deer Creek - 2nd set (pouring rain)
song i heard the ocean sing....
2) Alpine Valley - Fathers Day - BROTHER
w/ kids & wives crammed in the cattle feeder
3) Red Rocks - mound & bittersweet motel for daughter
4) Gorge - sick Bathtub Gin - sneakin' sally
& included jam... Destiny Unbound ??
5) F8 halloween set 3 melted more than faces
& the Acoustic jam was phat!! Page shined
in the quiet setting - Talk - Sleep Again - wow!

If you still want to hate, its your problem
2009 was the greatest year of my life !!
Thanks to Phish - Phans - & Phriends ..
I love you all ...... Ph2010 plz !!!!!

Brooks Jackson

Brooks said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jeremy Cushing said...

They are coming back around big time. What about the rumors of a new album?

Great review by the way.

Jeremy Cushing