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 phish.net 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.
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