Until Super Ball, I was still skeptical that Phish was heading in the right direction. A handful of bad show experiences, Trey’s impatience, and the general crowd-pleasing nature of the band was turning me off. This has officially changed.
After the Gorge and Tahoe, I’m completely confident we’re witnessing the magic emerge once again. For the first time since Phish started playing together again in 2009, I’m getting glimpses of the creative fire Phish exhibited in the past. It may take a while to get there, but the direction we’re heading in is glorious.
For the sake of expressing my point, there are five specific musical examples that I’d like to focus on: The Rock and Roll from the first night at the Gorge (2011), Light from the first night in Tahoe (2011), the end of Mound from Super Ball (2011), the transition back into Split Open and Melt, and the Have Mercy from Utica (2011). All of these musical moments are prime examples of why I started following Phish around the country so many years ago. (The Waves soundcheck from Bethel almost made the list, but it deserves its own post.)
Grab some headphones or turn on your speakers and try to follow along with the analysis below.
Rock and Roll • August 5th, 2011 – Gorge
At the 11:10 mark of the jam, Trey finds a darker upscale lick that he likes. Mike responds with some downward arpeggios, Page is layering on top and Fishman is listening for Mike to find the groove he wants to settle in on. At 11:48 the magic happens. Mike gives the go-ahead to Fishman and the entire band settles in on an incredible groove. The only way they could’ve found this uncharted territory is through extensive improvisation. All of them have such a focused ear at this point in the jam, listening to precisely what the other band members are laying down. This is a prime example of the Phish I fell in love with.
Light • August 8th, 2011 – Tahoe
At the 9:05 mark Page emerges with a Piano melody that inspires the rest of the band to find themselves. In what seems like a premeditated thought, Page finds himself in the driver’s seat at the the 9:20 mark. The jam heavily progresses forward, allowing Mike to emerge with a thundering bomb at the 10:20 mark. While the rest of the band backs him up, he finds the magic at the 10:30 mark. The rest of the jam is a shining example of what made Phish’s second set pearl choices so important. At the 15:22 mark, Mike finds a downright scary synth driven line. The rest of the band responds with a mediterranean-psychedelia inspired foundation. Close your eyes, it sounds like 1996.
Mound • July 3rd, 2011 – Super Ball
After the incredible interplay between Mike and Trey between the 2:05 and the 2:40 marks, the band is clearly feeling this version of Mound. They nail the composed sections of the song, and when the ending draws near, Trey decides to take the final solo instead of Page. In what could be a classic “Thank you Trey” moment, he absolutely shreds it into oblivion. It all starts at the 6:15 mark when Trey hops in with some minor notes over the psychedelic bluegrass foundation the band is throwing down behind him. Trey continues to lay down some beautiful notes while the rest of the band is clearly paying attention to him. At the 6:57 mark Fishman and Page lock in on a three-note rhythm that fills in Trey’s holes, and it makes for a gloriously enlightening feeling. This leads to an uptick, which in turn leads Mike to a thundering jazzy bluegrass scale at the 7:05 mark. Mike continues to meet Trey’s peak notes with fiery intensity. At 7:17 the entire band locks in on that fundamental bluegrass movement while racing towards the finish line. An instant classic in Mound history.
Split Open and Melt (and Have Mercy) • October 12th, 2010 – Utica
After a great Split Open and Melt to start the magic, the band moves into a beautiful rendition of Have Mercy. At the 2:54 mark, a very pleasing jam emerges. Fishman does a great job of using the rim of his snare here to provide depth. Trey leads the way as the driving force behind the beat, letting Mike play around in the background until he finds something he likes. At 3:54 Trey and Mike trade places, allowing the groove to turn into a classic soaring melody driven romp.
The piper deserves its own post, so for the sake of these examples, let’s move to the end of the jam. At the 8:51 mark of Piper, Mike starts hinting at a minor dissonance with an arpeggio. Fishman picks up on it and moves into the beginning of the end of Split Open and Melt. At the 9:20 mark of Piper, Mike throws down some off-key bombs that clearly signify the beginning of something special. Page is layering some very thick psychedelia on top of it and Trey is mimicking Mike’s one-off movements. As the track listing moves into Split Open and Melt, Trey throws down a “here I am” lick at the 0:08 mark that invokes a feeling of pure glory. Mike emerges with the original baseline as they nail the first three-hit transition back into the ending of SOAM at the 0:17 mark. Trey then channels his early-nineties self and shreds the rest of the tune apart. Simply stunning.
In closing, I disagree with most analysis that floats around, painting Phish’s musical evolution as one large movement, hoping they can be better than they once were. Instead, I like to dissect Phish’s music on technical and creative levels, with specific examples. When I’m comparing recent Phish shows to past shows, I am specifically comparing the levels of creativity showcased within the band, the way they listen to each other as musicians, the talent exhibited during an improvisational jam, and the overall energy they are putting out there.
At this point, I truly believe Phish is capable of being better than they have ever been. We are witnessing something magical here. For the first time in years, I’m noticing the band seriously try to impress its fans. The nostalgia act is officially over. You may have to see every single show on any one tour to catch a moment like I’ve explained above, but hopefully that won’t be the case in 2015. If Phish keeps moving in the direction they have been, I fully expect the old-school, non-stop creativity that dropped my jaw at every other show, to emerge once again.
This is a beautiful time. Phish sounds great again. Life is good.