Along with the big guns that always ensured a large section of intense improv, Phish has so many great songs that were not always stretched out. Being Phish and always prone to taking musical risks, from time to time they extended one of their songs, turning it into something out of the ordinary. Sometimes staying within the songs’ chord progressions, and other times taking them out, these jams always took on a sense of excitement because you never knew they were coming. “Theme From the Bottom” was one of these songs.
Debuted at the Lowell, MA show of 5.16.95 along with several other new songs, Theme soon became a crowd favorite. Combining aquatic symbolism for life, poignant lyrics, and infectious melodic hooks, this song about friendship and the unknown became a staple of Phish setlists in years to come. With a delicate composed section and an soaring emotional guitar solo “jam,” few were disappointed when Fishman’s shimmering cymbal hits initiated this one.
When the band decided to use Theme as a vehicle for improvisation, the resulting textures from this blissful song varied with the times. Below are six versions of Theme that move beyond its standard structure to varying degrees. When listening, you’ll notice how the sound of the each jam is definitive of Phish’s point of sonic evolution at that time. Ranging from 1995 to 2003, these are some of the most interesting versions of “Theme” you’ll find.
6.22.95 Finger Lakes PAC Canandaigua, NY II
Only the seventh Theme ever played, this one opened the second set of this epic show known for its 40+ minute Tweezer that slid out of this Theme’s amorphous post-song jam. The actual Theme jam features some ripping Page piano work coupled with some inspired soling by Trey, forming an extended and soupy version- akin to many ’95 “Free”s. While the jam grows into some spirited full-band shredding, the most exploratory part of this Theme comes as Trey sustains the ending note of the song and the band builds an amorphous space-scape of sound around it. This post-peak jam develops into some quintessential Summer ’95 abstract psychedelic madness. Eventually gaining momentum, heading towards the opening lick of Tweezer, Fishman adds an aggressive beat and the band is off into an exciting second set that would read “Theme > Tweezer > Tweezer Reprise.”
(The Tweezer lick slowly builds right as this track cuts off)
11.27.96 Key Arena Seattle I
In this version which emerges out of “Free,” the band delves into some darker exploration outside of the song’s melodic theme. Notice the slower pace of the grooves as the band is amidst their transformation to the style of 1997. This version features some wailing Trey work, as well as precise soling. Almost sounding like a “Tweezer” at times, the band finally resolves to more melodic territory as they re-enter the song’s peak. A concise, yet excellent version.
LISTEN TO THE 11.27.96 SEATTLE THEME NOW!
7.21.97 Virginia Beach, VA II
In the historic first show of the US Summer ’97 tour, Phish went big on Theme in the second set. A twenty minute version, this Theme was an outright highlight of the show. Right away you will notice the incredibly slowed down playing that characterized the year. Giving the music more space to breathe, Trey is able to use shorter phrasing and let his notes carry over multiple beats. Using this more sparse style of soloing, Trey, Page and Mike all compliment each other much more than playing “on top” of each other.
As the songs triumphant composed jam came to a peak, Trey began hitting some rhythm licks that initiated a transition into deep Summer ’97 funk. As this Theme becomes a dance party, the band welcomed the late LeRoi Moore from The Dave Matthews Band to stage to join them on saxophone. Easily joining in the thick groove Phish was churning out, Moore added a jazzy element to the jam as he took front and center with his solo. After some time of locked in jamming, Moore picked up a second sax and began playing both at once. Mimicking the silly vibe, Trey grabbed a second guitar and slung it around his neck, began rhythmically strumming both. Soon Page was on all fours playing four keyboards, Trey added a third guitar, and Fish began to play with upwards of seven drumsticks before running around the stage with cymbals. Mike joined in and played two basses for this part of the jam that somehow sounds more coherent than you would think.
LISTEN TO THE 7.21.97 VA. BEACH THEME NOW!
7.26.99 Deer Creek II
Placed into the second set of the tour closing show, this Theme provided a palate for poignant reflection on the past month. A ripping version that illustrates the cohesive jamming typical of the end of a tour, the entire band crushes this version. Using a dissonant tone and wailing walls of sound to extract emotion, Trey paints most of this jam with extremely ’99-esque playing. Fishman provides a driving, cymbal-heavy beat with which Mike’s and Page thump away interesting patterns. A great version that I often forget about, this was one of the highlights of a strange last set of Summer.
LISTEN TO 7.26.99 DEER CREEK THEME NOW!
6.16.00 Zepp Osaka, Osaka, Japan II
This version, also included in the last set of a tour, provided an expressive centerpiece in an emotive set. Following the standout “Runaway Jim,” the band lost no steam as they entered into the Theme jam. With a perfect pace to the improv, the band began toying within the chord progression of the jam. Yet, as the melody settled, the band progressed into some strapping grooves and heavy drone patterns that provide a juxtaposition to the song’s standard course. This is the version- this past Saturday night- that inspired this post. This is some vintage ’00 Phish, before the band started to lose steam later in the year.
2.25.03 The Spectrum, Philadelphia, PA II
A definitive highlight of a relatively thin show, this Theme moved creatively through a precise composed jam the highlighted the band’s newly rejuvenated chops. Before the jam reaches its composed peak, the band entered a “breakdown” section out of which they flow a funky groove. This groove is still loosely attached to the song, though that attachment would soon be snapped as Fishman switched to a sparser beat, encouraging Trey to get into some dirty ’03 soloing. This section moved away from the song’s usual focus and transformed into a dancy, psychedelic segment of music. Hitting the ending lyrical verse, this version would enter a post-song dissonant crescendo, eventually segueing into Runaway Jim.
LISTEN TO 2.25.03 PHILLY THEME NOW!
DOWNLOAD OF THE DAY:
The highlight show from the three nights in Barcelona ’98, this one has outstanding improv throughout. A top-notch opening trio of “Carini, Boogie On > NICU” got the show started quickly. A ripping Split and a sublime Gordon-led “Tweezer” highlighted the first set, while the second set featured a unique “Drowned,” and yet another big second set “Theme From the Bottom.” The improv only gets hotter throughout the set, culminating in a phenomenal “Hood > Izabella.” (The Chalk Dust encore is missing from this recording)
I. Carini > Boogie On Reggae Woman > NICU, Split Open and Melt, Meat, Poor Heart, Tweezer, Hello My Baby
II. Drowned > Theme From the Bottom, When the Circus Comes to Town, Scent of a Mule > Blister In the Sun > Scent of a Mule, Harry Hood* > Izabella
E: Chalk Dust Torture
Here is a 192 kbps link w/ the Chalk Dust if you are interested.