As we stood outside The Grey Hall in Christiana, it was June 29th, and Phish was busy playing a marathon sound check for the fans who had congregated behind the back doors. On the night before the first show of tour, plenty of fans had ventured out to Freetown Christiana for smokeables and found a whole lot more. Able to clearly hear the band’s practice, “Roggae,” “Brian & Robert,” and “The Moma Dance,” all new songs, leaked out the intentionally opened barn doors. With each previously unheard selection, excitement built for the forthcoming two weeks, while friendships blossomed. Along with these new songs, Phish played the newly reworked “Limb By Limb” and the twice-played “Birds of a Feather,” among others. Coming off of the Island Run, at the coolest venue ever, spirits were sky high for what the band had in store.
The band took periodic breaks from their extended warm-up session, occasionally slipping outside to chat with all of us that had found our way to the venue. As Trey popped in and out, he was greeted with shit-eating grins and many questions from his loyal fans that made it to Scandinavia. At some point during the conversation, the topic turned to the re-worked “Black-Eyed Katy” they had been rehearsing, complete with new vocals. Trey explained that the band had listened to some of their shows after Fall’ 97, and began to create songs out of some of the jams they liked. Clearly, “The Moma Dance” was a prime example of taking an instrumental and molding it onto a full-on song. But what about others? After Trey explained this process, I nervously interjected, “Was ‘Birds of a Feather’ a song that developed out jams from Albany?” Without delving into specifics, Trey affirmed that “Birds” was indeed another song that had developed out of the band’s live improvisation at the end of ’97– and in that moment, it all became clear.
Back on the penultimate day of Fall ’97, Phish set up shop at “The Knickerbocker” Arena for the last two shows of their epic tour. One more two-night stand, and then this month of unmatchable memories would be over. Per usual, the first night turned out to be the more exploratory, psychedelic, and “out-there” performance, while the last show was reserved for the “greatest hits” and crowd-pleasing, heavy-hitting dance grooves. The 12.12 show in Albany, eleven years ago today, was a swan dive into the unknown- producing a show of heavy experimentation and a second set with few songs. Tonight the band would delve into improvisation with no landing point in mind, attacking the universal mystery without the expectation of finding any answers. Yet, through this exploration, not only was an aggressively adventurous set sculpted, but a new song was born as well.
After opening set two with a scorching “I Saw It Again,” the band dropped into one of the year’s new songs that had yet to be fully explored, “Piper.” A song that would come into its own over the next couple of years, thus far, it had been a perfect interlude of spinning melody, artistically placed in sets for its cathartic effect. Tonight, however, things would be different. For the first time in its young life, “Piper” would be blown out of its conventional form, and its course set for the outer regions. More akin to later versions of ’99 and ’00, the band used this “Piper” to get into some high-octane improv that had everyone trying to keep up. Moving quickly and aggressively, the entire band left the song’s orbit and brought it into the stratosphere. With Trey wailing masterfully, Gordon slamming lines down like his life depended on it, Fish keeping an insanely driving, yet changing beat, and Page added the missing pieces to the dissonant and harmonic puzzle, the band was 100% full-on raging.
About halfway through the twenty- minute ride, the band peeled away a lot of their distorted affects, and slowed the pace down ever so slightly, allowing more room for the music to breathe. Soon, all members latched onto this more patient groove, utilizing the musical space to introduce new ideas. Already immersed in an uptempo monsoon, Trey began to play some purposeful rhythm chords, altering the vibe of the jam, merging the outer-space psychedelia with a more percussive-rooted palate. Throughout this part, Trey continued with said rhythm licks, and at the time, I, and many others, thought, “Llama?” It certainly sounded like Trey was teasing the opening licks to the song amidst a texture that would fit perfectly. Yet, each time one thought the band might actually make the move, the jam would all of a sudden launch back into maniacal madness, leaving any hint of “Llama” far behind. The band was absolutely tearing the roof off “The Knick” with their audacious, break-neck playing. Yet, within all of this insanity, the band was locked together, navigating as one, through the darkened galaxies of the night. The communication present at the end of their month long stretch was untouchable, and the band soared through uncharted territory with ease, determination and focus.
As the wild “Piper” jam slowed down into “Swept Away > Steep > Prince Caspian,” it seemed like the terrorizing part of the adventure had concluded. However, the band was so infatuated with the music they had just finished playing, they wanted to go right back to the same place. Following a colossal “Prince Caspian,” right as the jam usually ended with the post-solo metal chords, Phish decided that they weren’t finished- not even close. Re-launching back into the jam that they had sat in during “Piper,” the band was off and sprinting again, right when everyone least expected it. Following Trey’s lead, the band cannon-balled directly back into seething territory- and there were those “Llama” licks again!?
As you go back now and listen to these jams, you will hear them quite differently than you did back in 1997. Amidst the “Piper,” and the “Caspian” what you are hearing is the genesis of “Birds of a Feather.” Those “Llama” teases turned out to be “Birds” licks, and the entire pace, beat, direction, and sound of this music represented the first incarnation of the “Birds of a Feather” jam– even though the song had yet to be written. The monstrous improv that defined the second set of this dark show turned out to be the foundation for the band’s new song that would be found all over 1998; even on the radio as the band’s single from Story of the Ghost. The intro rhythm licks, the avalanche of drum beats, the searing psychedelia that would come to define the Birds jam- it was all there, strewn innocently about this massively improvisational set.
After the Island Run, when I first made the discovery of where I thought “Birds” came from, it was mere conjecture- but it sure sounded like the song! I wondered if I was accurate in my thinking, and there was no better place to get confirmation of my theory then from Ernest himself. On a surreal evening in Copenhagen, on the brink of two weeks that would change my life forever, my friend and I biked back through the canal-filled city to our hostel. What a story we had to tell our other buddies, and we now knew when “Birds” was born- 12.12.97 in Albany, NY.
Happy 11th “Birdsday!”
I: Funky Bitch > Also Sprach Zarathustra > Camel Walk, Taste, Bouncing Around the Room, Tweezer > Train Song, Character Zero
II: I Saw It Again* > Piper*# > Swept Away > Steep, Prince Caspian* > Izabella, Tweezer Reprise
E: Guyute, Run Like An Antelope**
*With long jam not usually a part of the song #With “Llama” teases; “Llama” teasing continued throughout the set **With “Buried Alive” teases
DOWNLOAD OF THE DAY:
Sticking with the theme of 12.12 anniversaries, here we have the under-the-radar Providence installment of December ’95. Without a doubt, the largest highlight of the band’s second visit to the venue was the half-hour “Down With Disease” that anchored the six-song second set. A true Phish odyssey, the band had begun to use Disease as a jam vehicle throughout the year, and this may be the crowning version (see also 6.26 SPAC). A first set Antelope and second set “Free” add some more improvisational spice to the late ’95 outing. Enjoy!
I: Ya Mar, Sample in a Jar, The Divided Sky, Lifeboy, Punch You in the Eye, The Horse > Silent in the Morning, Run Like an Antelope, I’m Blue I’m Lonesome, The Squirming Coil
II: Free, Sparkle, Down With Disease > Lizards > Simple, Runaway Jim
E: FireTags: 1997, Jams, Songs