One of the most glaring facets of this June’s tour was the succinctness of Phish’s jams. Part of this can be attributed to feeling each other out again and getting used to jamming off each other again. Yet, as the tour grew on, Phish continued to take more musical risks (Star Lake’s “Disease,” Deer Creek’s “Oceans > Drowned > Twist,” and Alpine’s “Crosseyed > Disease,” and “Piper”), but their jams remained tightly directed and based in rock textures. After spending the years of 1997 to 2000 exploring many types of groove-based playing, and 2003 (’04) with looser, psychedelic jamming, it appears that Phish may be returning to their roots as progressive rock improvisers.
Without judging this transition, it is simply an observation of where I sense the band’s music may be moving. Many fans hopped on the bus during the late-’90s, and associate Phish with tar-thick funk grooves amidst all-out, nightly dance parties- cue the much-loved tours of Summer 1997 through Fall 1998. Yet, as we readjust ourselves to Phish 2009, it seems that the rhythmic focus of the band’s jamming has been left behind in favor of more directed rock improvisation.
If we sample some of the best jams from this tour- Camden’s “Sand,” Asheville’s “Ghost,” Bonnaroo’s “Kill Devil Falls,” Deer Creek’s “Twist,” and Alpine’s “Crosseyed”- a definite pattern emerges. As these jams start, the band busts out of the gate and goes straight to work, attacking the music right away instead of allowing things to settle and come to fruition. This represents a divergent theory of improv than the late-’90s exploration of wide-open soundscapes, patiently allowing things to evolve one idea at a time. This method also veers from the looser, drawn-out psychedelia of the post-hiatus era. The results of this shift were shorter, more compact, jams that peaked with high intensity. Whether the jams were of the “type I” (far more frequent in June) or the “type II” variety, the same pattern held true. Phish wasn’t specifically taking time to discover those far-out mystical planes we love so much- though they did get there a few times. Instead, they were diving right in, going for the jugular of their pieces- not unlike their style of the early ’90s. (Even the tour’s longest dance jam, Camden’s 22-minute “Sand,” was primarily guided by forceful guitar leads rather than rhythm licks.) I am not comparing the insane music of ’93 and the jams of ’09, but rather the method in which Phish approached their improv of each era. With sixteen years in between these times, the music can not possibly sound similar, but the band’s intent seems comparable. Trey affirmed this position when discussing the new album with Rolling Stone’s David Fricke: “The shortest path to intent is what makes rock rock, and there is a lot of that here.”
When logging on to Livephish.com after the shows, it was surprising to see jams that felt much longer labeled as ten minutes or under. But this speaks to the density of the band’s improv and the amount of musical ideas presented in a compact fashion. While not always bringing their music “out there,” this playing resulted in dynamic jams that contained focused communication, fiery results, and sublime peaks.
Though it’s hard to predict what Phish 3.0 will turn into after only one short run in June, if this tour was a foundation for the next, it seems that their musical direction is veering towards their former style. To support this, we can look at their newest songs played throughout the tour, offshoots of several rock traditions- a far cry from 1998’s The Story of the Ghost or 2000’s Farmhouse. Again, I am not here to say this is bad or good- I’m just reflecting what I’ve begun to see and think. Some fans may be turned off by this musical shift and some may love it- but in the end, I believe Phish will continue to reach those places in our souls in whatever way they see fit.
As stated previously this week, this tour was definitely part of a process, and not a destination. Any observations made of the band during this first run-through may not totally hold true come Fall, or even August, but a trend began to grow during June. Even their best ambient jams had a strong directionality to them and had a purpose (see Jones Beach’s “Ghost” or Alpine’s “Crosseyed > Disease”). Maybe I’m reading too much into these first shows; maybe Phish will come out with some thirty minute abstract explorations at Red Rocks- who’s to say? With such a protean band, predictions are near impossible to make. But if you want to listen to twenty-minute funk excursions, your best bet is to pull out those ’97 bootlegs, because it appears that cow-funk is a thing of the the past. Knowing Phish, their progression through this era will likely surprise us, and I, for one, can’t wait to see how they will spin their new psychedelic tales. One thing I know for sure, if Phish is into it- and they certainly seem to be- the results will be rewarding.
DOWNLOAD OF THE DAY:
6.7.09 E Centre, Camden, NJ < TORRENT LINK
The first truly great Phish show of 2009. Monster “Tweezer” closer. Full moon.
I: Chalk Dust Torture, Fee, Wolfman’s Brother, Guyute, My Sweet One, 46 Days, The Lizards, The Wedge, Strange Design, Tube, First Tube
II: Sand, Suzy Greenberg, Limb by Limb, The Horse > Silent in the Morning, Sugar Shack*, Character Zero, Tweezer
E: Joy*, Bouncing Around the Room, Run Like an Antelope > Tweezer Reprise
Source: Shoeps mk4v / Taper – unknownTags: 2009, Summer '09