Phish’s New Theme Song

Trey and Tom

Trey and Tom

It all started with a poem.  In their tradition of writing each other poems for their birthdays, Tom Marshall sent Trey the lyrics to what would quickly become “Backwards Down the Number Line.”  Tom explained the near-instant transformation in an interview with Relix last January:

A poem I emailed to Trey on his birthday last year passed rather quickly into its second life… that is, it became a song. The transformation from a poem on paper to a song is an extremely dramatic event…In the case of “Backwards Down the Number Line,” Trey called me within hours of my hitting the “enter” key to send it to him. He played me a complete song; he had recorded drums, bass, guitar, keyboards and multiple layers of vocals… and it was fantastic. And I finally realized what we had done. We had written the first new Phish song in four years.

Red Rocks (J.Kravitz)

Red Rocks (J.Kravitz)

And so it began.  Inspired by the words of his old friend, a revitalized Trey whipped up Phish’s 3.0 anthem in a matter of hours- all by himself.  It sounds like a story from the late ‘eighties- Trey furiously writing and creating- but it was 2008.  And that is what was so cool.  The story, the song, the music- they all value friendship, loyalty, and fun.  And once again, it seems that is exactly what Phish is all about.  Having fun  is at a premium these days- by fans and band alike- but this era all started with the first Phish song of the new-school, “Backwards Down the Number Line.”  Let’s take a trip…

Trey at Rothbury (M.Simpson)

Trey at Rothbury (M.Simpson)

The song became public when Trey made his first appearance, emerging from his legal entanglements, at Rothbury in the summer of 2008.  As part of his acoustic set, Trey wove an early version of “Backwards Down the Number Line,” and it was quite obvious where this one was headed.  While still in the “rumor” stage of Phish’s return, decisions had already been made- and most of us knew.  The acoustic version placed an emphasis on the lyrics, a clear ode to friendship through good times and bad.  But the beauty of it all was that the song, itself, was a sign of good times ahead.  With Fishman watching and Mike joining Trey onstage to play the song, the ball was already in motion.

Brooklyn - 8.7.08 (R.Barkan)

Brooklyn - 8.7.08 (R.Barkan)

The next time “Backwards Down the Number Line” showed up was later that summer in Trey’s highly-anticipated electric return at the intimate Music Hall of Williamsburg.  Debuted on August 7th in Brooklyn, along with six other songs, “Backwards Down the Number Line” was certainly catchy, and you just got the feel that it would wind up opening many future second-sets for the Phish.  With thin vocal harmonies and a lack of improvisational chops in the Classic TAB setup, the song would be greatly enhanced by his other band.  The lyrics were clearly a reference to the past and the oncoming future, and with a batch of new songs- some yet to surface- the future seemed limitless that night in Brooklyn.


When Trey went on his Classic TAB run in October of  ’08, “Backwards Down the Number Line” became a staple of his sets during the second half of the tour.  Breaking it out first at Lupo’s in Providence, RI, the band played a standard, guitar-solo version for the short stint of shows.  The song carried a shuffle-type beat, a borderline county vibe, and a soaring platform for guitar solos,  but understandably, every version sounded just about the same.  The transformation was near. (Listen to Richmond’s finale below.)

Hampton (J.Volckhausen)

Hampton (J.Volckhausen)

When the band got together to rehearse for the Hampton reunion, “Backwards Down the Number Line” was the only new tune thrown into the eighty-plus song mix for the weekend.  Somewhat surprisingly, the band opened their first second set at Hampton with the song- and most people weren’t aware of what it was.  Played symbolically to usher the new age of Phish, the band followed up the song’s template with a boisterous “Tweezer” that brought the house down.  But not before “Number Line” started things off.  Dismissed by some as less-than-worthy Trey pop, these people wouldn’t be able to escape it come Summer Tour.



When Phish stepped into the studio to record Joy between Hampton and Fenway, “Backwards Down the Number Line” was the first song they played.  Opening their session with a full run-through of the song, the band liked their initial take so much that they went right ahead and put it on the album as the opening track.  With only some vocal layering added, “Number Line” opens Joy with some of the most spirited playing of the entire album, and Trey’s guitar solo continues to gain critical acclaim in mainstream media outlets.  It was clear that this song meant something to Phish- there was much more emotion attached- and in one fell swoop, they recorded their newest single. (Listen to the album version below.)

Jones Beach (W.Rogell)

Jones Beach (W.Rogell)

Dusted off out of “Piper” during Jones Beach’s final and most explosive set, the song now came out with a new bridge with lyrics atop, giving the repetitive verse / chorus format some variation.  Played four times throughout June, highlighted by Asheville’s set opener, any improv remained firmly anchored to the song’s structure.  Essentially playing the “album version” the band spent June warming their audience familiar to their new anthem.

7.31 (G.Lucas)

7.31 (G.Lucas)

But when leg two of summer kicked off, things were about to change.  Coming out of the now-legendary Red Rocks “Tweezer,” the band took “Number Line” outside of its noodly structure, creating an original segment of improv for the first time.  After a relatively tame second-set opener at Shoreline, when the song dropped late in The Gorge’s final set, Phish created its most significant jam to date.  Breaking into soaring rock textures, the band gelled the music to the upbeat vibe of the show, while getting dirtier than ever.  The band must have liked what they played, because they broke it out the very next show in Chicago, kicking off set two.  Emboldening the jam even further, the band stretched it into a spacier ambiance and suggested more spiritual realms before getting chopped by “Carini.”  But it was far and away the most exploratory version yet- until SPAC.

SPAC (D.Vann)

SPAC (D.Vann)

Just as Phish opened this whole 3.0 party, so would they close it- albeit for the summer- opening their final frame with “Backwards Down the Number Line.”  As soon as it started, everyone knew it would go deep, and twenty minutes (or twenty years) later, that was confirmed. In its most far-reaching, psychedelic journey, this “Number Line” not only stood out at the show, but quickly vaulted itself into the category of whole-summer highlights.  Representative of how far the band had come since its four-minute debut in Hampton, the dark and exploratory risk-taking at SPAC was like soul-candy.  Taking the show on a menacing-turned-abstract excursion, Phish artistically segued the monstrous jam into Joy’s final track, “Twenty Years Later.”


Phish’s evolution from Hampton through SPAC can be virtually traced via the evolution of this song.  Initially tame and straight forward, “Backwards Down the Number Line” has slowly transformed into one of the band’s most diverse vehicles.  With a poignant lyrical theme created just for this go-round, there is no doubt that this song will continue to grow and take different musical shapes.  With a jam that can now go anywhere, each future appearance will be shrouded in musical mystery- and is what this is all about.


 Late Summer '09

Surrender To the Flow‘s Fan Survey:

Get your voice heard in the only lot magazine written for ‘Phish kidz by Phish kidz!’  My friends over at the fan-based publication, Surrender to the Flow, are in the process of putting together their Halloween edition for Indio.  Please help out by weighing in with your take on Phish’s summer tour, Festival 8, Joy, and a whole lot more!  CLICK HERE FOR SURVEY!


Winged music noteJam of the Day:

“Timber Ho! > David Bowie” 7.26.97 II


An extended passage of darkness to open the second set at Austin’s South Park Meadows in the summer of ’97.



10.5.1995 Memorial Coliseum, Portland, OR< Torrent

10.5.1995 Memorial Coliseum, Portland, OR < Megaupload

Memorial Coliseum - Portland, OR

Memorial Coliseum - Portland, OR

With all the PDX folks on this site I’d figure I’d drop in a treat from the northwest circa ’95.  The seventh show of a massive fall tour, Phish was just getting revved up, but there are more than a few treats in a show that took place far away from Phish’s core fan base.

I: Chalk Dust Torture, Ha Ha Ha, Fog That Surrounds, The Horse > Silent in the Morning, Cars Trucks Buses, Strange Design, The Divided Sky, Acoustic Army, Julius, Suzy Greenberg

II: 2001 > Runaway Jim, Colonel Forbin’s Ascent > Famous Mockingbird, Scent of a Mule, Cavern, David Bowie, Lifeboy, Amazing Grace

E: While My Guitar Gently Weeps

Source: Neumann KA100

195 Responses to “Phish’s New Theme Song”

  1. William H. Bonney Says:

    @Mr. C The never ending tour has had it’s up’s and downs. I have not gotten to see him for a while. No Florida show’s lately and made my self stop traveling to see him unless can make it part of larger trip or on road already. First saw him 1992 clearwater. A 12 years old Derek trucks opened for him. The set list from the show is awesome but having been their I would have to say it was a rather uneven show. When he would play electric numbers sound was terrible but awesome jaw dropping for the acoustic numbers. He had just released “Good as I Been to You” , which was first acoustic record in years. His last record “Together Through Life” was one of the weaker ones over the last 10 years IMHO but still worth adding to the collection for a few of the numbers.

  2. Stupendous Says:

    Top Musical Performances Ive Witnessed
    1. MMW (campmmw08 improv sets!!! only 80 people!)
    2. Phish 6/23/00 first show
    3. Phish 08/07/09 bliss!
    4. Bela Fleck (everytime, but specially when he played in the town i live in )
    5. Burning Spear Summer 98

    Worse IMO
    1. Donna The Buffalo (wow, I got in for free to this one…and really felt like walking out, I didnt though i stuck through it)
    2. DMB 02?? (when it REALLY began to suck; Not even molly was helping this one, although i met a bunch of cute chicks)
    3. Widespread Panic Bayfront Arena St Pete FL 2000 (boring, danced through it though)
    4. STS9 07 (boring borderline cheese)
    5. RatDog 03? (lame)

  3. fat bastard Says:

    next guy ripping on WSP is gonna get sat on

  4. Lycanthropist Says:

    6/23/00 was my second Phish show… 6/22/00 being my first

  5. William H. Bonney Says:

    @Whole Tour. We have seen quite of few of the same shows. That 95 dead show was the best vibe I have been around, all my friends, home town show. Backwards down the number line we went. 1st set Visions of Johanna, Master Piece. Second set drumz/space way out. In general dead stadium show were not the best, but this seemed to hold up. If only I knew was last time to see old man. My deer creek show was canceled, and well you know the rest.

  6. Stupendous Says:

    @ Lycan 6/23 was smoking. I just re listened not to long ago for the first time…

  7. Lycanthropist Says:

    yes it was.. definitely blew my mind at the time… although i thought 6/24 was hotter.

  8. Mr. Completely Says:

    lonnie smith at jimmy mak’s? hm.

    can’t believe I missed Reggie Watts last night. love that guy.

    left Prince off my top 10 somehow. Slide him into the middle of that list somewhere. probably others will occur at some point…

    I’m still bummed I missed Visions. Saw it in ’86 when 1) I didn’t know the song and 2) it was terrible, an incomprehensible mess. So that doesn’t really count.

    favorite dead shows attended 11-1-85 richmond, 7-8-87 Roanoke, 10-9-89 Hampton, Greek run ’89, 10-26-89 Miami, all of the Knick run in ’90, Greensboro ’91. Can’t cut it any smaller than that.

    favorite JGB: Eel River and Hampton ’91. Jerry & Grisman ’92.

    favorite Phish: 11-14-91, the only one of my early phish shows I remember clearly; the Shoreline with Phil, 8-7-09 Gorge, and whatever the next show I go to is.

  9. beepaphone Says:

    “and whatever the next show I go to is.”

    Nothing beats the pre-show spirit. Goosebumps.

  10. Little Buddy Says:

    Ya gotta check Dr. Lonnie, Mr. C!

  11. whole tour! Says:

    @william! That was my first and unfourtunately only GD show. It was an amazing time. I actually went with my brother, who got me into the GD about two years earlier. It’s just one of those moments i’ll never ever forget. I consider myself lucky to have even been a part of that scene and to have lived it. That was about the same time i got into phish, so it was very cool to have that experience to fall back on. The vibe at that Tampa show was extremely mellow. Perhaps the most mellow vibe i’ve ever felt at any show.

    Phish nearly ripped my face off when i first saw them(in a good way 😉 ). Phish was mellow, but a totally awesome and different vibe and i loved it instantly. If Jerry stuck around longer, i would most certainly gone to as many GD shows as possible. Even that floyd show had a totally different vibe than most shows i ever got to see, but that sunny day in tampa was about to close to perfect for GD. All the dead related bands after that never really had that same vibe that the tampa show had. When i saw the other ones in 2000 it was a totally different feel to it and i kinda lost interest and drifted further into phish.

    @lycan and stupendous: That 6/23/00 lakewood show was amazing. It’s one of my favorite shows…at the time i went with a huge group of friends and we scored killer pavillion seats. I remember the exact moment during that “gin” where trey went from normal to FULL on hose mode. It’s like they were kinda holding back a little up to that gin, then BAM! fucking hose city and the place seemed to elevate off the ground for like 10 minutes. Swore i heard a “curtis lowe” tease in the ambient space before “bowie.”??

    I also recall that huge glowstick torrential downpour on the lawn. I turned around and i was like “Holy Shit!”. That second set was great good ole fashioned dark phishy goodness. That twist around was the sickness!!!! Those lakewood 2000 shows were the heat and stylistically one of my favorite eras/tours of phish.

  12. beepaphone Says:

    a good bedtime story

  13. Mr. Completely Says:

    @wt! your thoughts about the Dead, the vibe, and what was left over afterwards are all really interesting. I love the fact that it only took one show for people who were ready. I know a bunch of folks who only got to one or two and totally Got It…good for you…

    totally agree post-GD stuff isn’t where it’s at. Phil has done some worthy things, I still love the guy of course. I don’t bag on it, some of my friends get a lot out of all that stuff, but I’m just not feelin’ it.

    I mean, it’s 2009…Phish is back…

    ’nuff said

  14. lot rat Says:

    Miner-any rumors about phish playing the bridge school the week before Indio???

  15. butter Says:

    1. Dead
    2. Phish
    3. Stones
    4. Burning Spear
    5. Toots and the Maytals
    6. The Meters
    7. Zigaboo Modeliste
    8. Galactic
    9. Martin Fierro Quintet
    10. Clapton

  16. whole tour! Says:

    Right on Mr. C!!!!
    I’m thankful and blessed to have witnessed that. It sent me on the path i’m on today. Still traversing new unexplored corners. If not for my brother turning me on to good music, i could have been very very lost.

    2009 is where it’s at! and we’re not done yet!
    night everyone!

  17. JPhishman Says:

    Whoa! I’m a Portlander but don’t have nor have I ever heard this show. Thanks Miner!

  18. PBS Says:

    I’ve been lurking on this site since the Hampton shows, in an effort to fulfill the overwhelming jones stirred up by the return of the phinest band in the land, as they approached my home-base venue, the Gorge. I’ve read so many of the “regular’s” posts here, that I feel I know many of you in some odd way.

    At any rate, I felt it was time to contribute to the conversation, so here goes.

    First off, thank you, Mr. Miner. Your writing and reviews bring a sense of ownership to your readers with each show that passes – accompanied with the no spoilers dls, you provide something that is unrivaled in the music blogspace, to my knowledge at least. Kudos sir.

    In 1995, when I was a mere lad following the Dead around, I landed in Columbus, OH post tour, where I met a ladyfriend who was WAY into this not so well known band (at least in my circle of friends) from Vermont. Little did I know it would shape the way I view music and artistic talent for the rest of my life. On the topic of magical concert experiences, the Deer Creek show we went to was the closest I had ever felt to the experience of a Dead show. That being said, there is a grand difference between seeing a band of incomparable talent and artistry at the end of their run as opposed to catching one at the beginning of their peak. The energy was unbelievable…I was instantly hooked.

    Since then, I’ve been at the right place/time to have seen the boys at some of the phinest points in their career. Though I don’t have dozens of shows under my belt, I was fortunate enough to see The Clifford Ball, The Great Went, Hampton ’98, a couple of Gorge runs (the best of which was this year, imo).

    PDX represent – only show i caught here was at Meadows in ’99. Stoked to spin this one on the commute tomorrow.

    Anyway, to add to the mix of show experiences, I’ll throw in my top 5 – High Fidelity style.

    1. Grateful Dead – Eugene ’93 – where it all started for me.
    2. Phish – Deer Creek ’95
    3. Allmans – Great Woods ’97
    4 Clapton – PDX ’02
    5. Stevie Winwood – Gorge ’08 (opened for Tom Petty, and I could have left after his set. He was on my bucket list for sure, and did not disappoint.

    Good night all…

  19. Twobyfour Says:

    Really enjoy your inciteful reviews and you really get to the heart of what this music is and what it does. BDTNL is truning into one of my favorite Phish trunes ever, I am struck by the similarities to the Dead’s “Touch Of Grey”. Both may be among the most commercial songs each band have done, and also the constatnt themes of rememberence and re-birth shine through. Happy happy indeed.

  20. Andrew Says:

    What a tough list to write up, as it’s hard enough to remember the sleeper shows tucked in the recesses of my memory.

    1. Phish – 11/23/97 *First Phish show, amazing second set and I had been well prepared for a few years…although a bit hazy now.

    The rest in no real definitive order:
    Maceo Parker ’01 – holy cosmo funk, that man knows how to move a room.
    Jazz is Dead ’02 w/Billy Cobham @ the Stone Pony in NJ – very small crowd and one of the most amazing drummers we’ll ever see.
    MMW @ Ziggy’s (can’t remember which year, but one of the first times I really saw music for what it truly is)
    Dr. Lonnie Smith w/Stanton Moore and Will Bernard – this man has lightning in his hands and could strike you down at any moment, yet he’s so gentle…highly recommend seeing him while he’s still alive.
    Derek Trucks Band @ Ziggy’s – believe it was ’98, and he being my age I was floored by his presence in a room.
    Ulu @ The Wetlands – these guys straight brought it, every night and everywhere, great listeners and really deep pockets.

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