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.
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…
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.
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.)
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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Jam 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.
DOWNLOAD OF THE DAY:
10.5.1995 Memorial Coliseum, Portland, OR < Megaupload
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