“If you don’t know your past, you don’t know your future.”
When Phish steps into the next stage of their career in a little more than a month, they are bound to discover new styles of musical expression. With a foundation year behind them, one would imagine that Phish will start down the path of reinvention this summer, forging a new sound for 2010. As the band evolves, and their music takes new forms, they will incorporate elements of their past endeavors, a trend throughout their history. Building upon the previous year’s stylistic successes from their onset through Summer 1996, Phish hit the reset button in Fall ’96, beginning a completely new evolutionary arc for the late ’90s.
When re-listening to 2009, one quickly notices that Phish’s musical high points were truly sublime, with several jams that can hold their own among highlights from any era. And when listening more closely to the band’s playing through the year, one can identify elements from each of the band’s evolutionary periods throughout their career. Incorporating all the styles of their career into the building blocks for the future, 2010 will be a year that not only springboards off 2009, but every phase of the band’s career.
Starting off last year with a focus on straight-forward jamming, Phish came out of the gates conservatively, making sure they had their footing before trying to run. However, one element of their playing stood out right from the beginning of Hampton – their precise execution of composed sections, as well as their full compositions. Turning their glaring weakness of 2.0 into an immediate strength of 2009, Phish opened the era with two of their most complex pieces in “Fluffhead” and “Divided Sky.” Evoking memories of the early-’90’s, when Phish ran through fugues like wind-sprints, their precision and prowess on their multi-part compositions stood out all year long. The complex sections of their larger pieces also became revitalized as the year wore on, and tackling the openings of pieces like “Reba,” “YEM,” and “Bowie” became second nature. Sure, there were speed bumps along the way, but Phish’s precision and accuracy became a strong suit in 2009.
By the end of fall tour and in Miami, Phish began playing compact, full-on jams that more resembled the fury of the mid-90’s, an approach I labeled “musical density.” The band started to improvise in a more concentrated manner, offering many original ideas over a shorter amount of time. Jams that illustrate this retro-style include Miami’s “Piper,” “Ghost,” and “Back On The Train, “Charlottesville’s “Light,” and MSG’s “Disease > Piper.” With a take-no-prisoners approach, Phish annihilated these pieces with fast, thematic communication, leaving no time for loops, vamping, or repetitive funk chords. This emerging sound that featured shorter, too-the-point, jams evoked memories of the band’s most adventurous improvisational era from ’93 to ’95, albeit not quite as insane. Nonetheless, the band integrated similarly tight, no-nonsense communication that characterized a point in their history into their modern soundscapes.
Through this compact style, and by trimming the fat off their musical excursions, 2009 Phish piqued the interest of more than a few old-schoolers who had lost touch with the band during the the late-90’s era of groove, or during the post-hiatus era of abstract exploration. Phish sounded like the band these fans had loved through the mid-’90’s, pushing the boundaries of experimental rock while retaining a focused intensity to their playing. They could once again tear though “Foam,” had no problem shredding “It’s Ice,” and Phish music shifted back towards the form that made them famous to begin with. But not without brushstrokes of their latter years.
While Phish certainly didn’t focus on funk grooves last year, they did use certain vehicles to reach those swanky places. Though reined in quite a bit, their danceadelic style shined through many times throughout the year, and perhaps none more brightly than Red Rock’s “Tweezer.” After a relatively groove-less June, when Phish dropped this version (still illegal in some states), they let the floodgates of groove crash open in an all-out rhythmic explosion. All year long, but from August on specifically, versions of “Ghost,” “Wolfman’s,” and “Tweezer” routinely explored gooier territory, incorporating ideas of ’97 and ’98, but never delving nearly as deep into the musical molasses that defined those years. (Perhaps the most direct reference to this era came in the methodical funk turned ambient “46 Days” from Detroit last fall.)
The percussive jams that dotted so many setlists last year, growing out of “Rock and Roll,” “Piper” and “Drowned,” also represented carry-over from the late ’90s. Once Phish learned the polyrhythms of Remain In Light in 1996, this type of jam immediately jumped into their repertoire the next show with 11.2.96’s “Crosseyed > Antelope,” and remained in their bag of tricks all the way through, refined throughout the years. These sparser and faster grooves of ’09 brought back the feel of ’99 and ’00, as well as some post-hiatus adventures. Additionally, the many ambient interludes and amorphous jams that popped up throughout the year can be directly traced to the aural experiments that blossomed in Fall ’98, and fully developed in 1999. Using ambient textures and “amoeba-jamming,” Phish brought a new sound to the table that fall; a sound they resurrected more than a few times last year to varying degrees of success. Some standout examples include Deer Creek’s “A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing,” The Gorge’s “Sneakin’ Sally,” SPAC’s “Number Line, and the latter half of Miami’s “Tweezer.”
Thus, as Phish forges a path into the future, their past is undeniably coming with them. But just as these musical elements from different years were incorporated into 2009, a new direction awaits in 2010. Just what that will be remains the mystery of the summer. Answers await only 36 days away.
Jam of the Day:
A stellar nugget of Phish2k.
DOWNLOAD OF THE DAY:
12.30.98 MSG, NYC, NY < Megaupload
12.30.98 MSG, NYC, NY < Torrent
Here’s the completion of the stellar New Year’s 1998 run. Somehow, this one has skirted the archive. The most mellow of the four evenings still carried some legit highlights, specifically, “Disease > Piper.” The first set brought the bombastic beginning of “Chalk Dust,” “BBFCFM,” “Wilson,” and peaked with the surprise, set-ending “Reba.”
I: Chalk Dust Torture, Big Black Furry Creature from Mars, Wilson, Roggae, Sparkle, The Moma Dance, The Old Home Place, Sample in a Jar, Frankie Says, Maze, Loving Cup, Reba
II: Down with Disease > Piper, Prince Caspian, The Squirming Coil > Slave to the Traffic Light
E: Grind*, Possum
*debut, w/ Tom Marshall
Source: Schoeps CMC641 > Lunatec V2 > Apogee AD1000 > DATTags: 2010