From the Hampton reunion through Fall 2010, I saw Phish clearly immersed in a growth process. In 2009, their improvisational formula remained high-speed rock into sparser percussive grooves and, eventually, morphing into an ambient outro. Obviously this was not a rule and the band’s best jams of the year veered from this pre-set path. But most did not. New Year’s Run in Miami provided a creative breakthrough for the band, and their jams grew more creative with dense musical interplay. As the band members’ skillsets continued to improve over June ’10, Trey’s whale calls provided the musical trend of a solid, but unspectacular, month that was sparsely speckled with serious jamming. The Greek and Alpine Valley provided peaks of August—a tour filled with far more creative improv than June—largely due to Trey’s new Ocedoc. Showing diversity and mastery in their best jams, these passages also went in several directions. From the Greek’s “Light” and “Simple” to Telluride’s “Piper,” and from Alpine’s “Disease -> What’s the Use” to Jones Beach’s “Number Line,” the band illustrated a propensity for taking their primetime explorations to various places. And by the end of August, all members were up to speed on their instruments. Thus when Fall Tour 2010 started, fans were eager to hear what would develop.
Fall Tour was, in many fans’ opinions, the band’s most accomplished run of shows in the modern era. Catching fire in South Carolina, Phish tore through the remainder of the short tour (less Amherst), and featured many revitalized and creative jams. Some examples of fall standouts include South Carolina’s “Crosseyed;” Augusta’s “Reba, a version that sits among all-timers; Providence’s “Rock and Roll -> Carini;” Manchester and Augusta’s “Lights;” Utica’s entire show; Manchester’s “Ghost -> Mango,” Amherst and Atlantic City’s “Stashes;” Atlantic City’s “Sand -> Carini.” and the awesome Halloween costume, Waiting For Columbus. But more than individual jams, a super-charged consistency returned to Phish shows, a sense that every single night meant an adventure, and we didn’t know where it would go; a feeling that had yet to grip a stretch of performances this era. And as the band concluded Fall Tour, fans—at least my friends and I—were genuinely excited about the future.
Though New Year’s run didn’t include too much jamming, when the band went deep, they arrived at some golden pastures in “Seven Below -> What’s the Use?,” “Harry Hood,” “Ghost,” and “Simple.” The matter at hand no longer seemed to be if Phish’s jams would be successful—this group was arguably the best of the year—but rather how frequently the band would take risks. When they did over New Year’s Run, they generally garnered positive results. And even when the band didn’t magically gel as in the aforementioned pieces, we were still left with something as awesome as the “Tweezer” from the 30th.
So Phish can jam again. I think we call can agree on that, though the frequency of such excursions leaves something to be desired. But further than that, what I’d like to see develop this summer is a new style of jamming—a new context in which to take risks. Now that things are back to where they need to be, its high time the band hone in on a style and begin to explore it.
In yesteryear, this is what.Phish.did. From 1992 though 2003, one can argue (fairly easily) that there were significant stylistic differences from year to year, if not tour to tour! In a nutshell…1992 brought their first truly great year of jamming, in my opinion. 1993 saw the wildly creative and tightly connected “speedjazz” era. In 1994, the band took this type of aggressive communication and began to apply it to more exploratory jams, discovering the improvisational abyss by Fall Tour. Summer ’95 saw extended, abstract explorations of the dark side brought to the forefront of the stage, as Phish challenged its audience nightly with improvisational cliff dives. Fall ’95 saw a peak—and synthesis— of all that came before it, and the band climaxed the year in a fierce December that many agree to be one of its most creative— and accomplished—months of all time.
The style of ‘95 spilled over through Summer ’96, while the beginning of Fall saw the band endure a transition to larger arenas. Though once Halloween occurred in Atlanta, Phish had found their new direction and began a transition to groove. 1997 brought The Cowfunk Revolution, progressing from the raw unpasteurized summer variety to the more refined disco-funk of fall. In 1998, Phish added ambient jamming to the mix—four-part equitable and abstract conversations—often of the melodic variety; and the funk became laden with spacier musical landscapes. In 1999, Phish honed in on its “millennial” sound sculpting with dissonant, layered and textured jamming. Their improvisation moved in two new directions, aggressive and abstract, as Phish crafted hard-edged, dark music rooted in groove as they edged toward 2000. After Big Cypress, the “millennial” sound spilled into the following year, though the band began to lose steam, in earnest, once Fall Tour came. Whether you love it or hate it, the post-hiatus sound needs no introduction, and that brings us to now.
What will Phish become next? What is their intent? With the skills to go, virtually, wherever they want in terms of musical direction, will they choose to focus on a particular style? Will they continue to pump out dense, high-quality jams that don’t necessarily focus on one type of music? With so many shows scheduled for this summer (and Colorado on the brink of announcement) the band has plenty of stage time to go down any wormhole the choose. Upon the band’s return at Hampton, Mike spoke of their intention to reinvent themselves in this modern era, and though they have played their last six months quite well, this transformation has yet to occur. If it is going to happen, it would seem that this summer is the time. With their consistency back in tow, and their skills gleaming, it only comes down to what the guys want out of their concerts. Trey has traditionally said that it is boring to be musically safe, and much more fun to take risks. Well…2011 is upon us…we can only hope that he still feels the same.Tags: Culture, Jams, Summer 2011