Phish’s late-night all-improv sets have become a hallmark of the festival experience. Dating back to the Clifford Ball’s Flat Bed jam and The Great Went’s “Disco” set these “surprise” affairs soon developed into much more significant musical ventures. Historically highlighted by Lemonwheel’s Ring of Fire “ambient” set and IT’s demonic Tower Jam, Phish and their fan base have basked in these middle-of-the-night affairs that cater to the psychonaut in all of us. But this year at Super Ball, the band outdid themselves with “The Storage Jam”— a focused hour-long excursion into cutting edge psychedelia. And what made it even cooler—and a hell of a lot Phishier—was the fact that the guys were rotating instruments throughout the jam. But the music that resulted was unlike anything we’d ever heard from the band.
Part and parcel of this progressive musical experiment was the sound setup in Ball Square. Instead of hearing this monumental mind-meld in regular stereo, the band arranged a surround sound system through which different sounds and instruments came from different speakers. This unconventional setup enhanced the disorienting and psychedelic effect of the already abstract music. Shrouded in mystery while playing behind opaque glass inside an art installation, the band was only visible as distorted silhouettes. The lack of visual cues as to what was actually going on made the experience that much more unknown and completely focused on the music. One was—literally—immersed in sound coming from every direction in, what has to be considered, the most technologically advanced and boundary-pushing performance ever put on by Phish.
From note one of this abstract escapade, the band was laser-locked on each others’ ideas, entering improvisational territory that the much of their fan base wouldn’t appreciate from the big stage. Despite some unmistakably Phishy moments, much of this sonic exploration of tones and textures would have been hard to peg as Phish at all. A large part of this unique sound was due to the fact that exploration was a Rotation Jam. Much, if not most, of the time, the guys were on alternate instruments, thus the bass patterns, drum beats, guitar licks and synth sounds didn’t carry the characteristics of their usual players. Instead, each band member was able to apply his ideas to a different instrument, thus pushing the others in completely new directions. Though the piece morphed in and out at times, like the waves of an ocean, the entire hour of exploration remained incredibly connected and cohesive with no lulls or lack of engaging interplay. The consistent rotations—whether known about at the time or not—maintained a sense of suspense and tension within the music where no one idea could take hold for very long. But as they moved instruments, the band picked up—most often—from the same point and then began to build away from it.
The use of electronic drums, heavy Theremin, and big, dirty effects on both the guitar and bass gave this piece a completely unique energy and flow. It wasn’t purely ambient, it wasn’t purely abstract, and it carried a hell of a lot more rhythmic quality than people gave it credit for at the time. In summation, Phish spun an unclassifiable tale of weird, dissonant, quasi-ambient, melodic, electro-dub stylings. Boasting avant-garde and focused improvisation throughout the jam, despite what instruments they were on, the band converged in the type of sonic sorcery that we rarely get to glimpse.
The final segment of the jam featured both Trey and Fishman on e-drums, culminating the experiment with a foray into legitimately beat-backed textures. And as the band rotated instruments one more time, the beginnings of a demented “Sleeping Monkey” rung out of the surround sound system in Ball Square, bringing us all back to some semblance of reality. Concluding their plunge into the heart of the cosmos with this unequivocally Phishy maneuver, the band played a deranged version of their classic encore that was drenched in effects and then bled into an eerie three-minute final passage.
When the set ended, I found myself flabbergasted and standing alone in sheer disbelief of what had just gone down. Complete with lasers, smoke and Kuroda’s lighting, Phish had just thrown down one of the definitive psychedelic spectacles of their 20-plus year career. My mind drew comparisons to old-school Pink Floyd mixed with mid-‘70s Brian Eno mixed with late ’70 Miles Davis mixed with nouveau electronica, but that was just my brain trying to make sense of things. Upon listening back to the Storage Jam several times, this music has proven to be a completely unique monster all its own—incomparable to anything the band has ever done. We were privileged to have seen Phish improvisation in its purest form, without any songs to get in the way and with a bulls eye on the heart of psychedelic experimentation. And, lo and behold, despite all the great music that went down all day, the “secret” Storage Jam had stolen the show. It was a display of sheer artistry that will go down in the annals of Phish history, and like all nuanced masterpieces, it just keeps getting better with each listen.
In short—“Wow. That just happened.”
Jam of the Day:
This old-school combination, containing exquisite renditions of both songs, punctuated Sunday’s first set of Super Ball.
=====Tags: 2011, Festivals, Summer 2011, Super Ball IX