One thing that stood out to me at Trey’s performance with the LA Philharmonic on Saturday, was his absolute focus and attention to every minute detail from note of the show through the last. Trey—while usually far more playful and animated—seemed to approach this performance with a sense of respect and reverence. His emotional presence and his incredibly precise playing illustrated a capacity for—dare I say it—perfection. Wrong notes are not allowed in the symphony, and Trey did not hit one throughout the near two and half hour show. The diligence with which he listened to the orchestra and meticulously placed his offerings within the context of the whole, provided a snapshot of an ego-less musician respecting and honoring the music above all else. Trey’s performance was nothing short of breathtaking, and the thought I had later that night was, “What if he brought the same attitude to Phish these days?”
Despite 2011’s musical greatness, which I am the first to tout, the band’s democratic dynamic often seemed unbalanced at times throughout the year. Beyond the well- documented cases of “Rip Cord Red” pulling the string on so many jams-in-progress, there was an overwhelming sense that whatever Trey wanted, musically, was what happened. If he didn’t feel comfortable within a jam, for whatever reason, most often he simply interrupted the musical conversation with the chords of a new song. I’m not quite sure what the orchestral equivalent is to an awkwardly aborted “Ghost” jam, but lord knows Trey would never come close to committing such an atrocity on the stage of a symphony. He just wouldn’t. Has he lost his sense of reverence for Phish? Are jams no longer sacred to him? One can only wonder.
While the essence of an orchestra is precision, the essence of Phish has very much been about improvisation. And while the band—no doubt—engaged in many thrilling jams last year, the overall vibe of many shows shifted from a group-mind led journey to to a Trey-led rock concert. When Trey did let go of his over-orchestration of setlists in 2011, Phish played some of the greatest shows of this era. For prime examples of this, see Bethel 1 & 2, Clarkston, Charlotte, The Gorge 1, UIC 1 and 2 to name more than a few shining examples. In these standout shows, the music flowed with far greater vitality and with far more care than the lesser shows of summer. There was no obvious impatience on the part of Trey to get through a certain number of songs; these shows carried an organic movement from beginning to end, a far cry from the choppiness of of PNC 2, Merriweather 1, Camden, Raleigh, Tahoe 2 or UIC 3, among others. One question I’ve often wondered after these less impressive and less cohesive efforts—“Do they talk about the show?”
At one point in his career, Trey, self-admittedly, pored over setlsts for hours each night, making sure that Phish shows had the perfect composition. Then the band executed this plan as a whole. Not to belabor the analogy, but this process sounds similar to his orchestral performance. When looking at Phish shows of last year, there are many instances where it seemed that Trey was trying to execute one plan while his band mates were immersed in another. Was Trey listening as closely to Mike and Page as he hacked the PNC “Ghost,” Alpharetta “Tweezer” or (insert many jams here), as he was to the first chair violin player on Saturday? Clearly not—but the unanswerable that question begs to be asked is, “Why not?”
Looking back over Phish’s most prolific years, regardless of era, there is an unspoken patience between all band members that allowed the music to progress as a single entity—a four-headed, though single-minded, creation. Masterful segues like 7/22/97’s “Disease -> Mike’s” or 6/26/95’s “Disease -> Free” unfolded over the course of minutes as a natural progression of the entire band, not as the impulsive idea of one member. For a while in this era, I could understand the “sobriety makes Trey less patient” line of thinking, but after observing his patience on Saturday—albeit in a different setting—and in shows like 8/5/11 and 8/15/11—I no longer give that theory credence. Trey is still Trey, a master of his craft, and I am convinced that it his mind and lack of attention that get in the way of weaker Phish shows, not his skill set.
One of the most commonly heard laments by fans these days is the ever-present 3.0 gripe, “They don’t jam enough.” In a very candid recent interview given by Chris Kuroda, he even joked about how Phish doesn’t jam as much any more. Jokingly (but not so jokingly) he said “they should look into that,” while then sharing a funny aside about how he and Brad Sands give the band shit about this issue all the time. But he also made sure to say that it was all out of love. Kuroda also hypothesized this improvisational shift wasn’t premeditated, but just a natural extension of who the guys are at this stage in their life. But if we are going with his theory, Mike, Page, and Fish seem at a different stage in their lives than Trey. Either way, with Kuroda’s admission, it’s clear the band is aware of their lessened jamming, but do they care?
As many know, I’m the first to gush over Phish when they are killing it, which—I believe—they are quite capable of doing on a nightly basis. But the shows that feel bumpy or “off” all seem to stem from the attention—or lack thereof—of our beloved six-string assassin. The puzzling factor to me has been how the “on” nights, where the whole show flows well, and the “off” nights, where just a jam or two stand out, are totally arbitrary. This factor makes seeing a couple shows very hit or miss for a fan. While there is a distinct possibility that one will walk out blown away, there is just as likely a possibility that he won’t—an interesting dynamic.
With a full slate of Phish this summer, one has to wonder which side of Trey is going to show up more often—the patient collaborator and sound-sculpter whose playing brings the band to an entirely different level, or the impatient rock star who focuses more on his own agenda and song choice than what is actually happening on stage? With the band’s skills quite polished, and the clear willingness of Mike, Page, and Fish to go deep, we are all waiting to see which way the captain will steer the ship this summer. Your guess is as good as mine.
Just months ago, on September 5th, 2011, Trey was quoted in Believer Mag saying such things as:
I see improvisation as a craft and as an art. The craft part is important. There’s a lot of preparation and discipline that goes into it just so that, when you’re in the moment, you’re not supposed to be thinking at all.
…Musicians come and go and they’re stewards of the music for a brief period of time. But once the music plays — it’s really between Beethoven and the listener at that point. The musicians are there to get their goddamn hands off of it. All that training! Thousands of hours! Sight-reading every day! All so they can get the hell out of the way because nobody gives a crap about them at all. The less you notice them, the better it sounds…
But are these simply sound-bytes that he has programmed in his mind since the mid-’90s, or are these thoughts still the driving ethos of Phish? Sometimes it is hard to tell.
Jam of the Day:
“Ghost” 6.15.00 I
This “Ghost” inspired me yesterday, so I am featuring it today. Enjoy the only version from Japan 2000—an uplifting beast—remastered by Kenny Powers.