“Ghost” is a composition that Phish wrote in 1997 to facilitate their newly found passion for equitable groove-building. At this time, Phish’s musical focus fundamentally shifted from their past. No longer did they thrive on frenetic, guitar-led jams and scorching peaks, but focused on collective, group jamming amidst textured dance music. Debuted in the first show of Summer ’97, “Ghost” jams became the band’s primary vehicle of funk exploration. “Tweezer” was barely played this summer. “Sand” didn’t exist. And while Phish, no doubt, inserted funk jams into just about every improvisational sequence, “Ghost” was the portal through which their sonic transformation truly took place. Though this protean jam made the stylistic shifts of the late-’90s right alongside the band, its conceptual raison d’etre was realized three years later—and 14 years ago yesterday—at Radio City. On May 22, 2000, Phish not only played their most accomplished version of “Ghost” to this day, they informed it—start to finish—with the democratic ethos that defined their groove transformation of 1997-2000.
As I listened to this magnum opus with close attention yesterday, something that never registered with me came to a glaring forefront—Trey played virtually no lead guitar in the 27 minutes that composed the Radio City “Ghost.” Mike played a serious leadership role throughout this jam as it morphed between feels, but most particularly at its onset, where the band coyly dripped into one of the filthiest—and most equitable—groove sessions of their career. Where Trey often took the lead right out of the gates in “Ghost,” this time he simply laid back and didn’t play at all, allowing his bandmates to craft a pornographic dance groove. And when he did decide to enter, it wasn’t to play guitar hero, it was to be a fourth layer in the groove, filling in space with sparse rhythmic hits. As he offered his sound into the textured music, the whole band locked into each others ideas and the result was legendary. Radio City might as well have been Studio 54 as the band laid into a dance explosion.
As their first investigation of groove concluded, Fishman slid back into a more conventional “Ghost” rhythm, and the band sounded as though they could have been launching into the beginning of the jam once again. This brief return the the song’s theme—during which Trey played lead—served as a coy reset of the jam from which the band launched once again, this time into a very different feel. But even in this second movement, Trey remained very much a part of the whole, offering, first, a repetitive and glitchy, melodic phrase, and then playing off it and tweaking it for the duration. This is a quintessential 2000 Phish jam, focused on intricate layering, innovative sound, and whole-band, drone textures in the aftermath of Big Cypress.
A single guitar lick acted like a lasso, pulling the band out of this jam and back into “Ghost’s” theme for the second time in this Herculean piece. Trey resumed his position as lead for this section, but just as one might have thought it was heading for a rock-based, guitar-led peak, Phish took another left turn. Trey backed off his solo and began to offer rhythm chords that followed a very emotive progression. At this juncture, the band moved back into full improv mode prompted by Trey’s change, and Page came to the forefront, playing rolling chords along the same progression that Trey had started. This third movement takes on a reflective feel that seemed incredibly appropriate as this “Ghost” represented the band’s first monumental excursion since the Everglades. I’m sure being that deep in a jam again brought them back to their peak experience in Florida, and it came through powerfully in the music. Mike, once again, stepped into the lead in this section, as Trey slid into a spiral lick with intermittent rhythm chops. In retrospect, it really sounds like they were having a musical conversation on stage about where they were in their career in the Spring of 2000.
The band finally pushed through into a fourth and final feel, an ambient passage that rode the same emotional wave. Trey offered a quiet, high-register solo over an aural blanket that infused the final portion of the Radio City “Ghost” with an undeniably spiritual feel. And the band—still fully locked and improvising—flowed, together, to a final resting point that sounded like musical poetry.
At no point during this nearly half-hour odyssey did Phish fall back on any musical conventions. Not for a second. They were in full destruction mode the from the first note to the last. I still remember the feeling that I had when the opening notes of a late-set “Ghost” oozed into the space of Radio City Music Hall. It was haunting and inspiring feeling. But it was no comparison to the feeling in the building upon the jam’s final notes. Following almost five months of dormancy after the most historic performance of their career, Phish had once again exploded in virtuosic creativity, throwing down the defining version of their late ‘90s dance anthem in an Art Deco theatre in the middle of New York City. And it was the ultimate realization of their late-’90s shift to collaborative, groove-based playing. Once and for all-time, Phish had told us “The Story of the Ghost.”
“Ghost” 5.22.00 II, NYC, NY SBD