In the physical world, density equals mass divided by volume, but in the current context of Phish’s music, a concept of “musical density” emerges. This term can be expressed as the number of unique musical ideas presented per minute, and by the end of 2009, this renewed, compact jamming became part and parcel with Phish’s on-stage direction. A facet of the band’s first peak of 1993-1995, this intense style of jamming has come back around in the modern era. This retro style climaxed in Miami, specifically with “Piper” and “Ghost,” where the goal of creating tightly packed jams took on a new life. If hypothesizing on where the band will head this summer, this new style seems to be a first place to look for Phish’s next evolution.
Beginning in Hampton and moving through the first leg of summer, Phish jams weren’t only compact, they were, generally, one dimensional. Focusing on straight ahead rock textures for most of their opening tour, Phish set a new (or, arguably, old) standard for jam length – short and sweet. These jams, while quite compact in length, weren’t very dense in terms of musical ideas per minute, often regurgitating the same ideas for quite some time. Without a lot of creativity, Phish usually took one idea and carried it to a peak for their jams in June. Sure, there are some counter-examples, but this liner jamming remained the norm for the opening half of summer.
Then came the second leg, and the while jams increased in length, they also increased in number of musical ideas per minute. Improv that stemmed from The Gorge and Red Rocks contained exponentially more creativity than the band showed over June, breathing new life into the Phish community. Letting loose on pieces like “Ghost,” “Disease,” “Bathtub Gin,” “Sneakin’ Sally,” “Light,” and “Rock and Roll,” Phish started to expand the number of musical ideas presented, both upping their musical density, and communicating far more creatively in the process. These western shows had a profound effect on fans with their diverse, yet grounded and cohesive nature these jams. The band fluidly moved between sections and musical themes, with little meandering or searching for the next change; things began to happen organically
As the band moved back east for the end of summer and into fall, Phish reeled in this expansive jamming, focusing on shorter creations that got to the point more quickly. Excursions such as Darien’s “Drowned” and Hartford’s “Piper” held a lot of ingenious communication, but when one finally got around to checking how long these jams were, they always seemed shorter than remembered; a trend that continued to play out through the contained, high-energy indoor shows of fall. This is where the concept of musical density can actually bend the perception of time. If bombarded with compact, non-stop musical creativity (see Miami “Piper”) the listener feels often feels that a lot of time has passed due to the the many themes and musical ideas they have confronted. Phish no longer waited to get down to business, a key factor in compacting their improvisation. No more vamping over two funk chords while Trey sets his loops and carefully chooses his spot to enter the ultra-layered canvas; no more searching for the sound, Phish now dives right in with the sharks.
In Miami, as jams dropped, unique improvisation commenced instantaneously, providing a stark contrast to the late ’90s and the post-hiatus era, evoking memories of the band’s earlier years. But with the accumulated skill sets the band members have gained over the years, these Miami jams bring the best of all worlds, super-charged Phish experiences. Gone is the dance party vibe of ’97 and the psychedelic search-parties of ’03, and in Miami, Phish provided jams that reached all sorts of stratospheric places in succinct time frames. Even the most expansive jams of Miami – “Tweezer” and “Back on the Train” moved cohesively from one creative idea to the next, leaving no lag time in between sections – and lo and behold – the two best jams of the year.
But even more illustrative of this retro improvisational trend are “Piper” and “Ghost” from New Year’s Eve’s second set. These two pieces fully realized this pattern that Phish had been building towards throughout 2009 – musical density. When listening to this “Piper” the speed of communication between the band members becomes mind-numbing, as Trey continues spewing new, connected licks with fury. The entire band moves as if four fingers on one hand, together crafting a blistering piece that contains as many themes as many of the band’s more extended excursions of lore. Without hesitation, Phish completely crushed this piece without skipping a beat. Seeming super-human at times, this jam never spirals out of hand, but the controlled abandon that defines this “Piper” is skull-fucking. Moving like an eight-limbed robot, Phish tore through this jam, leaving minds buzzing just to absorb it all. Phish are often referred to as musical super heroes, and this “Piper” backs up this assertion confidently – all in under ten minutes.
And only a couple songs later came “Ghost.” Perhaps the most engaging jam of New Year’s Eve took us on a prolific journey through many stages, a trek that started immediately as the jam dropped with Mike’s powerful lead. Wasting no time, Gordeaux thumped out a groove that Trey, Page, and Fish locked onto as one, each offering their own layers. Within one minute of the jam, Phish engages in full-on communication and, straight-up, killing it. Gordon continues to drive the piece for the duration of the first half, before he steps back and lets Trey take center stage. All the while, the jam never drags for a second, featuring full-band engagement from note one. Blending improvisational segments fluidly, Phish took this piece from dark and groovy to melodic and uplifting, moving seamlessly all the while. Crafting a signature piece of the weekend, the band took “Ghost” into a quasi-electro plane before melting into a masterfully placed quote of “Auld Lang Syne,” getting everyone ready for party time.
Having had some time to reflect on the year that was, the MSG run truly climaxed 2009 with its high-energy, rock and roll showcase, while Miami’s New Year’s Run welcomed the Phish community to the future. Taking bold steps forward over their nights in Florida, Phish should emerge in June with a new musical landscapes than people grew accustomed to in 2009. Like building blocks of the future, last year laid a solid foundation for Phish to launch from this summer. With dynamic interplay throughout Miami, Phish provided a fresh glimpse into the band they will become in 2010. Regardless of the length of their excursions, Phish’s has clearly enhanced the flow of their jams, something that will be sure to evolve come summer tour.
Jams of the Day:
Here’s a gem from SPAC, Summer ’95.
A Valentine’s Day highlight from Trey’s band.
DOWNLOAD OF THE DAY:
11.6.96 Civic Center, Knoxville, TN < Torrent
11.6.96 Civic Center, Knoxville, TN < Megaupload
The week after Halloween, Phish began to gradually chart their course for the funk-laced seas of ’97.
I: Split Open and Melt, Cars Trucks Buses, Fast Enough for You, Taste, Train Song, Poor Heart, Punch You In the Eye, Billy Breathes, David Bowie
II: Wilson, The Curtain > Mike’s Song > Swept Away > Steep, Weekapaug Groove, Scent of a Mule, Sample in a Jar, Funky Bitch
E: Rocky Top
Source: Schoeps MK4′s