Anyone who paid attention to Leg One of summer tour can attest to the incredibly fresh and dynamic jamming on display throughout. Improvisational passages covered insane amounts of ground in a limited time frame, while still moved fluidly between ideas. Though laced with a distinctly modern sound, jams throughout tour, simultaneously, carried a retro feel. The main reason for all of this was the re-emergence of Phish’s central axis: Trey and Fishman.
Traditionally, before the onset of the groove era in 1997, Trey and Fishman formed the improvisational backbone of the band. Fishman had a propensity to follow the ideas of his lead guitarist—an unconventional style, as drummer’s usually lock with their bassist to form the “pocket. Fishman’s co-leadership of jams pushed Trey out of his comfort zone and into original territory. And this unconventional cooperation produced unconventional results—Phish music as we knew it through 1995.
And then came The Cowfunk Revolution of 1997. As the band focused on groove-based playing for the next several years, Trey and Fish moved away from their improvisational partnership. During these years of rhythmic focus, Fish and Mike—with his new Modulus bass—linked up to form the deepest pocket Phish fans had ever heard. Instead of a consistently “moving” in a jam, the band “settled” into funk vamps as Trey, with loops and rhythm chords, and Page, with clav patterns and keyboard effects, painted the top of the music. All of a sudden, the dynamic of Phish music changed completely, ushering in a new wave of fans while many older heads grew disenchanted.
This summer, however, the axis of Trey and Fish has returned in full force. When listen to any of the jams from Leg One, one can hear Fish following Trey around time and time again. This musical dynamic, not only explains the retro feel of modern jams, but also their density, as the pocket never settles. Profoundly changing the sound of their music and enhancing the adventure of their jams, with their return to their early improvisational ways, Trey and Fish have completely revitalized the band.
When Trey stepped back from a jam this summer, and began to add effects and tonal color, Fish couldn’t fall back on the pocket—because a stable pocket was never there in the first place. More often than not, Fish shifted with Red, morphing into more abstract, minimalist textures, while coaxing fresh ideas from Mike and Page. When this movement happened smoothly, the band showed a clear intent to explore spacier and non-drum directed soundscapes. Many of tours most stunning jams stemmed from these instances—Cincy’s “Twist,” Deer Creek’s “Back on the Train,” Alpine’s “Light,” and Jones Beaches’ “Golden Age” provide but a few examples. At other times, however, when Trey downshifted within a jam, Fish seemed to lose his musical “marker.” If Page or Mike didn’t step up with a new idea quickly, the band’s engine sputtered and lost momentum, sometimes falling prey to ambient fade-outs or abrupt endings. Examples of these alternate occurances—in varying degrees—can be found in Cincy’s “Down With Disease,” Blossom’s “Piper,” Jones Beach’s “Tweezer,” and SPAC’s “Roses Are Free.” All told, however, this new-school/old-school communication has brought the band to new levels of improv over Leg One, and with a little polish, could really shoot their playing into the stratosphere come Leg Two.
The Trey-Fish axis has been central to Phish jamming from the beginning. The quirky and symbiotic musical relationship between the guitarist and drummer has always created a palpable motion within jams—the music was always going somewhere now. That time-warped adventure resulting from dense improvisation has returned in full bloom this summer. Distorting minutes into lifetimes while covering a wide spectrum of feels, 2012 Phish jams are as efficient as ever. Riding the foundation that brought them to prominence, inspired with new ideas, and playing as well as ever, the band is smack dab in the middle of making this summer one of their most memorable yet.
Jam of the Day:
In honor of @RobsGonePhishin, who almost wrecked his car while raging too hard at the wheel to “Boogie On.” Glad things worked out, buddy, we’re glad, glad, glad that you’re alive!