Since about 1999 or 2000, I’ve been a jams-only listener. The immense amount of full-shows I’d spun previous to that combined with the transition from analog tapes to CD-R’s (and eventually digital files) resulted in me excerpting shows’ highlights more and more for my listening pleasure. Through these mix tapes and simply pressing skip the in the car, my habits of listening to Phish gradually changed. I no longer needed to spin entire shows time and time again. Most often I had been there and witnessed the start-to-finish flow, but even if I hadn’t, I no longer needed to hear the straight compositions. When spinning shows, I wanted to hear the meat, the tracks with significant jamming. When I got my advance copy of the upcoming Ventura release, however, I decided to listen to both shows start to finish, and in doing so, I was able to put a finger on the central difference between the Phish of then and now—non-stop intensity no matter what. Within the Ventura shows of 1997 and 1998, the band is focused and fully dedicated to each and every song, not just the highlights, and it makes all the difference.
Many people who only know my Internet persona think that I exclusively value Phish’s type II jams, and that I—for all intents and purposes—sit down and twiddle my thumbs for the rest of the show until they happen. Though such improvisation is unquestionably my favorite part of Phish—especially modern Phish—while listening to both Ventura shows, I realized why my take on 3.0 Phish can, at times, sound so type II centric—the band’s type I vigor is gone. Listening to Ventura ‘97’s “Chalk Dust,” I was blown away by the intensity and creativity contained in this piece of music that was bursting at the seams. Listening to Ventura ‘98’s “Makisupa,” I remembered that the song once had immense musical value beyond it’s current use as comic relief. The band is knee deep in dub grooves while Trey paints gorgeous melodies atop the irie textures. Listening to ‘98’s “Prince Caspian,” I was taken by how Trey annihilated his solo like it was a matter of life or death. And as I continued to listen to the type I jamming that dominates the ’98 show, I realized how glaringly the modern incarnation of Phish is missing this type of playing from their arsenal, causing shows—and particularly first sets—to drag when they aren’t engaged in type II jamming.
Phish can still weave freeform (type II) adventures as well as ever. They are master improvisers of the highest degree and have honed their craft over the course of 30 years. Anyone who doubts their improvisational acumen is fooling himself and needn’t look any further than the jams of Dick’s and MSG for proof. I fully see the band’s virtuoso jamming of the second half of 2012, to continue on an upward curve in 2013, but will the band pick up the slack from rest of their show? With members pushing 50 years old now, Phish reminds me of the crafty NBA veteran, think Kobe Bryant, who can play an awesome game at 75 percent and then go balls out in the fourth quarter and win the game. Phish now plays their contained (type I) jams with precision, but with very little intensity and creativity. Then they beast out in their open improv to save the show. To illustrate this type I fall off, think of songs like “Stash,” “Bathtub Gin,” “David Bowie,” “Reba,” “Mike’s,” “Weekapaug,” “YEM,” “Wolfman’s” and “Antelope”—ya’ know, the (former) goods! In the landscape of modern Phish, these songs are mere placeholders, reminding us of what used to be. No longer does the band even play quasi-memorable versions of any of these songs—only once in a blue moon. But with their improvisational skills at an all-time high, they drop pieces that steal the show and completely legitimize it. Think 12/28’s “Tweezer,” BGCA’s “Crosseyed > Light > Sally,” or 9/1’s “Golden > Caspian > Light,” or 9/2’s “Sand > Ghost > Piper.” Other than these segments, these shows, (with a 12/28 “Wolfman’s” exception) are pretty straightforward with little replay value. And this is why I most often focus on their creative jamming in my show reviews.
If they played a “Chalk Dust” like Ventura ’97, I’d write about it! If they played a “Halley’s” like Ventura ’98 (which was run of the mill at the time), I’d write about it! Shit, if they played a “Cars, Trucks, Busses” with the zest of Ventura ‘97s, I’d write about it! But they don’t. Rarely is anything from a show worth chronicling other than type II jams and bustouts. As I’ve mentioned before, set crafting has gone the way of the wind, and without type I action, what else is there? To be clear, I absolutely believe Phish’s sublime improvisational passages make their shows worthy in full, but how great would it be if they could carry the rest of the show too?
To further my point, aside from the monstrous “Bathtub Gin” that opened the ’98 show and a “Drowned” jam that opened the second set, this show is dominated by type I jamming the whole way through—and it’s a great show! The band can’t pull that off any more (see 12/29/12). Their sustained intensity and type I creativity just isn’t there anymore (and setlists cannot carry shows no matter how outlandish). Worth mentioning, in a summer when laid-back funk ruled the scene, Ventura ’98 is a show that skirts the style all together—a complete and utter anomaly in a groove-dominated tour. “Gin” gets into a wee bit of danceable jamming, but after that, there is no funk, barely any open jamming’—and it’s a great show because Phish is utterly relentless, killing every single moment. They don’t cool down, they don’t lay back, they attack each piece as if it was the last they’d play, and the difference is as clear as night and day.
Quite obviously, my biggest take away from listening to these Ventura shows is their start-to-finish intensity; they pose such a stark juxtaposition to modern performances. Fans get so worked up about the amount of jamming that Phish does nowadays, many citing that they’d like to see more. Except in extreme cases, however, I don’t think that’s the main factor bringing some shows down. Unless we are comparing the band to the jammiest periods in their history, they are improvising at about the same rate as ever. But it’s what they are not doing in the rest of the show that cause modern Phish performances drag at times and make fans jones for the oncoming adventure. Maybe this summer, the year of their 30th anniversary, the guys will put it all together and play complete shows like the ones gracing their new box set? Their jamming will certainly be there, but what about everything else?
Tune in tomorrow for some more specific thoughts about the Ventura shows, themselves!
Jam of the Day:
“Bathtub Gin” 7.20.98 I, Ventura, CA SBD
Here is a sneak preview of the release! This “Gin” paved the way for Riverport’s classic a week later, as the jam morphs through many of the same stages.
I have three Ventura Box Sets to give away for free! If you’d like to be eligible for this contest, please write two haikus—one that captures the essence of each show. Email these haikus to firstname.lastname@example.org by Wednesday at 8pm Pacific and I will post the three winning entries on Thursday or Friday! Make sure you adhere to proper haiku format or your entry will be disqualified.