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13 in 23: My Phish Bar Mitzvah
Today I am a man enjoying sounds and sights
It’s been 13 years to the day since I saw my first Phish show. I’m either half a generation into being a jaded tour veteran or celebrating my Phish Bar Mitzvah, when I become an adult in this traveling circus. With 67 shows in the ticket stub ephemera book, I have a Baker’s Dozen observations on the band I’ve seen the most, in the most states, the most consecutive years (beating out Pat Metheny, Rush, Yes, and Coheed and Cambria in some of those categories).
1 Subtle Sounds: All four members are constantly experimenting with new sounds, tones, effects and phrasing. Last year it seemed Trey Anastasio (guitar) was deeply into his octave divider, phase shifter and distortion, producing growling rumbles deep in jams, while this summer it’s been envelope filters, much more subtle delay effects and more delicate phrasing. Perhaps this is a side effect of Trey Anastasio Trio shows, or his solo acoustic shows, or it’s the cumulative effect of post-pandemic song writing and practice. Whatever the source material, the band oscillates from happy major key jams to bordering-on-Phrygian darkness with ease.
2 New Axes To Grind: Page McConnell (Keys) has classic electric and electronic pianos, along with the more modern synthesizers and he treats them with reverence and knows their backstories (link to Page keys). Mike Gordon switched from Modulus basses to Chicago-based Sereks and his tone is more even, less punctuated on the attack and courses through effects with more aural impact. Even Fishman (drums) adding a sampling pad — a novelty during the 2021 Halloween run — lets him add a playful touch. It’s not Neil Peart layering in percussion riffs via a MIDI sequencer but punchy, funny bordering on hackneyed scat singing.
3 Lifetime College of Musical Knowledge: Trey’s influences are well documented in the various Osiris Media podcasts - early Yes and King Crimson (that show up in the long form compositions and “Split Open and Melt”), but the band reaches into jazz, fusion, post-pop, and classic blues. The depth was plumbed during the Baker’s Dozen run when artists from Blind Lemon Jefferson to Hot Chocolate had their flavor-themed work covered, but you also grasp the breadth of influences with Fishman’s “Errant Path” show on Phish XM Radio and Trey’s props for King GIzzard, Goose and other emergent contemporaries.
4 Quality of Listening and Musicianship. Phish’s jams over the last two years have incorporated more call and response, more ideas coming from all four corners of the band, changes in key, tempo and intent that are unlike anything else. There are elements of bebop jazz, prog rock (in the best Yes and King Crimson veins), free jazz, mathcore, nerdcore and ambient rock all blended into something that bear repeated listening. The Tweezer from December 31, 2022 is a stunning example of Page comping in a major key, moving the jam along from peak to peak, in a vehicle that can do in any direction. For comparison, listen to Pierre Moerlen’s “Leave It Open” from 1981, featuring ostinato bass lines with vibes and sax on top – much of that album was recorded in one take during a studio jam session, but it lacks the urgency of a Phish jam. And if you’re tracking parallel timelines, there’s a good chance Trey and Tom Marshall heard “Leave It Open” when it got regular airplay on WPRB-FM, the college radio station just up the road from them.
4 Writing New Music. The whole band is pushing 60 years old and yet they introduced 9 new songs this summer, released a few solo albums and participated in a number of side projects.
5 Self Deprecation. Phish extrapolates puns and self references to the sublime and silly, Trampolines during YEM. Guy Forget. Ass Handed. The 2022 New Year’s show that featured a retrospective of previous stunts, a stunt about a set of stunts, including a naked guy (RIP Frenchie).
6 Long Form Composition. I think I was attracted to progressive rock (and later mathcore) because it combined elements of symphonic structure from classical music, complex rhythms and melodies, and a lot of improvisation taken from the jazz canon. Each of Phish’s longer composed songs – YEM, Mercury, Petrichor, Perseid, Harry Hood – tells a story, includes thematic callbacks and builds to some wonderful major key climax.
7 Dangerous Jamming. Not just stretching out the themes and finding riffs, but going into dark tonal, melodic or structural places. “Evil Phish,” dark jams, sometimes noodly, sometimes echoing music you’d expect in a fast paced slasher film, sometimes just drawing on dense minor scale structures. Bonus points if you say “Phyrgian” here, double bonus if you put the previous point and this one together and think “Dream Theater”. Not unlike the “Drums/Space” sequences in Grateful Dead shows, these scary corners make you uncomfortable, and that is the hallmark of good art. I felt the same way about Talking Heads “Remain in Light” when it was first released, and now it is one of my favorite albums because of, not despite, the dissonance brought by Adrian Belew’s guitar work. Hat tip to Cousin David for extracting this view during a “why we like Goose but it’s different” sidebar.
8 Phish-ification Of The Canon. Talking Heads, Prince, Lou Reed, David Bowie, Deodato, Led Zeppelin, reggae, bluegrass, Los Lobos and TV On The Radio all appear with some regularity in Phish shows, some holdovers from previous “costume albums” done in this season in previous years, some tributes to artists who have passed away, all rock out with attention to the original while layering in the Phish nuances.
9 Sense of Place. Favorite author Monica Byrne talks about the “god of a place” in her writing, and her personal travels, as finding the sense of being and permanence that makes you feel remarkably at home. I have felt it uniquely in a few spots - a falafel shop in Bat Yam, Israel, the library at the Colonial Club of Princeton, the bakery on the corner of Old Town Square in Prague. For Phish, Madison Square Garden, the Mann Center in Philadelphia, the Hampton Coliseum, and the beach in Atlantic City bring that sense of place. You see how Trey holds the pause in “Divided Sky” while looking up to the rafters, or (again) listen to the “Cities” from July 28, 2023 and you know that every one of the 20,000 fans in the building found a city to live in during that chorus.
10 Chris Kuroda. Albert Einstein wasn’t sure about “spooky action at a distance” but Kuroda and Phish demonstrate across a football field distance as the band nudges toward a jam peak, Kuroda scales the light intensity and color palette, and as Trey goes back to the root of the chord Kuroda hits the white lights and you are bathed in light, sound, and happiness. He has command of color, texture, pattern, and movement that make each Phish show unique. When the New York Times deems you worthy of a feature, you have entered the world of art.
11 Summer Camp for Adults. Shared stores, old friends in new places, new friends in old places, personal quests, and a bit of social disobedience echo summer camp, and as explored in “This Is Your Song Too”, a particularly strong resonance with Jewish summer camp. The river of fans, shows and tour schedules continually changes but the waypoints are the same: comfort foods, venues, the gentle bending of rules and the hissing of the (balloons and) summer lawns.
12 Customer Experience. From Phish Dry Goods to their own ticketing lottery to show announcements to signage and logos, elements of visual design blend with inside jokes, sprinkled with fan appreciation.
13 Social Conscience. Beyond the Waterwheel Foundation (clean water and climate relief), the Mockingbird Foundation (music education), the Phellowship (substance-free phan group), the green team (venue cleanup), Vermont Flood Relief, and Trey’s investment in the Divided Sky treatment center, the band and its entourage understand they are in a time and place that require more than casual work for long term sustainability.