Just look down.
The 9/3 show at Dick’s was the first 2016 Phish show I’d listened to at any length, and the only one I attended this year. I’d heard bad things about the summer tour — not ‘they’re not equalling the heights of 2015’ stuff but ‘they are playing bad shows,’ which is nearly unthinkable for this most generous of bands — so while their headlining sets at the Lock’n festival had gotten decent reviews, I wasn’t expecting anything special from the Dick’s shows. Hey, we all have off years.
If you follow the band enough to be reading this, you already know what happened that night: they opened with Slave, played one of the best first sets since Coventry — including an extended Disease in the two-slot — then dove deep for an exploratory Blaze On(!) > Simple(!) > etc. > Hood(!!) sequence complete with what I’m reliably informed is one of the first actually interesting Marimba Lumina jams. Then there was the encore, a first-ever walkoff bass solo in Coil. And of course, on Sunday night they arguably topped that performance with a spectacular run of extended jams. There is, in other words, nothing to worry about — and I’m actually looking forward to checking out the rest of Summer 2016.
My experience of the show was the polar opposite of my usual concert-night arc: up by the Mike’s-side rail I was totally dialed in to the opening set, bursting out laughing dozens of times (I was sober) and undergoing the kind of gentle transformation that’s the reason I go see Phish. Afterward, wide-eyed surprise and grateful hugs and a needed breather amongst new friends and acquaintances. But after relaxed chatter and the last of my one drink at setbreak, I found myself a little disconnected from the second set, slipping back into analytical mode, suddenly self-conscious about my appearance. It happens — it just hasn’t happened to me in years.
But there was a moment in the second set, during the gradual crescendo out of the Simple/marimba jam, when all my senses seemed to focus, and (pardon me if this langauge seems hippie-ish) I tuned in to the ‘fifth voice’ which is the ensemble’s gestalt effect, the emergent ‘groupmind.’ And I think I said aloud at that point: ‘This is new music.’ Page and Trey had developed this rich textural bed with Rhodes, marimba, and subtle guitar loops (listen closely to the soundboard for these), Fish was getting into some unexpected sounds on his kit, and Mike was playing in a lead-from-within style that reminded me, in a way, of Trey’s guitar whorls. And for a couple of minutes it was just magical. On tape it’s not a once-in-a-lifetime improvisation or anything, just a moment of easy intimacy and effortless mastery.
And I’m reminded that while we have no right to demand new music from four musicians who’ve been playing these songs for more than thirty years, we still get the privilege night after night of hearing them discover things — about their art, themselves, the family we and they have made over the decades. And those discoveries, those experiences of real newness which can’t be planned or scheduled and which I’d distinguish from mere ‘novelty’ (which was Phish’s early specialty), are the secret of both Phish’s success and their creative rebirth these last few years. And the best part, from my perspective, is that they’re opening these new musical vistas not by manically pursuing every new impulse, but by accepting the evolving moment of improvisation, performance, fellowship…and letting the ‘groupmind’ dictate the content of each jam. After getting famous for responding instantaneously to All the Ideas, they now use their carefully honed collective-improvisatory tools to respond with extraordinary sympathy, extraordinary emotional intelligence, to the Deepest Feelings arising from the creative moment.
On the surface this is less impressive — feelings, every teenage moron has those — yet we see time and time again that the kind of emotional copresence and empathy which older musicians (and other collaborative artists) model for us tends to be inaccessible to younger musicians. Rockers tend to mellow, yes, and mellow rock has no cachet in a culture which fetishizes youth’s frantic unsustainability. But the ones who find their way to a sustainable creative life gain access to perspectives which rock traditionally doesn’t make room for. Of course, you see this all the time in jazz and blues: older players stop showing off and start straightforwardly playing what they feel, speaking truly out of their experiences. This then gets derided as ‘conservatism’ by critics and young musicians peacocking for their peers. What these anxious status-seekers don’t yet see (though in the end they always do) is that the enforced simplicity and honesty of mature artistic expression takes just as much work, just as much courage, as the various modes of engagement beloved of younger artists.
We’re just not trained to recognize that purity of expression as a pop virtue — though we do go on about the ‘purity’ of art from well outside our mainstream experiences; hence the ‘world music’ craze during a period of authenticity-fetishism amongst cosmopolitan Westerners.
In Phish fandom we like bickering about the usual inanities: They Suck Now, This Version of Song XYZ Is Ranked #4 at Best, Trey vs. Jerry, Umphrey’s Is Only a Jam Band, Jukebox Sets Are Boring, They Don’t Jam Anymore, They’re Back, They Weren’t Back Until I Said So, etc. I don’t get as amped about online Phishmoaning as I used to; writing those two books drained almost all of that impulse from my system. One of our fannish commonplaces is this old saw:
Long jams are better, and long jams that go ‘out of the box’ are best.
I’ve long believed this uncritically, and have at times justified it to myself with what I’ve insisted, and maybe even believed, were aesthetic principles. Like a lot of fans (maybe most) I’m most excited about long exploratory improvisations. But we should stop fooling ourselves: thirty-minute open-ended improvisations aren’t the point of Phish’s projects, they’re a means — only one of several — to the end which Trey and the other guys have explicitly identified over and over throughout their time together:
Some of the grand ideas are mellowing, in exchange for the grandest idea, which is communication. (Trey, Specimens of Beauty)
[During the silent part of ‘Divided Sky’]…at that moment, we were in the middle of it, and I started to see these colours — I’m not kidding…as soon as I could see them, I started improvising — but I didn’t play anything. I did everything in the course of improvisation except play the actual notes. And as soon as I did it, the whole place erupted. Tears started rolling down my face. It was at that moment that I knew that it was truly bigger than me. “It,” you know what I mean?’ (Trey on Charlie Rose)
Sometimes the deepest point in the evening is…silence. When every channel of communication has opened wide and the entire moment is welcomed in — when musicians allow themselves to respond to every aspect of the moment unself-consciously, and we grant ourselves the same freedom — that’s the point, the peak, the theme. The intensity of communication is often most obvious to listeners at ‘peak’ moments, which recognize because they’re loud and musically straightforward and involve the release of tension which has built up during the actual communicative linking which has been going on uncommented-upon for hours already, duh — but to see that expressive means as the only possible form the ‘spiritual’ project can take is to make a familiar error. (I wrote about this at length in 2013, in the midst of one or another tiresome fannish spat.)
I listened all morning to the glacial late-70s Urban Sax albums — droning minimalist-ambient compositions for 40ish saxophones(!!) which present a kind of immersive static soundworld devoid of the usual virtues of concert-hall music. Heartily recommended as accompaniment to brainwork. But I’ve just turned on the Orlando Stash, good ol’ 11/14/95, and it’s so…demanding! Has any rock band so insistently demanded total attention to abstruse spontaneously developed forms? You kinda get that with some jazz groups, but how often has any band in any genre offered such an intensity of both genre-conventional catharsis and absurdist interrogation of those conventions? At least with the Dead you can put on a tape and just float, at least until Drums > Space — this Stash > Manteca > Stash > Dog-Faced Boy > Stash is 40 minutes of nonstop perversity, and the band’s good nature doesn’t actually make its civil disobedience against musical rationality any easier for the first-time listener, never mind this ‘jaded vet’…
I bring up this symphony of weaponized mathematics (which you have a moral obligation to listen to today) just to make the point that early Phish, at their mid-90s experimental-improvisatory peak, generated and elaborated more ideas per second than anyone else in rock — Yet another reason not to stress the Phish/Dead connection. But the ideas aren’t the meaning of the work, which is found, I believe, in the posture of readiness adopted by band and fans alike. Submission to Benign Stochasm, offered in (and sanctified by) a spirit of generosity which marks callow early Phish, for all their embrace of childishness, as already wiser than their years. I get it, some folks just come to hear a handful of specific songs and are bored by the rest. But most of us, more and more of us as time has gone on, we’re there not to hear peaks upon peaks but to be radically open to one another’s shared experience of what a hell of a lot of us insist on calling the ‘divine’ — whether or not the music itself ‘peaks’ with loud major chords or not. More and more I believe that the music is one outward manifestation of the transformation we gather to undergo.
Just so’s you know, this is the closest I come to ‘spiritual’ talk. As far as I’m concerned, there are almost certainly no deities, no ‘souls,’ no afterlives, no ghosts, and no cosmic musical ‘source’ to draw on. But there’s the obvious to reckon with: the universe hums, minds sense one another beyond the named senses, and music is one way our hearts learn to beat in shared time. So lately my writing about art gets this way sometimes because, um, it seems to me the universe is this way.
And when I say that Phish’s ‘cow funk’ makes sense not as a style but as an ordering principle, and that ‘peaks upon peaks’ function the same way, I’m trying to encourage you both to listen very very closely to the musical details which make up this extraordinarily detailed improvisatory music, and to recognize that as long as you’re listening closely with truly open ears (and a shake of the hips), it doesn’t really matter what you hear. Some of you will never believe that, some of you already do. I’m hoping to reach someone else.
And when I say that this post isn’t really about Phish but rather the thing that Trey says they’re trying to channel, I hope you hear that not as ‘hippy-dippy’ New Age talk but as an exhortation to look beyond the local noise of ‘style’ to the great curve which that noise obscures.
You don’t need to climb the highest peak to set foot upon a topological miracle. Just look down. I’m joking and I’m serious.