25 in 25 of 2016: #9 07/03/2016 Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Springs, NY (Jake Cohen, @smoothatonalsnd)
Sometimes in the Phish world, we get a little (OK, a lot) obsessed with what we expect to happen at a show, or what we think should happen at a show. And then when that doesn’t happen, we get frustrated. It’s only natural, especially when you feel like you have such a close relationship with the band and the music. And in that frustration, we can miss what is truly sublime. We think of the word “sublime” to mean “great” or “the best,” but the word actually means something that is so awe-inspiring and nearly terrifying that it defies logical explanation. It is a marker of the divine.
If you were expecting “Tweezer” on July 3, 2016, at the finale of a three-night holiday weekend run at SPAC when they hadn’t played it yet on the East Coast , then you might have gotten so wrapped up in your expectations that you missed what was truly sublime about that night: arguably the best “Moma Dance” of all time.
I’m not faulting you for this; in fact, I am guilty of it too. All signs pointed to “Tweezer” going into that Sunday show. After a solid run at The Mann that didn’t really have a single standout jam but still featured plenty of great improvisational moments, Phish came to SPAC and blew it out of the water on Friday night with a dark, subdued, and delicate “Carini” into a full-on jamfest of a “Chalkdust Torture.” As you read in yesterday’s post, Saturday night featured a deep dive into “Light” with a smooth-as-butter segue into “Golden Age.” Sunday seemed primed for greatness. #NeverMissASundayShow. But a rusty first set didn’t exactly inspire transcendence, with a flub-heavy “Sugar Shack” and a less-than-mindblowing “Lawn Boy,” “Sparkle”>”Sample in a Jar” sequence.
Then Phish came out for the second set with “Soul Shakedown Party,” only their tenth version ever, and usually a harbinger of greatness to come. Greatness did come, but not necessarily in the fashion people expected. When “Moma” started up, it felt like something was a little different. Last summer, Trey’s new amplifier and setup gave everything a chunkier, grittier tone, and with the mutron now in play, this “Moma” seemed to be suggesting that it was somehow on the edge, not your typical eight-minute funk jam, but that it was poised for something more.
Trey solos a bit longer than usual during the introduction, and offered up creative, mutron-laden notes during the verses, altering the standard “Moma” strumming patterns. During Fishman’s whispered “steady snap, frothing cap” lyrics, Trey and Mike are both imitating the vocal line, improvising on the melody and interweaving their lines. It’s at this point that it becomes clear this isn’t just a cookie-cutter “Moma,” that they are listening to each other closely and making something unusual happen, that they’re already thinking about the deep improvisational flow that is going to follow.
And follow it did. After only four iterations of the closing riff, Trey immediately throws down a big ninth chord on the downbeat. For a few decades now, this has been one of the most surefire ways for Trey to signal a crucial structural change to the rest of the band, opening up the harmonic palette for improvisational exploration and serving as a formal marker that one section of the jam has ended and another is about to begin. Here, he doesn’t even solo a bit before taking off. He throws down those ninth chords on four consecutive downbeats, outlining the form of the jam that is about to follow, and letting everyone know that it is not-fucking-around time, it’s time to venture far away from the comfortable and the expected. It’s time for the best-ever “Moma” jam.
Immediately, Trey starts exploring the jam in a low dynamic, far from the usual rock solo of a “Moma” jam. Page quickly abandons the funky clav for the more psychedelic Fender Rhodes, and Fishman has everything tight in the pocket. Trey begins exploring licks and riffs within the Cminor7 framework, still very much the harmonic realm of “Moma” but with an entirely different feel, because we can tell that we’re already moving in the direction of taking this thing into type II territory.
Trey sits back and lets Page and Mike lead this section, and then around 8:38, Mike starts pushing the jam into G, insistently harping on that note backed up by Fishman accents. Page and Trey immediately follow, with Trey serving up some chunky mutron riffs to signal a new jam episode in G minor. What’s perfect about this is that the G minor chord is a natural extension of the same ninth chord that Trey used to signal the beginning of this whole jam. It’s as if the band is composing out that idea via improvisation, a band listening to each other so well that they know exactly what to do just from one chordal gesture.
Trey starts building the jam as Page settles into a two chord alternation with the subdominant chord, moving back and forth between G minor and C. It’s the standard chord progression that Phish has used the past few years for a glorious peak jam, and that’s exactly what they give us here. Fishman ratchets up the intensity, and Trey is layering sound with his delay pedal, taking us on a mutron-filled journey through the middle and lower ranges of his guitar. Finally, at 11:18, he breaks out into that exclamatory higher octave, and with Page on the piano, it’s the classic Phish sound bringing this all to an ecstatic peak.
Rather than milking that moment for all it’s worth, Trey falls back into a three-note riff, G-A-F, that soon becomes the basis for the next segment of the jam. Sometimes it’s these emphatic gestures that can have all the power, and Fishman gets right in line playing big cadential fills leading to each of those notes, accented with cymbal crashes, while Mike follows Trey note-for-note. Trey sees this as his next peak-worthy opportunity, coming up with a gorgeous melodic idea starting on a trill and following his three-note motive. But instead of cresting this peak, he rapidly plays a high G as the entire jam falls back into a quieter, blissy G major region.
But they’re not done. Mike starts laying down his earth-shattering bass pedal notes on every fourth measure, eliciting waves of ecstasy from the crowd. Rather than petering out into space or ambience, the jam takes on a quiet, funky intensity. Mike starts playing around with his “Down With Disease” effects pedal and Page moves back to the Rhodes for some funky soloing around Trey’s clean strumming. Everything starts moving into a quiet new psychedelic territory, now back to the minor mode of G, which becomes the perfect launch pad for the “Twist” that follows.
In the short span of just under twelve minutes, Phish gives us about four different jam episodes as well as a big modulation away from the “Moma” key. Sure, there have been a few other significant jams on this song, most notably 2/26/03 and 6/17/04. But this was IT, this was THE “Moma Dance” jam for the ages. Of course, it gets lost in the clutter of this show. The “Twist” that followed never really took off, and the “Joy”>”Breath and Burning” after that was the buzziest of buzzkills. Indeed, it soon became clear that there was no hope for any significant second set improv after that sublime “Moma.” It was funny how so many people seemed to leave SPAC thinking that the finale had been a dud. Truth be told, in many ways it was. In the haze of the song-heavy second set, we all seemed to forget that Phish had managed, in their “Moma” jam, to create music that was awe-inspiring, almost terrifying in its exploratory nature, and perhaps a marker of the divine.
About Jake Cohen
Jake is a musicologist in the New York area who works on American classical music such as Charles Ives and Aaron Copland, contemporary composer John Luther Adams, the Grateful Dead, and Talking Heads. He writes about Phish and other music at smoothatonalsound.com. Follow him on Twitter at @smoothatonalsnd.