Selection: “Sand->Ghost->Piper>20 Years Later”
Memo’s “Other Jams” Memo: Sweet “Disco” style “Bathtub Gin”, excellent “Harry Hood”
From Walter Holland:
the dust left in the bore: sand and so forth, 9/2/12
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds
(Yeats, ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’)
The transition from “Sand” proper to the Siren is an unusually delicate and patient example of a conventional maneuver. The move to relative major is signaled by Mike and Page for several minutes before it’s actually accomplished; Page suggests an early end to the contained “Sand” jam by playing slow piano arpeggios out of time (another convention), but his bandmates reassert the driving “Sand” rhythm, and the brief second ‘movement’ of the “Sand” jam is a “Golden Age”-style reprise of the original funk rhythm, dug in deep, with Page back on clavinet. Trey’s single-note loop, to which he adds Ghostly looped moans on his high E string, serves as a kind of binding element between the driving dance-funk section and the Siren.
Not unexpectedly, the ‘Type I’ “Sand” improvisation is harmonically fluid in a way early versions of the song mostly weren’t, and much Phish now is. Minor > relative major is an elementary harmonic movement (one of the first spice-of-aural-life techniques you learn in Harmony & Counterpoint I class), but Phish are now quick to step forward to the relative major and then push off to some related key, e.g., colouring in a harmonic gradient toward the IV by means of a transitional Lydian passage, &c.
Fishman actually takes the midtempo lope of the Siren jam from the subtle volume swell of Trey’s guitar loop, and suggests the new rhythm quietly to Mike, who picks up instantly with a two-note figure which templates the next several minutes of the song.
‘Miracle’ is an opinion we have about things we don’t understand, like ‘God’ and ‘true love.’ None of them are real, but the feelings we misname are real. But it’s OK – it doesn’t steal the world’s wonder – to see Things As They Are.
‘Merely’ is not a deprecation.
Trey inaugurates the next movement of the improvisation by asserting a doubletime feel (think “Maze”), which intensifies the jam without actually altering its tempo. Fishman keeps up doubletime fills as the jam approaches its end. Trey’s climactic solo statement, cousin to the previous night’s Light finale, has a slower anthemic-blues feel (with “Crosseyed” and “46 Days” colors); his internal solo clock, Fish’s quicktime echoes, and Page and Mike’s steady martial beat combine powerfully, pulling in several directions at once.
Fishman brings back the “Sand” beat underneath Trey’s swelling loop-sustain, and Trey begins an off-time rhythmic loop to destabilize the jam, signaling a coming transition without specifying its destination. This, too, is a conventional jamming tactic, not just for Phish, though Trey does go back to this well pretty often. Well, he’s good at it.
“Sand” and “Ghost” are in the same key, making the next part (relatively) easy, not that any of this is actually easy.
The reticent, snarled “Ghost” jam draws power from the combination of Page’s insistent push forward and Fishman’s perverse rhythmic arrest. Fishman shuffles and drops his snare hits as if playing one of his recent “Split Open and Melt” games, and Trey responds with flatted ninths and frightening overtones straight out of 2004 (a year famous for uptempo rock jams that were all frantic footwork and motionless torso glide, eyes fixed on something dark in the distance). Fishman’s ability to offer a wide variety of rhythmic opportunities to the band while maintaining momentum (never falling into ‘now let’s try this pattern 1–2–3–4’ dullness) has grown immeasurably since 2009.
The transition from “Ghost” to “Piper” reiterates the harmonic shift in the “Sand” jam, minor to relative major. And “Sand” and “Ghost” are in the same key, at the same tempo (though with quite different rhythmic feels). All of a piece…
Having opened with a cathartic fist-pumping anthem, it’s interesting that they yank hard on the reins during “Ghost” and “Piper,” letting both songs’ momentum and volume dissipate, creating (encountering? translating? leaving?) a more equivocal feeling, emotionally speaking. There’s almost no ‘Piper jam’ to speak of; the emergent oddball march time around the five-minute mark of “Piper” supersedes Fish’s driving backbeat, and he sticks to coloristic playing through the Piper outro, deepening the pulse without pushing the beat button.
The transition to “Twenty Years Later” is characteristically unsettling. Those opening notes always remind me of “Lizards,” just for a single bar, before the major third has its heart broken and darkens into minor.
There is no “Twenty Years Later” jam to speak of. It’s just a band of middle-aged guys performing a song.
funny little note
From my listening notes:
sand (Am) > siren jam (C) > piper > ghost (Am!) > outro (C!!) > piper (G-Am-C-F-Em-C) > jam (G) > jam (Bb, via Bb/F/Gm modal play) > 20YL (B-Bm!!)
into LIZARDS (C!!) > HOOD (D!!!!)
the whole set follows this interesting contour: Am > C > Am > C > G > Bb > B > C > D
steady rise up from two dark/groove songs to open, “PIPER” to float (G is for gather?), “20YL” to look back, then up up and away (to gamehendge, or vermont)
We build a foundation but where do we stand
When all air is water
And all water is land?
Shouldn’t those last couple lines mention sand?
Talk about unsteady foundations: “Dirt” plus “Waves” it is, you know, like “Waves” and “Light” make “Steam.” Words can be the work’s worth, can make work work, worth working for: So I ask you why as I’m swimming (bobbing? wading?) by – a minute later, not to say twenty years, or even ten years before the mast: I’m (a life that’s completely) free, you’re splashing in the sea – cities made of sand here at the bottom, a theme echoing off cave walls. We can hold our breath for…well, how long is the verse? A minute or so… (In this place we learn to wait.) A band named Phish, no surprise the trickle of water in the words (or drains from a hotel bathtub, right? like in the old days). Words make a world: crystals of snow, brightening light, steam rising, storm sounds upon waking, children in caves, silent trees, worms in the canals. Trapped by traffic, begged for bills, shoot the breeze, carefully manicured lawn getting trampled (the lesson is: don’t manicure your lawn). Come step outside your room. Get on the road. Don’t you see anything…?
They aren’t much as words go but then ours isn’t much either. As worlds go, I mean.
“Twenty Years Later” is an honest attempt at forthright, emotional communication. It’s also cute and wears its ironic inversions and cute formal conceits a little awkwardly, because Tom Marshall is only Tom Marshall. It works for me, anyway. It’s a middle-aged man’s song; it plays a certain kind of familiar game (yearbook litany of youthful follies) then gives way to something muted but alive in a new way. Aware. Pregnant with time. (‘…every minute like an hour…’) The first verse moves the singer through a private past (‘flipped when I lost it, nearly cost me my life’); the second brings him into a shared present (‘We build a foundation’). The bridge reminds me of the bridge to “Light” (‘a few moments of whirling around’), but you could take it as a miniature portrait of listening to (I mean loving) this music, this band – with a darkling tinge:
Feel it turning in circles and you’re never the same again
Spin slowly while sounds cascade…and decay…
I don’t suppose ‘decay’ is meant to carry its technical sense here, the opposite of ‘attack.’ On the studio album they can sustain the last syllable all the way to the refrain, but an hour deep into a live set (a mile high, no less!), their voices trail off with the word ‘decay.’ They’re old. Older than us, mostly. I don’t think they mind at all. That’s what the ‘live’ in ‘live music’ means.
I like to think that, having nearly destroyed themselves at the height of their collective powers in the late 90s, and having bought darkness on the cheap in the two-year death spiral toward Coventry, they now approach the emotional content of their music on its own terms, delving and growing into the music’s simple selves instead of hiding in abstraction as they did when they were young. Possum isn’t a tension/release exercise, it’s a blues; “Catapult” doesn’t make “Weekapaug” more ‘interesting’; “Halley’s” is a comic raveup, not Dark Star East; “Light” doesn’t need to strip to a single chord funk groove to keep our attention, and it doesn’t lack power for not going pop at the end.
They don’t ‘jam out’ “Twenty Years Later” here. The song stands on its own, all ambivalence and regret and moving forward through those closing figures on wobbly knees. Second time around. It makes sense, after finding freedom in silence, that they’d reach back to ancient history (land of lizards, you can feel good) to close out. (B minor is the question: we all start out small. C major is the answer: I come from the land of Gamehendge. (They have died.) D major is goodbye: thank you, Mr B Minor, the grownup who owned the house where they made merry, looking out the window at night at the Hood milk billboard, children’s drink…)
(And yes, the “Character Zero” encore is in E.)
I took a Heidegger class, Fridays 7–10, and didn’t miss a lecture; neither did anyone else. Those nights Professor Rota taught me, possibly as a joke (who cares?), that time is the thrown-forwardness of Da-Sein’s project of being-in-the-world. I got a B in the class. Fuck Heidegger. The takeaway message was: Fall forward. See things as they are.
never the same again
Nature does not know extinction. All it knows is transformation. (Wernher von Braun)
now i lay me down(in a most steep
more than music)feeling that sunlight is
(life and day are)only loaned:whereas
night is given(night and death and the rain
are given;and given is how beautifully snow)
The “Piper” jam never quite ‘resolves,’ not like “Sand” – in fact, after the “Sand” jam peaks and flares out, “Ghost,” “Piper,” and “Twenty Years Later” make their ways whispering or wearily collapsing, never again peeking heads above the cloud layer. The sonic and emotional high point of that mid-set series is the bridge to “Twenty Years Later” –
you’re never the same again…cascade and decay…the mountains are tall…we all start out small…
This isn’t a message, it’s a feeling. You can’t pinpoint its origin or its ‘peak’; it doesn’t die when the music does. It only changes.
They turn to “Lizards” after all that. You’d have to. Can you think of a more guileless piece of music? Young folk’s tunes. It contains the word lagoon for Christ’s sake.
But then, they’re almost 50 years old, and…
I come from the land of darkness…of doom…never, ever going back there…couldn’t if I tried…they have died…
The previous night sounds the same to me, the hidden vein beneath the mountain:
A golden age coming ’round…nothing to return to…light is growing brighter now…guide us…purify our souls…we’re bobbing on the surface…come so very far…divine creation hears me…close the door, put out the light…home on the train…
They ended that night on ice, even. ‘Step into the…won’t you…’
Sounds like the end of a world to me.
Back to when we were. They close the last set of tour with “Hood,” because “You Enjoy Myself” was already taken, but “Hood” is what makes sense there anyway. Indwelling, blissful. It doesn’t have a refrain, really – a moment if you please for Trey Anastasio our favourite avant-garde composer – but its twin peaks are ‘Thank you, thank you…you can feel good…’ (A lot better than ‘It doesn’t matter / It doesn’t matter’ if you ask me.)
It could be my ears, but it sounds to me like modern versions of “Hood” start out a little less quietly than they used to, and are less inclined to spaciness before the rain-on-the-roof plash of guitar begins. They run shorter than in the late 90s, right? And don’t sprint to a thunderous peak at every close. Look, when the night’s right “Hood” is the most beautiful thing anyone’s ever spoken, sung, felt, been, become, offered, wanted, granted, wondered, worn, wished, died, played – it’s what I hope death is like, though I know it’s not – and now, nearing 50, they just kind of play it like a lovely old song (which it is; it’s old now) instead of milking the thing. No more theater.
(When they segued into Have Mercy at Blossom in 2011, you heard it was ‘clumsy’ or something; but no adult has ever confused being in love with being impressed. That was a bit of snazz, wunnit, almost the memory of caring about How Much they could accomplish; Trey teased “Lizards” later in the same jam, because having sung that song that way at that moment, why suddenly feel shame? and it was absolutely, purely beautiful, because they’re men and Have Mercy is what men want. Begging for blessings, and help us, we pray. I don’t think they’ve ever sung it more beautifully than that. When I think of “Have Mercy” the other version that comes to mind is from the Roxy, February ’93, and it’s bullshit, a nice trick; they can sing ‘Rock and Roll All Night’ without apologizing out the sides of their mouths but singing to even a made-up God is…well. It’s something else. They really are something else.)
“Lizards” and “Hood” unwind the energy of the preceding hour. They fulfill the promise. We’ll walk with you into what darkness may come. Only it’s no longer an empty promise, because plenty of darkness is behind them. It’s not as easy as it once was, but the weight isn’t a burden. They wear their several selves lightly. No one would count this version of” Hood” ‘best ever.’ It is what it is. What else is there?
The rain, it falls. The sun, it shines. The wind blows. And that’s what it’s like. You’re buffeted by this, by that, and it is nothing to do with you. Someone you love dies, or leaves. You get ill or you get better. You grow old and you remember, or you forget. And all the time, everywhere, there is this canopy stretching over you… (Dennis Potter, The Singing Detective)
The word for what musicians do is ‘play,’ though it doesn’t always seem quite the right word. Phish have always been playful, and as time has gone on their sense of play has deepened to joy. They’re only 50. Or – you might say – 30. They have long years ahead of them, I hope, making music that lifts people up. Making light.
They’re also professional craftsmen, and I hope the didactic portion of this essay shed a little bit of light on some aspect of the craft. It’s not ‘theory’ so much as pointing at the house and saying ‘people built this, there a hammer, there a drill, I’m sweating just looking at it.’
The rest of it, the rush of wings, is my way of wishing you happiness in 2013, with this beloved music. With your sisters and brothers.
Trying to name the many things that make the world, and to do so joyfully. The music isn’t always happy, but I experience it now as joyful through and through, when I can rise to its offering. That’s what I wish for you this summer: let the music and all else be what it is; go with it. You only get one of this and it’s enough.
The worm drives helically through the wood
And does not know the dust left in the bore
Once made the table integral and good;
And suddenly the crystal hits the floor.
Electrons find their paths in subtle ways,
A massless eddy in a trail of smoke;
The names of lovers, light of other days
Perhaps you will not miss them. That’s the joke.
The universe winds down. That’s how it’s made.
But memory is everything to lose;
Although some of the colors have to fade,
Do not believe you’ll get the chance to choose.
Regret, by definition, comes too late;
Say what you mean. Bear witness. Iterate.
(John M Ford, 1957–2006)
From Walter Holland:
About the Author
Walter Holland is a writer, editor, and father, sometimes even in that order. He lives in Cambridge MA. He’s written a book about Phish called a tiny space to move and breathe, and a handful of others. He doesn’t have a favorite Ghost, but if he did it would probably be some 1997-98 funk — 11/17/97, maybe? Or even the moment when the Ghost lyrics come back after the studio version of Moma Dance… He tweets as @waxbanks, blogs intermittently at blog.waxbanks.net, and has wasted many, many hours writing show reviews and other nonsense at the phish.net.