25 in 25 of 2016: #24 09/03/2016 Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, Commerce City, CO (Wally Holland, @waxbanks)
25 in 25 (2017)
9/3/16, Dick’s Sporting Goods bigass soccer field
“Blaze On > Simple”
To hell with ‘guitar gods,’ know what I mean? That stuff has nothing to do with musicianship, and little enough to do with music. When one of the Great Guitarists picks up his instrument and makes time-to-get-serious sounds, you know he’s about to make a statement. They tend all to sound the same.
When Trey Anastasio picks up his guitar — or, as in this delicate ‘Simple’ improvisation, puts it down in favor of the Marimba Lumina — you know that he’s about to ask a question. I think this is down to an essentially different understanding of his role in the band. Everything Trey does during the show contributes to a four-sided musical conversation in which he might at times be the focus, the lead voice, but never ‘the point.’ Even when he’s soloing discursively over relatively static chords, he’s not the star. The star is the fifth voice, the emergent contour. It’s the takeaway.
Which is one reason why normal sane humans don’t believe us when we talk about the blahblahmiracle which seem to happen all the time at Phish shows. The message is a process, a provision, rather than a product. When it’s working, the musicians are able to enter (and to help induce) a state of egolessness which resists narrativization, and so what do you point the noninitiate to, afterward, as evidence of the achievement?
They told me church was ‘God’s house,’ and at some point I believed I was a grownup and I said ‘Bullshit.’ But what they meant was: our communion, the shared world we make, this is where and how we make it. No one lives in the house. God’s as real as Hamlet or ‘true love.’
But the lights go down, the music comes up, and something moves through you.
“Blaze On > Simple” runs to about 27 minutes, following an extraordinary first set and a conventional Fuego > Sand. Isn’t that more often the way now, as band and (more than ever) audience make their way through middle age? There’s only so much focused intensity to go around. This ‘Blaze On’ reaches a stirring but not explosive climax, with Trey content to crest and recede, playing long vocal moans rather than complicated ornamental lines or following the usual trill/crash script. That’s been the pattern in ‘Phish 3.0’ more often than ever before; exploring alternate modes of resolution has been a key part of the band’s creative agenda, consciously or un- I dunno. I’m drawn to the whiggish notion that they’re less inclined toward ‘manipulative’ narrative impositions as they’ve endured and matured, but the explanation for this shift in emphasis is probably smaller, more local, and long in coming: the less Trey plays, the more room there is for the other guys to explore, which everyone likes; while Phish’s performance practice has always involved a productive tension between Trey’s bandleader-authority and their democratic improvisatory principles, that balance has shifted over the years to accommodate Mike and Page’s ever-increasing ability to take lead roles. That process began in 1996-97 with Trey’s abdication of onstage leadership during the new funk jams, and the churn of ‘Blaze On’ shows how far it’s progressed: it’s still Trey’s band, but in the context of an ongoing jam the several voices can be true coequals all the same.
I’m not sure I need to hear more Marimba Lumina jams, which is only to say that the outcome of Trey’s decision to put down his guitar isn’t generally interesting to me in itself. ‘On tape.’ But the decision itself is important. It’s a literal expression of faith, not only in the other three musicians but (pardon the New Ageyness of the following) in the evolving improvisatory moment. The ‘Simple’ jam extends the Great Curve which begins in ‘Blaze On,’ rising and soaring and gliding without ever hitting a peak — peaks are sharp points, this is a slow sinusoid — and on tape the content of the music is kinda…rudimentary? Trey in particular seems to be playing a piece from A Child’s First Improvisatory Primer. No cheers from the audience except, of course, for when Mike drops digital meatballs with his synth-bass. Trey’s contribution is textural rather than ornamental, receding into the fabric rather than pointing toward a…
‘Textural.’ ‘Fabric.’ I imagine a living topology, an infinite plane of rolling hills and valleys, mountains visible at the horizon through a cool mist, and the world’s surface seems to rise and fall as if breathing — yes silly, yes syrupy, but do you feel that when you listen? Can you imagine? Trey moves to the drums and the camera-eye picks up speed, we’re on our way somewhere; oh so now the world has limits, something to be overgone. But for a few minutes I feel no time, and so unbound I can imagine everything else. Stillness, someplace eternal. A garden before time.
Every creature flourishes here, every flower and vine, every fruiting tree. The water’s perfectly clear; strange fluorescent forms appear and recombine and pass (not away) into a greater form.
None of this is real, none of it inheres in the music, which is simplicity itself. Any of a thousand improvising groups could from a standing start play music like the twelfth minute of this ‘Simple.’ But that’s not what’s happening here; that’s not what we felt that night. (I danced near the stage and said aloud to no one, ‘This is something new.’) What’s special about the music, what’s new, is the absolute ease with which the band travels from (lest we forget) the mighty ‘Simple’ riff to a space of absolute peace. This is what I sometimes struggle to communicate about our shared love of the music: for all the hippie-ish ‘Be Here Now’ stuff we inherited from that other band of seekers, this spacious ‘Simple’ jam is richly infused with all that came before — the moaning ‘Blaze On’ jam, the ‘Slave’ that opened the show, the way the first-set ‘Disease’ got carried away with itself, the ease to the air, the shared sense of nothing demanded and everyone alive.
The moment isn’t responsible to any other, but it echoes every other. Which is why, when Trey puts down his guitar in favor of the Marimba Lumina or Mike gooses the crowd with his digi-meatball, I hear questions not declarations, and I try (when I remember to try) to listen not for but to the next moment too, the possibilities that these gestures open up — before the narrative requirements of climax and formal coherence compress the curve and collapse the timeline.
See, it’s all analytical and it’s all emotional and no one else, I think, offers us so much of so much. The stuff about ‘alternate modes of resolution’ is no more or less real for me (for you)(?) than the stuff about ‘strange fluorescent forms,’ and that’s the blahblahmiracle: free flight from dense form, burden and bliss, algebra and ecstasy. They are absolutely methodical: purposeful, ‘technicians’; and they are absolutely present with us in bliss. Anyway that seems to be the point.
Is this a good show? Are these good jams? This is a garden before time and we’re creatures without names. And the question is…
(About his highness-ness: Wally Holland has written a couple of books about Phish and his favorite version of every Phish song is ‘Hot Pants Explosion’ by the B-52’s.)