25 in 25 #13 07/19/2014 FirstMerit Bank Pavilion at Northerly Island, Chicago, IL (Wally Holland, @waxbanks)
Selection: “Harry Hood”
7/19/14 Chicago: Harry Hood
First things first: thanks as ever to brother @lawnmemo for putting this series together, and to the Whole Sick Crew for lighting it up. I look forward to these essays every year — reading and writing the same — and am grateful for the chance to share in this groove.
In a funk the other day, I wrote and abandoned a partial draft of this post. It began:
‘This music is unnecessary.’
By the time it got into the Second Law of Thermodynamics and how it doesn’t matter at all what music we listen to because ‘time’ is the name we give to entropic inevitability and blah blah blah, well…you can see why I threw the whole thing out.
So many good feelings lately: summer’s here, tour’s coming, and — after six months of woodshedding, seemingly the first time he’s done that in ages — Trey’s just finished his strongest week of performances in recent memory.
I know, I know: we shouldn’t read too much into the Fare Thee Well shows in terms of the kind of improvisation Phish’ll be into this summer. A more confident expressive Trey is still just one fourth of an ensemble whose chief attraction (especially for hardcore fans) has never been individual virtuosity. Even now, Phish make unusually brainy music, different in kind from the freeform/formless playing at a Dead show. Trey’s role in Phish is quite different from his role in the Living Dead.
Still, Trey Anastasio with a full tank of gas is one of the wonders of the musical world, and I’m sure he’ll carry some of the beautiful energy of those #dead50 shows back to Phish’s smaller stages this summer. I’m jealous of all you folks heading out on tour in a few days.
I’d never heard this “Hood” before agreeing to write about it. Dunno what took me so long. It’s very good, though not particularly ‘challenging’ — that is, it moves with extraordinary smoothness and departs from both the form and mood of the usual “Hood” jam (with Trey insisting on a key change despite Mike/Page’s initial treatment of the new key as color rather than destination), but the jam involves no antagonisms, indeed no tension at all. It just glides merrily along from ‘predictably New Agey’ Hoodism to the kind of Major-Chord Majesty (i.e., ‘hose’) that characterizes so many canonical Phish jams. In fact, the ecstatic peak of this Hood jam reminds me of the Orgy of Woo from that one night in Tahoe.
It feels good. The song’s final refrain is the truth.
But then try to explain to your mom why your favorite song by your Favorited band climaxes with an advertising slogan. ‘Well, mother, the whole point is that you really can feel good, see? They’re transcending the banality of their source material, mother, by embracing this found media material both with and without irony, simultaneously. Very much of its time and place, which I’ve tried to tell you about, not that you listen. You can not believe how tired I am of explaining this to you, mother, if you’d just HEY COME BACK I’M NOT FINISHED!!’
A good friend’s going through a rough time. He’s into death metal — technically accomplished angry music that I loathe. He likes to get angry while he works out, and sentimental metal ballads act as release valves for him. This morning I thought I might lend him some Phish to bring up his mood (and subtly impress him with the band’s chops).
Do people ‘lend’ music anymore?
Riding to work from our bald-guys-kvetching-about-stuff brunch at Cafe Luna, I heard the 8/15/93 “Stash” on my phone. Do you know it? Its ‘hose’ passage is Sacred Mountaintop Revelation Phish, its power drawn (as is so often the case with Phish’s peak jams) from contrast rather than volume, as the band plays metrical tug o’ war through a gently polytonal section of extraordinary patience and trust — not for the first time, ambivalence (musical and otherwise) is an essential prerequisite for the deepest joy. If this doesn’t bear Jeremy up, I thought, nothing in my earthly power will.
When I got to my work spot in Boston I threw on this Chicago Hood (dig how Page brings it back to D-major for a second, 8:27ish on the SBD, and Trey’s like lol srsly this is my band n00b, time for g-major ttfn), followed by the Atlantic City 2010 “Stash” — there’s a reason that amazing jam got the Live Bait treatment. Chased with “Saw It Again” from the new Amsterdam box, which would seem not to fit the smiley blissy majorkey-y mood on account of it’s six minutes of demented horror-comedy, but following that freakout with, say, the Albany “Saw It Again” from later that year drives home what a joyfully silly performance the Amsterdam version is. They’re on the verge of hysterics the entire time, and the reason the music’s nerves are jangled is that everyone’s shaking so hard from laughter, not fear.
If you name your band ‘The Grateful Dead,’ you have to know which of those three words everyone will fixate on, thematically. Some part of the scene will always revolve around departure and ending. The way every color becomes touched with grey. (What kind of star is actually dark? But it makes something like sense. The kind of sense that’s…not.)
And if you name your band ‘Phish,’ everyone who isn’t dancing naked in the field will think you’re a doofus or an asshole. (It’s almost as bad as ‘The Flaming Lips,’ though not quite on par with ‘Jane’s Addiction’ or ‘Anal Cunt,’ praise be.)
The nice thing about that name, though — PHISH I mean — is that in terms of convention and responsibility and fitting into the Grand Predetermined Scheme of Boring Things, all bets are definitely off. No one expects ‘Phish’ to make any sense at all.
Maybe that’s why the orderliness of their improvisation — the maybe unprecedented degree to which their spontaneous collective expression is well wrought — comes as such a shock to people who think they’re noodly screwballs. Another contrast effect. Starts to seem like patterns without plans…
Listening to the Dead, what I feel — and what I want to feel — is beautifully lost. ‘Wonderful’ in a literal sense: ‘her smile a bowl to catch her tears’ and that. Out to the furthest dark and back in disarray, dissolving. Dwelling illogically. Admittedly I favor their ‘cosmic’ jamming, the open musical space and beckoning emotional depths of their heaviest Set 2 jams, over the better order of their first-set catholic Americana. But I’ll always associate the Dead’s music with a depth and complexity of emotional expression, of which Garcia’s singing, maybe even moreso than his guitar playing, is for me the chief emblem. The ‘Jerry ballad’ has never quite made sense in a set of Phish, but a Dead set doesn’t make sense to me without one.
When every tale is a cautionary tale. ‘I will not forgive you if you will not take the chance…Soon you will not hear his voice…’
When the Dead speak, even a message of joy (‘Our love will not fade away…’) is a warning. Every declaration trails off into ellipsis.
It’s not a coincidence (though of course it’s only a coincidence) that the breathtaking contrast effect that used to end the “Hood” jam — the literal exclamation point of that unison sting, ‘YOU CAN FEEL GOOD!’ — was replaced by an ambivalent fadeaway right around the time Phish’s own music became concerned with the ‘cosmic’ (the rhythmic-transcendent, you might say) in the late 90s.
Not long after Garcia died, come to think of it. Though that’s only a coincidence too.
hold away depair / More than this I will not ask / faced with mysteries dark and vast
The chief emotion in Phish’s music, for me — or I guess the most common outcome of that weird musichemical exchange that occurs when I listen to Phish, to this music that has made and remade me for so long — is joy. And almost always happiness. Phish make happy music. Deliriously, unapologetically, at times infuriatingly happy music. Even when the music gets dark, they generally release us into brightness and light, much the same way their frequent forays into tension and disorder are, almost without exception, relieved by returns to order. There is drama (revelation, transformation) in Phish’s music; indeed I’d venture that deep transformation as such is what we the obsessed come back for. But it tends by default to be leavened with comedy (restoration, return).
And because the atomic unit of rock’n’roll music since the 50s — adolescent sexual longing, usually thwarted — figures so little in Phish’s overall vibe (though things do, on occasion, get sexy), their explorations have to arrive at release by other paths. Thwarted intellection, say.
For the longest time they’d set up their just about inevitable escape into goofery, into bliss, by thinking aloud. They’re friendly welcoming guys so their thinking is welcoming and friendly, but it’s also not quite on the usual rock-bollocks wavelength; “Dave’s Energy Guide” sounds on the one hand Totally Awesome, duh, and on the other hand it’s a truly disconcerting thing to hear in the middle of an otherwise unprepossessingly groovy Talking Heads cover.
Over time, though, they’ve stopped parenthesizing and apologizing and contextualizing so much. This was a big part of their emotional maturation in the mid/late-90s: the pleasures of touch and movement, of naked fear, of gravity’s unopposed pull, were allowed to become central to the music, and were found to be generative of order in themselves, needing no ordering conceit. You could just funk for its own sake, or cry about nothing.
Happiness has always come as naturally to them as playing fiendishly complicated surrealist jam-prog, i.e., very.
Now, “Hood”‘s maybe the least self-conscious song in Phish’s early repertoire. With the exception of the Miner/minor joke, it’s a childishly happy tune free from tongue-in-cheekery or over cleverness; even the metrical play in the written portion seems to be more about the sheer pleasure of doing a hard fun thing than any kind of ostentatious technicality. Point being, it’s not exactly lacking in smiles to start with —
— yet in this version, for whatever reason, Trey feels that standard Hoodistry will yield insufficient quantities of orgasmic release, so he leads a shift to G-major and a charge to the heights of the Pumping of the Arena-Rock Fist and the Incarnation of the Rainbow Popsicle Unicorn. It is good. You can feel good!
This music is unnecessary. There’s nothing to thwart, there’s no irresistible gradient to slide down, no statement’s being made. The jam they get into isn’t an elaboration of the “Hood” groove like the delicious Worcester 2010 ‘plinko’ “Hood”, nor a deconstruction like the startling summer 2003 Hoods. It’s just a layer of frosting on top of an always-already-frosted cake, D-A-G like God Herself intended. If they’d ridden out the jam and brought it to yet another bliss-by-numbers peak I’m sure everyone of sense woulda left the show deliriously happy. But Anastasio (and it’s all him, this time) had to have one more go with the hose, pardon the metaphorical overtones there.
Not monotonous, this one — anything but! — but nonetheless monotonic. Just a dead sprint downhill and crash at the end, laughing aloud.
The main feeling Phish’s music gives me is that when the music’s all around and the lights down, if I close my eyes I’ll bump my head against the sky.
Listening to the Fare Thee Well shows, I’m grateful to’ve experienced (even secondhand, or at decades’ remove) music of such searching ambivalence, bravery, multifaceted expressivity. It’s a rare thing, for artists to trust each other and their audience with such radical uncertainty. This weekend’s shows gave a little taste of that, I think, and (not for the first time) filled me with a combination of wonder at what I was hearing, and sadness that I never got a chance to be part of the thing itself.
But then, we’ve got this other thing now.
This “Hood”, effortlessly masterful (moreso than the unbearably joyful but slightly jerky Hollywood Bowl version from summer 2013), reminds me of how extraordinarily lucky we are to have all discovered, or I suppose been discovered by, musical art and artists of such benevolence and generosity. Phish’s democratic art is built to ensure egolessness — that’s the (spiritual) devotion, the transformation that brings us always back to this musical home. Do you realize how rare that is? Do you remember to remember that this thing we share is a great blessing?
Every year I write one of these, and every year it comes down to the same thing for me: whatever there is to say about the music (which is spiffy as hell, dig the final round of woo-in-all-but-physical-fact that climaxes with Trey’s ‘Will he make it?!’ run up the fretboard at 11:30ish, c’mon now, who sounds this articulate when he’s this riled up?!?!), when I give myself the better part of a day to share it with you guys, to think about this family inheritance of ours, I find that everything I wanna say becomes Thank you, and every didacticism or criticism tends to become hope.
The music grants its makers the chance to be brave, to act in faith. We’re part of that moment, that chance. That’s the blessing.
Have a wonderful summer. We’re off to a good start.
Wally Holland (@waxbanks) lives in Cambridge MA. He’s the author of A tiny space to move and breathe, an odd book about Phish’s Fall 1997 tour, and the forthcoming 33-1/3 volume about A Live One, due in October. Right now, his favorite “Ghost” is 11/17/97 — a safe choice, he’s well aware.