25 in 25 of 2015 #21 08/22/2015 Magnaball-Watkins Glen International, Watkins Glen, NY (Scott Jacobi, @wattznext)
I don’t think anyone was all that surprised that the secret set took place at about 1am on Sunday morning at the Drive-In theatre, a wide rectangular screen on the back of some grandstands erected for viewing the races that take place at Watkins Glen when it’s not overrun with tens of thousands of hippies. The screen had been playing old monster movies all through the previous nights, so we knew it was wired for sound and video. It was situated in front of a big long field, perfect for gathered masses. You couldn’t be 100% certain in your guess, because it’s Phish, after all, and they’re capable of anything. But this seemed a pretty safe bet.
So when faint sounds started to drift towards our campsite, and people started to buzz, we knew exactly where to head.
The Drive-In Jam opens with nearly 10 minutes of ambient noise, all swelling atmosphere, swirling jet engine sounds, clanging bells, rushing water, and some random screams thrown in for good measure. It’s not something Phish does a lot of, but it works. It sounds organic, and it sets the stage for what’s to come.
Ever so slowly an initial groove emerges, first coalescing around Mike’s bass, then Fish’s cymbals, with Trey wading in ever so gently. The drums do such a great job of easing this transition that you don’t even realize that Fish has been playing for 3 whole minutes before even working in the snare drum. That’s patience.
We’re into our first segment of this jam, and it floats along gently, almost lazily, but with a growing edge owing to the raw tone of Trey’s guitar. About 15 minutes in Mike kicks on a effect or envelope or filter (I dunno, I’m a drummer), and the next thing you know the bottom has dropped out and we’re about to find out how this things going to evolve, where we’re going next.
Mike and Fish get choppy for a while, then we get an ever so brief moment of near silence around 16:45. For the first time, we hear Fish strip things down to just his high hat, letting the next segment develop around him, before coming before coming in with a faster, more driving beat. Fish is taking command here, and Trey contributes some very angry sounding guitar. Trey does a great job throughout of contributing without dominating, leading without ever really playing “leads.”
Halfway through the 22nd minute, the band pulls up and seamlessly drops into a half time groove, complete with some groaning from Fishman. Page plays what feels like his first “traditional” keyboard part of the jam, pounding the ivories rather providing atmosphere and triggering those damn bells. Fear not bells fans, he’s right back on them just a few seconds later, and another natural builds billows up.
It’s rather incredible that this 60-minute piece of music isn’t much like most long Phish jams. You get a good “Tweezer” and you can probably expect some table setting, some groove finding, an eventual lead or solo from Trey, and perhaps a repeat of that cycle with a different groove – and likely a satisfying peak – before the end. But the Drive-In Jam slides from segment to segment without Trey’s nimble guitar work leading the band by the nose.
Like around 27 minutes in, when the band again backs off the groove to see what else might develop. Trey is scratching at echoes, while Mike’s bass starts to sound like a muppet gently trying to tell us we’re up past our bedtimes.
Now Trey’s wailing. Actual wailing from his mouth, not with his guitar. These wails crystallize into what could be considered the first real vocal component of this jam, even if they never evolve past “bum deh day.” Given the rest of the bands catalog, these are certainly not the worst lyrics they’ve come up with.
And as quick as that groove came about, it’s gone again, and Fish is back on the high hat, and Page is scanning us all with what sounds like a ray gun from one of the old movies they’d been showing earlier in the weekend.
Things get a bit directionless for a moment, but not uninspired. It’s all part of the natural ebb and flow necessary for creating a piece of improvised music of this length and magnitude.
We then get a more relaxed few minutes, another expanse where the music feels like it is washing all over us, around us, rather than driving right to us. From this emerges a segment that sounds the most akin to a jam somewhere in a normal set two. That’s probably because Trey’s playing a more typical lead line.
Fish then transitions to the hi hat and gives us something more straightforward then the ride cymbal tings and light tom tom pops that he’d been offering. Everyone comes together around some syncopated stabs and the vocals are out in full force. Chanting, silly voices, more wailing, and what has to be some vocal processing from Page – that, or he’s developed a much broader, and stranger, range than we’d realized.
Then, with about nine minutes left, we get our first real hard left turn of the set. But they all hit it together, and pull it off seamlessly, and it sounds like we could start soaring. But Trey perverts his guitar, and Fish pulls out about half the notes that had made up his beat. Some jazzy closed hi hat work from Fish gets things shuffling, but again, the music rapidly mellows. We’re back to slow and ominous.
With five minutes left we’re in some of the darkest territory we’ve encountered. Someone stuck deep in Page’s keyboard is laughing at us, stiltedly. Mike is apologizing, but to whom, or for what, we can only guess. It’s probably delirium sinking in. We’re all exhausted. Band and fans. It’s been a long, thrilling, draining day.
And it all beings to wind down. There’s no peak. No glory. Well, no simple, easily defined glory, anyway. This set wasn’t a drive to a destination. It didn’t have that kind of purpose. But it did achieve something greater. 60 minutes of thrilling, compelling, organic, in the moment composition. It’s daring, thrilling, and extremely listenable. The boys knocked this one out of the park, completing one of the best single days of music in their 30+ year career. And after some much needed rest, we still had another day to bask in paradise, and another show’s worth of music.
@wattznext is not, as is commonly believed, two small children in an oversized trenchcoat. He is actually a dude named Scott, who saw his first Phish show in 1996. This doesn’t make him cool, just old. He (very) occasionally writes about Phish at his own blog, My Soul to Ignite. His favorite “2001” is from the OJ show. He lives in Manhattan, on the seventh floor of an apartment building (facing west), with his lovely wife Joanna and a Green-Cheeked Conure named Broccoli.