25 in 25 of 2015 #24 09/05/2015 Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, Commerce City, CO (Wally Holland, @waxbanks)
Set 2: ASIHTOS, Chalkdust > Twist, Mercury > Light, Wingsuit, R&R
I like to think that ‘Mercury’ is inspired by the sight of the Gamehendge sky over the perilous Dark Tower in its sister song, ‘Steam.’ I like to think that the ‘few moments of whirling around’ which precede the ‘Light’ jam are spent putting on a wingsuit. And the ocean’s song is unspeakably alien—not angry or evil but ‘vast, cool, and unsympathetic’—yet we can float calmly on its surface (the sea’s, the song’s) as ships slide by, manned by electrical crews, fish feeding from the bottom beneath. I like to think a great god’s mountain overlooks the delta where lost men carry out secret errands. Maybe a frail old adventurer is there even now, silhouetted by lightning flashes, making his way slowly to the top to ask for a gift of divine knowledge. Snowmelt from the mountain feeds a stream which sustains in its turn a village of lizard-people. And there’s a mound outside the village—a barrow? a hillock?—where a wise man makes ritual gestures (is he holding a shoe?), flickering in and out of time, while his pet pig cavorts nearby, animated unnaturally. I like to think the pig carries a blade between his teeth. I like to think of a girl atop a cloud, holding a doll which smiles at me and won’t let go. And there’s a maze, and a rift, and someone skating under the ice of a frozen pond.
I like to think of a sealed tomb painted bright red, where an ancient queen lies dreaming.
I like to think, too, that the women and men whose eyes I met as I made way to the back of the stadium during ‘Wingsuit’ were as grateful for that moment of connection as I was; that they remember the way we moved, the giant smile of wonder and gratitude I wore, the thickness of the air over the field, the way unseen currents moved us, radiating (I’d’ve sworn) out from the stage and through every circling body; and that they were taken somewhere safe and faraway by the music, and vibrate still to the same echoes. And honestly, I’d like to think that they remember me.
I know they don’t.
It’s not the best show of the year, or the best set. This is known! It takes me when I let it, but not as far as (say) That One Mann Set does; and forced to pick one, I’d…well, you know. But this isn’t fantasy baseball, it’s the secret in the temple, and we aren’t exactly forced to pick one. Maybe the whole point is that you can’t.
At the show I felt totally immersed. Not perfectly happy, mind you, life is complicated–but present and grateful and alive to the possibilities of the improvisatory moment. Afterward I told people it was a ‘special night.’ But they can’t all be, can they? (Maybe so, I dunno.) I imagine that for a lot of people it was just another show.
On tape, it’s a little uneven. ‘Chalkdust’ has an ambivalent intensity but never crystallizes, never commits to a single overriding purpose, the way The Classics tend to. On the night, the segue into ‘Twist’ was revelatory, a slow transformation over countless hours; on tape, it’s merely a hair-raising Trey-led Phish segue, hardly an endangered species. I suspect this is the best version of ‘Mercury’ yet played, but if we’re picking nits, this is a song that sets ‘Your day is longer than your year’ and ‘The tomb of the red queen is / Painted in vermillion’ as the climactic lines of a scifantasy prog tune with an awkward beginning and no ending. (I love it, but so what? I also love Starbucks pumpkin bread.) ‘Light’ whirls but never leaves the ground; I remember the lights at the show vividly, and at the time I wondered how any illumination could reach us down here on the ocean floor, but like the extended ‘Chalkdust,’ this ‘Light’ dwells in possibility rather than striking out for the far reaches.
‘Rock & Roll’ is seven minutes long, ‘Ocean’ only six. I left before the encore.
3. Time, time, time
Until signing up to write about it, I hadn’t listened to the show since that night—not that I can recall. I’ve been listening to it all week, mostly in the car or on my bike, mostly during the day. It’s very much nighttime music.
Music doesn’t always sit right, in your ear.
So to speak.
When you’re a teenager, everything is up in the air—changing constantly at the deepest levels, the idea of you in flux, meaning of friendship, family, the body itself seat of knowledge in flux, your name and your face changing with the day—so you take what finality and definition you can. Making it about Best and Most and Last means making it about you. He’s not just your boyfriend, he’s Your True Love Forever and Ever. They’re not just a band, they’re The Only Band That Matters. It’s not just a fight, it’s The Worst Imaginable Social Catastrophe, OMG. It isn’t just a second-set improvisation, it’s et cetera. Everything is story, every story has a climax. It’s all so goddamned…disproportionate.
And now. Well. My son’s closer to eighteen than I am; we play grownup board games and I get too mad about small things like him bumping the X-Wing gamepieces because I don’t sleep enough. I’ve hardly listened to Phish (N.B.: ‘hardly’ on the sliding scale of the lifelong obsessive) in the last year. At some point you start being content with moving from one misadventure to the next. It’s not an epic anymore, it’s a picaresque. It’s only love, they’re only a band, it’s only a fight. It’s only a night. It’s only a jam.
When they played the Tahoe ‘Tweezer,’ I wrote my first Medium post about how it was just another step in a really exciting period of improvisatory development for the band. No need to work to get up the energy for a post like that—a 36-minute ‘Tweezer’ gives you a lot to write about, especially one that’s immediately hailed as the greatest post-sliced-bread thing and which includes that bit of improvisation, you know the one, the woo bit. Talking about a monumental, canonical improvisation means you get a bunch of superlatives for free, so to speak, and if you then you title your last section ‘They do this all the time,’ the unexpected mismatch between expectation and declaration generates a charge all on its own. (The canon helps lazy critics be lazy.)
The Tahoe ‘Tweezer’ changed the meaning of everything the band played in 2013, and if you’re anything like me, you no longer approach it as just another version of ‘Tweezer.’ It’s a mountain. You climb it like a mountain. I deleted it from my hard drive a couple weeks ago to reclaim some space.
Meanwhile, Dick’s 2015 Night Two hasn’t entered the canon and won’t; the music is beautiful and interesting but not definitive. I have my favorite moments, which I treasure: a brief optimistic minor-major shift in ‘Chalkdust’ and the moments of funky dissolution that follow, the homewrecking bass/keys interplay during the segue into ‘Twist,’ Fish’s beautiful marimba lumina lead in ‘Mercury’ (one of the sweetest moments Trey has written), Page and Mike’s final vocal harmony in ‘Light,’ and especially that song’s jam, which takes bravely to rough waters and is shipwrecked during a great storm at sea, all hands lost. But none of those moments act as punctuation for the whole show the way the Tahoe woo!! voodoo do; despite their impact, you and I probably don’t charge them retrospectively with meaning and purpose as we do with, say, the start/stop funk jam out of Tweezabella or the valedictory improvisations from Dick’s 2012. These moments don’t sum anything up.
They’re all middle.
4. Little lilt
What kind of night was it? In the first set Trey called for ‘Winterqueen,’ ‘Limb by Limb,’ and ‘Roggae,’ with only the spelunk-gone-nightmarishly-wrong temporal distortions of ‘Split’ to break up the gently floating trip-o-let vibe. I remember Mike once praising Phil Lesh’s bass playing by saying it had a ‘lilt’ to it, a lightness. These songs achieve that lightness—’Limb’ and ‘Roggae’ despite their rhythmic tricksiness, ‘Winterqueen’ despite the band’s occasional tendency to complicate simple pretty things. Picture four 50-year-olds with a couple of divorces and a bathtub full of children between them, tiptoeing daintily down the beach under the full moon. They consider themselves lucky to be alive in the first place. Their smiles are easy. And then, with odd guttural fish-sounds in their throats, they dive into the sea at setbreak to join their ancestors amongst the Deep Ones.
5. Whammy bar
It seems to me that the jams out of ‘Chalkdust’ and ‘Light,’ like the songs themselves, have fundamentally different purposes. Lacking a planned endpoint or a simple harmonic identity, the ‘Light’ jam is open-ended by design where the bloozy blustering ‘Chalkdust’ is definitive as a fist in the air. The songs’ structures reinforce this difference, too. The ‘Light’ verse is all soft sounds (S’s, M’s, F’s) descending by hesitant half-steps, Trey/Fish’s ‘refrains’ in the closing round inverted, withdrawing, with Mike and Page providing the only closure. Mike’s static bass presses back against Trey’s chords, and the three-bar jam form stretches the soundbed thin—it’s no wonder Trey was moved early in the song’s evolution to antagonize the tune with whole-tone and Eastern scales. It’s not like there was anywhere to rest in the first place. ‘Chalkdust,’ meanwhile, is simple thudding three-chord rock from the jump, the vocals spat (clumsily, but spat all the same) and then shouted at the top of every pair of lungs in the room, ‘Can’t I live while I’m young?!’ Which sets the tone for the jam even on a night like this one, the band having long since gone soft around the middle and yet this version’s Big Moments include Mike’s crowd-pleasing synthbass meatballs and some blues/funk strutting. ‘Chalkdust’ always wants the same thing: the downbeat, the root, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you what ‘root’ has long been a euphemism for…
I notice, and quite like, that the set gets less affirmative, in a sense, as it goes along. ‘Ocean’ smash-cut to the minor-chord downbeat to begin, ‘Chalkdust’ adrenaline hit, and then equivocation: absent downbeat and woozy drums of ‘Twist,’ metrical perversity and added/subtracted bars and aching marimba lumina of ‘Mercury,’ the joyous uncertain swirl that is ‘Light’…and finally the discombobulating Lydian-or-is-it-Mixolydian ‘Wingsuit’ verse giving way first to that hesitant chorus, then the emancipatory glide of the bridge, then the self-contradictions of the closing instrumental and haunting final vocals (try to imagine someone telling you to suit up for the miracle of human flight with a less confident vocal harmony!). At that point, hearing Page’s reassuring honk of ‘It was alright!’ is less a musical than an antidepressant provision. Not to say that it’s sad music—it bore me up on that night, still does—but it’s short on the satisfactions, now conventional, which made mid-career Phish shows a guaranteed goodnatured Vermont asskicking. Peace, not only pleasure, is the principle.
Their music’s been headed this direction for a few years now. Even the ‘storage jamming’ of 2011, which seems like the first really interesting step their music took post-Coventry, held up continuation rather than climax as the goal/rationale for their jamming—there’s a dimly lit straight line from the Gorge ‘Rock & Roll’ and Tahoe ‘Light’ (Summer 2011), the way they roll up onto shore rather than rising skyward, to the deep currents that agitate (but never make too big a deal of) this show. Think too of the beloved Dick’s 2011 ‘Tweezer,’ which builds to a grand vista rather than a sharp peak and then tumbles, blissfully spent, down the far side. Or all those ‘3.0’ versions of ‘Chalkdust’ and ‘Tweezer’ and ‘Disease’ that’ve turned heliotropically toward the relative major key, brightening and cooling at once as if the band had discovered that they could make light without throwing off so much heat.
Is that maturation? Well it’s change, at any rate, and maybe the answer’s in here: they haven’t seemed to force the change so much as ease into it, making the most of what they’ve found. Which sounds pretty mature! After all, there’s no denying (I think) that they’ve been playing as well these last couple years as they have since their mid/late-90s peak. As Phish’s career (presumably) winds down, we can take the distinctly middle-aged prerogatives and less jagged topologies of their new music on its own terms, as best we can. And the spirit in which is the art is made, the spirit of generosity and (a certain sort of) courage which has always animated our community, permits and encourages us to extend the same courtesy to ourselves: to be merciful or at any rate chilled out toward the mind-bodies we drift in.
6. It was alright
I like to think of ‘Uncle Pen’ at Niagara in 1995, and how I danced at peace to an unfamiliar tune; and of my absolute certainty that Brian and Tarky and the rest of us were living the same endless perfect moment at Great Woods during the ‘Hood’ in 2014, though my eyes never once opened until the final acclamation. I like to think of lying down in the field during the late-nite set at Lemonwheel, watching the Whole Sort of General Mish Mash wheel away across the sky; and of not knowing where our tent was, and not minding even a little. I like to think the faces I saw, saw me, and something passed between us which has grown over time and will keep growing if we tend it.
I know it’s true.
Stay safe and peaceful! And as in years past, thanks so much to Mr Lawn Memo, PhD for putting this event together, and to the other contributors for sharing their treasures.
See you this summer.
About the Schmuck:
Wally Holland (@waxbanks) has written two books about Phish and several others about other things. His favorite version of ‘Waiting All Night’ is the one on Fuego.