Phish – my 20-year love affair with four guys from Vermont
It recently occurred to me that 2009 marks the 20th anniversary of my love affair with four guys from Vermont otherwise known as Phish. I’d like to cover two topics in one piece here: how I was introduced to the band, and my experiences with them, and a primer on what to listen for when listening to Phish.
I can remember it almost like it was yesterday, my next-door neighbor, Bob talking my mother into letting me head up to Burlington with him and his friend Casey to go to a concert. Needless to say, Bob failed to mention that this concert was going to take place in a tiny little bar that went (and still goes by to this day) by the name of Nectar’s. Now I’m not entirely certain if Bob didn’t know someone at the door, bribed someone to get me in, or if things were just a bit looser in Burlington in those days, but I do remember being the youngest person there. The way Phish had been explained to me was as a Grateful Dead cover band. I’d started toying with the dead at around age 12, with Bob giving me a couple of great tapes (back in the days of tapers trading tapes by mail), one from Buffalo, the other from the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. I guess Bob and Casey thought it was time for their young protégé to experience something close to the Dead live and in person, specifically by these up and comers hailing from Vermont. I can’t even tell you what originals they played that night, but that was the first time I’d heard “Fire on the Mountain” performed live, as well as Jimi Hendrix’s seminal classic “Fire”. I can remember that these four guys didn’t look particularly ‘star-like’, nor could they really sing all that well, but man o’ man, when it came time for the solos or pure instrumentals, these guys were truly dialed in.
Some 20 years later I still listen to Cactus (Gordon – Bass), Leo (McConnell – Keyboards), Henrietta (Fishman – Percussion) and Wilson (Anastasio – Guitar) on a regular basis. I normally set iTunes to shuffle while I’m working, and given my massive collection of their live works, it’s guaranteed that I’ll hear at least a song or four of theirs per day. These guys have been with me through some of the most major parts of my life, Chalk Dust Torture highlighting my high school graduation day, Down With Disease summing up most of my college experience, and so on. Halloween 1994 will always be remembered as one of the greatest nights of my life, when Phish played their annual Halloween show in my home town, and my friend Carl and I managed to get a giant spider that we’d brought with us up on stage after the first set, with Jon Fishman placing it on top of his bass drum for the rest of the entire show, and yes…that was the classic White Album show.
So when I was recently asked to pick two phish songs to demonstrate the band as a whole, you can imagine what a challenge this was. I’ll fully admit, I cannot do it. To me, Phish is not just about the music, but it was/is the entire experience. The packing it up in the car on Friday afternoon after class, and truckin’ all night to make it to the next gig, the meeting up with other road mates in the ‘lot and catching up, meeting new friends, making new experiences, etc. If you weren’t lucky enough to have a ticket – sometimes that didn’t really matter, as the parking lot experience could be an entire experience unto itself. And then there was that amazing individual that had your ‘miracle’. Stemming from the Grateful Dead song “I need a miracle”, a miracle came from that person that had purchased an extra ticket to give to someone who didn’t have one at the show. I’ve been miracled about 12-15 times, and when I had some extra cash, or had pre-ordered tickets, I’d do my best to miracle a brother or sister in need of a good show. Inside the venue, once the lights went down, for the next 2+ hours, you can be sure of only one thing: anything goes. I’ve been witness to watching the band arrive onstage via a giant hotdog that flew over the crowd. I’ve watched Jon Fishman dressed as baby new year, about 30 feet off the stage on a fly in, tossing glitter and confetti on the crowd. And let me just say, in my humble opinion, Phish has some of the best sound and lighting setups of any live touring band I’ve ever seen.
So if I choose to solely look at this challenge from just an aural point of view, 2 songs still remains an impossible feat. Instead, I’ve decided to break it down into 5 parts: Fast, Medium, and Slow and Live and Studio. The choices in tempos should be self evident, but the decision to give live and studio examples is something that’s very near and dear to me. I really feel like there are two very distinct ways of listening to Phish: what the record company wants the band to record in order to sell albums, and what the band wants to play in order to bring the audience along for the ride.
Fast – Chalk Dust Torture
As mentioned above, this song has a particularly strong place in my heart, simply for the lyric, “Can’t I live while I’m young?” Chalk Dust is a prime example of what Phish does like no other band: take a relatively simple chord progression and twist it into something truly remarkable. The studio version, featured on 1992’s “A Picture of Nectar” (and yes, the Nectar does refer to Nectar’s bar) clocks in a 4:32, and features a relatively slow ‘fast’ tempo, with only a minor guitar solo. To me, it also sounds like the Elektra records producers put some type of effect, or even slowed the tape down on Trey’s vocals, making him sound like he’s singing in slow motion. Again, remember, this was my first introduction to this song and I really dug it.
Now let’s fast forward a few years to 1994’s live (and summer tour ending) version played on July 16th, at the Sugarbush Summerstage, in the band’s home state of Vermont. The tempo differences between the studio version and live version are instantly apparent, and to me, this one just ‘drives’ a whole lot better. It doesn’t sound as though the increased tempo is giving the band any problems at all, and as a matter of fact, both Trey’s solo, and mike funky bass line sound even better at this more appropriate tempo. You’ll also note that this version now clocks in at 9:28, a marked difference from the studio version. While 1994 is 10 full years into Phish’ career together, Trey’s guitar solo, particularly around the 4:24 mark indicate a technique that he’ll be developing over the next few years, using a boomerang unit to set up loops and accompany himself. But again, that’s still a few years down the road. This version also features something about the band that I’ve always liked, they don’t try to hide or mask their involvement with each other. If you listen closely here, you can hear Trey giving direction to the band, and calling out changes; “Hup…yeah” and “one more round” are often things he’d say very close to the microphones, almost letting us the listeners in on what’s going on between the players on stage.
Medium – You Enjoy Myself
You Enjoy Myself, or YEM as it’s sometimes known, is one of Phish’s most musically intricate pieces. Starting off in Bb major, this piece weaves it’s way through various both key and metric changes. Coming from their first professional studio recording, and third official album, You Enjoy Myself features just 4 comprehensible words, “Boy”, “Man”, “God”, and “Shit”. The ‘other’ lyrics in the song were a subject of debate for many years, until it was finally revealed in a Guitar World issue that the actual lyrics were “Wash Uffizi, drive me to Firenze.” YEM currently holds the record of the most frequently played song by the band, being performed at 39% of their 1,183 shows (not including the most recent Hampton Shows, and this evenings Spring Tour opener in Boston, MA). Keyboardist Page McConnell admitted to Ted Koppel on an installment of Nightline that You Enjoy Myself is his favorite Phish song. As with Chalk Dust Torture, the studio version is markedly slower that most, if not all live versions. Note that even in the studio recording, Trey misses a few notes here and there, but in true Phish style, no apologies are made, as if these missed notes are actually meant to be part of the style.
Given the vast amounts of versions of this song I have, it truly was a challenge to nail down a live example. I chose the Madison Square Garden New Years Eve 1995 show (yes, I was there), as it’s a prime example of how the band is able to expand a 9:50 album version into a massive 25:37 live version. YEM also features a staple of Phish’s performances, employing both guitarist and lead singer Trey Anastasio and Bassist Mike Gordon jumping on trampolines in sync together. While this was not the first version of YEM that I’d ever heard live, at around the 2-minute mark, you can only imagine what the lighting director Chris Kuroda was doing with this spacey, nirvana-esque sequence. Now try to picture that in Madison Square Garden on New Years Eve. Right. Truly mind-boggling. At around 4:12, we receive the first introduction to the metric changes that happen throughout the song. I only wish my skills were strong enough to figure these out, but I believe there’s a 4/4 to 6/8 to 5/4 to 6/8 something something happening there (any theory geeks want to help me out here?). Either way, not something you see any other band do every day, and live on stage in front of some 20,000+ people.
Slow – Wading in the Velvet Sea
Wading in the Velvet Sea comes from 1998’s “Story of the Ghost” album, and is traditionally performed live at or about the same tempo as the album version. To me, this also signifies an earmark of the band’s development and maturity. In other words, while the record company wants short songs that can sell records, by this point they’ve been able to slim down live versions, and capture most, if not all of the essential parts and fit them into a 4:29 release. On the studio version, you’ll hear part of Trey’s technique that I mentioned earlier, the looping covering the beginning of the song, a carry over from the previous track, “Roggae”. Featuring a simple, beautiful and even hunting piano intro, this is one of Phish’s truly gorgeous, melodic, and moving songs. The meaning can be left open to interpretation, but to me, it’s all about loss. Wading in the Velvet Sea also holds the distinction of getting Page McConnell so choked up at the band’s fair well show in 2004 (Coventry), that Trey had to step in and mention just how emotional this show was for all of them. Again, by 1998, the band had really gotten to the point of nailing studio versions down so there’s not really much to say here.
Now the reason that I chose to highlight Wading in the Velvet Sea as a great ‘slow’ Phish tune centers around this live version. Recorded September 4th 1999 show in Boise, Idaho (sadly, I was not there, but Elisa was, and she tells me that yes…it really was that good). To me, Trey’s guitar solo on this version is simply gorgeous. Melodic, lyrical, sustained, complex, and simple at the same time; its all there. While Page and Mike carry on with the repetition of “I’ve been Wading in the Velvet Sea” Trey starts noodeling a simple melody that comes to fruition when the lyrics drop out. Just listen to those beautiful sustained notes around the 3:45 mark. Mike on Bass and Jon on drums are perfectly locked in sync here, with Page doing a simple accompaniment. To me…this is one of the finest examples of the band’s unity.
And there we have it. Please keep in mind that these three songs should not be taken as ‘THE’ definitive Phish works, but rather, a short sampling of the range that this quartet have produced over the years, a beginners primer, if you will.
I was certainly sad to see the curtain fall in 2004, but overjoyed at the fact that they’ve had enough time off from each other, and have decided to give the grueling road tour circuit another go. If not for their enjoyment, but for the thousands upon thousands of phans who call our boys from Vermont the only ones for us. Mike, Page, Trey, and Jon, Good luck and Godspeed. We’ve been listening, and waiting. Welcome home.