For the first few columns I wrote for JamBands, I consciously avoided writing about Phish. It would be too easy, I told myself. It wasn’t until the past run of shows at Madison Square Garden that I realized why. More importantly, I realized why the aforementioned easiness is so frickin’ cool and, to top it off, why Phish plain out rules because of it. A friend of mine who hadn’t seen the band since the previous New Year’s run commented after the first night that Phish sounded like a “completely different band. They’ve changed so much.” That’s it. Change. That’s what makes ‘em so durned innerestin’. It’s the fodder that makes them all too easy to write about. Deep, huh? Well, maybe…
Historically, historians study periods of change: how one movement rises out of the ashes of another, how a written law differs from how the law functions when enacted, how social changes necessitate certain actions… in short, cause and effect. It is times of flux that tickle our fancy. And, historically, Phish is always in flux in one way or another. There are many ways to appreciate Phish’s ongoing mutations. Other than experiencing the band live and in the moment, witnessing evolution first-hand, the most common way of observing the band’s change is through the magic of live tapes. Generally speaking, any time period is infinitely easier to study the more documents of it are in existence. Thanks to Phish’s taping policy, just about every note they’ve played live for the past – at least – eight years has been recorded in crystalline digital perfection.
Thus, if one considers “change” a tangible thing, the “change” is available to anyone with a stack of Maxells, a net connection, and a modicum of intelligence. Anybody can study it. It’s not buried in a climate controlled vault in the bowels of some museum. The body of history is there for all who care to listen to dissect. And they – we – do, in greatly varying levels. The simplest level of historical observation, rarely even noted for what it is, might be a comment like “whoa, dude, have you noticed how spacy Tweezer’s been gettin’ lately?” This can rise, in degrees, until one ends up with thoughts like “the nearly tensionless funk of summer ’97 is, in a way, symbolic of the lack of economic tension that the band achieved when they finally broke into arenas on a national level during the previous fall’s tour.”
At the center of all of this analysis is, of course, the band — who themselves practice this kind of critical breakdown. This is important for several reasons. The first is for the way it functions relative to the band. The band discusses its own music for a purpose. By becoming self-aware the band can increase its own consciousness of the music they are playing. The more conscious they are of what they are doing, they less likely they are to repeat themselves. The rate at which the band changes can then increase. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle. Another reason why the band’s critiques are important – or, at least, helpful – is because, described in numerous print interviews, they can become a handy listening guide of sorts.
For me, one of the most enjoyable aspects of listening to Phish is being able to read about one of the band’s musical ideas in an interview and being able to trace that idea through live tapes from the same period. One can listen to an idea blossom from conception, through early forced practice, and hear as it becomes assimilated into the band’s normal arsenal of tools. An example of this would be the band’s exercises in 1992 and 1993 that resulted in the group ability to speed up and slow down, jump back and forth between different sections, modulate suddenly, and do a host of other things that would otherwise seem relegated only to those with fully developed psychic powers. When the band first realized they could do this, they did it often. Nearly every jam from the summer ’93 tour centers around this style. After that, the band scaled back. Now, it’s just part of Phish and their jamming. For a modern example of this jamming, check out the jam from Stash into Manteca from 10/30/98 at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas.
In “the Phish Book”, Mike Gordon presents a question that he posed at the outset of his own musical career: “How do music and art help me and others to actualize ourselves?” (p. 143). Phish, as artists, seem committed to working through this question. The first level that they seem to be working on is the simple “law to practice” thing that historians so love to study — how a carefully scripted law actually works when put into practice. This can be seen in Phish in how their prepared exercises manifest themselves in live performances. For lengthy discussions of things like this, “the Phish Book” is a good place to start — and a great read for Phish geeks everywhere. Interviews on the official Phish web site with Trey, Mike, and Page accompanying the releases of “Slip, Stitch, and Pass” and “the Story Of The Ghost” are also excellent, detailing the musical and mental processes that led to and through the recording of those two discs.
The second level that this question works on is the one that interests me more. Rephrased, it’s something like this: how can I take, in this case, Phish’s musical ideas and metaphorize and internalize them? Can it help me “actualize myself”? What does this even mean?
In the fall of 1997, Phish began doing something that I call plateau jamming. They’d begin at a standard tune of theirs. The tune would become the “rhythm” of the jam, the base on which it was built. One can visualize the band as a piano player — its left hand keeping the rhythm, the right hand responsible for playing an interesting melody on top of that. Gradually, during the jam, the right hand’s part would seep into the left hand’s part — the melody would become the rhythm. The approach that they seemed to take was to find a cool groove and establish that as a song, of sorts. The melody would become the rhythm, the groove would become a plateau. From there, they’d improvise off of the new rhythm with more melodies and, maybe, establish a new plateau shortly thereafter. For an example of all of this in action, check out the Ghost > AC/DC Bag from 11/21/97 at the Hampton Coliseum in Virginia.
So, how does this relate to life outside of Phish? Personally, I “translate” an idea into what is, for me, a more common parlance. In my case, this is the language of writing, simply because it’s what I spend a lot of my time doing. >>From there, I can move into “real life”. In the case of plateau jamming, I think in terms of fiction. In fiction, the “rhythm” of a piece would be the norms of the world that the action of the story is taking place in — anything that is routine in the eyes of the main character. On top of that, any of a character’s actions that are out of the ordinary are, ergo, the “melody”. As a story progresses, the character might assimilate the strange things that have happened to him in the first part of the story and make them part of his rhythm. He has reached a plateau and can move on from there. The jump from fiction to real life application is not large: it’s simply a matter of replacing the main character with myself… From there, the world opens up.
This, for me, is the Joy of Dorque. It means that, when listening to Phish, I can forget everything and just shake my butt. Or, it means that, if I want to, I can remember everything and figure out just where, exactly, I fit into it. I can take an English major geek approach to Phish and have it mean something in real life. Things can have a simultaneous heaviness and lightness to them and mean different things at different times. Something can be big and heavy upon one listen and light as a feather the next. That’s pretty cool.
Jesse Jarnow is willing it to snow. He is watching it accumulate outside the window of his room in Ohio and happily knowing that he doesn’t have to be anywhere in particular.