Manhattan, New York
July 9th, 2013
Zac Cohen and Andy Greenberg of pleasemehavenoregrets.com and Nate Douglas
Phish christened their 30th year of playing together this past week with a quartet of shows in Bangor, ME and Saratoga Springs, NY. Right out of the gates we’ve seen a staggering amount of fresh creativity and a band clearly in the midst of a growth spurt. There are three main developments in Phish’s 2013 sound that warrant immediate attention and should help listeners conceptualize what is going on in Phish’s music.
The first of these is Phish’s renewed interest in exploring older jam vehicles. In just the past week we’ve seen Phish blow open three long-stagnant songs, “Run Like an Antelope, David Bowie and Split Open and Melt,” with a focus and intent that bodes well not only for these compositions, but other stalwarts as well. We are thinking here of “Stash, Maze, Reba, Mike’s Song and Runaway Jim,” all of which received promising tour debuts.
2012 was a highlight year for the bands more recent jam vehicles, of course, “Light, Sand, Ghost, Piper, Golden Age,” but now it seems the band’s interest in going back through their catalog has been piqued. The lessons and skills they now possess can and have been applied to their jam vehicles. Whatever musical insights they’ve gleaned from experimenting with “Light,” for instance, they seem ready to apply to older songs that used to be their primary grounds of improvisation. Considering we’ve already witnessed impressive debuts, we wouldn’t be surprised to hear contenders for “Best Of” versions out of “Melt, Antelope, Bowie” and others in Phish’s 30th year.
The second major development, already sending ripples of both excitement and consternation to spread throughout the community in nearly equal parts, is guitarist Trey Anastasio’s technical leap forward. We were thrilled to see and hear Trey innovate in a number of key areas. From a purely sonic standpoint, Trey has elected to wield his older Koa Languedoc, the guitar that saw him through the late 1990‘s through to the beginnings of 3.0. For now at least, he’s effectively sidelined “the Ocedoc,” his newest guitar. Trey’s also included a new amplifier in his rig, a Bogner Shiva, which he’s miked directly into the soundboard, even further altering his overall sound, providing him with a jazzier, fuller tone, one that is less brilliant-sounding than the Ocedoc.
Technically, we need to recall that Trey experimented with a Fender Jaguar guitar on his most recent TAB album and tour. Of course the Jaguar has a tremolo system, better known as a whammy bar, which may have honed Trey’s ear for pitch-bending. (You can watch Trey experiment with this technique in this video.
This is a major paradigm shift in Trey’s entire approach to musical enunciation. This is not, as some have speculated, simply a return to 2009‘s “Whale Call,” but rather a fuller integration of his recent style with this powerfully emotive effect. He’s soloing with a horn players vocal quality, approaching a “post-bop” sound. Look no further than the Bangor “Antelope” to hear this. Of course the Koa Languedoc does not have a whammy bar, so Trey has instead relied on his whammy pedal, and therefore his right foot’s ability to integrate this effect, in order to produce the telltale tone of mournful bends that we’ve heard so much of.
Additionally, Phish has also changed their physical arrangement onstage to better facilitate Trey’s immediate aural environment. In his interview with Rolling Stone, Trey mentioned that he felt he needed access to Fish’s natural drum sound as opposed to the miked monitor mix he previously relied on. He may also have wanted to give Mike more of his own space to “own the stage” knowing that he was stepping into a different and in some ways more complementary, role.
For example, Trey (and to some extent Page) are both favoring a complex chording schema early on in songs, revealing a jazzy underbelly heretofore unknown to us or them. This is partially a return to Trey’s style of playing in Phish’s earliest years over the more familiar rock-riffing he’s depended on recently. The benefits to this approach are already clear and will likely continue to accrue.
So far the best example of this is Friday night’s “Light,” in Saratoga. One might have believed that Phish had said all there was to say last year with “Light,” but listen to this jam and you’ll clearly hear Trey’s jazz-inflections push the boundaries of the song outward, opening up an entirely new sonic soundscape. It’s a shockingly beautiful jam that rivals their supreme version from Dick’s last year.
The biggest takeaway from Trey’s new sound is a refined ability to convey emotion in a more purely personal way. Trey has found a way to transcend, even further, his instruments limitations, enabling an even more pure form of communication with us.
And lastly, it’s become clear that Phish has moved to institutionalize their “Cubist” style of jamming that began to emerge late last year. This style, as we wrote earlier this year, is characterized by distinct movements within jams, where Phish employs a variety of styles to explore a central musical theme or idea. Even within this first week, we’ve seen Cubist approaches to “Light, Carini, Split Open and Melt and Down with Disease.” The band seems to be solidifying around this style to the point where it has become one of, if not their primary, improvisatory mode.
Phish has their work cut for them. And thankfully they’ve awarded themselves the time to do so with a long Summer and, by all accounts, intense Fall of music. They’ve instituted a number of serious changes to their overall approach, setting challenges for themselves again in a way we haven’t seen since the late 90’s. This is something to be very excited about, proving that Phish has no intention of phoning in any part of this 30th year. But there will be a transition period, particularly for Mike, Page and Fish, as they adapt to Trey’s great leap forward.