With summer tour just about to begin, now is as good a time as any to jump on board.
While I don’t make it out to shows as much as I once did, I am a regular to what has affectionately come to be known as Phish Couch Tour. That is to say, I catch virtually every show either by live stream or via download the next day. This is a new phenomenon. When I was a teenager or even an early twenty-something, the “live album” was still relevant. With some bands it may still be, but with Phish the game has changed. Within hours of the band walking off stage, every show the band performs is now available through LivePhish.com, as a high quality, soundboard recording. What this means, is that every show the band performs is now a live album as well. Back when I was a Deadhead (ok ok, I still kinda am), we used to get together in bars or wherever and trade tapes. That kind of show trading has been going on forever, but it was all done by hand. The advent of the Mp3 and file sharing changed all that.
So, what’s the point? Why would anyone want to listen to the same band night after night? And wouldn’t it get old? With most bands the answer would be a resounding yes, but Phish is different, which gets me to the crux of this article.
Allow me to present an analogy, one to which I will return over the course of this Listener’s Guide. Phish is like a baseball team. And like a baseball team, the average fan can find reasonable enjoyment viewing the one-off or odd game simply by understanding the rules and way in which the game is played. However, as any real baseball fan will tell you, there is so much more to the game then hitting the ball and running bases. There’s learning player statistics, histories at certain ballparks, histories between various teams, and so much more. There are good nights and bad nights, good seasons and bad seasons.
With Phish it’s exactly the same. There are good nights and not so good nights, legendary tours and times when things fell apart before our eyes. There are song histories, venue histories, and statistics galore, all designed to help enhance your enjoyment of the band. No two shows are alike. And as with learning to keep scorecards, there is a learning curve. To fully appreciate this band, one must become an “active listener,” engaged in the process rather than simply having the music on in the background. So, where does one begin?
Phish is a difficult band to learn for the same reason that enjoying them is so rewarding: they rarely play a given song the same way twice, as much of what they do is improv, as is the nature of jam bands. What’s more, the composed sections of many of their songs are incredibly intricate, and can contain multiple sections, varying instrumentation, and time signatures, all making it sometimes difficult for the untrained ear to distinguish jam from composition. But let this discourage you not. One doesn’t need a discourse in musical theory to enjoy Phish, one simply need to, well, go to the tapes.
A bit about the band here: Phish began in the 1980’s as a college prog-rock band. They were quirky, jokey, nerdy, and local, mostly playing college shows for audiences of friends. While the older-skool fans love this aspect of Phish, and laud them for their quirkiness, some (but certainly not all!) modern fans find it a little off-putting. I’ll admit, there are some song lyrics that make me groan. Fear not, the lyrics are only one facet of the band. That’s not to say that I don’t like the songs, most of them I do, but everyone’s got their thing that they latch onto, and for me it’s the music between the lyrics.
Fast forward to 2012 and we see an amphitheatre juggernaut, playing to massive, sold-out crowds, and incorporating such a vast array of musical styles and blurring genres with such fervor as to have even the most seasoned Phishead occasionally throwing up his hands. Along the way, they’ve undergone various style changes, always managing to keep their shows fresh and new. Just as you might hear a baseball fan from back in the day make misty-eyed references to the 1969 Mets, you will frequently hear a Phish head refer to ’97 or ’98 Phish, or the Cow-Funk era, or 2003 Phish etc. And of course, there are the legendary shows, which I will discuss later.
In 2000, Phish took a two year hiatus, regrouping late in 2002 and playing regularly until 2004, when they officially broke up. They wouldn’t officially perform together again until March 2009. The easiest, and most coarse breakdown of Phish eras refer to these breaks, affectionately known as Phish 1.0 (pre-hiatus), 2.0 (post-hiatus), and most recently, 3.0. Many amongst the Phish communities shun this breakdown though, as the band has undergone numerous style changes within any given era.
The above info is useful when going back and listening to bygone shows from another time, or when reading a reference on a blog, but let’s jump right into the here and now. How does the uninitiated approach preparing for this upcoming summer tour? By simply diving in.
My advice is this: Don’t dig up a “best of” list online or try to tackle the classics right off the bat; save ‘em for once you’ve got a couple shows under your belt. Instead, download a couple shows from last year and just give them a casual listen, begin to familiarize yourself with the songs and with what the band has been doing lately, and don’t be discouraged by the sheer quantity of tunes. Trey Anastasio has said that for Summer 2012, Phish plans on playing at least 200 different songs, so it will take some time. Here are a couple of recommendations from 2011 to get you started- 5/27-5/29, 7/2-7/3, 8/5-8/6, and 8/15-8/17. Also, livephish.com occasionally offers new installments of their Live Bait series for free. Right now Vol. 7 offers past highlights, all recorded at venues or cities on this summer’s itinerary. This is just so you can hit the ground running. Familiarize yourself with the blogs. They’re the equivalent of checking the sports page the day after the game. Some of the best are YEMblog.com, phish.net, which provides real-time set list updates and song histories, and my personal favorite, phishthoughts.com, which provides a daily recap and in depth review of each show.
Once tour begins, do two things daily, in this order: 1-read the blogs, and 2- listen to the shows. That’s it! It’s that simple. As I mentioned before, all shows are available almost immediately through livephish.com for a price, or if you are of dubious character, you can scour the internet and perhaps find them elsewhere. It’s incredibly thrilling to, each day, hear a crisp recording of a show from just the night before! The blogs and reviews will give you an idea of what to listen for, so that you can begin to analyze for yourself. Pay attention to what others are calling highlights and see if you agree. If a show didn’t go so smoothly, see if you can discern who stumbled and where.
On the nights when there isn’t a show, go back and begin to listen to the myriad classics. Everyone’s got their lists. I found a good one here: http://www.livemusicblog.com/2010/07/23/phish-friday-15-must-hear-shows-for-any-phish-novice/
A quick note here on the legality and types of downloads- as far as I understand it, it is only illegal to download soundboard recordings of shows that Phish have released themselves. That would include soundboard recordings of all recent shows, since they are all sold through livephish.com. This however, would not include audience recordings, or soundboard recordings of older, unreleased shows. You may be wondering what the difference is between an audience and a soundboard recording. Let me explain. There are essentially three types of recordings for live shows. The first is a soundboard recording (SBD), in which the instruments and mics are hardwired straight through the musician’s amplifiers and into the band’s mixing board. These recordings are as crisp and clear as the way in which they were performed. They contain little or no crowd noise. Conversely, an audience recording (AUD) is recorded by a mic held, usually on a boom, somewhere in the crowd, usually by a concertgoer. These recordings are how the show sounds to the crowd, as it comes through the speakers. These can be a lot of fun, especially when you can hear the crowd going nuts. Sometimes it’s almost as exciting as being there! The third type of recording, the matrix (MTX), combines the first two. It’s a SBD recording overlaid with the exciting crowd noise from an AUD. These are great, if you can find them. phishows.com is exactly what it says, and they have a huge catalog of shows to stream or download for free. Another good resource is the internetarchive.org. Between these two sites, you should find plenty to occupy the by-days and off-seasons.
So, I’ve discussed how one might approach listening to the band day in and out, as with following a baseball team, and I’ve discussed the different types of recordings available, but what exactly does one listen for when attempting to critically analyze a Phish show? After all, isn’t that the whole point of active listening? What distinguishes a good show from a not so good one, and why are the greats deemed so? Ah, where to begin…
Despite what anyone will tell you, what it really comes down to is personal preference. If all the blogs are calling a certain show a “best ever,” but it’s full of songs you don’t like, you’ll probably keep it on the shelf. However you might dance your ass off to what the blogs rip as “song based,” or “rock based.” Such a show could become your go-to for high energy summer time fun! All that being said, if you ever want to get involved in discussions on message boards or whatever, there are some less subjective points with which you might want to become familiar.
Fluidity- in this department, Phish shows come in three main varieties. Firstly, there are shows that are cohesive, start to finish experiences, where one song gracefully slides into another in a non-abrupt, non-jarring kind of way. In many ways, the flow of a show can be the most important element in that the more you can forget that you are listening to herky-jerky technology, the more it lends to a wholly immersive experience. When they’ve got it locked in, Phish is playing a show rather than a series of songs. Two things to listen for in regards to fluidity are song transitions and song selections. Transitions are when one song morphs into another without pause, perhaps with teases or hints of the second song within the first. When they get it right, there’s cause for celebration, but this is something with which Phish 3.0 has struggled. There are many instances in the last couple of years where, just as a song seems cleared for takeoff, it’s almost as though someone pulls the plug or veers off the chicken path, intimidated by the thought of colliding headfirst into a monster jam. As far as song selection goes, this has more to do with maintaining the mood and energy of the overall set. One thing nobody wants to hear is a jammed out, exploratory set shattered into fragments by spliced in singles.
The second type of show in regard to fluidity is exactly this type of fragmented show. These shows feel like they have been partitioned into “blocks,” often times with completely different feels or themes. These aren’t always entirely bad; sometimes it nice to see a variety of ideas expressed over a series of movements.
The third type of show is what people frequently refer to as the “rock” show or as being “song based.” These are the shows that simply contain a series of singles with little or no regard to expressed exploration or continuity through a set list. They are much more akin to the type of show any other band in the world would play, like singles off their latest record. These shows are fine too. They often are very danceable and contain a high amount of energy. Phish seems to favor this type of show for festivals where they are not the only performers, perhaps they believe it makes them more accessible to a larger audience. These shows are great for learning the songs, in their simpler forms, played in a fun and energetic way, so as to later contrast them to the more complex and exploratory versions.
Jamming and Exploration- As I mentioned before, many of Phish’s songs contain multiple intricate parts, and there are marked changes between the various movements, Fluffhead and You Enjoy Myself for example, amongst others. If you’re not yet familiar with the songs, much of this may seem like random improv, as Phish generally pulls it off with such fluidity and ease, but it is not actually “jamming” at all. That isn’t to say that Phish won’t sometimes alter these sections to throw people for a loop and keep things interesting, but generally much of this is composed and performed just as practiced. Jamming is when the band jumps into the deep end, without knowing ahead of time where the song will go, how long it will last, or where it will end. Essentially, they are making it up as they go. When the synergy is good, Phish moves as one with intricate interplay, and the result is spiritual. On the other hand, when there is a disconnect, the result is the sound of four guys hanging out on stage together, each with his own idea, moving in his own separate direction- generally clunky and clumsy.
People usually break jamming down into two categories aptly referred to as type 1 and type 2. Type 1 jamming is really an extension of the song being played. The band usually maintains the time signature and key of the structured part of the song and runs with it, much in the same way most musicians will perform an extended solo. The result can be a trance groove, or a dance groove, or a blistering solo. The possibilities are endless, but with type 1 jamming the groove rarely leaves the box.
Type 2 jamming, on the other hand, is where the band completely leaves the song being performed behind and launches into something with a completely different structure, or sometimes with no structure at all. With this type of jamming, the time signature can shift on a dime, or disintegrate entirely. There is no telling where the song will go, or what it will sound like when it gets there. These are often the most exciting parts of a show for fans of the Phish, because it involves the most amount of risk. The music that is being played live has never been played before, and is being created in the moment. It has a life of its own, and can’t be forced in any one direction, much like four hands using an Ouija board. These are the transformative moments, when the music ceases to be a show and becomes an experience. All else can be forgiven if the band shows that it is willing to take that leap, to hang it all out on the line because the payoff is so rewarding. Look and listen for these moments, as many times the “quality” of a show will hinge on them.
Energy- This aspect is the one that is the most difficult to describe, luckily just about everbody knows what I’m talking about. As a guitar player myself, I can tell you that there are times when I pick up my axe and my fingers just feel slow and sluggish, nothing seems to be coming out right. Conversely, and unexplainably, sometimes my fingers seem to dance with ease, even the tones ring truer. I think with Phish, or with any baseball team, it’s the same. There are just off days. I guess with the number of shows the band plays over the course of a year, we can’t expect them all to be winners. What’s more, if all the shows were of the same caliber, it would mean that the band wasn’t taking the risks that make them exciting, as described before. But the energy of a show doesn’t solely rely on the performance of the band. The crowd also has a lot to do with it; the more the audience is into it, the more the band responds and plays off it. If you listen for it, the interplay between Phish and the audience definitely comes across on the tapes, and can push the show to another level. Aside from affecting the way the band plays, it can be a lot of fun to hear the crowd. This is the main reason MTX recordings are so sought after.
That’s about it, that’s about all I have for you. I’m sure there is much I left out, but there should be enough here to get you started. There are people out there who will think that this guide is completely pointless, that a person ought to just put the music on, and if they like it, they like it. To a degree they’re right, no amount of guidance is going to make you like something that you think sounds like crap. When I was younger, I wasn’t so much interested in analyzing the music, I just wanted to dance! Now that I’m older though, and my whole approach to music has changed, I want to know why I like something, I want to be able to talk about it with others and be speaking the same language. When you think about it, Jazz aficionados have been doing this for a long time. If you like the music, give it some time. It’s like any hobby; I hope the resources I’ve provided will aid you on your journey!
Summer tour begins next Thursday 6/7. In the mean time download and enjoy Live Bait Vol. 7 for free! It’s a killer!