By: Steve Siegel (@thebarnpresents) & Brian Brinkman (@sufferingjuke)
Photos: Phish From The Road (@Phish_FTR)
Neither of us attended any of the shows on fall tour, but we both had a great time playing along at home. Banking on this bit of detachment, we decided to have a conversation about the what these twelve shows and twenty-five sets signal to us about the state of Phish in November of 2014. Here is what transpired:
Steve: Let's start in the obvious place: Halloween. There was definitely a mixed reaction to last year's Wingsuit set, with most people who defended the choice using words like "bold", "risky", and "innovative". As if the existence of those songs alone was proof of the band's ongoing creative prowess.
I was glad to see Phish still writing, but honestly the songs at the time felt warmed over, trite, inconsequential. That carried over to the release of Fuego to me. There was limitless hype about a band pushing ever forward in their 30th year, but I was largely ambivalent about the actual compositions.
But we're not here to talk about Fuego/Wingsuit. I bring it up because Halloween 2014 was the true embodiment of everything that was attributed to that set by its defenders. Most bands, even so-called nostalgia acts, write and perform new songs (maybe not debuted all in a row... but still) -- but Halloween '14 was something else entirely. So much so that much of the conversation ends up being about what exactly it is as opposed to its perceived quality (which is also high). When the discussion turns that way, you know you've created some serious next level art.
Maybe my point is that last year's risk failed? This year, there was so much more that could have possibly gone wrong and virtually nothing did. From concept to execution, it all just felt so groundbreaking. How would you compare, or would you prefer not to?
Brian: I agree, Wingsuit and whatever the fuck we'd call this year are related. Personally, I was a huge fan of Wingsuit for many of the reasons you listed, however, I thought the finished product of Fuego was timid. Also, I think many of those songs re-pushed the band in a more song-based direction which had been the death-knell of 2009-2010. Granted, I think aspects of many of the songs touched upon themes I've always wanted out of Phish, but yes, while I'm very hesitant to call Wingsuit a failure, I do think this year was FAR more of a success in terms of the way the band threw their fans off, and ultimately delivered their product.
Listening back to fall tour, it's clear there's a lot of tension in the tour's first 10ish days. Why? I've been chatting on twitter about this a lot. I think it was a combination of the logistical pressure of delivering a set such as this combined with the fear that they'd get the same mixed reception from fans. Add to that the low energy at the west coast shows and I think it led to this weird vibe permeating throughout the tour. That said, there are specific moments throughout the tour where there jams elevated in a way that coincided with NOTHING of the surrounding show/tour. These show me that the Halloween set was impacting their playing positively in much the same way the build up to Wingsuit during the fall 2013 tour.
What exactly this is is ambiguous to say the least. Personally, it's the closest I think Phish has come to combining their ability to connect on a higher level through instrumental music with the theatrics that have always bled into their biggest and riskiest moments. That they finally combined the two 31 yrs in their career is all the more astounding. I think these songs will begin to morph into jams that will become bigger songs/jams over the next year in the same way the Wingsuit/Fuego songs dominated setlists throughout this past year.
Relatedly, it was notable to me that NO Fuego songs were played on 10/31. It was almost as if they were saying, "okay, you've all had your chance, now let's see how these new songs work out." To hear Trey seamlessly find "The Dogs" in the middle of "Light" on 11/1 was really all the assurance I needed to all but buy my Miami tickets...
Steve: The idea that these "songs" will take off and become a part of the next year's repertoire is a popular one. Obviously, they already worked a couple of callbacks in the final two Vegas shows, but these seemed to be more like quick teases and shouted references than a deliberate working of these much more mature jams into the show. I suppose they can be forgiven have just played the entire thing to kick off the weekend.
As an avowed JadedVet™, I am remarked about how much this reminded me of "the old days." I felt that throughout the nineties, Phish's calling card was the ability (really willingness) to always top themselves... to key in on some new aspect of their playing, work it into their songwriting and stage show, and then start the cycle again.
For the first time in forever, I feel that evergreen optimism. This idea that we collectively can't even process what this is -- that's what I felt for so many years and was missing in 3.0. Yes, the playing has followed a upward trajectory since March of '09, but to say that Exile, Waiting For Columbus or Wingsuit were game-changers would be over-stating things. The fact that the Phishbill was essentially a big gag, and the band is so guarded about interviews creates such an air of mystery about what it all means. I love it.
That said, I think it's also mysterious that this sort of came out of left field. You and I had exchanged emails about how the tour had been underwhelming heading into SF. I guess I wouldn't be surprised if things dropped back to status quo either. Long breaks seem to reset the clock. I would imagine we're in for four shows after a two month break and then another significant chunk of Phish off time again to start 2015 Will they divert back to "muscle memory"? Is that why the beginning of this tour suffered?
Brian: The idea of them topping themselves is an interesting one. When I wrote about December 1995, one of the points I continued to hammer home was what made December 1995 (and then December 1997) so incredible was not simply the music they made, but that prior to these peaks, they'd achieved incredible highs already, numerous times, as a band. Where so many other bands would be satisfied with, say, August 1993, or June 1994, Phish continually said, nope, there's more we can do here. And they did it, and they were better for it.
As a fan who came on in '03, it's been, perhaps easy, for me to reach for these kinds of moments, and I've felt them - Fall 10, Storage Jam, Dicks 2012, MSG 13, etc - with the utmost sincerity. That said, there is something distinctively different from this Halloween set. For the first time since I started listening to Phish, it feels as though they're completely moving beyond the idea of a traditional song + jam approach.
Throughout this past summer it felt as though they were battling with themselves over how to structure a show. Great Woods through Randall's saw them fit long jams into a whole show structure that sometimes made the part feel greater than the sum. From CMAC through Dick's it felt as though they were seeking to create this idea that the whole show could be the jam, thus creating fully flowing sets of music where the idea of one song ending and another beginning was this obscure thing. I believe that dichotomy played a huge role in influencing this Halloween set. Can they build off this? That's a big question.
Certainly it's a lot harder to develop an abstract approach to art that's also cohesive within some semblance of structure when you only play for 2 1/2 - 3 months out of a year. That said, I'd strongly argue their musical advances forward since June 2012 have been unprecedented since 1997. I believe they're far more confident and connected today than they've been since their mid-90's peak, and I believe that confidence allows muscle memory to overtake rust. However, what we're talking about here is ultimately far more ambitious than simply fitting 10 new songs into the rotation.
If you want my honest opinion, I'd say they need at least one more tour throughout the year. Something in the spring. I don't think they need to revist the mid-90's 150 dates a year method, and I think the space they've given each other for families and side projects ultimately help Phish, but I do think one more 10 day / 2 week tour would be beneficial to the project.
Steve: This is why I enjoy these exchanges. Your enthusiasm is a bit contagious and helps me put aside my cynicism for at least a few moments.
But I will agree to disagree on the "more confidence today then ever before" argument. If there's so much confidence, why are we seeing the same 4-5 songs as platforms for improv night after night? In the exact same parts of the show (i.e. set two opener)? I feel it makes for a lot of same sounding / same structured shows as opposed to gotta be there, gotta hear over-and-over favorites. Maybe this is another reason that pre-Vegas (or SF?) fall tour fell a bit flat?
You mention Fall '10 as a peak; maybe my memory is not what it used to be but I struggle to think of a single show from that tour that is a standout. The Storage Jam was an exciting moment, but, for me, doesn't have much re-listen value and very little of that style seemed to seep into the general pattern of subsequent shows. I think the big, obvious triumphs (Dicks '12, Tahoe Tweezer) do represent points on a progressive journey, but weren't through-the-looking-glass moments that unveiled a whole new style of play for the band. They basically regressed to the mean, albeit a mean on a slightly upward trending trajectory.
I'll admit, I was a vociferous critic that the rotation needed an injection of new material to mitigate this. Then, when the Fuego songs were introduced, it was a careful-what-you-wish for situation -- largely set killers and first set filler. The promise is that the Chilling, Thrilling material can unleash something transformational. If not as a direct infusion into setlists, at least as the propensity to explore those types of musical spaces that is not wedded to any specific song.
Brian: Look, it's hard to predict the future with Phish, and I've been wrong every time I tried. I have no idea if they crafted the Halloween set just as a fun gag knowing the fanbase will run with it. I have no idea if they're going to incorporate these jams into regular rotation ala the Siket Disc in 1999, or if by this time next year we're all going to be bitching about how we still get "Fuego"s every show, but no "Birds" or "Shipwreck."
If I had to go with my gut though, I think they do incorporate them in the loose rotation, and I think it directly impacts their desire to jam. That said, and I know we've said this before, it's clear they need a bit more time on the road to really gel and get comfortable and then play a loose yet confident show like 11/2.
Will this happen? I doubt it, and I'm okay with it. If Phish wants to play 50ish shows a year, but is still capable of pulling off a Halloween set like they did last weekend, that's saying something, right? They could easily be going through a list of cover albums year after year and just rally off a bunch of classic rock albums to the pleasure of a lot of their fanbase. Or, worse, they could just say the idea of playing Halloween shows is too much for them to deal with, that they just want to play shows, and that's enough. The fact that they're testing themselves like this 31 years in their career is huge for me as a fan.
I think the most optimistic view one could take in regards to this recent Halloween is this: perhaps Phish has reached a place with their shows where they want to change the dynamic and formula of them. For however surprising one may say their shows were in the mid-90s vs today, the reality is they've ALWAYS followed a structured rock approach with space for improv.
Maybe they want to infuse some different energy in this, and next summer we're going to see them really push the themes of these songs into their shows so that the reverse is true. Each of their previous Halloween sets have always had immense impact on their sound going forward. One only has to look at the coverless MSG NYE and the second half of summer tour that highly-valued the breakdown within songs as a way that Fuego impacted everything we've heard since 10/31/13. Would be interesting to see them at least attempt to run with the idea of these instrumentals becoming some defining aspect of 2015.
Steve: Great points (and again very encouraging logic), though I argue that 2 of the 3 prior Halloween sets in 3.0 had virtually no effect on the band's playing. That's the gamble here. Hoping that the ambition of the Chilling, Thrilling set puts us at .500 for Halloween sets that were material in this era. That would portend great things going into 2015!