In the spring of 2009, in the nascent days of Phish 3.0, the band choicely debuted two songs that have come to shape the entire era. In their inaugural second set of 3.0 they introduced “Backwards Down The Number Line,” a song that not only bore the seedlings of Phish’s reunion, but has also come to symbolize the celebratory and communal spirit surrounding their return. Three months later, on the first night of their summer tour, the band unveiled “Light” by way of a noise-ladened segue out of “Tweezer.” While the former song will forever be associated with the unbridled joy surrounding Phish’s return in 2009, “Light” has since come to represent the constantly evolving state of Phish in 3.0. No performance of the song clearly displays its potential, its power, and its ability to push Phish beyond what they once thought possible in this era, than the 24-minute raucous jam on 09/01/2012 at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, CO.
In the nine months since that performance, the Dick’s “Light” has been adorned with literally every accolade a jam could receive. It’s been called the best jam of 3.0, a top-25 jam of Phish’s entire career, a game-changing moment, the best jam since the Nassau “Tweezer,” the onset of Phish 4.0, et al. While the jam is certainly deserving of a few of those superlatives, and while it clearly represented a shape-shifting moment in the now four-year-old experiment of Phish 3.0, it’s legacy is somewhat more complicated – and overall, more rewarding – than a four-word soundbite can accurately conclude. To fully appreciate and understand the legacy of the Dick’s “Light,” however, we must revisit the building block moments that led to it.
If the manner in which “Light” was debuted on 05/31/2009 was any indication of the potential the song possessed, it was buried within the subtle nod of its emergence, from the cauldron of a fading “Tweezer” jam. The mother-of-all Phish jams, it was all too fitting for this era’s main jam vehicle to be ushered into existence from the former’s embers, regardless of the fact that that night’s performance of “Light” concluded not with a jam, but rather promptly with a lovely, fluttering and layered melodic vocal jam. Two weeks later, the band gave a bit more of an indication of how they planned to use “Light” when it appeared once again from the depths of a noise jam, this time out of “Rock & Roll,” before going on to produce a stunning, beatless, ambient, noise-based jam itself.
We would only hear “Light” twice in the next five months, however both performances would rank as the two best of the year, and would provide the band with important creative reference points when returning to the jam in the future. In the vast nothingness of central Washington, the band dropped a second set “Light” that would display both a willingness to explore, and a keen desire to diversify the jam, by infusing calypso melodies and vocal harmonies into the song’s open-ended jam. A performance that ranked as the best version of the song until exactly one year later, the Gorge “Light” still reigns as one of the most rewarding and creatively prodding moments of 3.0. Three months later, in the waning moments of Festival 8, “Light” emerged wholly unexpectedly, diving, this time, back into a swamp of noise. Displaying a eagerness to explore the underworld like they hadn’t since 2004, the jam proved that the key to future success within “Light” was an egoless approach, and a willingness to accept whatever direction unfolded once they’d moved past the song’s melodic conclusion.
We’d see the song six more times throughout the 2009, and, while each performance displayed the band’s willingness to take chances like they simply wouldn’t with much of the rest of their material, only the version from 12/02/2009 truly hooked up in the ways its brilliant predecessors did.
At the end of 2009, two things were blatantly clear: “Light” was the closest thing we had to a fully-formed jam vehicle in the batch of Joy songs, and, its best performances were driving the band further into the unknown than they were willing to go with much of the rest of their material.
For their first second set of the second year of 3.0, Phish aptly chose “Light” to open. Pushing deep into a polyrhythmic noise jam that bordered constantly on internal destruction, the 06/11/2010 “Light” was reminiscent more of the failed experiments of the previous fall, than the two peak performances we’d heard in Washington and California. The remainder of the First Leg of the 2010 Summer Tour featured an array of “Light” jams in this model: the band pressing deep into unknown territory, yet unable to fully hook-up and create any memorable musical passages out of their experiments. Aside from aspects of the Raleigh “Light” on July 1st, no version truly transgressed beyond initial concepts that, under the weight of so much combined pressure and noise, seemed to be infringing on the basic concepts of improvisational jamming that “Light” had initially appeared to cater so well to.
Namely, a dedication to a simple back-and-forth musical conversation, what had made the 08/07/2009 and 11/01/2009 “Light’s” so compelling and influential was the fact that the band listened to each other throughout, while allowing a necessary amount of space to develop within the jam, all leading to a singular concept being followed, and a transgressive jam being created. Whatever inspiration and focus was at play in the two aforementioned versions reared it’s head again on the final night of the Greek Run, which had already proven to be a giant leap forward for a band who one month earlier looked increasingly lost. Moving aggressively through the song’s caustic post-lyrical jam, the entire band backed off around 8-minutes in, perhaps allowing the breeze from the Bay, the archaic, and cozy confines they were playing in, and the historical legacy of the Dead to overtake them over the course of the jam’s final nine minutes. A patient, spacey, melodic, gorgeous jam followed, rewarding both band and fan’s alike for their patience with the ever-pesky young jam vehicle.
Two months would go by once again before another substantial version was heard, this time in Augusta, ME. Two weeks into a Fall Tour that had yet to fully realize it’s promise, the band used a tiny college basketball arena in the center of Maine to not only confirm the fact that the second night of Charleston was not a fluke show, but also to grace us with THE jam of the year, and an all-time version of “Light.” Incorporating the melodic rhythms of the Gorge version with the spacious patience and simplicity of the Greek’s, the segment from 8:51 – 11:01 is some of the most hooked-up Phish you’ll hear out of them in this era, and on par with some of the best two minutes of music the band has simply ever made. Proof that the key to success with “Light” was simplicity, rhythmic brilliance, and sublime melodies, the song was a microcosm of Phish in the Fall of 2010; on the cusp of rediscovering their past greatness, yet still incapable of summoning the inspiration, focus, and communication on a nightly basis.
Yet another ten months would pass until we’d hear another “Light” on the level of the four peaks it had experienced in it’s young history. While it had settled firmly in the five-show rotation, and while it’s two successive performances on the Fall 2010 Tour showed continual potential and advancement, the song ultimately fell flat throughout the June 2011 Tour. A tour that started with such promise in Bethel ultimately sputtered as it moved southward, and “Light” was never allotted the type of focus that a centerpiece jam deserves. While it’s Superball IX performance midway through the second set of one of the best shows of 3.0 featured a patient jam that led to a rewarding rhythmic jam, it ultimately fell a tad short of the expectations that were now associated with it.
In a parking lot-turned-venue on the shores of Lake Tahoe, Phish stole a page out of the Storage Jam, infusing “Light” with a kaleidoscopic jam that teetered on the edge of destruction numerous times, yet ultimately proved to be one of the most transgressive jams of the year. Diverging completely from the melodic jams that had come to define the best performances of “Light,” the song wholly embraced space and rhythm while focusing heavily on demented passages that only a month earlier typically signified the song’s demise. Displaying a dexterity that, to this point, the song had yet to fully embrace, the Tahoe “Light” was nothing less than the precursor to a vast array of innovative “Light’s” in 2012 that would ultimately pave the path to the incredible Dick’s version.
While we’d have to once again wait another ten months for a mesmerizing version of the song, 2012 will forever be remembered as not only the year the band fully rediscovered what it meant to be Phish again, but also the year “Light” fully arrived as THE jam vehicle of 3.0. Beginning with the “Light -> Manteca -> Light” version on 06/16/2012, the band played six top-tier versions of the song over the course of the summer. From the playful and rhythmic “Manteca” laced, “Crosseyed” teased version in Atlantic City, came the re-birth of the calypso jam in “Light” in a version sandwiched within a phenomenal “Mike’s Groove” in Burgettstown. A week later at Alpine Valley, they showcased a completely different version than had ever been played. Abandoning any concept of rhythmic influence, the band instead opted for a subdued version that ultimately bled into a blissful Trey-Mike-Page duel. On the last night of the Summer Tour’s First Leg, they again dropped a masterpiece, here infusing the theme of the jam from the 08/07/2009 “Sneakin’ Sally Thru The Alley,” using the “Light” jam as something of a historical reference point to how far they’d come in the past three years.
The massively hyped BGCA shows in San Francisco finally proved worthy of their ballyhoo in the final show of the run. The second set of 08/19 in particular featured some of the most locked-in, adventurous playing on the year, heard particularly in the high-octane “Light” that emerged from this era’s finest “Crosseyed & Painless.” Combining many of the reference points of the monumental “Light’s” of the past, the jam drove forward with exacting rhythmic interplay, while still retaining a source of melodic brilliance and simplicity. Evolving one step beyond however, the jam incorporated a rock foundation, the likes of which we’d never before heard with “Light.” Building towards a spectacular peak that referenced “Tweezer Reprise” before segueing into “Sneakin’ Sally Thru The Alley,” the jam foreshadowed the Dick’s version ten days later while still carving out a space for itself in the growing pantheon of top-shelf “Light’s.”
After four years of Phish 3.0 “Light” remains as the band’s go-to jam vehicle, on par with “Tweezer,” “Down With Disease,” and “Rock & Roll” as the band’s most reliable song’s with which to launch willfully into the unknown. And yet, up until 09/01/2012, no version of “Light” had ever crossed the ominous 20-minute mark that’s historically been the gauge by which all the band’s best jam vehicles have been judged by. While 3.0 Phish has been unique in the band’s ability to access that place far more quickly than ever before, there is still something about the jams that extend past 20-minutes. Encompassing such time and such space, they force the band to work through various themes, typically resulting in a segment(s) of music that historically outlast 99% of the entire music they’ve made.
The Dick’s “Light”
The first thing one needs to know about the Dick’s “Light” is that it almost never happened. Seriously, listen to the segment from 7:09 – 11:10, and you’ll hear a band that simply can’t hook up. At times it sounds like the jam will be abandoned completely and they’ll opt for an easy segue into “Boogie On Reggae Woman.” Mike and Trey aren’t even reading the same book, and Fishman’s rhythmic playfulness borders on the overbearing confusion that defined so many failed “Light’s” over the years. Had the band given up and moved on with the set it would have been a colossal failure, the likes of which they probably couldn’t have recovered from for the rest of the weekend. At the halfway point in the tour-closing weekend, Phish had already played hand’s down their best show of 3.0 the night before. The worry now however, was that they’d blown their load too quickly, and would sputter to the end of summer, rather than conclude it with the inspired play that had defined it’s entirety. For however epic the “Run Like An Antelope” opener had been, or the “Tweezer -> Fluffhead” segment in Set I, there was something of a tense anxiety hanging over the 09/01 show, as many in the crowd wondered if they had anything left to top, or, at least match the power of the FUCK YOUR FACE show.
At 13:04 Trey begins toying with his effects, and moves the driving groove they’d been residing in for the past two minutes into a minored key. The musical shift has an immediate effect on the band as Mike sharpens his funk-ladend support, Fishman begins pounding away with a heavier approach, and Page moves to the clav, thus layering over the seductive groove the band has going. Akin to their best jams from 1997, the section is completely reliant on the powerful foundation established by Mike and Fish, which in turn allows Trey and Page to flutter on the surface, establishing melody, and driving the jam forward. By 13:45 it’s clear we’re in this jam for the long haul. Trey instigates a flurry of clean, melodic soloing, displaying a level of comfort within the jam, while also referencing some of the best moments in the band’s history; often times they get so deep into a jam, that they inadvertently start writing new songs in the moment.
At 15:36 the jam turns dark again as Trey instigates a sinister rock riff. As the jam becomes more intense it also becomes more focused and driven, and it’s becoming clear where we’re heading. Historically, the band’s most rewarding jams have been those that explored a vast array of musical dimensions over a period of time, before leading into a peaking jam that, thanks to their emphasis on the theory of tension and release, created a enthralling, celebratory, and ultimately tribal experience for anyone in attendance, while recreating itself accordingly for anyone listening in the future. A concept that had been essentially unattainable in the 3.0 era, many of the band’s jams failed to reach the 20-min threshold that typically cater to these types of moments, because they’d either been incapable of pushing their improv totally into the unknown while still staying focused on an end goal, or because they’d abandon any such goal midway through jam, opting instead for another song.
As the band built a foundation for a massive release of energy, the tension that had hung over the venue until this point faded, replaced instead by a collective energy, all focused on the driven music emanating from the stage. In line with the best music they’ve ever made, the Dick’s “Light” was ultimately rooted in a simple rock-based jam that felt like it could be recreated by any band. Yet, that’s exactly where the power of Phish comes into play. Four resoundingly talented musicians, who, at the peak of their power could interweave fugues and 7/8 time signatures into their songs, Phish is ultimately at their best when they abandon their challenging musical concepts, and instead focus on space, melody, and communication.
When at 20:09 the band released the tension for the first time in a heavy-handed peak, the stadium went nuts. The collective release of energy and emotion was palpable. Another peak at 20:29 only further raised the bar on the jam. Yet nothing could have prepared anyone for the segment from 21:08 – 22:45 which featured not one, not two, not three, but four massive peaks of music, some of the best guitar work we’ve heard out of Trey in years, and a massive outpouring of unintelligible cheering in the crowd that made one feel like their favorite team had just won the World Series. Glancing at the stage one could see the band was just as thrilled by the music as the audience. After four years back together, they had finally reached the peak of the mountain once more.
While not the best jam of the year – that would come the next night in the absolutely epic “Sand” – what the Dick’s “Light” represented was a complete microcosm of everything Phish had been working towards since they discussed reuniting for the first time in mid-2008. After all the struggles. After all the ripcorded jams. After all the shows where they just couldn’t hook up. After all the questions surrounding Trey’s ability to still master the guitar, everything had come together in one jam that summed up everything that was incredible about Phish in 2012. The fact that it occurred within the confines of their 3.0 jam vehicle, made it all the more rewarding and memorable. A song that debuted with so much raw potential, fans and band alike waded through a multitude of mediocre versions interspersed with these great leaps forward, each of which led in some way to the version played on 09/01/2012.
Perhaps the most telling sign of the lasting power of the Dick’s “Light” came in the following song, “Boogie On Reggae Woman.” The song they’d almost abandoned “Light” for, this was the loosest and most playful version one could imagine. It sounds throughout like the band just took the biggest shit of their lives, now feeling re-born, re-energized. A performance that will outlast the 3.0, the legacy of the Dick’s “Light” is one of proof that when Phish works towards a musical goal, no matter how long it may take them to achieve this goal, once they do – and as tackle & lines has pointed out continuously, they always do – it results in a collective moment of celebratory release and communal elation. Part of the reason we go from concert to concert, city to city, webcast to webcast, and listen to hours upon hours of Phish shows in our free time, we’re always keenly aware that, just around the corner may be the next Dick’s “Light.”
*Special thanks to phishtracks.com for the song links