Long before the June 2010 tour that featured seemingly one new – and totally obscure – cover every night, there was the 11/27/2009 Set II, way-out-of-left-field debut of “Golden Age.” A performance which shocked the fanbase at the time, it immediately appeared to have granted the band their most jam-happy cover since “Crosseyed & Painless” and “Rock & Roll” entered the rotation more than a decade before. Bubbling with syncopated grooves, a communicable melody, and lyrics that spoke directly to Phish’s current state, it seemed a no brainer that the ten-minute version that highlighted the first night of Albany would quickly grow to join “Light,” “Down With Disease,” “Rock & Roll,” and “Drowned” as the reliable jam vehicles of 3.0.
Nearly a year would go by however before we’d hear the song again, when, on 10/11/2010 it opened the second set of the middle show of the largely forgettable Broomfield, CO run. Eight months later it returned, once again, out of nowhere, opening up the second set on an inconsistent Wednesday night in Darien Lakes. For whatever reason, from there on it firmly entered a 5 – 10 show rotation for Phish.
While up until this point, the “jam” had remained largely contained, the song’s next performance – opening the third set of the 07/02/2011 Super Ball IX show – would display, for the first time, “Golden Age’s” improvisational potential. Seamlessly building off the dance-heavy beats of the song’s origin, the band moved it swiftly away from melody, into something of a Mike-Trey staccatoed duel. Menacing, deranged, invigorating, and constantly moving, the jam spent it’s first four-ish minutes figuring out if it was going to self-implode or not, before Mike and Fish discovered a more structured type of foundation to push forward, thus allowing Trey and Page to enrich the song with plinko’d scales.
The key here was a distinct focus on the song’s rhythm, rather than on the soaring melody that accompanied it’s populist chorus. Taking a cue from the band’s plinko jams of the last two years, and the schizophrenic “Boogie On Reggae Woman” from 05/27/2011, the jam ultimately resembled something totally un-Phish like, at least in their current state. At times it sounds like a totally different band, like, perhaps what a looser incarnation of Atoms For Peace would sound like.
And yet, while there are certainly moments of brilliance throughout – check out the segment from 11:21 – 12:05 in particular – overall, the emphasis placed on the beat appears to be a barrier that the band keeps running into, rather than an opening to further exploration. After about seven minutes of jamming, it ends abruptly with a Trey-led segue into “Prince Caspian.” While one can hardly fault the band for not figuring out how to “properly jam” a song the first time they attempt to, the inability to get past the initial segment of beat-driven discorse can tell us a lot about why Phish has struggled up until this point to truly break “Golden Age” open.
Since it’s performance on 07/02/2011, the song has been played 14 more times. Out of that, only 3 of those versions have been truly memorable, or worth revisiting. That is, unless of course you happened to be at a show it was played at, and have a particular emotional tie to a specific version. While one can’t argue the fact that it’s just a damn fun song to hear live, to this point, only the 07/03/2012, 09/01/2012, and 12/29/2012 versions have truly pushed the song beyond it’s structural limits into some sense of transcendence. And of these, 07/03/2012 truly stands out as the only version where the band has capably navigated into the ether, displaying the infinite possibilities of the song.
Still, though, each of these performances has fallen short of totally pushing the song past an initial jam segment, and into the complete vastness of exploratory jamming. Each, falling under 15 minutes, has come to resemble the multitude of jams from 2009 and 2010 that, while yes, they’d traversed beyond the confines of “Rock and Roll,” “Drowned,” and “Down With Disease,” couldn’t quite turn that corner into open space, instead opting for ambient washes and a fade into the next song.
So, the question bears asking at this point: what’s the deal with “Golden Age”? Why can’t the band seem to figure out how to take a song that lyrically speaks directly to the sentiments of 3.0, and musically caters to each of their individual musical specialties out past the structural barriers of the song, and into the unknown potential it clearly has?
I have a theory that the current problem with the song as a jam vehicle rests in the fact that the band is simply focusing too much energy on jamming based on the frenetic beats of the song, and less on developing space to jam within. As has been argued at length here on tackle & lines, Phish is at their best musically when they step back and allow the music to develop itself. Rarely are they successful when they try to force ideas.
While, yes, much of their brilliance in the early-90’s was due in large part to this exact form of forced inspiration through their speed-jazz jams, the “Include Your Own Hey” exercise, and many of the abstract, shape-shifting jams of 1994, it was, in reality, an altogether different time, and, they an altogether different band. They toured relentlessly, and practiced even more so, thus catering to said freneticism in their music. Since their peak musical month of December 1995 however, and the evolution to sparser, more ambient-driven jams, the majority of the band’s success has occurred when they step back from the music, and accept their role as conduits to a larger musical force, rather than drivers.
In 3.0, this hurdle of allowing the music to guide them, rather than the other way around, took much of their first 18-months back together to totally accept and integrate within. Even then, Phish spent much of the latter part of 2010 and 2011 still fighting off the habitual tendencies to take control of their music. 2012 was far and away the best year Phish has had in the past decade, much of it due to their acceptance that if they just kept playing, innovative ideas were right around the corner. It makes sense then, that three of the four best versions of “Golden Age” have come in the past year. And yet, for all the improvisational success they were finding at Dick’s and MSG – I mean, they found a way to substantially jam “Farmhouse” and “Prince Caspian,” after all – “Golden Age” still remained that confusing outlier that displayed a band somewhat incapable of letting go and allowing the music to dictate their path.
While both the 09/01/2012 and 12/29/2012 have moments of connection, each suffer from this overt focus on the beat, which in turn adds far more noise and activity to the jam than is productive for a jam to flourish. In many ways, “Golden Age,” at this point in it’s existence, is reminiscent of “Light” prior to the 08/07/2010 version. While yes, we’d had the 08/07/2009 calypso jam, and the 11/01/2009 descent into Hell, overall, “Light” had become something of an inconsistent mess of whale call’s, disjointed rhythms, and an total lack of communication that prevented the song from realizing it’s full potential. Then, out of nowhere came the Greek “Light”: a patient, gorgeous version that built off a simple melody and displayed how far the song could traverse.
If the key to any substantial jamming is to be found in “Golden Age,” one need to look no further than the Trey and Page interwoven melodies from 8:17 – 8:46 on the 07/03/2012 version, which directly led to Trey deliberately opening up his playing, allowing more sound to grow within the notes. As Page follows suit – injecting the jam with a hushed, contemplative, and yet, somewhat errie piano line – Mike and Fish noticeably tone down their aggressive beats. Still rooted in electronica, their playing becomes muted as the jam shifts into another dimension. Touching on ambient themes, and a brief foray into soft rock, the jam ultimately fades away into nothing. It’s short, for sure, but it gives a hint as to where the song could go if the band allowed it the opportunity to breathe in the future.
As Phish has displayed time and again in their 3.0 evolution, the key to jamming at this point in their career is with a less-is-more approach. From the 12/31/2009 “Ghost,” and 08/07/2010 “Light,” to the 07/03/2011 “A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing,” and 06/22/2012 “Twist,” when they get out of the way of the music they’re far more apt to discover untapped melodies, and vast open space that lead to groundbreaking jams. For a song that speaks to Phish’s current state like few others, and one that is so clearly being given the platform to dominate a show, one can only hope that Phish can figure out how to take “Golden Age” out there. Based on the evolutionary steps forward of the last few years, one wouldn’t be too surprised if this were the summer that finally featured an array of creative, boundary-pushing, and exploratory jams based off of “Golden Age.”