Review: Fuego

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Depending on your level of intensity as a Phish fan, your take on the band’s 2013 Halloween performance probably fell in one of two camps. The decision to unveil twelve brand new songs – rather than the traditional approach of covering an album from one of their musical influences – was either an inspiring risk in the band’s 30th year, or it was a cringeworthy gimmick that further proved how out-of-touch Phish was from the endless desires of their fanbase.

The divisive nature of conversation within the Phish community is such that grey is rarely a viable color option. Whether or not this is due to its fervent dedication, or its preference for polemics over metered discussions is still up for debate.

(For the sake of clarity and openness, I personally thought Wingsuit was one of the defining moments of 2013. Both for the balls it displayed by the band, and the shift it initiated towards the future of Phish, I unabashedly viewed it as an overwhelming success.)

Regardless the hyper-dichotomy the initial presentation of (what was dubbed at the time) Wingsuit caused within the Phish community, there was one universal takeaway from it. In both presentation and delivery, it’s clear Phish sought to craft an album that captured the energy, equitable playing, and open-ended musical possibilities that have made their live shows so incomparable within the realm of modern rock. That this particular goal is so critical for a band entering their third decade – a band that has both proven their merit within the live realm of the rock universe, while accomplishing nearly every artistic goal they’ve ever strived towards – says everything you need to know about the quality of their studio album’s to date.

To be blunt, Phish’s studio recordings are to their live shows what a burger in SE Asia is to Kuma’s. A tepid imitation that only leaves you craving the real thing that much more.

For as divisive as the initial response t0 Wingsuit was in the Fall of 2013, the leak, and subsequent response to Fuego, has been met with a far more measured shrug and understated grin. New Phish music has arrived, and this is a good thing. Now, much of the community directs their attention to the impending tour where we’ll see just how these ten new songs fit in the ever-expanding Phish catalogue.

Overwhelmingly it seems the Phish community is genuinely pleased with Fuego. The record pops with energy and is sonically weightier than many of the band’s previous efforts. Yet, there’s still a consistent hesitation for many to disarmingly love the record. The reason for this is simple: the task for the band to transfer what makes them special in the live setting into a studio is complicated. It raises questions over what is specifically necessary for Phish to thrive as a band.

Does there need to be an audience present?

Do they need the freedom to play without taking a cut?

How much of an impact does a confined setlist and a time constraint have on their overall level of creativity?

The answers are not simple, and as anyone who’s listened to Fuego can attest, neither are the results.

The record opens with its title-track, a brawny, nine-minute song that has “Set II Opening Jam” written all over it. Recorded live during the 10/30 soundcheck at Boardwalk Hall, “Fuego” is at once the closest representation of live Phish on a studio album, and an absolutely torrid opening statement. Not to mention a veritable showcase for the ongoing resurrection of one Jon Fishman. Throughout, the band sounds confident and adroit. The production is such that the song is left to speak for itself; the levels are simply adjusted here to accentuate the power of each musician’s playing. There’s a franticness to the playing. Listening, it’s as if one can simultaneously latch onto the nerves accompanying the band in the hours before the Halloween show, and, now, as both fans and band anxiously await just how “Fuego” will expand this summer.

The title of the record indicates heat, obviously. By most interpretations, Fuego – in both its phrasing and in the music produced – is a confident assertion from the band as to where they stand in 2014. Whereas 2009 was defined by a communal joy at the simple presence of Phish again, in 2014, nothing short of straight-fire from the band will cut it. By these standards, the album’s opening nine-minutes are as invigorating as they are shocking.

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From there we weave in-and-out of a number of set fillers as the group’s collective songwriting – as well as the individual creations of each member – are put on display. One must point out the overall quality of the songs that make-up the meat of Fuego. Whereas in past Phish records, the ballads and contemplative numbers have tended to be their most disappointing (save for “Fast Enough For You,” “Lifeboy,” and “Thunderhead”) here, these songs shine as individual numbers. Still, there are flaws throughout. Notably, the fact that any concept of flow is essentially tossed to the wayside, and unquestionably each of these songs live and die – in large part – on the production work from Bob Ezrin.

“Devotion To A Dream,” – something of a wizened “Backwards Down The Number Line” – benefits greatly from both the work of Ezrin and a brilliant concluding solo from Trey that hints at his Eat A Peach inspired lead work in the 10/29/2013 “Down With Disease.” Conversely, “The Line” is barely tempered with and is one of the finest overall tracks of the record.

Both “Winterqueen” and “Sing Monica” teeter between overtly cheesy pop and sheer studio dominance. While I’ve never understood Trey’s post-2.0 infatuation with writing as if he were trying to compose Game Of Thrones: The Musical, the spaciousness that hangs within the verses, and the horns that build halfway through, add a completely different dimension to one of the (admittedly) weaker Halloween debuts. Love it or hate it, it’s clear “Sing Monica” is here to stay. If the version from Fuego is any hint though, the reworked solo is going rock live, and could find the most overtly-pop song the band’s written since “The Connection” serving as a reliable Set I closer.

“Halfway To The Moon” – one of the most emotive and mysterious songs the band has debuted in 3.0 – is both sharp and disappointing all at once. Musically, the studio slims it down while equally smoothing out its edges, giving it an even sultrier groove than has been apparent in many live versions. However, the over-production of Page’s vocals eliminates any of the organic quality that has always been key to the song. That it’s always sounded like a haunting mix between Neil Young, The National and Cass McCombs should have been accentuated. Instead, Ezrin drains Page’s voice of any human quality, thus cutting out the personal struggle that is at the core of the song.

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Last week I wrote in depth about both “555” and “Waiting All Night.” While my feelings towards the two as individual songs has yet to change – I fear the production on “555” has swerved into gimmicky terrain, yet am completely blown away by everything about “Waiting All Night” – I find that their placement on the record alters my thoughts towards them ever-so-slightly.

Whereas “555” feels like a proper shift towards the album’s second half following “Sing Monica,” “Waiting All Night” is as awkwardly placed here as it was in it’s two live versions to date. The song is perfectly set up to be an ideal landing spot for a Set II jam, and one can only hope the jarring entrance that’s accompanied it in its infancy doesn’t follow it into 2014.

What’s more is the placement of “Wombat” and “Wingsuit” back-to-back, in the set-up and closing role, only increases the lack of flow that permeates throughout the record. Following the blissful nature of “Waiting All Night,” one has to wonder why we’re dropped into the awkward giddiness of “Wombat” only to then be released in the ethereal and stunning “Wingsuit.”

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A necessary digression:

One of the defining aspects that makes the most memorable Phish shows so transcendent – and so re-listenable – is the presence of flow. Be it due to song selection, or fluid jamming, or an advanced attentiveness to tonal structure and key shifting/uniting within the setlist, Phish’s insistence upon connecting all the separate pieces of their catalogue into linear narratives is something that separates them from most other live acts. One only has to scan the setlists from 2013 to see how setlist structure and flow helped craft some of the best shows of the year, including 07/05/2013, 07/27/2013, 07/30/2013, and 12/29/2013, among others. That so little effort was made to connect the ten pieces of Fuego into something that feels tangible and unified, is one of its biggest disappointments.

The standard of great albums (from Highway 61 Revisited to Dark Side Of The Moon to Sound Of Silver to High Violet to Lost In The Dream) begins and ends with its narrative continuity. Dedicated listeners want to be able to press play and let a record unveil itself to them organically. Repeated listens and interlocking themes, that can only emerge from this kind of listening, tend to materialize from records that flow effortlessly from one song to the next. Most critically, Fuego feels like a collection of songs rather than a linear story.

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A song that was defined by on-stage dancing, an infectious funk-strut, and some of the goofiest, and self-referential jokes that Phish has ever composed, it’s shocking how little fun the band sounds like their having throughout the recorded version of “Wombat.” The vocals are sung without any sense of humor, and the result is an awkward, borderline embarrassing, delivery of a song that clearly requires an all-in mentality. Musically it’s taught and danceable, and the loops that cater the song’s post-explosion will be received with ecstatic praise should they accompany the it this summer.

Whereas Halloween 2013 opened with the blissful airiness of “Wingusit,” Fuego closes with it, and it’s clear this role is far more appropriate for it long-term. (As a side note, for all the issue I have with the overall flow of Fuego, it’s undeniable how perfectly the band nailed their opening/closing selections.)

“Wingsuit” is unquestionably one of the records supreme highlights. The surreal nature and ambient quality that made it one of the immediate keepers on Halloween is ever-present here. And the final break and subsequent solo from Trey is so clearly lifted from David Gilmour it feels like the proper musical nod in its delivery. A song that feels simultaneously like a rebirth and a conclusion, the symbolic nature of it opening 10/31 II and closing Fuego are not lost on this listener. In the same sense, the idea of the song expanding outwards as a Set II Opening Jam, while also working as a landing pad for an extended “Down With Disease” is equally imaginable.

That we have so many structural options with the majority of these songs is a testament to the band’s diverse songwriting capabilities so deep in their career.

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For a band that has always struggled to capture the magic of their live performances within the confines of the studio, Fuego is as close a representation of the true nature of Phish as has ever been put to tape. In it’s best moments – “Fuego,” the powerful solos in “The Line,” “Devotion To A Dream,” “Halfway To The Moon,” and “Sing Monica,” and the ambient bliss of “Waiting All Night” and “Wingsuit” – Fuego feels like a major accomplishment for Phish. And it is.

Never before have they truly come close to honing in on the unbridled energy, and atmospheric spaciousness that drives so many of their fans to travel to see them repeatedly.

And yet, at the same time, what Fuego proves as well is that there’s simply no way Phish can (or will) ever truly recreate the magic that is so ever-present at their shows within the confines of the studio. The issues with flow, the overproduction of certain songs, and the abject tepidness of “Wombat” leave a bad taste in your mouth long after the record finishes. This is not to say the record is a failure in any way. No matter what criticisms you lay on it, it’s unquestionably the band’s strongest record since either Billy Breathes or The Story Of The Ghost.

In the end, it seems clear that even after the applaudable efforts from Phish to craft a studio record that reverberates with the power and energy of their live shows, it may be something of an unattainable goal. So much of what makes Phish’s live shows so unique is polar opposite to what makes a classic album so lasting.

Whereas Phish shows capitalize on the unknown, albums are carefully crafted artifacts. Spontaneity plays such a huge role in every Phish jam, while each moment of transcendence on an album has been labored over for weeks, and sometimes months. The two mediums are neither compatible, nor do they cater to every artist. While Phish ultimately comes up short on Fuego in terms of recreating their live show within the confines of an album, the sheer fact that they took the risk some three decades into their career is reason enough to believe in this band going forward.

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The Best Of Phish – 2013 – Part I

1376985_10151642180686290_587081184_nOn 31 December 2012 Phish opened their final show of the year with a cover of Ricky Nelson’s 1972 hit “Garden Party.” A song Nelson had originally written after being booed off that same Madison Square Garden stage during the 1971 Rock ‘n Roll Revival Show, it was a fitting nod to the place Phish found themselves in both musically, artistically, and personally at the onset of their 30th year. Highlighted by the line, “You can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself,” the song would not only serve as a tongue-in-cheek jab at some of the more impatient members of Phish’s sprawling fan base, but would become something of a rallying cry for the band as they embarked upon their 30th year together as a collective unit.

Throughout 2013, the message of “Garden Party” felt ever-present, as the band sought to craft a six-month-long celebration of everything that had come to define Phish since 1983. In the summer, they emerged from hibernation with an overtly old school, foundational-setting run of shows from 07/03 – 07/21. Beaming with confidence, they went on to poke fun at their more obsessive fans in Chicago’s, ‘Poster Nutbag, the right way’“Harpua,” before crafting one of their seminal pieces of extended improve in the “Tahoe Tweezer” just ten days later. Friday night at Dick’s was once again devoted to gimmickry, this time as the band informed us that Most Shows Spell Something (Backwards). The Fall Tour that followed was a non-stop dance party with a signature throwback feel. And on Halloween the band debuted their new album – tentatively titled Wingsuit – in a move that has had the entire Phish community buzzing with thoughts and analysis ever since. Closing out the year with one more celebratory gag, Phish played an entirely coverless NYE Run, honoring the songs that had brought them so much acclaim throughout the years. Without question, 2013 was defined in large part by Phish’s desire to “please themselves” – without any regrets – in commemoration of everything they’d built (and rebuilt) since their college days.

What’s more though, was how “Garden Party” worked as a premonition for a band seeking to do more than simply garnish their 30th year with a nostalgic hue. Rather, 2013 saw Phish acutely pivot towards the next phase of their career. For, as much as 2013 was indeed about celebrating the essence of Phish – and their legacy – it was in many ways, more so about what’s next for a band that has systematically rebuilt itself from near-death, and now, at the onset of their 31st year, is in the midst of their most substantial peak period since the halcyon days of 1993-1998.

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Let’s pause for a moment, and take a step back to July 2010. At that point Phish had been back together for 17 months. Throughout they’d compiled four 10-15 show tours, alongside three, smaller, holiday-based/reunion runs. There’d been nights where they’d felt like Phish again. Nights where everything clicked: where they told jokes, where they pulled oft-forgotten songs out of nowhere, where their setlists flowed with precision, determination, and ease, and where they hooked up for extended pieces of forward-thinking, emotive, and ultimately revealing improv. But for all of the positivity that surrounded the 70 shows that had thus far made up Phish 3.0, there was a prevailing fear throughout much of their fan base that, perhaps, the band simply didn’t have it anymore. Too often they’d follow a breakthrough show with a run of unfocused and disconnected duds. Too many jams either followed a strict formula of assaulting rock -> rhythmic breakdown -> ambient fade, or would be cut off prematurely by Trey’s insistence on keeping the show moving. Too many shows featured a band that, simply put, appeared a shell of its former self. During the month-long break in Summer 2010, many openly wondered what would become of Phish 3.0?

Would they follow the same trajectory of their haunting and ultimately unsustainable 2.0 era; fading unfulfilled, full of regret, bemused with far more questions than answers?

Had Phish become (gasp) a nostalgia act?

Could they reestablish the unspoken communication that had led them to so many musical and artistic heights throughout their heyday?

Would they ever again evolve with the kind of abstract precision and focused experimentation that saw them transform from a psychedelically-infused speed-jazz quartet in 1993 to a spacious, patient, rhythmic juggernaut just five years later?

Could they do it again?

From the vantage point of January 2014 we know what happened. Barring a few setbacks along the way – parts of June 2011 and NYE 2011, most notably – when Phish reemerged for the second leg of their 2010 Summer Tour, they were a fundamentally different band. Since then they’ve been on a consistent upward trajectory, evolving with patient determination, overcoming many of the challenges set in front of them in 2009, and undoubtably blowing away even the headiest expectations any of us could have had for them when they announced their reunion back on 1 October 2008.

Beginning in earnest with the infusion of Trey’s Ocedoc – a move that systematically rounded-out his tone, resulting in him taking a more deliberate approach to building simple melodic lines, while also focusing more on rhythm – Phish has evolved with stunning speed over these past four years. Stylistically morphing – from the melodic jams of late-2010 to August 2011’s dive into the storage shed, to the cubist approach of 2012 – and further deepening their communication, they have consistently driven forward from the moment the Greek “Cities” dropped into its infectious whole-band groove-jam. A reflection of their own musical maturity and craftsmanship – and also the experience they’d gained from 25-years of friendship and collaboration – from August 2010 onwards, each tour has provided crucial reference points to Phish’s current peak. Be it the improvisational boon of August 2010; the self-referential gimmickry and humor of Fall 2010; June 2011’s experimentation & embrace of potential failure over conservatism; “The Storage Jam” and the darkness that engulfed many of their subsequent jams throughout August and September 2011; the 200-song challenge of June 2012; the fully-realized, multi-layered jams of August 2012; or the masterful run of creativity and exploration that was Dick’s and MSG 2012; there’s no denying the fact that following their initial – and necessary – 18-month rebuilding project, the Phish of late-2010-2013 in many ways mirrors the same band that rose from irrelevancy in the early-1990’s to become one of the largest, and most influential, creative forces in the country.

The only difference now: they are clearly wizened by their years. Trials & errors, fights, audits, drugs, failures, fuck-ups, youthful bliss, et al, behind them, the Phish of today is both healthy, happy, and inspired. Whereas in 2009 many wondered if such a “family-friendly” version Phish could muster up the kind of psychedelic expansionism and unadulterated experimentation that had drawn so many to them in the first place, it’s clear now that this version of Phish may not only match the creative ingenuity of their initial peak, but could in fact surpass their former selves in both musical discovery, and artistic sustainability.

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All of which brings us to 2013.

Beginning the year with a three-week foundational setting period, Phish toured the East Coast, fairing off torrential rains, all the while focusing on a tight rotation of songs which emphasized the original artistic statements of their career. Determined to perfect the whole-show-craftsmanship that had reemerged in Fall 2010, Phish used their first night at SPAC to send a message that 2013 would be more about patiently crafting complete shows rather than simply expanding upon big jams. Resulting in thematic concert experiences, the tour required noticeably more patience, reflection, and insight from their fans than the overtly jam-heavy August 2011, or bustout-driven June 2012 tours had. From 07/10’s “Maria” set, to 07/12’s “practicing safe music,” to Merriweather Post’s old-school affair, to 07/16’s “Heartbreaker” set to the existential masterpiece of 07/21’s second set, this first leg of the tour saw the band further advance their artistic intentions, while still infusing more than enough highlights to satisfy everyone in their fan base.

Following a five-day break, they reemerged at the Gorge intent on celebrating every aspect of their musical past, while systematically using each previous peak as a building block towards their next era. The rain behind them, comfortable enough to expand upond the strict rotation that had marked their entire East Coast run, rarities returned, jams popped, and the band played with an ease that could only result from the kind of foundational setting they’d initiated. From 07/26’s explosion of howlin’ energy, to 07/27’s album-like fluidity, to 07/30’s dance-party, to the methodical brilliance of the Tahoe “Tweezer,” to 08/02 and 08/04’s schizophrenic mind-fuck, by summer’s end Phish left no doubt in anyone’s mind that they’d not only coursed out their 30th year exactly as they’d intended to, but that they knew the “right way” forward for their creative evolution.

At Dick’s they keyed us in once more to their goals for the year by noting on 08/30 that “Most Shows Spell Something.” That they unveiled the gag backwards only lent itself more to their playful spirit and the multitude of angles with which one could approach understanding their music.

And then, as with 2010, Phish scheduled a two-week Fall Tour through some of the most historic – and smallest – venues within their home base of the Northeast. Needing no time to reacquire their bearings, it was clear from the jubilant jam that emerged from “Carini” on the tour’s opening night, that Phish had, once again, reached yet another level of unspoken communication and refined musicianship. Be it jams – “Carini,” “Ghost,” “Tweezer,” “Golden Age,” “Down With Disease,” “Twenty Years Later,” “Drowned,” “Light,” “Twist,” each built into fully-formed, innovative, and memorable excursions – or shows – 10/20, 10/23, 10/25, 10/26, 10/27, and 11/01 are some of the strongest complete shows the band has played since the 90’s – the band was completely locked-in throughout the Fall, and consistently able to tap into an vast wealth of creativity. At times one wished the band would simply have an off night to give fans re-listening, and avidly discussing, a chance to catch-up and breathe.

On Halloween the band once again repelled against expectations. Whereas traditionally they’d used the holiday to don a musical costume of one of their forbearers, here, in their 30th year, they instead used the moment to debut 12 new originals. Loosely dubbed Wingsuit, the second set of 10/31 represented yet another leap forward for this 3.0 incarnation of Phish. Like the Greek Run in 2010, the Storage Jam, and FUCK YOUR FACE before it, Wingsuit is a clear break between one era and another. Cultivated from various jams over the past two years, and containing some of the most advanced and deeply personal lyrics of the band’s career, the songs – and the symbolic nature behind their unveiling – provide the band with the necessary material and inspiration to enter the next phase of their remarkable career.

Closing out the year, once again, with four shows at Madison Square Garden in New York City the band honored their 30th Anniversary by focusing on the singular element that birthed their existence: their songs. Opting to only play originals, the four shows took on much of the same vibe that had marked the entire year. Nostalgically rich, yet full of forward-thinking jams in “Steam,” “Down With Disease -> Carini,” “Chalk Dust Torture,” and “Light,” the 2013 NYE Run both celebrated everything that has made Phish such a unique force in modern pop culture, and pointed the way towards their next thirty years.

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As with 2009 (Part I & Part II), 2010, 2011, & 2012 I’ve assembled a list of ten shows and jams that standout as the best of the year. Along with these selections, there are three honorable mentions to each. These are not simply shows/jams 11-13, but rather foundational jams and shows with which the band grew, yet didn’t crack my top ten. The lists are assembled chronologically, thus reserving the title “Best Ever” as a subjective accolade. Hope everyone had a wonderful holiday season! Happy New Year! Can’t wait to see what 2014 brings to the world of Phish!

The Best Of Phish 2013

Honorable Jams

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“Down With Disease -> 2001” – Toronto, ON – 07/22/2013

After kicking off the summer with three fairly contained versions of one of their most cherished Set II Openers, Phish finally broke through in Toronto with a jam that built off of their pivotal second set on 07/21,  thus pointing the way westward. Featuring patiently built melodic and rhythmic riffs from Trey throughout, the jam ultimately settled on a remarkably pleasant platitude, which felt entirely composed. A direct prelude to jams like the 10/23 “Twist,” 10/26 “Drowned,” 10/27 “Tweezer,” and 11/01 “Twist,” this “DWD” is not only one of the key, foundational jams of 2013, but it is also the kind of jam one could listen to on repeat without ever growing tired.

In short, this is simply one of the most enjoyable, and pleasing jams of the entire year. A section of wholly deliberate, rising melodic playing followed the Trey/Page melodic peak, ultimately giving way to a full-on tease of “Sea Of Love” from The National. Further proof of how much musical insight Trey has gained from his time spent listening to – and playing with – those in the indie rock world. Building towards a truly patient segue into “2001” rounded off one of the most subtly diverse jams of the year, one that clearly helped to initiate the band’s massive peak over the next four months. While this jam has become significantly overshadowed in the past four months, its influence on the stylistic evolution of 2013 cannot go unnoticed.

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“Harry Hood” – Hollywood, CA – 08/05/2013

There’s that moment in every single jam where everyone – band and audience alike – collectively realizes we’re suddenly in wide open, untapped, and unknown terrain. It may come via a reliable Set II opening vehicle, or in a totally unexpected song/slot in the show. Wherever and whenever it comes, the moment is ultimately defined by an immediate percolating of the senses, and a rush of euphoria, as the stakes of a show suddenly take upon unknown – in many ways, indefinable – potential. This moment is, for many, the entire reason why we see Phish. When that moment happens to come in a song steeped in as much historical lore as “Harry Hood” is, however, it raises a show to an entirely different level of excitement, sentiment, and lasting resonance.

While it’s clear here that Trey’s dedicating much of his energy to painting a backdrop of sound throughout the initial post-“Thank you, Mr. Hood…” section, we’re essentially still in typical “Hood-ville” until 9:37. From that point on, however, the jam enters completely unknown territory like it hadn’t since 07/31/03. A rock-based jam ensues, sounding in many ways like a leftover from the previous night’s “Runaway Jim,” before building into a full-on call-and-respond woo segment. Then, when it seems as though the band could momentarily snake back into “Hood,” they instead move into a more rhythmically-oriented realm, crafting a mosaic, where one member’s leads are effortlessly supplanted by another’s. Ambient-based jamming enters the fray, and suddenly the jam has become blissful. Abstract-cubism is the order, and, for a while, between 15ish and 17ish minutes, it feels as though we’re back in Dick’s 2012. Connecting on a dreamlike, plinko-esque jam that sounds like the denouement of a soon-to-be-unfinished jam, Trey plucks the “Hood” theme out of thin air, and the band rebuilds back to a subdued peak.

A creative palette of themes and varying musical passages, this jam harkened back to the band’s most prolific exploration within “Hood” from 07/25/03. A clear statement to the band’s M.O. moving forward in 2013, this “Harry Hood” opened the doors even further to what was possible in the coming Fall, here, coming on the last night of Summer Tour proper.

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“Carini” – Hampton, VA – 10/18/2013

On the opening night of Fall Tour, in the midst of a risky & self-conscious show, in their first performance back in the mothership since their reunion weekend in March 2009, “Carini” emerged mid-way through the second set and ultimately set the course of the entire tour. Rooted in the kind of bluesy, melodic, and celebratory rhythmic jams that had defined the best parts of the summer, what separated this “Carini” from the jams that had preceded it, was how simple and how overtly groove-oriented it was.

A bulbous and infectious dive into a rock-based, dance foray, this was the kind of jamming that would ultimately define Phish’s two-week Fall Tour. A fusion between the sparse, rhythmic jams of their 1997 peak with the rootsy, rock-oriented jamming that emerged in 2009 and 2010, further shaped by the cubist approach of 2012, and finished with the celebratory rhythmic style of the summer, this “Carini” felt like an ode to the nostalgically-rich, yet forward-thinking engine that was Phish 2013. Fading into their 3.0 hymnal, “Backwards Down The Number Line” was an entirely appropriate move for a band that had just shouted from the mountaintop their intentions for the proceeding Fall Tour.

The Top Ten Jams Of 2013

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“Split Open & Melt” – Saratoga Springs, NY – 07/06/2013

Wow. What a statement. What a glorified mess. A conscious experimental push into the unknown as anything heard from Phish 3.0. This jam covers so much terrain in its 18-minutes, it’s really quite exhausting.

Abstract, gorgeous, uneven, risqué, unpolished, raw, emotive, completely human; an absolute pure example of a band seeking out the elusive hook-up. It’s also perhaps the loosest, and unfocused Phish has allowed itself to be throughout the past five years.

For every jam that has either foreshadowed or reflected the various thematic terrains of 2013, there’s really no other jam produced this year that sounds anything like this “Split Open & Melt.” This might be the most important pre-Tahoe “Tweezer” jam played in the entire summer. One just has to hear the vocal inflection and laugh from Page at the end when he says, “We’ll be right back…” following their sloppy re-entry to “Melt” to understand how unexpectedly deep the band went, and how gloriously lost they became. If any jam in 2013 could symbolize a much-needed trust-fall for Phish, it’s this. Just, wow.

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“Carini -> Architect” – Saratoga Springs, NY – 07/06/2013

The first of four versions for Señor Lumpy Head on this list, this one pops immediately with an incredibly focused, highly expansive, delicate, interwoven and intricate piece of music that has continually resided in the upper echelons of Phish’s 2013 output since the moment it concluded. Reminiscent of the 08/31/12 “Undermind” and “Chalk Dust,” this is one of those democratic/full-band conversations we’ve now come to expect in 2012-2013 Phish.

In many ways though, this jam is all about Trey, as he plays with a determined and deliberate precision that would go on to define many of Phish’s best moments in 2013. An example of foundational setting leading to deliberate playing from Trey, this jam sounds like a direct prelude to Fall Tour more than most of the jams played throughout the summer.

Oh, and this jam also segues flawlessly into a debut. So much so, that, for a moment, “Architect” felt like it was simply just another part of the “Carini” jam.

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“Crosseyed & Painless> Harry Hood” – Holmdel, NJ – 07/10/2013

Two crucial things happen from 9:20 – 15:01 in this “Crosseyed,” which sets the foundation for literally every moment of fully-connected Phish in 2013.

1.) First, Mike creates an exorbitant amount of space through his melodic and atmospheric playing – something he’d been incorporating into Phish’s improv since mid-2011 – thus slowing down the jam’s typically galloping pace, and allowing more textural space for each member to communicate with each other.

2.) As a result of this, Trey recedes into the shadows and further incorporates his rhythmic playing that had been so evident during the Bangor “Golden Age,” building the jam to a unified peak based in large part around the familiar theme from the 02/16/2003 “Piper.”

Whether or not they were conscious of it, that they were jamming on a specific theme from one of their peak moments in the early stages of 2.0 was yet another of those unexplainable moments of pure musical magic that seem to find their way into the best Phish shows and jams. Fading some two minutes later into “Harry Hood,” which built upon the beauty of Bangor’s encore, was a clear nod to the brilliance of this “Crosseyed.”

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“Tweezer” – Stateline, NV – 07/31/2013

A moment of profound unity between both band and audience, as each rediscovered once again what was truly possible in the medium of a Phish show.

Listening back, there are just so many raw moments that harken back to the halcyon days of 1993 – 1998 when the band and audience engaged in the kinds of extended, abstract, absurdist, and inside-joke experiments that were both only possible at a Phish show, and made this whole cultural experiment feel that much smaller, and that much more unified and connected, even as it simultaneously widened as the word of the circus spread throughout upper-middle-class, white America.

A Few Examples:

10:20 – 13:30 — when Trey and Mike are both clearly so desperate to extend what, at this point, is just a standard 3.0, “Tweezer-themed-Tweezer-jam”, that they push atmospheric melodies outwards, building towards Trey’s rhythmic in-and-out fades, which – once Page catches on – leads to the hard-rock segment that defines the 13:42 – 16:06 section of the entire jam.

22:29 – 26:18 — Trey latches onto a deliberate riff which builds towards a gorgeous hose segment that would have single-handedly made this one of the elite jams of the year had it ended right then and there. No woo’s. No 30-minute barrier broken. No matter. This section of Trey-led riffing is among his most impressive playing of the entire year – in fact it’s a direct predecessor of that gorgeous, Allmans-esque jam that concludes the 10/29 “Down With Disease” – and would have been the single reason why – had the jam ended immediately after, as so many have throughout 3.0 – the “Tahoe Tweezer” would have still, at that point, been the longest jam of 3.0.

26:18 – 26:23 — This is, for all intents and purposes, the moment when the “Tahoe Tweezer” becomes THE Tahoe Tweezer. It’s all thanks to Page McConnell. He’s been following Trey’s lead for the past four minutes, and sensing – correctly – that the current theme is about to wind down, inserts the celebratory melody which, once Trey latches on at 26:24, becomes THE Tahoe Tweezer.

27:29 — The first WOO!

27:53 – 28:19 — Trey plays a riff that’s so driven, so celebratory, so deliberate, yet so thoughtless at the same time, so rooted in his purest feelings and emotions – from so deep in his heart – you can literally feel the shit-eating-grin spilling out across his face through your headphones. You can hear him realize right then and there just how big a deal this jam is. It’s not just the fact that it’s a great “Tweezer” to open a set. It’s not just the fact that this is the new longest jam of 3.0. It’s not just the fact that the band has allowed all their fears of playing deep into the unknown wash away. It’s not just the fact that the band is proving both to themselves and all their fans that they’re so locked in once again that they can play with an unending, limitless abandon, and still produce totally focused, driven, and unquestionably listenable, compositionally-sound music. It’s the fact that all these things were happening at once AND they’d latched onto a melody so contagious, so infectious, so rooted in the essential nature that has made music a communal and spiritual force for the entirety of human existence, that they’d spurred a wholly original conversation with their fans in the process. It’s the fact that if the entire goal of Phish’s entire existence – spontaneous moments of shared energy and musical brilliance resulting from carefully crafted compositions allowed to run wild – were boiled down to one moment in time, this moment would be it. That they discovered this through the peak in a “Tweezer” jam is all the more fitting.

32:46 – 35:07 — The Victory Lap. As if they even needed to keep playing following the woo’s. This is all Rock-Star-Trey here. Based loosely off the jam from “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” the band built towards one more massive peak – complete with Woo’s, because, why the fuck not at this point (???) – before coyly snaking back into “Tweezer.”

35:48 – 35:50 — Woo’s within the “Tweezer-riff” comedown. Fuck. This section is a lot like that loose and sloppy “Psycho Killer” that emerged from “AC/DC Bag: on 12/07/1997 as the denouement commenced upon Fall 1997. It’s so unserious, so ridiculous, so clear that whatever the band’s intentions were as they stepped on the stage for that night’s second set, they weren’t prepared for this. As Wax Banks said, “bag>psycho killer to open, seriously? they’re just dorking around at that point…”

36:09 – 36:47 — The final note. The final Woo. The fade. The band holds out this last note, systematically dementing it and burying it in the ground. It’s as if they don’t want to let it go. And why would they? If they only knew at that moment what this would ultimately build to…

Is it the best jam they’ve ever played? No. But it is the most important piece of music the band has played since the 07/29/1997 “Gumbo” or the 11/17/1997 “Ghost.”

It’s that revolutionary moment where the band is clearly searching for some ambiguous sound, some indefinable goal, and unquestionably uncovers something totally new about themselves in the process. Say what you will about the after-effects of the ‘woo’s,’ what’s clear to everyone involved is that without the “Tahoe Tweezer, “none of the brilliance that emerged with such stunning ease and consistency throughout the Fall would have been possible.

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“Chalk Dust Torture” – Commerce City, Co – 08/31/2013

Just listen to the segment from 10:02 – 12:36 and try – seriously try – to resist boogieing your ass off wherever you may be. Of all the moments of musical connectivity the band found themselves in throughout the entire 2013 Summer Tour, perhaps none felt as effortless, as mechanical, as choreographed, or as pre-planned as the immediate peak jam segment out of the Set II Opening “Chalk Dust Torture” from 08/31. A year to the date after their revolutionary FUCK YOUR FACE show, a night after informing their fans that MOST SHOWS SPELL SOMETHING, Phish connected on an aggressive, set opening jam, that systematically pointed the way towards the Fall.

Listen to the aforementioned segment again. Within it you can hear the first hints of what will become known as “Fuego.” What’s more is how deftly the band is able to hook up through rhythmically induced passages of deliberate playing, the very kind that would come to define all the highs of the looming Fall Tour.

Perhaps we couldn’t fully understand it at the time. Perhaps we weren’t aware that the band really just wanted to use Dick’s 2013 as a weekend-long celebration. But it’s clear now that this “Chalk Dust” was an essential moment that separated summer from fall in the same way the Toronto “Down With Disease” separated the East Coast Run from the West. A supremely confident statement from a band at the height of their powers once again, this “Chalk Dust” proved that all the foundational setting of early Summer were more than worth the patience required. And, just like in 2012, it was “Chalk Dust” that left perhaps the most lasting legacy on another memorable weekend at Dick’s.

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“Tweezer -> Golden Age” – Hampton, VA – 10/20/2013

In 2003 and 2004, Phish regularly dove wildly into the deepest and darkest holes of the musical underworld, drumming up some of the most baroque and macabre jams of their entire career. A result of the personal crises faced by Trey and Page at the time, these jams are, in many ways, singular to perhaps the most harrowing era in the band’s history. Rarely has Phish allowed themselves to even glimpse these seedy and hopeless terrains throughout their overtly-joyful period of rebirth since 2009.

On the final night of their Fall Tour-opening Hampton Run, Phish – and especially Trey – granted themselves a dip back into their darkside, resulting in their most inspired, and passionate improvisational excursion of 2013.

Channeling the guitar-wizardry of Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan, Trey incorporates his effects with caustic shreds of his guitar, cultivating a demented soundscape. There’s a stark nakedness to his playing throughout this jam, a peeling back the layers to his soul, a revealing insight into the darkness that still resides within.

This is the Yin to the “Tahoe Tweezer’s” Yang.

Yet, perhaps what makes this jam so rewarding, and ultimately so influential, is the segment of music that emerges at 19:57. Distantly related to the ethos of “Wingsuit” – a song that would debut some eleven days later, this denouement to the preceding jam segment offered a window into exactly what was possible when the band gave a seemingly fading jam one more look. Reminiscent of comments Page made in the IT DVD regarding the type of music that’s only possible after 18…19…32-minutes of jamming, this final segment would help push the band further, to the moments found in the latter parts of the 10/26 “Drowned,” 10/29 “Down With Disease,” 11/01 “Twist,” and 12/29 “Down With Disease -> Carini.”

In “Golden Age” Phish finally capitalized on the most profound excursions they’d thus far embarked on with the song – 07/02/2011, 07/03/2012, 07/03/2013, 07/30/2013 – pushing it further than it’d ever been before. A fully-realized, groove-based conversation between all four members, this version – along with its accompanying 10/27 version – finally unlocked the code on a song that had evolved in fits and spurts for the band.

A forty-minute segment of music that ultimately transcended everything else the band was capable of accomplishing throughout their brilliant 30th year, one can only imagine how much deeper Phish will now be willing to push their music in 2014.

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“Tweezer” – Hartford, CT – 10/27/2013

If the “Tahoe Tweezer” represented a moment of critical mass in Phish’s grand experiment, and the “Hampton Tweezer” was a marked dive back into the netherworld of their musical souls, then the “Hartford Tweezer” was a pronouncement of the celebratory rhythmic/melodic jamming the band had been busily perfecting all year on an extremely meta level.

We’ve long known that the ultimate key to Phish’s improvisational success is simplicity. A concept that’s often far easier said than done – especially when you factor in each member’s exceptional skill level, and the pressures associated with playing live, improvisational music – this version of “Tweezer” immediately gets to the point of itself, and then patiently rides itself out to its proper conclusion. Proof that less is more. Touching distinctly on the theme from “Weekapaug Groove,” this jam feels deeply rooted in the historical lexicon of Phish. It’s the kind of jam that fundamentally fit the conceptual goals of 2013.

Throughout 2013 Phish’s best moment came when they seemed to stop trying. Akin to 1997’s peak based around minimalist funk grooves, the diversity of their stylistic peaks in 2013 are only matched by the effortlessness it took the band to reach them. A moment when each member latched onto a singular idea and ran with it, the “Hartford Tweezer” is equally one of the most pleasurable, and important pieces of music played all year.

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“Down With Disease -> Taste” – Reading, PA – 10/29/2013

If one were to try and summarize the reasons for Phish’s two-week-long peak tour during October 2013, one could hypothesize over the bulbous and rhythmic interplay of Mike and Fish. Perhaps one would reference the archaic and personally historic venues the band toured through within their home turf. One might look to the impending performance of Wingsuit as inspiration. In their fifth year back following a five-year break-up, the overall health and friendship within the band has certainly led to a lot of possibilities as to why now, in their 30th year of existence, Phish has reached one of the highest peaks they’ve ever been on artistically. Yet, to me, one aspect of Phish’s playing sticks out as the most profound reason why this past Fall Tour was one of the greatest Phish has ever had: Trey’s deliberate approach to playing his guitar.

Nowhere is this approach more fruitful, nor more rewarding, than in the stunning jam that flowed out of “Down With Disease” on 10/29.

What was initially a funk-laced stroll through familiar “DWD” jam-terrain changed at 13:10 when Page began infusing melodic themes into the mix. Immediately latching onto his ideas, and toying with them before copying them, Trey built this initial foundation into an Allman-laced jam that harkened back to his heavily-lauded Hose-era-playing. Akin to the 12/30/1995 “Hood,” the “Went Gin,” the “IT Ghost,” and the “Tahoe Tweezer,” the melodic and spiritually uplifting notes that emanated from Trey’s guitar with such ease, passion, and deliberateness felt like a step back into an earlier time.

Beyond it’s musical brilliance, the “Reading DWD” provided one final twist for the thousands of fans trying to decipher any and all clues from the band about their upcoming Halloween performance. Immediately following this show, and continuing until the Playbills were dispersed two night’s later, the entire community was convinced we were getting Eat A Peach on Halloween. A fusion of Phish gimmickry, with musical ingenuity, along with the emotive thrill that’s associated with their best improvisational moments, the “Reading DWD” is one of those rare jams that repeatedly delivers on the hype.

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“Ghost> Carini” – Atlantic City, NJ – 10/31/2013

On 08/15/2004, following the whole-band collapse in “Glide,” and the emotional breakdown in “Wading In The Velvet Sea,” Trey told the crowd that the band needed to just “blow off some fucking steam…” They then proceeded to dive into a 50-minute firestorm of noise-ladened abstract improv within the limitless confines of “Split Open & Melt” and “Ghost.”

Just over nine years later, following a Halloween set where they debuted twelve completely new originals, Phish responded with this 35-minute segment of blissfully exuberant, and wholly-connected music within the limitless confines of “Ghost” and “Carini.” Without notifying their fans, the symbolic gesture was in many ways related to the necessary move to blow off some emotional steam at Coventry. The difference being the fact that in August 2004 they were a band grasping for their last breaths, whereas in October 2013, they were on the verge of rebirth once more.

The 10/31 “Ghost> Carini” is the sound of a massive weight being lifted off of Phish. For much of 2013 – no one knows exactly how long – the band carried around a secret waiting to be unveiled, live, in front of their fan base: Wingsuit. A burden that must have caused an incredible amount of artistic stress on the band, this jam segment was all the band needed to display how grateful they were for the open-mindedness of their fans to allow them such artistic freedom. Throughout the “Ghost” a sultry and sinister groove builds. The kind of deliberate and simple musical concept that had tracked their best improv of the year, this jam is the confident strut than can only follow a nailed risk. This is DiCaprio dropping the mic after one of his megalomaniacal speeches in “Wolf Of Wall Street.” This is Jordan shrugging after his 6th 3-pointer in the first half of Game 1 of the ’92 Finals. This is Trey’s prowling stomp around the stage during the surprise “Tweezer Reprise” encore on 04/03/1998.

It is, however, the “Carini” that gets all the glory in this segment. A 19-minute excursion that touches on literally all the moments of profound communication throughout the past two years, this jam is up there with the best improv the band has offered throughout the entirety of their career. Led by Trey’s celebratory rhythmic playing, this “Carini” reaches a full-band peak that would be further explored in the following night’s “Twist.” Stylistically reminiscent of the 08/31/2012 “Undermind” and “Chalk Dust,” the 09/01/2012 “Light,” 09/02/2012 “Sand,” 12/28/2012 “Tweezer,” 07/06/2013 “Carini,” and 07/31/2013 “Tweezer,” this is one of those Phish jams that moves effortlessly from one musical passage to another without giving the listener time to lament the conclusion of one before rewarding them with a fully-realized segment of music in the next.

Two songs that just scream All Hallow’s Eve in their musical origins and lyrics, “Ghost> Carini” was a fitting centerpiece for the band to blow-off some steam on a night when they confidently catapulted themselves into their next era.

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“Down With Disease -> Carini” – New York City, NY – 12/29/2013

“Thank you, we wrote that…”

By the end of 2013 Phish was on such an artistic peak, and on such a creative roll, that it became second-nature for them to hook-up and explore passages of musical brilliance. Fully-formed ideas seemed to simply emit from their instruments, and questions over if they’d produce another transcendent jam disappeared. Because of this, there are numerous jams from their recent Fall Tour and NYE Run that were painstakingly left off this list: 10/23 “Twist,” 10/25 “Waves -> Carini,” 10/27 “Drowned> Light,” 10/27 “Golden Age,” 10/29 “Twenty Years Later -> Piper,” 11/01 “Twist,” 12/30 “Chalk Dust Torture,” most notably.

When they stepped to the stage on 12/29, following their most fluid first set of the NYE Run, they unveiled yet another masterpiece of improvisation through two of their most reliable vehicles for musical discovery: “Down With Disease” and “Carini.” Two songs that have been featured extensively on this list, for whatever reason, both of these songs consistently allow the band an ideal passage into the unknown. In “DWD” Phish explored the melodic underbelly of the song’s origins – highlighted by Mike & Trey’s interplay as much as the soundscape crafted by Page – before rebuilding itself into a full-on “DWD Reprise.” A moment of euphoric magic for both band and audience alike, the blissful conclusion that rose naturally from the depths of improv was the kind of unexplainable point of connection that has so often marked the best moments of Phish’s 30-year career. Many claim you could feel the walls of the Garden shaking as the band reached a peak of a musical theme that is the composed sound of euphoric joy within the confines of Phishdom.

A yin to the “AC Carini’s” yang, the 16-minute “MSG Carini” was a demonic beast of minimalist groove. Deliberate, haunting, demented, abstract, insane, unified… the “MSG Carini” built from the Yo La Tengo-esque jam in the “Hampton Tweezer” into a hulking beast all its own. A sure sign that the seedy, under-worldly jams, which defined Phish 2.0, are at least back in part here in 3.0, this “Carini” felt like the unification of two eras. The fact that Phish can so willingly dive deep into the darkness again – during an era of such renowned health and personal well-being, no less – is as clear a sign as any of the artistic peak Phish is on right now.

Just as “Down With Disease” and “Carini” provided both the musical peak of the 2012 NYE Run, while simultaneously pointing the way towards the band’s improvisational future, the two songs once again served this symbolic purpose here in 2013. Who knows exactly what direction(s) the band will take their improv in 2014? One thing however, is certain: if they can in anyway build upon, and expand within the musical accomplishments of their 30th year, we’re all in for an absolutely mind-blowing 31st year of Phish.

——–

Part II coming this week!

Photo Cred: 1 – 10/20 Hampton, VA – Dave Vann; 2 – 07/17 Alpharetta, GA – Dave Vann; 3 – 08/05 Hollywood, CA – Brantley Gutierrez; 4 – 10/18 Hampton, VA – Dave Vann; 5 & 6 – 07/06 Saratoga Springs, NY – Dave Vann; 7 – 07/10 Holmdel, NJ – Dave Vann; 8 – 07/31 Stateline, NV – Dave Vann; 9 – 08/30 Commerce City, CO – Dave Vann; 10 – 10/20 Hampton, VA – Dave Vann; 11 & 12 – 10/29 Reading, PA – Dave Vann; 13 – 11/01 Atlantic City, NJ – Brantley Gutierrez; 14 – 12/29 New York City, NY – Rene Huemer

Phish 2013 – Through The Jams / Part I: Bangor – Toronto

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With just four shows remaining in 2013, weeks removed from a peak-level Fall Tour, and just three months since the conclusion of a Summer Tour that is increasingly becoming an underrated gem, it’s high time we take stock of where we are musically with Phish in their 30th year.

Since the onset of 3.0, I’ve compiled year-end ‘Best Of’[1] lists for each successive year. Check them out here: 2009 Part I and Part II20102011, and 2012. In each of those essays I narrowed my selections to the bare essentials: Ten Jams, Ten Shows, and Three Honorable Mentions for each section. Detailing the evolutionary steps forward in each of the past five years of Phish’s history, these lists have focused on the overall diversity of Phish’s improv, rather than any singular style. Song length is never an issue taken seriously. Popular opinion or communal preference is never taken into account. Many of my own personal favorite jams have even been omitted from each of these lists. Essentially, these lists are to be viewed as historical guides, or, musical stepping stones, which tell the story of how Phish got from Hampton ’09 to Atlantic City ’13.

2013 however, presents a new challenge altogether, particularly on the jamming front.

Following their creative renaissance at Dick’s 2012, Phish entered 2013 on a mission to once again break through their own artistic mold by infusing the musical and communicative skills of their past with a more democratic model that would shape their future. After reestablishing their communication and connectivity throughout 2009 – 2012, their 30th year was poised to be one of both self-referential celebration, and the symbolic onset of a new era. Furthermore, after informing their fanbase on 12/31/2012 that “You can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself,” it was clear that 2013 would be a whole-band peak on Phish’s terms – and at their own pace – not based on the desires of any sector of their fanbase. As a result, Phish took their time, setting the foundation within the early part of their summer tour, which lead to skepticism, impatience, and uncertainty from many corners of their fanbase. While it was clear by the time Fall Tour rolled around that Phish had known exactly what they were doing all along, the debates over what “The Right Way” was for Phish still raged ever onwards.

In hindsight it’s clear there are three distinct periods of 2013:

1.) Bangor – Toronto, when Phish laid the foundation for the musical peaks to come, and the eventual unveiling of Wingsuit, through a series of shows focused heavily on their own musical history. Celebrating their thirty-year legacy, the band centered much of their attention on the most revered songs in their catalogue, while constructing setlists that felt plucked from their past. Controlling many of their shows with a noticeably tight rotation, and keeping a short leash on each of their jams, this early period of 2013 displayed the unyielding potential of Phish at this stage in their career, while emphasizing a focused insistence on building tension and inter-band-communication.

2.) The Gorge – Dicks, when Phish – fully removed from the torrential weather of the East Coast and completely confident in their abilities and direction – moved beyond foundational setting, and began to consistently play high quality shows with ease. After informing their fanbase that only Phish knew “The Right Way” for Phish during the Chicago Harpua, they now unveiled their longest piece of improv since 2003, and connected for three of the most diverse jams of the entire year in the Tahoe Tweezer, Hollywood Hood and Dick’s Chalk Dust. Further, at Dick’s, the band continued to zag against the expectations (and desires) of many of their fanbase by declaring MOST SHOWS SPELL SOMETHING (Backwards). Subtly pointing out the many variables that determine the content and goals of any singular Phish show, the band clarified for those who had been reading between the lines, just what their intentions throughout 2013 had been. Finally, they continued to set the stage for the peak month of October, and the ultimate unveiling of their new album Wingsuit on Halloween night, through a series of self-conscious shows and jams that only further displayed their advanced level of play in their 30th year.

3.) Hampton – Atlantic City, when everything Phish has been working towards since 03/06/2009 came together in one hyperbole-filled two week tour. Full of top-level shows, standout jams, unyielding energy, effortless musical connectivity, and a Halloween show that will undoubtedly alter the entire direction of the band over the coming years, this was the tour we had all (band included) been waiting for over the past five – even fifteen – years.

As a result, there is so much creativity packed into each show in 2013, that it becomes incredibly challenging to trim the fat down to a list of 13 standout jams[2]. With this in mind, and keenly aware of the fact that the New Year’s Run is sure to produce at least 2 – 3 MORE top-level jams (it always does…) I’m using this space in time as a way to hash over the entirety of what I believe to be the very best of Phish in 2013. With a heavy focus on the diversity and sheer quantity of excellent improvisational interplay within Phish in 2013, think of this list as both one giant rough draft and a potential playlist for anyone seeking to absorb the best of Phish in 2013 in one sitting[3].

This list will appear in three parts so as to focus on the three aforementioned periods in 2013:

I. Bangor – Toronto

II. The Gorge – Dicks

III. Hampton – Atlantic City.

Please feel free to send me your comments on which essential jams I may have overlooked, which I’m giving (far) too much credit to, and, if you agree or disagree in any way with how I’ve interpreted this really diverse, and really incredible, year in Phish’s history. Without further adieu, the list[4]:

The Best Jams Of 2013 – Part I

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07/05

Light -> The Mango Song

Following the focused and game-changing Dick’s Light of 2012, it’s only appropriate than any ‘Best Of’ 2013 list begins with the most reliable jam vehicle of 3.0. A song that, lyrically, speaks so directly to Trey’s rehabilitation and awakening following his 2006 arrest, and musically caters itself to the kind of open-ended exploration that had become something of a rarity throughout much of 2009-2011[5], everyone knew the first Light of 2013 was going be a seminal moment. Expanding outwards on an ambient plane much like the 12/02/09 and 08/07/10 versions, before evolving into a rhythmic jaunt, the jam turns on a dime at 11:11 with a sinister, groove-ladened riff from Trey. Foreshadowing the clarity and deliberateness he’d continue to iron out in his playing over the course of the summer – ultimately peaking in Fall – the band fuses this segment into an blissful melodic jam that finally resolves itself in The Mango Song. The SPAC Light is, while certainly not the rawest, nor the most accomplished jam of 2013, if nothing else, the moment when we all collectively realized the revolutionary steps forward of late-2012 were not all for naught.

07/06

Tube

For everyone lamenting the death of the extended Tube, please direct your ears to this version[6]. For whatever may be missing from an 8 – 12-minute Tube jam of 97-04 lore, the band more than makes up for the lack of quantity with focused, groove-heavy, linear, funk-based-jamming these days. Perhaps the best modern example of what’s always possible with Tube, this version pops immediately from a somewhat awkward first set, crafting an absolutely infectious dance number. What’s more is this is one of the first moments of 2013 where it’s clear to anyone listening that song length has ultimately become moot. As anyone at SPAC – or even those web-casting – could attest, this jam felt like 10+ minutes, regardless its 6:48 length. Check out the crowd’s reaction when it’s clear Trey’s pushing the song past the unofficial coda to be reminded once again of the beauty of the intercommunication between band and audience in this whole Live Phish thing.

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Split Open & Melt

Wow. What a statement. What a glorified mess[7]. A conscious experimental push into the unknown as anything I’ve heard from Phish 3.0, this jam covers so much terrain in its 18-minutes, it’s really quite exhausting. Abstract, gorgeous, uneven, risqué, unpolished, raw, emotive, completely human; an absolute pure example of a band seeking out the elusive hook-up. It’s also perhaps the loosest, and unfocused Phish has allowed itself to be throughout the past five years. For every jam that has either foreshadowed or reflected the various thematic terrains of 2013, there’s really no other jam produced this year that sounds anything like this Split Open & Melt. This might be the most important pre-Tahoe Tweezer jam played in the entire summer. One just has to hear the vocal inflection and laugh from Page at the end when he says, “We’ll be right back…” following their sloppy re-entry to Melt to understand how unexpectedly deep the band went, and how gloriously lost they became.

Carini -> Architect

The first of four versions for Señor Lumpy Head on this overall list, this one pops immediately with an incredibly focused, highly expansive, delicate, interwoven and intricate piece of music that has continually resided in the upper echelons of Phish’s 2013 output since the moment it concluded. Reminiscent of the 08/31/12 Undermind and Chalk Dust, this is one of those democratic/full-band conversations we’ve now come to expect in 2013. In many ways though, this jam is all about Trey, as he plays with a determined and deliberate precision that would go on to define many of Phish’s best moments in 2013. An example of foundational setting leading to deliberate playing from Trey, this jam sounds like a direct prelude to Fall Tour more than most of the jams played throughout the summer. Oh, and this jam also segues flawlessly into a debut. So much so, that, for a moment, Architect felt like it was simply just another part of the Carini jam.

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07/10

Crosseyed & Painless> Harry Hood

Two crucial things happen from 9:20 – 15:01 in this Crosseyed, which sets the foundation for literally every moment of fully-connected Phish in 2013[8].

1.) First, Mike creates an exorbitant amount of space through his melodic and atmospheric playing – something he’d been incorporating into Phish’s improv since mid-2011 – thus slowing down the jam’s typically galloping pace, and allowing more textural space for each member to communicate with each other.

2.) As a result of this, Trey recedes into the shadows and further incorporates his rhythmic playing that had been so evident during the Bangor Golden Age, building the jam to a unified peak based in large part around the familiar theme from the 02/16/2003 Piper.

Whether or not they were conscious of it, that they were jamming on a specific theme from one of their peak moments in the early stages of 2.0 was yet another of those unexplainable moments of pure musical magic that seem to find there way into the best Phish shows and jams. Fading some two minutes later into Harry Hood, which built upon the beauty of Bangor’s encore, was a clear nod to the brilliance of this Crosseyed.

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07/12

Rock & Roll -> 2001> Tweezer -> Cities -> The Wedge

Like a snapshot right out of Summer ‘98, this fully-flowing chunk of the second set – in one of the more polarizing shows of summer[9] – is both the least-challenging and least groundbreaking piece of exploratory music from the entire tour[10]. And yet, it’s unquestionably some of the most infectiously pleasurable, which is exactly why it finds itself on this list. Rock & Roll moves into a modulated jam based on its origins and theme, ultimately reminding one of the great 08/08/2009 jam from The Gorge. Tweezer is the crown jewel of this sequence as Trey, who just sounds so playful throughout, jumps on a bouncy groove, drives it skywards and then patiently segues it right into Cities. Forget about listening critically here. Just fucking throw this on and boogie.

07/13

Harry Hood

A banner year for Hood. A. Banner. Fucking. Year. Right smack in the middle of one of the most overtly old-school shows of 2013[11] comes this overtly old-school Hood that does literally everything anyone could ever want from Harry Hood. Trey’s in command throughout in the purest, peakiest Hood in a year full of standout versions. Just soak this one in and be grateful the band has spent so much time rededicating themselves to this classic.

Mike’s Song> Simple> Weekapaug Groove

Early on this summer it appeared as though the band was coaxing a big jam out of Mike’s Song. While they ultimately never did, this version from the first night at Merriweather Post is the closest they came, and the best version of the entire year thus far. For me, however, this Groove is all about the Simple. Only one of two versions played all year, this Simple loosely locks onto the theme from Down With Disease, building a subtle, warm, full-bodied, wholly-united jam out of the band that’s among my favorite musical moments of the entire year. Proof of the musical progressions made by Trey’s insistence on focusing on his rhythmic playing, this jam just goes to show how little Phish actually has to play within a jam to craft brilliance.

07/14

Stash

They took their time prior to starting up perhaps their most innocuous first set composition[12]. They knew where they wanted to go. This version was to be different. They wanted to see how far they could push Stash while still remaining within Stash. It was – or at least, it sounds as though it was – an experiment in controlled democratic fusion. It showed Phish what they could do within even the most structured of their songs. It ultimately helped to loosen them up as they pushed their most time-honored classics far beyond the limits they’d set for them back in 2009. Trey’s wha funk spills into major-keyed bliss on a dime. This is effortless Phish. This is 2013 in a jam.

Light -> Boogie On Reggae Woman

Following that masterful first set Stash: the payoff. In perhaps the best show of the tour to that point, Phish let loose on their modern classic, fusing start/stop jams with rapid key changes, creating a disoriented dance-fest that shook Merriweather Post to its core. A prelude to the “woo’s” comes as the band peaks the jam in hysterically controlled chaos; this jam is the sound of a band fully realizing their interconnectivity, and yet still unwilling to let it all hang out at once. This is like one of those great Summer ’97 jams, when the band knew they were onto something, but weren’t quite ready to simply walk out on stage and totally strut their stuff like they’d do throughout the Fall. Few times has Boogie On sounded this anticipated, nor this perfect all at once.

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07/16

Rock & Roll -> Heartbreaker -> Makisupa Policeman> Chalk Dust Torture> Wilson> Tweezer -> Silent In The Morning

Within the confines of 2013, there were seven fully-flowing sets of music[13]. Of them, the segment from the first night of a two-night stand in Alpharetta, GA is neither the most accomplished[14], the most diverse[15], nor even the most jam-happy[16]. What it is however is a quasi-throw-back to the early days of 3.0 when humor and song selection were of the utmost importance in a Phish show, and jams rarely veered too far off into the unknown. Fusing this approach (as heard in the endless Heartbreaker teases, and the first of two Makisupa Policeman of 2013) with two jams that thematically sound plucked right out of Dick’s 2012[17], Phish crafted an indelible segment of music on a Tuesday in the Atlanta ‘burbs. For another example of how little time Phish needs to reach plains of musical bliss, look no further than the sublime Chalk Dust, a jam that feels like it covers 15-20 min of music in just under 10.

07/17

Piper -> Fast Enough For You

In a year in which the band spent so much time reviving their classics[18], while also pushing many of their newer songs into the unknown[19], less time was devoted to many of their turn-of-the-century vehicles than at any point in the past 15 years. Nowhere is this clearer than with Piper. A song that drove many of the best jams of 2003-2012, Piper appears to have adopted the role once held by Twist, as the mid-set recharge. Rather than explore the vociferous terrain Piper so seamlessly caters to, Phish instead employed it as a bridge between jams, and between the two halves of a second set, allowing its driving groove to maintain energy, rather than explore the unknown. Of these versions, perhaps none is as diverse as this one from Georgia. Touching on the baroque, haunted, underworldliness of many of its 2.0 peak versions, this Piper goes deep in a flash. Teasing the refrain from Energy, Trey immediately begins to impose darkness through the use of his tremelo effect, thus harkening back to the sprawling 07/19/2003 version. Emerging to a more blissful and melodic zone of music before fading softly into the ever-rare Fast Enough For You, perhaps it was all a subtle wink from Trey towards all those clamoring for a return of the slow-build intro?

07/21

Energy -> Ghost -> The Lizards

“Thank you for sticking around….” With those five words, the band systematically lifted the imposing weight of three weeks full of torrential weather throughout their east coast run, and thus pivoted from the foundational setting of the first half of their summer tour, before moving earnestly into one of the strongest peaks of their entire career[20]. Energy, the song of summer, builds upon its 07/17 version, with Trey invoking funk rhythms that bleed into a gorgeous melodic space – ala the 11/22/1997 Halley’s Comet. Ghost is employed once again as something of a bridge, but it’s worth hearing all the same, as it quickly finds its way into a lilting jam – by way of a distinct Seven Below tease – that fades idyllically into The Lizards. A brilliant segment of music, which makes up the meat of one of the strongest sets of summer – and perhaps the most critical moment of the entire year[21] – these uninterrupted 35 minutes have held up long since the band moved westwards from the sodden and abandoned airport on the shores of Lake Michigan.

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07/22

Down With Disease -> 2001

After kicking off the summer with three fairly contained versions[22] of one of their most cherished Set II Openers, Phish finally broke through with a jam that built off of their pivotal second set on 07/21, and pointed the way westward. Featuring melodic and rhythmic riffs from Trey throughout, the jam ultimately settled on a remarkably pleasant platitude, which felt entirely composed, and is the kind of jam one could listen to on repeat without ever growing tired. In short, this is simply one of the most enjoyable, and pleasing jams of the entire summer. A section of wholly deliberate, rising melodic playing followed, ultimately giving way to a full-on tease of Sea Of Love from The National. Further proof of how much Trey has gained from his time spent listening to – and playing with – those in the indie rock world. Following this all up with a truly patient build towards 2001 rounded off one of the most subtly diverse jams of the year, one that clearly helped to initiate the band’s massive peak over the next four months.

David Bowie

Perhaps no Phish classic has struggled to regain its unknown potential since the onset of 3.0 as one David Bowie[23]. With only a few glimmers of hope stuck in there, things changed with drastic earnestness on 12/28/12 when the band began exploring within the frame of Bowie like they hadn’t since 2003. Powerful versions on 07/05 and 07/20 paved the way for a revivalist rendition to end the second set in Toronto. A jam I highlighted in August as one of the underrated gems of the whole tour, this version leans more towards the demented explorations from 12/28/12, while further emphasizing Trey’s rhythmic explorations. Fusing the playful old-school nature of Phish with their modern and more subtle communicativeness, this Bowie is a reference point for anyone searching for the moments when Phish was fully capable of abandoning the foundational setting of the first half of summer tour, and got down to the business of properly (and consistently) breaking through their own artistic mold.

*A huge THANK YOU to Mike Hamad of @phishmaps and @MikeHamad for allowing me to use his jam maps for a few of the jams of this list. His work is phenomenal, and it really helps those listening understand better what’s happening in Phish’s music. Please give him a follow on Twitter if you don’t already. And check out his site: Setlist Schematics for even more jam maps.


[1] ‘Best’ is obviously a tricky term when it comes to a subjective essay such as this. Seeing as so many different people love Phish for so many different reasons, it’s impossible to capture an entire community’s preferences, and moments of unified elation, within a singular list. Believe me, I’m aware.

And yet, these lists are more than simply a reflection of my own subjectivities and favorite jams/shows. These lists are a result of an extensive amount of time spent listening, reading, writing and thinking – all the while parsing through the historical layers of Phish – in search of moments that stand out, and seem to both unify and exemplify the sound of an entire year. Be certain, many of my “favorite” jams and shows from the past five years have been omitted from each of my lists. Be certain that some of my favorite jams from this past year were omitted in the initial whittling process.

[2] NB, this list originally began with more than 130 individual songs, and something like 75 single jam entities. It’s now at 76/39 respectively. Progress.

[3] Anyone in need of any of these jams, or of the full playlist, feel free to hit me up @sufferingjuke and I’ll happily send em your way.

[4] This list will be delivered chronologically as all my ‘Best Of’ Lists are. Some may be fond of ranking, but I find that to be both an insolent and irrelevant endeavor when discussing and documenting Phish. This is art, not sports for Christ sake’s.

[5] A topic for another essay and another time, when you actually go back and chart the actual occurrences of improv from 03/06/09 – 12/31/11, it’s clear the band jammed with far more regularity than many wanted (or were willing (in many ways, still are willing)) to give Phish credit for. Like I said, another essay, another time.

[6] For that matter, don’t skip on the 06/15/12, 07/06/12 (w/Psycho Killer jam!!!), 07/26/13, or 11/01/13 versions.

[7] In much the same spirit of the 12/30/09 Back On The Train, 06/25/10 Chalk Dust, 10/20/10 SOAM, 08/15/11 Undermind, and 08/31/12 Runaway Jim, this SOAM feels like a leftover of the unguarded, throw-the-paint-at-the-wall-&-see-what-happens, unfiltered, macabre-style jamming that so defined the band’s 2003-2004 period, otherwise known as 2.0.

[8] There are loads of examples of groundwork being laid throughout the first three weeks of tour, a period wherein which many in the fan base were melting on Twitter, PT, Phish.net & in Mr. Miner’s comments section about how Phish wasn’t living up to the lofty heights established in 2012, or weren’t busting-out enough songs, or jamming with enough frequency, etc. Among them: Bangor’s Golden Age – specifically Trey’s insistent use of his wha-wha pedal – 2001, Antelope, and Hood; SPAC’s Cities -> Bowie, 46 Days -> Steam and Slave; the defiantly old school setlist and playing on 07/07, 07/13 and 07/14; and the funk escapade of It’s Ice that gave the band an insane amount of confidence to let their hair down and just groove.

[9] In all seriousness I loved this entire show. Set I is one of the most unique of the entire summer, featuring excellent versions of CTB and 46 Days, a loping stride through Ocelot, and an old-school pairing of Reba and David Bowie to close things out. Then again, I didn’t have to brave the cold, steely rain that reportedly blew sideways through the open-air venue that night. From my cozy apartment though, things sounded quite lovely, tbh.

[10] Yeah, I just know there’s some dude on PT right now spewing his coffee over this statement. It’s not exploratory at all. Get over it. This 60-min segment of uninterrupted music has far more in common with the late-1.0 era than anything else really played at all throughout 2013. It’s all groove. Groove for the sake of groove. It’s essentially all extended Type I jams, (with the great exception of the melodic jam that emerges from Tweezer prior to its segue into Cities) it’s essentially one big excuse for the band to simply hook-up. None of this, btw, is said to insinuate that it’s not a huge evolutionary step forward for the band within the confines of 2013, nor worth your time, or your ears.

[11] It’s right in line with 07/07, 07/10, 07/14, 10/23, and 10/25 as shows the band played throughout 2013 that felt plucked right out of 1992-1995.

[12] You could make the same argument for Bowie and Reba, but there’s something about Stash that – particularly in 3.0 – just screams “live soundcheck.”

[13] 07/05, 07/12, 07/16, 07/27, 07/30, 10/20, 10/25

[14] 10/20

[15] 07/05

[16] 07/12, 07/30

[17] The Set Opening Rock & Roll and the mid set Chalk Dust Torture are also two of the best examples of what Mr. Miner calls “Musical Density” that we have in 3.0

[18] Harry Hood, Tweezer, David Bowie, Stash

[19] Energy, Light, Golden Age, Steam, Twenty Years Later

[20] You can make a strong case that from 07/21 – 11/02 the band played 15 instant classic shows – an incredible 60% of the shows during that period – something they haven’t accomplished with such ease – nor such consistency – since probably 1997.

[21] There’s no denying how profoundly well the band was playing throughout much of the first three weeks of tour, but it was clear they were in need of something of a moment of truth to push them beyond the spurts (and the horrendous weather that dogged them) that had somewhat defined their east coast run. From the final set of their weekend in Chicago onwards, 2013 has been nothing short of a masterpiece. Without the interconnectivity and phearlessness displayed here, who knows what would have become of the band’s 30th year…

[22] This isn’t to say in any way that the other versions were bad, per se. Both the 07/07 and 07/13 versions contained some phenomenal interplay from Trey and Page in particular. Just that, well this is Down With Disease. It’s kind of one of those ‘when in doubt songs’ for Phish. The kind they can always rely on to jump-start a set/show, or immediately build upon the energy of a hooked-up Set I.

[23] Seriously, take out the 06/19/10, 10/20/10, 06/03/11, 07/03/11, and 12/28/12 versions and what you’re left with are essentially a massive amount of skeletal imitations of what Bowie once was. Of all the Phish classics that have suffered – necessarily and unnecessarily – at the hands of Phish’s full-on rebuilding project of the last five years, none have been as tragic as that of Bowie.