Throughout the evolution of Phish, there have been diverse phases which have altered the direction of the band. '94 is clearly an example of exploratory jamming, '97 is the 'cow funk' period, '03 is the frowned upon period, to name a few. However, no matter which you favor most or whether you dislike an entire period, there is no arguing that each has had an impact on the band. The band's ability to improvise within the context of a new frame has allowed them to progress through each stage, coming out a different and more capable band in the end. There is no doubt that we have entered into a new stage of Phish improvisation. This past weekend at Red Rocks shows that the band has fully taken on its new form, with increased comfort, and will explore it for the foreseeable future.
The transition to this new form has been slow, and most likely occurred in late '99. After the legendary all-night Big Cypress set, the band took a different turn. With a more rock-focused direction, the band entered into the millennium changed. The band pursued this form in early 2000, however the hiatus would prevent us from seeing any further into the bands' new improvisational approach.
The return from the first hiatus in '03 prevented us from fully experiencing the bands new direction, as they were largely unpracticed and impeded by outside factors. Some highlights from this period offer a glimpse into the exploratory realm that the band would eventually reach. The shows from Camden in '03 and Saratoga in June '04 are particular highlights. These shows exhibit some very outside jamming, reminiscent of where the band is today. There are many more (the two night run in Cinci '03, IT, Brooklyn etc). During this period the band took some exploratory leaps, which many people have criticized harshly. Perhaps because Trey flubbed too many notes during the composed sections, fans ignore the incredible jams and progress that took place.
During the second hiatus, each member was given an opportunity to hone their skills at their respective instruments. Using with an edgier, more distorted tone, Trey continued to develop his new style that he had introduced in '03. Equipped with a bag of new licks, he continued to perfect his sound. TAB offered him the perfect chance to work out the details of his new style before rejoining Phish. Page was offered the chance to lead his own bands, as was Mike, allowing them both to improve their writing and playing. Jon took the opportunity to play with numerous musicians from several different genres of music (including another Ernie Stires student, Jamie Masefield of JMP), developing his multifaceted skills further.
Returning to Hampton in March of this year, the band sounded entirely different than their '03-'04 shows. With a much larger focus on rhythm, and equal-part, concise jams the band made their way through their old numbers. Although the band seemed uptight due to the circumstances, it seemed this was the direction they were taking. Most people know Mike has been critical of Trey's note-heavy solos, and Page has rarely taken the forefront. Thus, when we saw Trey take a step back in many of the jams, and Page take a step forward, we were left thinking this was the Phish 3.0 sound. Concise, funky, equal-part, rhythmic-based jams, along with Trey's edgy guitar tone.
However, the June shows shoved all of these notions aside and presented us with an even newer direction. The band exhibited very rock-based playing, highly focused on Trey's solos (which were note-heavy). Nonetheless, the band impressed us at every stop along the tour. Bringing along some aspects of Hampton's shows (Page's greater stage presence) and leaving others behind, they continued to evolve. Still focused on more concise jams, the Quartet felt as though they were getting more comfortable each step of the way.
By the Alpine shows, the band seemed to have fully evolved, developing their new sound. Each member was representing a greater part of the whole, in-line with their King Sunny Ade approach. In Burgettstown, for the first time, Page would lead the jam in Tube from the end of the lyrics until the bluesy interlude. This demonstrated the new equal-part mentality. After these shows, mostly everyone was pleased. The jams were extended, more experimental, more psychedelic. The band that everyone loved was back, and making a statement with the experience they had gained.
Then came Red Rocks and the band shoved the June shows aside. Anyone who has listened to the shows from the past four nights knows that the band has taken yet another step. This time, we are hearing the band with the experimentation of '03, the tightness of 98, only now with greater experience. The rhythmic focus of Hampton was brought along, and appears in many jams. Trey's guitar, still edgy...but tastefully so. The Stash from Red Rocks night 1 is reminiscent of some of the versions from '95, featuring dark, outer-wordly improvisation. The entire second set from night 2 provides a great example of Phish's new direction. Featuring far more relaxed jams than the June shows, the Red Rocks shows are bold statement from the band. The composed numbers were played with precision (other than a little Bowie flub), and the jams were more drawn out than before.
While the June shows' jams often felt like long solos, the Red Rocks shows contain close interplay between each member of the band. Trey and Mike can be heard going back and forth on the Ghost from night 1, locking in and out of melodies. There is no doubt that the band has taken yet another step in their evolutionary process. It is amazing how Phish continues to evolve. Like Miles Davis, the band constantly breaks new ground, moving into uncharted musical territories each time. Not only is Phish back, they are back in a new and different way. They are constantly trying to use their abundant creativity to push the band forward in new, interesting musical directions.
Anyone who is seeing the band in the next few weeks is brimming with excitement at the possibilities that surround every show. The transitions are becoming smoother, the jams are getting longer, Phish are being Phish again (Trey's musical charades) and things seem to be getting better each step of the way. All signs point to these upcoming shows being very, very good. As Phish continues to develop their new style, it is interesting to look back on the impressive leaps the band has already made this year.
What is your favorite Phish era? Post your opinion in the comments section below.
I have posted the video of the jam from Stash on Night 1 at Red Rocks below.
(All pictures courtesy of Dave Vann)