[This post is courtesy of Jeremy Levine (@Franklin) - ed.]
Summer 2016 was a confusing time for Phish fans. After Thrilling Chilling, Miami NYE (feat. “Disease”), all of Summer 2015, Magnaball, MSG NYE (feat. “Tweezer” and “Hourglass”), the band seemed to be on a rollercoaster that only went up. But the next summer tour didn’t get off to the same strong start as we saw the previous year in Bend, and catching up to 2015’s heights seemed essentially impossible after the East Coast run wrapped up in Syracuse. 2016 certainly had its gems and generated a lot of great music, but it seemed like we had crested the peak.
And then, after a strong-but-not-legendary Dick’s run (feat. “Simple”… and I guess “Crosseyed and Painless”), the Big Boat arrived. Phish’s studio albums have never been the most exciting part of their output, but some fans saw this new record as validation of the hypothesis that 2016 Phish was a neutered Phish, dropping far below expectations.
But then we had Fall Tour 2016, a mind-boggling New Year’s Run, and an unstoppably good summer tour (feat. Baker’s Dozen). With Big Boat’s one-year anniversary this Saturday, I think it’s time to take a look at the album that showed up in the middle of this pivot — how its compositions stand up now that the hype cycle is behind us, and how its songs have weaved their way into the live format.
Note: The statistics following each song are marked as follows:
(Debut / Total Times Played / Times Played Since Album Released / Most Recent Version)
“Friends” (2016-06-29 / 2 / 0 / 2016-07-10)
The album announces itself. That opening chord has a lot of force behind it, and Fishman’s vocal delivery is perfect for the message he’s invoking. I see the distributed songwriting (and singing) weight on this album as an opportunity for us to see each band member’s perspective on its central issue, which seems to be aging/maturity. Fishman doesn’t disappoint, offering an uncharacteristically dark perspective with perfect musical backing. My one real issue with “Friends” (apart from lending the album a horrible title) is its suspicious absence: after arising magnificently out of “Crosseyed and Painless” at the Mann, it only made one other appearance, in the first set at Syracuse in 2016. I’d love to see it again, preferably in a second set slot like the debut, especially given 2017 Phish’s ability to tap into the dark grooves that could lend themselves to that kind of segue.
“Breath and Burning” (2016-06-26 / 13 / 8 / 2017-09-01)
I refer you to the “different perspectives on aging” question. Here the camera turns to Trey, who guides us through the same themes with a completely different perspective. It’s moderately fun (dare I say “breezy”), but I fear that this song isn’t going to get us anything but some moderately enthusiastic head-bopping (think “The Wedge”), especially seeing that it hasn’t appeared in a true second set since, well, Syracuse. Does the exploratory Baker’s Dozen version allude to some jamming potential in this tune, or was that simply because of the Baker’s Dozen Effect? I guess we’ll see.
“Home” (2016-10-14 / 4 / 4 / 2017-07-30)
The camera turns to Page, who proceeds to burn everything down. “Home” is so self-assured that it even has a little bit of swagger, even though Page’s lyrics reveal a sheepish sentiment at best. The arrangement is poppier than a lot of Phish’s output, but the jam section turns things around in a real and serious way. Would I like to see “Home” go deep in a second set? Yeah. But its four appearances to date have found it in the first set, serving to bring a rush of excitement to the crowd with a high-powered "Type-I" hosedown. The debut is the longest version, barely topping nine minutes, but I don’t think it needs to go longer. Few Phish songs can be called on to always bring up the energy in a first set — and “Home” is now one of them.
“Blaze On” (2015-07-21 / 27 / 10 / 2017-09-01)
When we heard “Blaze On” for the first time on the first night of Summer Tour 2015, we weren’t too sure what to make of it. The summer wasn’t legendary yet. This new song was cheesy at worst and inconsequential at best. First-set fodder. But then Shoreline happened, when “Blaze On” set the stage for a fantastic six-song second set. The bets were off. Since then, “Blaze On” has served as something of a utility player — sometimes appearing in a second set to give us a heavy jam, sometimes in a first set to lighten the mood.
The studio version doesn’t give us much. Sometimes, the studio version of a Phish song can feel like a less-energized version of the real thing, and “Blaze On’s” flat dynamics, needless busy-ness, and flattened backing vocals sap out the spirit of spontaneity that the song embodies and produces a generic rendering in its place.
“Tide Turns” (2016-06-29 / 6 / 3 / 2016-12-31)
Not quite a ballad, definitely not a first-set rocker, not nearly complicated enough to occupy the kind of middle space that your “Limb by Limb”s and “Taste”s happily occupy, “Tide Turns” was destined to struggle to find a place in the Phish canon. The one-line chorus never quite hits (maybe because waiting for the tide to turn means waiting a couple of hours at most) and, even though I’ve probably heard this album at least twenty times, I couldn’t sing a line of the verse from memory. “Tide Turns” was never a winner, and we haven’t seen it live since it brought 12/31/16 III to a screeching halt... maybe Phish has given “Tide Turns” the same treatment that it gave that set.
“Things People Do” (2016-6-28 / 7 / 5 / 2017-7-28)
Did Phish need another bluegrassy song? No, especially seeing as the only two they really need in the first place are “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome” and “Old Home Place,” (hot takes) but now we have this little Page number to round out the group. Generally inoffensive (apart from the “Pinterest” lyric), “Things People Do” almost always makes a first-set appearance and we all move on pretty quickly. Some people object to the studio version, but I think it’s nice to get one Page number where we get to be up close to him, letting the sparser setting match the lyrics in a way that his other two tunes on the album don’t allow. Apart from that intimacy, we don’t get much from this one.
“Waking Up Dead” (2016-06-29 / 6 / 5 / 2017-07-30)
One of the strongest tracks on the album, “Waking Up Dead” is Mike’s lone shot at the “every band member talks about their internal calibration” theme. He goes whole-hog on it, with menacing instrumentation to back up his macabre lyrics — it wouldn’t sound out-of-place on a record like Rift. It’s quintessential Mike and quintessential Phish, the perfect example of a song that pushes boundaries but stays within the lines; is unambiguous in its message without hitting it too hard; is dark, but not hopeless. That balance between old-school cleverness and new-school introspection is what makes it such a standout player. “Waking Up Dead” has shown up exclusively in first sets; we haven’t had a Mike song become a jam vehicle for ages, and I’m not sure that “Waking Up Dead” is a better candidate than “555.” The complex arrangement probably means fewer live renditions, but at least we can rely on the kooky studio version for a reliable standard.
“Running Out of Time” (2016-10-19 / 2 / 2 / 2016-10-24)
The same can be said for ballads as for bluegrass — you get one song like this each night, maybe two, so a whole lot of variety isn’t necessary, at least in the live setting. Still, “Running Out of Time” is a beautiful song, stripping away a lot of the excitement we saw in “Breath and Burning” and exposing a less secure Trey. We get the same intimacy on the studio version as we do on “Things People Do,” but on a better song. We shouldn’t expect to hear from it a whole lot, but I’d certainly welcome a couple more outings.
“No Men in No Man’s Land” (2015-07-21 / 25 / 9 / 2017-09-01)
“NMINML,” like “Blaze On,” is one of Big Boat’s more flexible tunes, sometimes opening sets, sometimes getting jammed out in the second set, sometimes getting jammed out in the first set, sometimes serving as a quick energy blast in either set. You never know what you’re going to get with this song in a live setting. "NMINML" isn’t quite the next “Light,” serving as a reliable jam vehicle all the time, but I’m sure it would settle for being the next “Chalk Dust.”
It opens the second LP as dramatically as “Friends” opens the first, offering nothing by way of preamble and jumping straight into the magic. It’s bold, completely sure of its ability to pilot us through the second half of the record.
“Miss You” (2016-06-24 / 6 / 4 / 2017-07-23)
I think it’s fair to say that there was some confusion in the air when this song premiered at Wrigley. A huge stadium show and a new ballad didn’t quite work out. But now that we’ve learned a little bit more about the context, I think this song is sort of in "Number Line" territory. We know it means so much to Trey that it’s kind of unassailable. His Gilmour-tinted solo on the studio version is probably my favorite thing about the whole album, and he’s able to squeeze that much emotion in most live versions. "Miss You" is a winner.
“I Always Wanted It This Way” (2016-10-15 / 4 / 4 / 2017-07-22)
The most befuddling song on the record remains the most befuddling song in the live setting. First, “IAWITW” has featured significant Marimba Lumina shenanigans in each of its performances except for the debut. Apart from the 8/1 “46 Days” (and, I guess, the bridge in “Mercury”), the Baker’s Dozen version is the only 2017 appearance of Trey’s favorite instrument. 2017 definitely saw less Marimba than 2016, but I wonder if this song will keep Trey headed to the back of the stage. At this point, the sample size is too small to make any judgments about where this song will end up. It’s reliably been in the second set and has had some kind of improv, but its role still feels very undefined. Maybe it’s carving out a new niche as a late-set weirdness generator.
I’m honestly not even sure what to say about the studio cut.
“More” (2016-10-14 / 8 / 8 / 2017-09-01)
Unlike “IAWITW,” “More” knows exactly what it’s doing. It’s only appeared outside of the first-set closer role once in its eight outings, and that was to close set two of a three set show. It feels like it’s trying to be “Character Zero” but with heart — an approach that makes it typical Big Boat. Lots of the songs on this album do things that other songs in the repertoire do, but they go for a much more immediate, personal lyrical backdrop. “More” will probably stay where it is forever, but it does its job well.
“Petrichor” (2016-10-14 / 7 / 7 / 2017-08-05)
“Petrichor” feels like the final test of Big Boat’s founding risk: can Phish transfer everything they’ve learned from their career — funk grooves, ballads, pop songs, bluegrass, arena anthems, and now a through-composed, classical piece — and bring it together under this musically approachable, lyrically emotional ethos? I would argue that “Petrichor” gets the job done for that last category, which makes it the perfect track to close out the album. It’s ambitious and user-friendly, attending to the band’s spiritual questions and staking out new musical territory.
Even though it doesn’t follow in the fugal traditions of your “Fluffhead”s and “YEM”s, “Petrichor” is no slouch. In some ways, the tonality and openness makes it more appropriate for the modern era. It’s both foreboding and relaxing, with each movement creating a coherent mood that contributes to the overall value of the piece. The only real weakness that I see (and I agree with Jake Cohen, who mentions this in the song history) is the solo guitar lines that are a little too transparently trying to hold the piece together.
Because it was put on a Phish album in 2016, “Petrichor” will never get the crowd reception that Phish’s other long-form compositions get. When you hear the first notes of “Divided Sky” or “YEM” or even “Pebbles” (#JeremyCatchesPebbles2018), the whole audience erupts because they know they’re hearing one of Trey’s masterpieces. “Petrichor” can hang with these tunes — but because it’s so new, it doesn’t have the Road Warrior status of those other songs. Nobody can tell you about the amazing “Petrichor” from IT or Cypress or Hampton, because they didn’t happen. That doesn’t devalue “Petrichor” as a song, but it does affect how well it lands with the crowd. Phish can close a second set with “Fluffhead” or “YEM” or “Walls of the Cave” and everyone will see it as a great call. Can the same be said for “Petrichor”? I’m not petri-sure.
And I bet that “Miss You” could have been “Wading,” “No Men” could have been “Ghost,” and “More” could have even been “Character Zero” if the timing had been right. Vintage has it kitsch in the Phish canon, and it should. There’s something great about hearing a song that’s been with this band through all of its peaks, whose history is almost as storied as Phish itself. Big Boat is a year old now, and we’re starting to see where its songs see themselves as part of that tradition, how they’ve gotten into line alongside those giants. The answers aren’t totally nailed down — I’d love more “Running Out of Time,” a real role for “IAWITW,” and, dammit, a studio version of “Mercury” — but I like what we’ve got so far. Big Boat is not a perfect album. It’s not even a great album, I don’t think. But it more or less does what it set out to do, it’s helped Phish explore what it can do, and its songs have undeniably made the repertoire richer. For that, I’m grateful.
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