OK. Around 14:40 in the lovely SBD/AUD matrix recording floating out there (ahem), listen now to Trey's *totally out-of-place* insertion of 'Eastern' scalar runs in an otherwise conventional major-chords-all-over jam. Page tries to integrate Trey's statement into the texture of the jam but it's a weird fit, and what should've been a best-ever Hood weirdly kind of limps to the finish line.
What we didn't (couldn't!) know in 2009 was that THAT kind of playing - Trey's uncharacteristic (and clumsy, back then) harmonic experimentation, Page's instant responsiveness, the sheer density of the jam's texture, the awesome possibilities for tension/release latent in that kind of harmonic superposition - all that stuff was gonna blossom, in 2011, into the most interesting new Phish music since at least 1999, maybe even 1997. After the stunning ambient music the chaotichromatic stuff sounded like a flub...but *it*, not the free-floating bliss-space, was the future of Phish's jamming.
Part 2 of our experiment: grab your copy of the 8/15/11 UIC Light and fast-forward to the 4:10 mark (in the SBD). Check out how Trey's playing, over just a handful of choruses, swings from the majestic blues-inflected I-IV movement of the main Light jam, through some tense minor-scale passages, past a series of choppy figures, into a lightning-quick run beneath which PAGE MCCONNELL DOES THE COOLEST THING HE'S EVER DONE.
OK it's a small thing but let's take a breath, then a beat, and see what's happening here. Trey is playing a gnarly run that sounds like IIb or even a whole-tone scale a half-step offset from the usual Light key; Page responds by switching from I-IV-IV (the basic Light pattern) to I-IIb-Vb7, launching off from Trey's bluesy sustained third and chord-climbing even as Trey rockets skyward. It's not earth-shaking music, but the fact is, *Phish don't play like this* - or they didn't used to - and even if Page is secretly giving Trey a modulated I-IV to play with, it sounds so perfectly strange (and vice versa) that for a second it seems they can all of a sudden do anything they want to, again.
The whole thing takes four seconds. In just that much time Page and Trey blow open the sound of the whole jam. As if in celebration, Page hops onto the Hammond organ to fill the sky with Soaring! Technicolor! Noise! Mike, Fish, Trey, and Page get more and more noisy and tense and dissonant and FURIOUS - the light growing brighter, darker, deeper, more present, past and future in painful proximity like matched magnetic poles, the field strengthening...
At 5:40 or so the jam enters its next phase, a loping decrescendo above Fish's clanging cymbal pattern, and we can put down the phone at this point, moving on to 9/4/11. We just had to seed our listening first - to see how Trey's clumsy Jones Beach '09 maneuvers had mutated and matured in two years, how his bandmates were responding in new ways, how the off-kilter chromaticism Trey was reaching for had at last *fully integrated* into a Phish sound that had been, dare I say, a little predictable...
...and so OK here comes 9/4/11 Denver. But I'm not gonna talk about the patient Twist, the frightening 'storage shed' psychedelia in Piper, completely integrated 'plinko' section in this instant-classic Hood, thrilling Beatles/Guy Forget bustouts emerging from solid R'n'R and Ghost jams, funky Gin, or even how happy I am to hear this melodramatic but awesome version of Page's Halfway to the Moon. Nah, the hell with the usual happyhappy stuff. Let's just for a second talk about the Chalkdust that closes Set One.
OK. Preliminaries end at 2:40, at which point Trey begins his usual blues soloing, which stays 'inside the box' for just 30 seconds before he brings the volume down and starts a Stash-style tension/release routine. Nothing out of the ordinary for Chalkdust, really, and after a moment it's back to the usual stuff...but by 4:20 Page is rumbling low on the piano, throwing out new chords, Mike is acting a little silly down low, Trey starts with his minimalist patterns, Page is doing chromatic whoopsy-daysies up and down the keys...at 5:30 it's a lightning-quick 'Night in Tunisia' pattern from Trey and we're firmly into the Nü Tonalitas or Le Petit Dissonance whatever we pretentious jackasses want to call it...
Then SHIT at 6:30 the band pulls together for one of its patented 'Let Us All Climax Together Now' downbeats, only Cactus is NOT PLAYING BALL. And for a couple of choruses everything seems to hang together only barely, if at all, with Trey signaling Return and Mike responding with Maintain, Fishman bashing out Release, Page happily spraying Why Not over everything within reach of his (ahem) organ...
The end of the jam is such a colossal group orgasm that Trey manages to totally flub his entrance after the break, before nailing the final written lines. And instead of the grand set-ending major chord the song usually provides in this spot, Trey gives us a short, nasty dissonant minor-chord *rogering* at the outro, all industrial noises and weirdness, before a *perfect* unison hit to close things out.
It's not groundbreaking music; heck, no one aspect of this jam is unprecedented for Phish. It does come back periodically, as it must, to the bluesy peacocking that comprises 99% of all Chalkdust jams. But I'm not sure Phish have ever been able to integrate their melodic, harmonic, atmospheric, and stylistic ideas this well, this consistently, this *effortlessly*.
Yeah - I said 'ever,' as in, as perfect as Fall 1997 is in my mind, the density and well-roundedness of this music has no equal in Phish's gigantic live catalogue. How can I put this? I think they're playing now with a really unprecedented *density of musical information*, by which I mean that while they may still be drawing on templates they established a while back - particularly mid-90's spacy/spacious psychedelia, post-1996 funk, post-1997 ambient textures - the individual components are richer and more complex than they've ever been. The individual players' lines are certainly at peak intricacy and facility (excepting only Trey, *arguably*), but that's not all of it: there's just a palpable spirit of generosity and even bravery, which really brings up the level of all the music.
As if all four players trust themselves and one another so deeply, now, that they can throw out just not Weird and Stupid Ideas, nor Silly ones, nor deliberately Oppositional notions, but finally really Complex ideas...the obvious showcase in 2009-11 has been Light, with its involuted musical snarls and crosshatched tonalities, but jams like this Chalkdust show off just how much each player is offering the other four at all times.
I suspect it's a function of Mike's remarkable move to frontline prominence, but also Page's enormous gains in confidence and assertiveness (think of his leadership role in the Albany '09 Seven > Ghost!), and Trey's newfound directness and solo experimentalism. Not to mention Fish's restored chops, which are as good as they've ever been. (And by the late-90's he was one of the most skilled drummers anywhere.) But it's also a matter of the band having nothing to prove and no one to please but themselves. More and more, their best jams are starting to resemble their freewheeling soundchecks, where they've long experimented with sounds they were too reserved (in a weird way) to bring before the paying audience.
I imagine the (sometimes boring) Superball IX late-nite 'storage shed' jam was a turning point as well - a much-needed reminder of just how far we, the obsessives, are willing to follow Phish's experiments. They're *bolder* now then they've been in a long time...but their instincts for stage performance keep their experiments from the perversity of (say) their pre-1997 music.
My point here is that Phish have always been a fast-moving band, a *brainy* band, but having exhausted musical algebra they've moved into a realm where they can really PLAY with their many musical ideas: a deep ambient jam in Hood, a thunderous 'Endtroducing...' groove emerging from R'n'R, a self-devouring noise groove in Sneakin' Sally, chiming children's soundtrack music in Disease, dark rock'n'roll beats in the Waves outro, eerie chiming chords beneath Undermind, pure industrial noise drowning a funk jam in Light. And the crucial bit, the point I'm desperately trying to make, is that these deep experiments don't sound like experiments, nor accidents, nor exceptions...they're flowing seamlessly and joyfully from the textures of the songs themselves.
Every idea now seems copresent in a way it's simply never been. Phish 1997 could seemingly do anything they wanted do; Phish 2011 seem prepared to do *everything*, to allow all these musical possibilities not just to alternate or succeed one another (One Idea Per Minute) but to intermingle and cross-pollinate.
I'm so goddamn happy about this music right now. So excited to hear these men make such joyful and *adult* music. Maybe past the formalism and mere information I've been repeating these last N paragraphs, maybe THAT is the whole point of the thing. I wish most of all to tell you that it gives me joy, and I hope the same for you. In and through and with this music we've loved for such a long time, the ridiculous lot of us...to live so close to so rich and true a thing as this ever-growing music is a blessing, if that word means anything. This afternoon, at least, I'd like to believe that it does.
Or not, whatever. I mean it's just a concert review. Hey here's a summary DOWNLOAD THE SHOW ITS AWESOME U WILL LOVE IT THEY EVEN PLAYED A SOLID A- VERSION OF PIPER