Birds of a Feather
Vocals: Trey (lead), Fish, Mike, Page (backing)
Historian: Dan Purcell (sausagemahoney)
Last Update: 2016-03-10
First descending from the rafters of the Nassau Coliseum on the first night of the Island Tour and mercilessly strafing the unsuspecting crowd, “Birds of a Feather” is pretty obviously a product of Phish’s fascination with Talking Heads (and, in particular, “Crosseyed and Painless”) following their recreation of Remain in Light on Halloween 1996. The tune's uptempo-but-funky rhythm, and especially Trey’s guitar lick, strongly evoke “Crosseyed,” the RiL standout that Phish has performed dozens of times, almost always to memorable effect. Whatever the origin of “BOAF,” its similarity to “Crosseyed” has diminished somewhat over time, as Phish has allowed the song to find a groove of its own.
”Birds of a Feather” – 10/20/98, New York, NY
The other thing to mention about “BOAF” is the lyrics, the obvious reading of which is Tom Marshall's ambivalent but generally good-humored take on Phish fans and the traveling circus we create whenever the band tours. In the first verse, the narrator speaks of himself as an object of curiosity, put on a pedestal but frequently knocked to the ground. He tries to engage with his audience; they offer him some marijuana. It's unclear whether he accepts, but he does chuckle at their jokes, and that seems to please them. Eventually he starts to relax, but he never really feels like he’s part of the crowd.
The second verse is more anthropological; still on his pedestal, the narrator studies the habits of the flock. He checks out their mass performance of a “curlicue dance” and the “ritual drumming” that goes along with it. He sees how they can communicate almost telepathically with each other, and how much they enjoy that. He watches them take pleasure in introducing and converting unsuspecting novices to the scene. The chorus – “birds of a feather are flocking outside” – should be immediately intelligible to anyone who’s ever set foot in a Phish parking lot.
Being generally averse to explaining what his lyrics mean, Tom hasn’t confirmed or denied the above interpretation, but these would not be the only lyrics of his to convey a bemused outsider’s perspective on the people who come to see his childhood friend’s world-famous band. In this sense, “Birds” is of a piece with “Down with Disease,” where the narrator is trying to deal with some heavy personal issues while a thousand barefoot children dance on his lawn. Unlike in “Disease,” the protagonist of “Birds” isn't waiting for the time when he can walk away from the crowd; he seems to like at least some of what he sees; he’s content to stick around.
Although “Birds” always brings the energy, and its highly danceable beat makes it a positive addition to any set, the jam segment has usually stuck fairly closely to the tune’s basic riff and meter. That’s not a criticism; even these Type-I jams frequently build to glorious crescendos. Strong versions abound, including the 4/2/98 debut, 4/4/98, 7/2/98, 7/20/98, 10/15/98, 6/30/99 (into “Simple”), 7/8/99 (with a Mike-led “Days Between” jam and a segue into a bizarre, impromptu take on “If I Only Had a Brain”), 7/20/99 (into “When the Circus Comes”), 8/2/03 (exceptionally long for a non-experimental version, and always bright), and 6/17/04 (leading into “Kung”). In October 1998, shortly after the release of the studio version on The Story of the Ghost, Phish also unleashed “Birds” on David Byrne’s Sessions at West 54th show and The Late Show with David Letterman.
All that aside, four versions of "Birds" deserve special mention. The first "Birds" to go full-on experimental came on 7/23/99, in the middle of the second set at the now-abandoned Polaris Amphitheater in Columbus, extending for over 25 minutes. The next version, highlighting the second set of the great 7/25/99 Deer Creek show, flirted with a reprise of “My Left Toe” before slipping into “Walk Away.” The next summer, on 6/29/00 in Holmdel, NJ, the band abandoned the song’s usual driving groove in favor of a moody excursion with teases of the main theme from “A Love Supreme.” Then things got even weirder and rowdier, leading into “Catapult” before settling back to earth with a segue into the pop stylings of “Heavy Things.” But all of those versions pale in comparison to the “BOAF” from 8/10/04 at Great Woods. The jam that emerged from “BOAF” that night was a simmering, tension-filled masterpiece. Starting up the usually-modest number at the 50-minute mark of the first set, the band may not have been intending it to be the set closer. But 20 minutes later, there was no question that everyone in the building needed at least a 15-minute break, if not a cigarette.
Since Phish came out of its premature retirement, “Birds of a Feather” has featured regularly but hasn’t sprawled as much or as often, settling into a role as a dependable first-set momentum-builder. Most of the time, anyway. For exceptions to the rule, see the second-set opener from Philly ‘09 and especially the extended workout from the 2012 Bader Field shows. After the Haunted House show with its standout “The Birds,” Phish worked that tune’s “they attack!” sample into the intro and concluding hits of “Birds of a Feather,” and even the most straightforward versions of the tune do, in fact, attack.