Colonel Forbin's Ascent
Vocals: Trey (lead), Mike, Page (backing)
Historian: Mark Toscano, Phillip Zerbo (pzerbo)
Last Update: 2011-09-10
He has braved many challenges, some extremely perilous, some exceedingly bizarre. He has conquered dangerous mountains, dark forests, rushing rivers, and treacherous love. He has helped save an entire civilization, only to find it doomed yet again. He has shared the company of faithful fleet hounds and intimidating deities. He has found adventure and misadventure in outer space (5/2/92), under the earth’s surface (5/6/92), on Gilligan’s Island (2/25/93), and in Fishman’s ear (11/27/92). His innumerable exploits have led him to unique encounters with chocolate (12/1/95), peapods and diapers (2/7/93), flooding (2/19/93), surfing (2/25/93), roller coasters (8/7/93), magical lights (11/4/94), giant iguanas (8/7/96), surrealist gluttonous excess (8/7/98), and a mammoth, talking, dancing colossus of David Byrne (10/31/96). He is none other than Colonel Forbin.
”Colonel Forbin’s Ascent” – 3/24/92, Richmond, VA
Colonel Forbin is the hero of Trey’s Gamehendge saga, The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday, a musical devised, written, and recorded for his Senior Study at Goddard College. In addition to appearing throughout the musical’s narrative, Forbin is the focus of the song “Colonel Forbin’s Ascent.” This composition is the fifth song in the cycle, and tells the story of Forbin’s ascent up the sacred mountain to obtain help from Icculus, the Lizards’ god. When he sees how futile the revolutionaries’ attempts at overthrow are, Forbin realizes that this appeal to divine aid may be the Lizards’ only hope. After his arduous climb, he confronts the great and knowledgeable Icculus, who sends the Famous Mockingbird to Wilson’s castle to retrieve the Helping Friendly Book and bring it to Forbin’s hut in the revolutionaries’ camp. It is with this Icculusian command that the song ends, bridging nicely into “Fly Famous Mockingbird,” a tune that describes this feathered fellow’s flight to fetch the furtive fortune.
Besides “Tela,” “Forbin” was the most time-consuming and difficult song for Trey to compose for his Senior Study. Also like “Tela,” Trey spent a lot of time on “Forbin’s” lyrics, wanting them to be strong enough to stand up on their own as poetry. “Forbin” and “Lizards” are definitely the primary storytelling anchors of The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday, as they provide the listener with detailed plot developments that could not be expressed in stream-of-consciousness self-promotion (“Fly Famous Mockingbird”) or instrumental description ("The Sloth”). The end product is a song rife with verbose descriptions and rich, affective word choices. Especially impressive are the double-time verses immediately preceding both “sacred creed” refrains.
One of Trey’s challenges in designing his Senior Study was to write songs representing a number of different musical styles that he could alter just enough to form a coherent compositional progression, not just a narrative one. For “Forbin,” Trey mined a rich ore of jazz chords, and the song yields such nuggets as flatted fifths and ninths, and minor chords with major sevenths. These motley chords – unusual for a “rock” song – were arranged by Trey into a strange pattern, making the lead vocals awkward for him, but singable and definitely interesting. Trey based the music supporting the aforementioned double-time verses on bluegrass principles, and the proto-“Mockingbird” chord progression was one he picked up in Ireland. This menagerie of musical tidbits combines rather nicely and unexpectedly to complete the song.
”Colonel Forbin’s Ascent” -> “Merry Prankers Jam” – 8/14/97, Darien Center, NY
“Forbin” debuted on 3/12/88 at Nectar's, even though its usual companion, “Fly Famous Mockingbird” had debuted a month earlier, on 2/7/88. It is amazing to consider that even though both songs have been performed since the band’s late-Nectar period in 1988, “Forbin” has only been performed without “Mockingbird” once, on 8/14/97. Plus, 8/14/97 was quite an exception: Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters showed up at Darien Lake, and the band used “Forbin” as a launching pad for the Pranksters’ antics, something that could only have been followed by the swampy funk of “Camel Walk,” not “Mockingbird.”
The “Forbin” -> “Mockingbird” combo is also a concert treat for being one of the two major storytelling songs in the Phish canon (the other being “Harpua”). Early versions of the “Forbin’s” > “Mockingbird” combo were usually performed without any narration, “Forbin” instead segueing smoothly into “Mockingbird” with nary a word from Trey. With the spring 1992 tour the two songs would be consistently joined by a varying narrative, but also occasionally by an extra song slipped in between the two, including “Icculus,” (see 4/16/92, 4/24/92, 5/2/92), “Kung” (3/25/93, 6/16/94), “How High the Moon” (3/8/93) and even Collective Soul’s “Shine” (12/31/95). Beginning in 1995 the songs dwindled in frequency, but not creativity: the stories became increasingly elaborate and unusual, culminating in the truly epic, surrealist classic performed on 8/7/98. Eleven “Forbin” -> “Mockingbird” combos were performed in 1994 alone, but only nine were offered over the next fifteen years. The 9/30/00 version (captured on the Live in Vegas DVD) was all the more special because it hadn’t been performed in over two years and by far the longest show gap to date at 148. This was the only time that Phish made mention of the (then upcoming) hiatus from the stage. During the “Mockingbird” narration, Trey noted the band’s love for the fans, crew, and each other, and gave thanks for the last seventeen tremendous years.
”Colonel Forbin’s Ascent” – 8/14/09, Hartford, CT
The Colonel was AWOL for all of Phish 2.0, and the song was not performed for almost nine years until the surprising return on 8/14/09 in Hartford. While enthusiastically received by most, the technically difficult “Forbin” -> “Mockingbird” combo was performed well, but to the minor disappointment of a few fans essentially straight and without narration. One would be hard pressed to find any disappointment with this show as a whole: the most Gamehendge-filled performance since (the last full performance on) 7/8/94 included a "Ghost" -> "Psycho Killer" -> "Catapult" -> "Icculus" combo that is widely considered an instant classic.
The next performance highlighted the first set of the 7/4/10 Independence Day festivities. This was again delivered without narration in “Forbin’s” though this, too, was compensated in the second set with a “Harpua” narration that outlined “an alternative history of this great country” and a powerfully delivered debut of “Killing In the Name.” This trend continued on 6/17/11 in Charlotte. On this night Trey and Mike wore identical shirts with the image of local musician David Mayfield; during “Forbin’s” Trey noted only that “I’m not going to give it away, when I’m in this part of the country, but I think you all know who this is” referencing his shirt; the story was given up during the “Icculus” in set two.
”Colonel Forbin’s Ascent” -> “Fly Famous Mockingbird” – 7/4/10, Alpharetta, GA
The trend was finally bucked on 7/3/11, the final day of SBIX, where narration was required to explain the previous night’s “Storage Jam” with an explanation about how the band had been locked in a storage unit with their equipment in 1988 on their first-ever tour to Colorado, and how they were able to escape “the box” through music. The most recent version of the combo came just nine shows later on 8/17/11. While again dispensing with the narration, this version was notable for being the first show-opening “Forbin’s” > “Mockingbird” combo since 11/3/89.
Narration or otherwise, Phish fans everywhere are simply pleased to have The Colonel back in semi-regular rotation.