Vocals: Mike, Page, Trey
Historian: Chris Bertolet (bertoletdown)
Last Update: 2014-01-17
Fishman's tick-tock cymbal intro to “David Bowie” is to the Phish-head what the toll of a bell was to Pavlov’s famous dogs. Much like the noted animal behaviorist, the casual observer at a Phish show might witness panting, howling, or cascading rivulets of drool as the subjects anticipate the feeding frenzy ahead.
“Bowie,” one of Phish’s most ambitious compositions, is a lengthy, complex and challenging piece that threads its way through many rhythmic and tonal motifs before dropping precipitously into a jam segment that can go almost anywhere. The signature hi-hat prelude cuts through a sometimes-extended passage of space and dissonance (and formerly one of Phish’s favorite places to sneak in Secret Language cues). At the end of the intro, Trey signals his band mates with a scratch on his strings, and they’re off. Though the spare, Zen-like lyrics that follow are said to hail the glam-rock icon’s 40th birthday, the song’s musical spirit bears little relation to David Bowie’s own work.
Typical “Bowie” jams are patient, crescendo-driven exercises in tension and release that consume themselves in a conflagration of rapid-fire guitar, effects, and feedback. On a special night, however, the epic gives birth to genuine, fearless improvisation – the kind of fiery “Type II” jamming that singes eyebrows and scatters marbles. Two such “Bowies,” played just over a month apart, tend to vie among fans for best-ever status: the 11/26/94 Orpheum colossus and the 12/29/94 Providence masterpiece. Both of them clock in at roughly half an hour, both are ravenously eclectic and adventurous, and both quote similar themes along their twisting paths. While the Orpheum version climaxes in a propulsive groove that seems to foreshadow Phish’s Talking Heads period, the Providence “Bowie” detonates in a blitzkrieg of arena rock fury. Perhaps because of the overall quality of the show, or perhaps because of its unmistakably Phishy non-sequiturs (Trey moans, “Come home, Lassie,” in the middle of the jam), Providence tends to nose out the Orpheum in the average fan’s estimation.
Other remarkable versions of “David Bowie” abound, of course. Neophytes should start with the crisp and concise album version to get a feel for where composition ends and improvisation begins. Once you’ve got the lay of the land, check out the aggressive 4/17/92 Warfield version, which contains a “Catapult,” and stands as one of the finest jams in a stellar west coast run. You might want to graduate from there to the 6/18/94 UIC “Bowie,” which opens with a dramatic “Mind Left Body Jam” and samples “Simple” before splintering into angry chaos. Or consider the surgical strike of the 6/30/98 Copenhagen “Bowie,” which takes mere minutes to reduce the Grey Hall to cinders.
The “Bowie” jam, being airy and unstructured, lends itself to entertaining teases and segues. The stupendous 5/8/93 UNH version sandwiches a rare “Have Mercy,” and features a tease of the Allman Brothers’ “Jessica.” The 7/3/95 Sugarbush version opens with extended “Timber Ho!” quotes from Trey before the band finally dives into “Bowie” proper; the ensuing improv barrels into a cover of “Johnny B. Goode,” then double-barrels right back into “Bowie.” The 7/30/97 Ventura monster finds the band steering the jam into a disco groove, modulating into the first “Cities” on U.S. soil in nearly nine years, then following the trail of embers back into “Bowie” for a balls-out finish.
For reasons untold, Philadelphia’s InsertCurrentCorporateSponsorHere Spectrum saw its share of deliciously warped “Bowies.” Page plays a stadium synth “Take Me Out To The Ball-game” over the lengthy prelude to the 12/3/97 version, which also features Simpsons language and a sprawling, melodic jam dripping with creativity (and a buttery segue into “Possum”). The 12/10/99 Philly version meanders into yet another “Have Mercy” before reprising the “Bowie” theme, reggae-style. In lieu of a fireworks finale, the jam melts into a tropical island reading of “HYHU.”
Among post-millennial “Bowies,” the 2/16/03 Vegas version is notable for its rare show-opening slot, patient group jamming, and a haunting, out-of-nowhere “Catapult.” In fairness, the 2/28/03 Nassau version would probably earn more accolades if it weren’t surrounded on all sides by other staggering material. The 7/25/03 Charlotte “Bowie” develops out of a sprawling “Harry Hood,” and features crowd-pleasing “Tweezer” teases during its strong jam segment. And the concise but licentious 6/10/09 Knoxville "Bowie" is a prime example of how Chris Kuroda's lighting artistry can propel a jam to unexpected heights. Check it out on YouTube!
Recommended Versions: 1989-02-06, 1991-04-04, 1991-11-07, 1993-05-08, 1993-08-13, 1993-08-17, 1993-08-26, 1994-04-24, 1994-06-18, 1994-11-14, 1994-11-26, 1994-12-29, 1995-06-15, 1995-06-24, 1995-06-29, 1995-07-03, 1997-07-30, 2003-07-25