Phish.net: a Project of the Mockingbird Foundation


Performances Song History

Samson Variation

Vocals: Instrumental

Original Artist: Ernie Stires

Original Album: Samson Riffs (as "Samson Riff")

Debut: 1997-06-21

Historian: Mark Toscano

This song – non-descript though it is – could very well represent the culmination of Trey’s apprenticeship to the late Ernie Stires. Trey often credits Ernie with single-handedly shaping the development of Trey’s (and therefore Phish’s) compositional style, even if Ernie insists that he only “opened the door” for Trey to walk through on his own. Though Trey had largely moved on by the time the “The Asse Festival” was written in 1990, Ernie was a big influence on his student even after Phish signed with Elektra in 1992. At this point, Trey would still show all of his new music to Ernie before green-lighting it for the band, a practice that was used for a number of the songs that ended up on Rift.

A quintessential Trey-Ernie moment came when Trey showed Ernie the completed big band arrangement for “Flat Fee,” a project on which he had toiled endlessly. Though Ernie acknowledged Trey was on the right track, his otherwise nonplussed reaction helped Trey realize how high he could still take his compositional skills. Ernie compared the “Flat Fee” accomplishment to sticking one’s head out of the ground in order to see the foot of the huge mountain that now needed to be climbed. Trey has cited this moment as an extremely important one for his music writing career, and it’s easy to see why. Trey respects the hell out of Ernie, his teaching, and his music, and Trey’s regard for these three things has always driven him to challenge both himself and the audience hearing his music.

In 1997, many of these issues came full circle when Trey organized the production and release of Ernie Stires’ first CD, Samson Riffs. For the occasion, Trey composed an instrumental piece with Ernie that he and his mentor play on the disc. This track, “Samson Riff,” is named for Ernie’s street in Vermont, and is a shining moment for both teacher and student who for the first time truly share musical space, both figuratively and literally. This track and the album in general represent a wonderful peak in the two musicians’ relationship, a peak Trey worked hard to climb in order to conquer. At this point, however, Ernie would surely point out to Trey the hundreds of peaks in the mountain range surrounding them, each one representing another set of new personal goals.

“Samson Riff” also appears, in a different permutation, on Trey’s first solo CD, One Man’s Trash, under the name “At the Barbecue.” This version is comprised of a three-horn arrangement, which gives way to a brief a cappella interpretation midway through the two-minute track. “Samson Riff” has also shown up in Phish’s live repertoire, but in yet another form. This version is more a variation on the original than a re-arrangement, and for this reason it is referred to as “Samson Variation.” The Phish version is deceptively simple, its invention lying mainly in the way the melody is carried, one note at a time, from Page to Trey to Mike and back again, with Fish providing an unobtrusively jazzy beat.

After being tested out twice at “Bradstock” on 6/6/97, the song appeared at only two shows (6/21/97 at a festival appearance in Germany and 8/3/97 at The Gorge), before departing from the repertoire indefinitely. Fans at the Gorge liked the brief number, though a number were confused by its unexpected appearance. Perhaps Trey was so inspired by the sight of the many impossibly majestic peaks surrounding the venue, that he couldn’t help but pay tribute to the man who showed him the mountain in the first place.

Submit notes/corrections

Login Register