Slave to the Traffic Light
Music/Lyrics: Anastasio/Abrahams/The Dude of Life
Vocals: Trey (lead); Page, Mike (backing)
Albums: The White Tape, A Live One, Colorado '88, Live Phish 01, Live Phish 09, Live Phish 12, Live Phish 13, Hampton/Winston-Salem '97, Live In Utica, The Clifford Ball, Niagara Falls, Live Phish Downloads 6-20-1995
Historian: Syd Schwartz, Chuck Frost
Last Update: 2014-01-18
"Slave" holds the distinction of being one of the oldest Phish originals, and as being performed at the earliest widely circulated Phish show, 12/1/84 at Nectar’s. “Slave” appears on The White Tape and the basic structure of the song has remained largely intact over the years. “Slave” has rarely been a vehicle for improvisational exploration, but it has been a consistent song for demonstrating both the subtle dynamics and powerful, soaring peaks of which Phish is capable. “Slave” also provides Page a chance to show his considerable abilities on the Fender Rhodes electric piano.
Trey has said that he wrote the song as soon as he learned to play an A chord on guitar. The starts and stops in the composed section prior to the lyrics are said to resemble the changing of a traffic light. The meaning of the few lyrics found in the song is either less than profound (the frustration of feeling hampered by traffic signals is fairly universal), or a revelation of incredible cosmic proportion – one so profound that the medium to explain it has yet to be invented. The metaphorical frustration of the starts and stops during the song's beginning section are gloriously resolved in the serenity of the jam.
"Slave" was interpreted literally by a small group of people at the 10/31/94 Halloween show, who chained themselves to a paper mache traffic light in an effort to reach the finals of the costume contest (a costume that took considerably more effort than the group of people dressed in shorts and headbands claiming to be “an angry mob of joggers”) and was also the inspiration of a clever .sig used on the newsgroup rec.music.phish circa 1994 that read “path=C:\thecity; C:\thezoo… error in traffic.lyt.”
“Slave” was a regular in the setlist rotation in the earliest days up until spring 1990, when it disappeared for almost a year from 4/22/90 until it was played by request on 3/17/91 (in both cases in Colorado). After another performance on 10/24/91, “Slave” went on hiatus for almost two years and 241 shows. A trip to the Cincinnati Zoo apparently inspired the “Slave” breakout on 8/6/93. Though played only two more times that year, both performances (8/20/93 Red Rocks and 12/30/93 CCCC) occurred during historic shows and are frequently cited as among their best ever.
“Slave” was in regular rotation for much of 1994 and 1995, with the excellent version from 11/26/94 appearing on A Live One. Its familiar place as a second set song (frequently closing the second set or as an occasional encore) was also established in that time period. Only occasional gaps in “Slave” performances occurred from ‘94 through ‘97, but performances once again became less frequent from '98 through the onset of the hiatus in late 2000.
"Slave to the Traffic Light" 12/2/09 New York, NY
"Slave" was again in very light rotation during "Phish 2.0" with notable performances closing the second set at the highly-regarded 7/15/03 Utah gig, on 12/31/03 in Miami ("Chalk Dust" -> "Slave" > "Chalk Dust") and closing the final set of the (at the time) "final Phish show" on 8/15/04 in Coventry, VT. With Phish’s reunion, “Slave” returned to frequent rotation with twelve performances in 2009, and has continued the trend in 2010.
Notable performances other than those mentioned above include: 4/9/94, 12/3/94 (with the Cosmic Country Horns), 12/31/94 (at the old Boston Garden), 11/29/95 (with Béla Fleck), 12/14/95, 8/17/96 (Clifford Ball), 8/16/97 (The Great Went), 11/21/97 (Hampton), 7/4/99 (with a "What’s the Use" tease), 12/31/99 (the biggest party of them all at Big Cypress), 6/5/09, 8/2/09 (closing the spectacular four-night Red Rocks run), 7/3/10 (a segue out of a strong "Tweezer"), and 10/10/10 (simply gorgeous).