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Performances Song History Lyrics Jamming Chart

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

Debut: 1984-12-01

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: 4/9/9412/3/94 (with the Cosmic Country Horns), 12/31/94 (at the old Boston Garden), 11/29/95 (with Béla Fleck), 12/14/958/17/96 (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), 6/5/098/2/09 (closing the spectacular four-night Red Rocks run), 7/3/10 (a segue out of a strong "Tweezer"), and 10/10/10 (simply gorgeous).

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Recommended Versions: 1993-08-20, 1993-12-30, 1994-05-03, 1994-07-13, 1994-12-31, 1995-11-12, 1995-12-07, 1996-08-13, 1997-11-14, 1997-12-05, 2000-07-04

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shannon426 Reply
shannon426 I want to thank projmersch for calling attention to the incredible Slave from 12/7/97. It's an amazing piece of music and I hope it gets an official nod. The jam is gorgeous and it builds so perfectly that it's hard to believe the music was improvised. ~The trick was to surrender to the flow~

Slave to the Traffic Light is a very special song. Nine years ago, this non-phan married a huge phan and many fights ensued over what music to listen to in the car. Then on the night of 12-19-08, Slave to the Traffic Light found me and changed my life for the better.

I remember the moment so clearly ~ hanging out at a friend's house after a Black Crowes show and getting distracted by the Slave jam from 12-07-97. Suddenly, it was just me and the music. I have no idea what my friends were talking about at the time. Slave was the only thing that mattered. And in that moment, I fell in love with Slave and fell in love with Phish. The next day, I took action and downloaded my very first Phish show. There has been musical harmony in the car ever since.

Fast forward to March 3, 2009, just a few days before the Hampton reunion shows (which I did not attend as a newbie), and Slave from 12-07-97 blessed me again. This time while listening to the song, I had a vision ~ I saw myself experiencing my first live Slave at Red Rocks, and it felt magical. I could go into a lot of incredible story details from here (the magic of Phish can create miracles), but suffice it to say~

1. I went to 5 shows in 2009 before Red Rocks and never got a Slave.
2. I was only able to get tickets and go to one Red Rocks show ~ 8/2/09.
3. I received unexpected money to make the trip possible at the last moment.
4. My dream came true.
5. I have never seen a crowd look so peaceful leaving a Phish show since that night.

So in my personal experience, Slave to the Traffic Light from 12-07-97 is magical.

Since Red Rocks, I was also present for Slave on 7/3/10 in Alpharetta (the long note ~ahhhh~) and 10/10/10 in Broomfield (simply incredible ~ what it felt like to surrender to the music and let it wash over me cannot be captured in words). I would agree that these are also excellent versions to listen to.

To round out my Top 5, I would add the Slave from A Live One, so Phish.net seems to have all of the bases covered (other than adding 12/07/97)!

Now off to download the versions I have not heard yet~
Score: 5
mikeyzen Reply
Bummed there was no Slave at Superball IX.
Score: 2
flarrdogg Reply
Agreed 100% on 12/7/97 & 12/5/97- both are stunning.
Score: 1
MounaBowa Reply
MounaBowa 8/13/96 Must hear! 10/10/10, 10/29/10 are both really nice for 3.0

but in all honesty is there really a bad Slave??
Score: 1
WaxBrain Reply
WaxBrain Um, I'd like to also note aboot 12-5-97's Slave> Lizards.
An impressive piece of Sonic Youth-like noise from Trey in Slave. And anytime it segues into Lizards is pretty boss.
This is a really awesome version of the tune tho. Check it oooooooooot.
Score: 1
projmersch Reply
projmersch Until this gets completed, one for the "must hear" list is 12/07/97.

One for the history time line is 8/06/93 at the Peacock Pavilion at the Cincinnati Zoo. Hadn't been played for 241 shows. One of the few times where fans were predicting a "bust-out" and it happened.
Score: 1
WaxBrain Reply
WaxBrain @nichobert said:
Anyone who wants to hear the wooliest of Slaves would be wise to heed a previous commenter's advice and check out the 12/5/97 version which arises from an utterly insane 17 minute rendition of Julius and goes into a long What's The Use?-esque jam section which lands in Lizards instead of returning to the Slave ending.

It's amazing that Phish played this version of Slave two nights before Dayton's equally stellar yet completely different version.
Totally agree w/ you Nichobert...that is my all-time favorite Slave. I remem listening to the tape trapped in a delayed subway car in Brooklyn...haha....perfect.
Slave might be the band's most consistent composition. It rarely, if ever disappoints.
Score: 0
nichobert Reply
nichobert Anyone who wants to hear the wooliest of Slaves would be wise to heed a previous commenter's advice and check out the 12/5/97 version which arises from an utterly insane 17 minute rendition of Julius and goes into a long What's The Use?-esque jam section which lands in Lizards instead of returning to the Slave ending.

It's amazing that Phish played this version of Slave two nights before Dayton's equally stellar yet completely different version.
Score: 0
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