Music/Lyrics: Anastasio, Marshall
Historian: Martin Acaster (Doctor_Smarty)
Last Update: 2016-02-21
In simplest terms, “Steam” is a song of ice and fire. To generate steam, a source of heat and a source of vapor are required. The combination of these two elements can be paroxysmal, ebullient, intoxicating, or industrious. Unfortunately, depending on the ratio of each component thrown into the mix or the rate at which the heat is applied to the vapor source, the same two things can produce nothing more than lukewarm water. Therein lies both the promise and the peril of this May 2011 Anastasio/Marshall composition. The lyrics are a somber epic tale of love and death in a land of wolves and the time of horses. Though assuredly not a “Dark Tower” song, “Steam” is certainly a dark tower song. It represents a musical phase transition somewhere on a ternary diagram with “Ghost,” Trey’s “Every Story Ends in Stone,” and the Phish Halloween performance of Little Feat’s “Spanish Moon” as apices. It is as dark and foreboding as the furnace room in the basement of a seedy downtown hotel.
“Steam” made its debut on 6/4/11, as the extremely swampy Blossom “Possum” moaned its final discordant breath. The first verse rises slowly from an effect-laden pool of ambience into the slow groove that carries the song through a landscape of loops and subtle texture. Imperceptibly the pace increases, as the pressure builds toward an out-gassing of jam-space about four minutes into the song. The slow groove returns for the final verse before its eventual sublimation into “Piper.”
”Steam” – 6/12/11, Columbia, MD
The next eruption of “Steam” occurred at Merriweather on 6/12/11, again as the third song of a second set, this time evolving out of the sonic wash at the conclusion of a lively “Crosseyed and Painless.” This performance is true to the debut until the jam segment, which is initiated with a vocal twist where Trey and Mike repeat the last line of the fourth verse in call-and-response style, as the pressure release valve is cranked open and a soulful blast of effulgence is released. A final glimpse of the improvisational potential of “Steam” follows the final verse in a metallic deep-space nocturne that melts into the “Light” of day.
The second “leg” of summer 2011 resulted in three additional “Steam” emissions. The first occurred at the Outside Lands festival performance on 8/12/11 at the Polo Fields in Golden Gate Park, and was somber and subdued with an uninspiring vapid jam segment. “Steam” returned to the stage during the second set of the next show, the first of three nights at UIC Pavilion on 8/15/11, where it was part of an “elements” set featuring songs that refer to Earth, wind, fire, or water. This version was noticeably more upbeat, and the jam segment was short but stratospheric. The themed trend continued during the first night of the Dick’s run on 9/2/11, where “Steam” appeared as part of a show brought to you by the letter ‘S’. The jam segment was profoundly more interesting than the previous two versions, with Page constructing the framework for Trey’s adornment.
“Steam” was the song Phish selected to usher in the new year. The year we had all been waiting for. The year the Mayan calendar was reputed to expire. According to the legends, December 21, 2012 marked the end of the 5,125 year long Mesoamerican Long Count calendar. Interpretations of this point in time range from humanity undergoing its long awaited evolutionary transformation, to dire apocalyptic planetary changes that will erase our species from existence. The New Year’s Eve performance of “Steam” featured a customary midnight stunt which consisted of “enlightened” members of the Phish fan base scattered throughout the newly refurbished MSG ascending above the non-raptured heathens to dance in the heavens. No doubt feeding off the energy of the moment, this version of “Steam” is unfinished and features a rather incandescent jam segment which culminates in the countdown to midnight and the arrival of 2012.
Despite the rather auspicious placement at MSG, the year that followed was rather anticlimactic as far as both “Steam” and the end of days were concerned. The song was played only once – 6/30/12 at Alpine Valley – and the long awaited end of the baktun went largely unnoticed as the wheel simply began another revolution.
This lack of action was certainly not the case in 2013, as the song returned to fairly regular rotation, being played a total of six times, matching the frequency it had displayed during its debut year. The first three performances of the summer – 7/5/13 at SPAC, 7/26/13 at the Gorge, and 8/3/13 at BGCA – set the standard for “Steam,” as each clocked in for a solid eight to ten minute whale riding voyage. Inexplicably bucking this trend, the 8/31/13 Dick’s version was abruptly circumcised and completely devoid of jam. The same could not be said for the 10/19/13 mothership performance, which featured a curious lenticular cloud of improvisation that included Trey helping out on drums and Mike playing his bass and fight bell with drumsticks as well as grinding his strings with a power drill. “Steam” closed out the year making a rather triumphant return to MSG (12/28/13) bearing a swirling miasma of shrieking terror as the knot restraining the jam truly unwinds.
”Steam” – 12/28/13, New York, NY
While the role of the song was solidified in 2013 as a meaty early-to-mid second set groove with room to improve, the actual nature of “Steam” as an element was further revealed within the pages of the late September 2013 release of Doctor Sleep, Stephen King’s sequel to his horror classic The Shining. I won’t play spoiler here, so instead advise you dear constant reader to heed the sage words of the great and knowledgeable Icculus and implore you to “Read the Fucking Book!” Then revisit the lyrics of “Steam” to compare.
All three of the 2014 performances (7/11/14 Randall’s Island, 7/26/14 MPP and 10/22/14 Santa Barbara Bowl) hissed out of the pipe during the second set. Of this trio, the MPP version is the better and enveloped the crowd in a cloud of static electricity before melting into “The Mango Song” pretty smoothly. The first “Steam” of the following summer (7/29/15 Grand Prairie) saw the tune permeating the first set for the first time. While the other two performances (8/15/15 MPP and 9/6/15 Dick’s) were in its regular second set slot and in each case preceded “Piper.” Repeating the pattern of the previous summer, the MPP version was the slightly more noteworthy, because of the question it contained, but the Dick’s version is a better performance of the song itself.