Vocals: Page (lead), Trey, Mike, Fish (backing)
Historian: Grant Calof
Deconstructing the pillars of reality into the seemingly disparate but nonetheless interconnected dimensions of space, time and consciousness (or an infinite assortment of vibrating strings, depending on your plane of existential perception) are feats usually left to the quantum physicists of the world. But in 1995, somewhere between the county lines of Lowell, Massachusetts, Phish dipped its musical hand into the plasma pool, drank ever so deeply... and suddenly the threadbare seams of the universe itself became readily apparent to all in attendance (or so it was said). “Strange Design” was one of a handful of new tunes offered up to a batch of eager, politically-savvy fans in attendance at the ‘Voters for Choice’ concert (it’s worth noting, that even despite Howard Dean’s pleas for endorsement, 5/16/95 is one of the few politically themed concerts the band has played). The inaugural performance of “Theme,” “Ha Ha Ha” and “Free” also took place on this memorable May day, and the band also garnered enough respect and admiration to receive an introduction to the crowd by legendary women’s right’s advocate, Gloria Steinem. If you’re in the mood to piece apart the reality hologram of Tom Marshall’s dream-like ballad, you won’t be the first, nor the last. Unconfirmed rumors abound that Stephen Hawking’s next book will be based on Phish songs and their relation to maintaining the fabric of the Universe. Despite being penned by Trey, "Strange Design" is a ballad sung by Phish’s own 'Chairman of the Boards' and it’s held in the same lofty regard as other occasional throw-downs like “Sea and Sand,” “Ride Captain Ride" and “The Ballad of Curtis Loew.”
Originally written and recorded during the Billy Breathes sessions, “Strange Design” was omitted from the album’s final cut. The band recorded a handful of studio versions of the aforementioned song, one of which ended up on the B-side to the European CD Single for “Free” (a slightly more atmospheric version vaguely reminiscent of King Crimson). An mp3 of this studio version was readily available for download from the February, 1996 installment of “This Month in Phishtory” at www.phish.com, but somewhere along the way, the “Strange Design” mp3 unfortunately seems to have disappeared into the digital abyss.
Conceived a few weeks before the birth of Trey's first child (as described 2/16/10 at Terminal 5 in NYC), Trey explains that he wrote "Strange Design" when he was thinking about "making that strange step from being a non-parent to a parent". The lyrics are more ethereal, introspective and illuminating than many of Trey and Tom Marshall’s earlier songs, a trend that became more tractable during the inception of Billy Breathes. “Strange Design” can be interpreted in as many ways as Schrodinger’s Cat, but its reflections on life itself and the evolution of thought are notions that inevitably run throughout. Thematically, the song hints at an oft-repeated philosophy permeating Tom Marshall’s poetry as well as the band’s music…“Surrender to the flow” -- and even goes so far as to apply that concept to questions of mortality in the song's last refrains.
“Strange Design” was most frequently played in 1995, and typically appeared midway through the first or second set, often to give the band and the audience a much-needed breather. “Strange Design” made a rare appearance as the closing tune in the second set on 11/22/95, and was one of many highlights during the great musical assault of 12/31/95. The song was also featured as a follow up to “Train Song” in a trio of mini acoustic sets during the summer tour of 1996 (8/5/96 at Red Rocks comes highly recommended).
It was played only three times in 1997 (11/29/97 followed a monster hour-long “Runaway Jim”), twice in 1998 (8/15/98 from Lemonwheel is particularly affecting), and three again in 1999 (wedged between “AC/DC Bag” and “Divided Sky” on 12/12/99). “Strange Design” made its first appearance of the new millennium when it was played during the first set at Lakewood Amphitheatre (6/24/00). Then something happened, some call it hiatus, others recall a psychotic break, a fugue state where there was lots and lots of music, but very little of it based out of Vermont. It’s worth noting that Trey played acoustic versions of “Strange Design” on his solo tours (5/10/99 or 2/24/01 are both worthy of seeking out). Amfibian’s acoustic set on 3/31/01 also featured a Trey and Tom “Strange Design” duet. Vida Blue also offered up its own rendition of the aforementioned tune with local hero Page McConnell on acoustic upright piano (4/9/03 and 4/10/03 should fulfill your “Strange” desires – but 4/11/03 features an acoustic duet with Massachusetts’ own M. “Cactus” Gordon that everyone should have in their musical stash).
But on New Year’s Eve, 2002, towards the end of the third set, “Strange Design” unfolded from the implicate back to the explicate, and balance was once again restored across the universe. “Strange Design” made two more appearances in 2003 (7/17/03 & 11/29/03), before it served as a mid-set delicacy on 12/30/03 in the tropical mecca of Miami, yet only once in 2004. As tour began in Summer 2009, people wondered whether they'd once again be able to “bring a few companions on this ride"-- and on 6/7/09 in Camden, (and 8/15/09 at Merriweather) their questions were resoundingly answered.