Theme From the Bottom
Vocals: Page, Trey (lead), Mike (backing)
Historian: Martin Acaster (Doctor_Smarty)
Last Update: 2016-03-01
Many tours have brought us strong selections of new original material, but the songs introduced in the summer of 1995 are certainly among the most consistently pleasing group to date. Try picking a favorite from that group and you’re likely to be stuck with a tough decision, weighing the relative merits of “Free,” “Billy Breathes,” “Taste,” the rare “Spock’s Brain,” and “Theme from the Bottom.” Each has their supporters, but “Theme” may contain the best balance of intriguing music, classic Tom Marshall lyrics, and inherent jamming potential. The song went through minor changes in structure early on – removing and then re-adding a piece of the middle bridge – but remains more or less the same song in the modern era as it was early in its history.
"Theme From the Bottom" – 6/22/97, Koblenz, Germany
The lyrical theme of this piece is treading water somewhere between “Bouncing” and “Wading,” with early flashes of “Moma Dance” and “A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing” thrown in for good measure. It carries on a tradition that is common to many a Phish song, that tradition being a celebration of the Life Aquatic. In this instance, the imagery starts out dark and down, requiring a strong kick of the flipper and removing the weight belt to reach the sunlit shallows. The scene that is evoked may take you to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico or the fish tank at your local sushi bar with equal ease. Perhaps just as easily, “Theme” captures the feeling of being too deeply immersed in the cerebral candy store that is the Phish tank at any given show.
In the broader sense, the lyrics of "Theme From the Bottom" could be extended to life in general. Whether you are a remotely operated vehicle coping with disaster at the tragic scene that was once the Deepwater Horizon, a hungry catfish sucking algae off the bottom of a poorly lit aquarium, a fan caught up in the swirling eddies and currents of the group “Undermind,” or anyone having a down day and searching for a rescue unit to latch onto; it can at times seem way too dark and cold to go on swimming. But swim you must, for as the “Light” returns to your life so too do the colors of which it is composed.
Musically, “Theme” starts out in the stark, cold, abyss of atonality. Building tension on the way up, the tune gradually bubbles up closer and closer to the source of life at the water’s surface before exploding skyward in a rapidly degassing cloud of methane hydrate. On the rare occasion that it is freed from its atonal bondage, the song performs the musical equivalent of a reverse 720 degree barrel roll flip over the breakwater that would make Free Willy proud. The basic tune usually breaches the surface once more before swimming out toward the “Paradise City” that is the open ocean of jam.
While "Theme" often travels familiar ground, several have swam up to demand your attention. “Theme” kicked off the infamous “FLeezer” set by roaring out of the second set gates and leading into a free-form jam on 6/22/95. The version offered on 11/27/96, out of “Free,” remains among the longest and most powerful. Other honorable mentions include: 7/21/97 with the late LeRoi Moore on saxophone; the 7/9/98 “Drowned” -> “Theme” from Barcelona; and 6/16/00 Osaka, Japan, with a "Runaway Jim -> "Theme" -> Dog Faced Boy" second-set opening sequence. Finally, don't miss the "Theme" that many fans consider the undisputed champion: the unfinished, exploratory version from 2/25/03 (with a bump-segue into “Runaway Jim”).
“Theme” has been a staple of the Phish repertoire without a notable gap in appearances since its debut. “Theme” was not used much as an improvisational vehicle in “Phish 3.0,” though respectable versions can be found at Festival 8 on 11/1/09, 8/7/10 at Berkeley's Greek Theatre, and 8/19/12 in San Francisco.
Then on 11/2/13 in Atlantic City – the last day of the powerhouse fall 2013 tour – Phish once again demonstrated that just when you think you have them pegged for a certain “box,” just when you think “ho-hum first set, maybe I’ll go grab a lemonade and hit the can”... boom! They were seemingly gliding into the end of the song, and at about seven minutes veered off with hard left turn into a deep, sexy groove. The subsequent dance funk explosion (and Chris Kuroda visual jam showcase) included quotes of the Theme from Shaft ("Who's the Chuck Norris-looking private dick who's a sex machine with all the chicks?"), and call-and-response banter between Trey and Fish – his least and second-least favorite presidents ("Bush"), and favorite beer ("Busch"), following up on the previous evening’s themes that wove through “Makisupa,” “Meatstick” and “Boogie On.” Ladies and gentlemen, I give you The Phish, from Burlington, Vermont!
With the song’s swagger restored, it was not surprising to see “Theme” in an exclusively second set role for all eight of its 2014 performances. Though most were not as adventurous as the AC version, the 10/22/14 Santa Barbara Bowl and 12/31/14 Miami versions each featured sick jams that had “Echoes” of the glory of Boardwalk Hall and flew high on the wings of “The Birds” respectively. The first of only three 2015 performances (7/21/15 Bend) saw “Theme” get back into the encore slot for the first time since the 9/12/99 Portland show to great effect. The other two performances (8/1/15 Atlanta and 8/23/15 Magnaball) were both of the first set variety and as such only briefly flirted with going deep. Though the 1/1/16 MSG version found “Theme” back in the second set it served only as the tunnel toward the bright “Light” which followed. The subsequent 1/15/16 Barceló Maya first set performance was bronzed and muscular and quite fitting for the aquatic “Theme” that prevailed in the Paradise City in which it went down.