Original Artist: Trey Anastasio
Albums: Round Room
Historian: Phillip Zerbo (pzerbo)
"Thunderhead" drawn on common themes from Tom Marshall’s emotional backpack and Phish’s stylistic palette. Lyrically we visit the silent prison of miscommunication and lack of genuine connection, with the longing to break free of these patterns ultimately unfulfilled. “And when with them all my words for you, have softly sublimated too” suggests a sugar coating that stands only as a bridge to the ultimate destination for the mismatched in the world: breaking apart . (Although on a brighter note it is certainly the coolest – if not the only – usage of "sublimated" in rock and roll history). Each of the verses have a parallel form with three lines voicing the pain of estrangement, and a final line containing potential resolution emerging as beams of light at the end of a very dark tunnel.
Musically we are perhaps offered a window into the future of tension and release, one endowed with a muted elegance, simplicity, and sophistication. Phish transforms the solitary acoustic framework of “Thunderhead,” breathing life and depth into the song’s water images. Certainly a departure from the more excited tension and release structure that defines so many of Phish’s earlier offerings, “Thunderhead” nevertheless expresses its own interlocking duality. Lyrical images alternate between dark and light, and the musical structure mirrors this pattern, with ominous, stormy metaphors giving way to a breathy, lilting, and suspended melody.
“Thunderhead” was one of two Round Room songs (along with “Pebbles and Marbles”) that made their debuts with the Trey Anastasio touring ensemble before the album’s release. “Thunderhead” premiered on 5/1/02 at Philadelphia’s Indré Studios, a taping with a live audience for the nationally syndicated public radio program Live at the World Café. Outside of Phish, Trey has played the song seven times solo, acoustic. Trey’s solo interpretations do not vary in any significant way from each other; whether for the song’s own merits or for the outstanding music around it, check out Trey’s tour opening performance on 5/21/02 in Seattle, 6/1/02 in Vegas, or 6/22/02 at Merriweather Post Pavilion.
“Thunderhead” made its debut on the Phish stage on 1/2/03 during the hiatus-ending holiday run, at Hampton. Renditions of the song by Phish are more or less similar; among the six appearances in 2003 and none since, be sure to check out 7/23/03 (between “Antelope” and “Slave”), 7/29/03 (emerging out of a blistering “Crosseyed and Painless”), or 12/1/03 on the 20th anniversary run.