Water in the Sky
Music/Lyrics: Anastasio, Marshall
Vocals: Trey (lead), all (backing)
Historian: Phillip Zerbo (pzerbo)
Last Update: 2013-06-20
"Water in the Sky” contains several common Phish themes: perpetual evolution of the musical structure, nautical imagery, and lyrics open to widely varied interpretations. “Water in the Sky” is among the many songs that debuted on the summer '97 Europe tour (6/13/97, Dublin) that went on to form the basis of Story of the Ghost.
“Water in the Sky” lived for a little over a year as a traditional American country tune – the kind of tune played in establishments such as the one in which the Blues Brothers found themselves encased by chicken wire. The down-home guitar twang and ostensibly romantic prelude to “close the shutters, draw the shades” is about as backwoods as a bunch of middle-class Northeast suburbanites can pull off with a straight face.
Though by one interpretation not difficult at all, if you subscribe to the notion that the song embodies the rather un-romantic notion of “tuning somebody out.” Those voices may indeed flutter through, but they face impenetrable opaque filters – metaphorical walls built through the years of a relationship. In the end those fluttering voices are met with deaf ears – “watch them fall, and let them lie.” Do those voices lie on the ground? Or lie to your face? A more charitable and optimistic interpretation suggests that the song reflects a bond between two people so concrete and unshakable as to be immune from even the most ubiquitous of natural forces that might interfere.
"Water in the Sky" – 11/1/09, Indio, CA
Then a funny thing happened to this tune destined to be a country hit: the tempo got cranked up a few notches. Taking its new live form on 6/30/98 in Copenhagen, this more up-tempo, polished version is the one that appears on Story of the Ghost. The reworked version of “Water in the Sky” is one of several Phish tunes (including “Mockingbird,” “Split Open and Melt,” “Billy Breathes” and “Thunderhead”) in which the central lyrical and musical themes – water, in this case – are cleverly intertwined. Page’s piano swirls evoke images of sheeting rain tumbling from the sky into a swollen river, lit occasionally by an organ-spire sunbeam. The lyrics – such as “thunder calls through waterfalls” – focus on the forging of sound with water. “Water” is as brief as it is clever – the song is a musical cloudburst. This reworked version is often characterized as “the trippy version” and persisted from 1998 through its final pre-breakup performance on 6/20/04 at SPAC.
Returning to the stage after a near five-year absence at Hampton on 3/6/09, "Water" splashed down with two minor twists – one old, one new. Both this version and that offered on 6/4/09 featured a slightly slower tempo and were performed in a higher key (Eb) than all pre-3.0 offerings (C). Apparently pleased with the key change but not the slower tempo, the 6/19/09 Deer Creek version presented the latest "Water" hybrid: same new key, same '98-04 tempo and swirling piano intro, but with the country-style sparseness of '97. The arrangement continues to shift ever so slightly, though the 11/1/09 acoustic version from Festival 8 that was '97-style slow, as was the version offered on 6/15/11 in Alpharetta, GA. Who is on first?
"Water in the Sky" – 6/15/11, Alpharetta, GA
Excepting the major and minor structural revisions, “Water in the Sky” does not deviate substantially among versions and has yet to be showcased as an improvisational vehicle. Fans of the tune should be sure to check out at least one of the “oldest” versions, any of the sixteen performances of the song in 1997, including the 7/22/97 appearance on the Walnut Creek DVD. “Newer” versions of the song are readily available on Live Phish 08 (7/10/99) and Live Phish 17 (7/15/98). Also be sure to check out 7/1/99 with Jerry Douglas on dobro, Ronnie McCoury on mandolin and Tim O’Brien on fiddle.
"Water in the Sky" has also been a staple of Trey's performances outside of Phish with Trey on acoustic guitar: solo acoustic (5/14/99, 8/2/08, 12/6/12); with Jen Hartswick and Natalie Cressman on backing vocals (2/18/11, 2/27/11); and as a duet with Mike Gordon on acoustic bass (10/9/10).
Don Hart provided orchestration to "Water in the Sky," which was first performed with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra on 5/21/09 and has remained a fixture in the orchestral repertoire ever since. Trey dedicated the debut to the memory of his sister, Kristy Manning, and dedicated to her surviving son, Jason.
Trey Anastasio & Los Angeles Philharmonic, 3/10/12, Los Angeles, CA
By far the most famous rendition, “Water in the Sky” kicked off the most prominent Phish celebration of them all. Opening the show on 12/30/99 amid the swamps of Big Cypress, the crowd responded wildly to the song’s admonition to “filter out the everglades.” The delivery of that line has received at least a token cheer of recognition from the crowd at each subsequent performance to date – if waning as we move further from the event – including especially spirited roars on 12/28/03 and 12/31/09, both in nearby Miami.