Music/Lyrics: Anastasio, Marshall
Vocals: Trey (lead), Page (backing)
Historian: Mockingbird Staff; Jeremy D. Goodwin
Last Update: 2016-01-12
Just as the gravitational force of the moon regulates the conduct of the Earth’s ocean tides, those of us with feelings have discovered that it’s quite possible sometimes for a singular entity to control the waves of emotion that flow within us. In fact, sometimes it takes just a few words from such a person to literally take one’s breath away, or cause one to collapse to the floor, deflated. Such seems to be the fate of the speaker in “Waves,” who ponders this question in the song’s opening couplet: “How is it I never see the waves which bring her words to me? For though unseen they drift around, they catch my breath and knock me down.”
“Waves” is a mysterious, enchanting poem of sound and words. Although the gently repetitive guitar figure that dominates throughout the verses suggests the motion of the sea, it seems quite possible that the “waves” discussed within are sound waves. The action in the dream-scape of “Waves,” though, does not translate literally to the ways of the waking world. The overriding theme is the power that an unnamed female has upon the speaker, through her words. The speaker ponders the method by which the words reach his ear (transmitted as sound waves through the air? literally floating underwater?), and measures their impact: even his own reply, he says, has the force to leave him “stranded on my knees.”
In the song’s final painful twist, the speaker realizes that his words might not even reach their intended recipient. Visualizing his words as physical objects which travel through time and space, the speaker muses that it would be nice if his correspondent could at least see the words which flow past her, and thereby sense their presence.
By the end of the song, he is speaking directly to the woman – thus making “Waves” itself the message, which is perhaps doomed to float around forever without reaching its target.
”Waves” – 5/27/11, Bethel, NY
This ethereal, watery prayer is the masterpiece of Round Room, in the opinion of this writer. Phish provided the song pride of place in its debut appearance, opening the second set with “Waves” on the night of the band’s return from a two year Hiatus, on 12/31/02. It remained a frequent caller on the following winter tour, appearing five times over the twelve nights. (All but two shows on this tour included either “Waves” or “Walls of the Cave.”)
The song remained fluid in terms of set placement throughout 2003; though utilized again as a second set opener upon its second appearance (2/15/03), “Waves” wouldn’t open a second set again until the auspicious occasion of the first night (11/28/03) of the Anniversary Run. Within the bookends of the song’s first and last appearances in 2003, the song popped up in all different show locations, though never as a show opener or encore. Three consecutive versions on winter tour ’03 (2/20/03, 2/24/03, 2/26/03) emerged deep within a set, with each gently splashing in or out of an adjacent song. A twilight-greeting “Waves” at Shoreline (7/10/03) segued out of a show-opening “Spices”; the mid-second set version in Atlanta (7/26/03) transitioned into “Tweezer.”
Versions of “Waves” did not vary greatly during the song’s first year of play, with one major exception: the late second set rendition the first night of IT (8/2/03) seemed to conclude in typical fashion, but then bled into an experimental, ambient jam which ranks with the other notable astral explorations of that weekend.
Phish continued to make "Waves" in 2004 with the highlight being the gorgeous 6/20/04 offering (thanks in no small part to the fine work of Mike). When Phish returned to the stage in 2009, the frequency of "Waves" was noticeably diminished with just three appearances in 2009 and then falling off the map entirely in 2010. While enjoyable versions were offered up on 6/10/09 (paired with its aquatic cousin, "A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing") and 8/2/09 (with Bill Kreutzmann), from a jamming standpoint, the adventurousness of the IT version or even the SPAC '04 performance was seemingly a thing of the past.
After a 78-show absence, “Waves” returned to Bethel Woods on 5/27/11, in an almost 14-minute excursion that thrilled fans and anchored the second set of one of the finest tour-opening performances in recent memory.
As good as the 5/27/11 version was, it turns out it was not nearly the best version of “Waves” played at Bethel Woods that weekend. During the first of three “From the Archives” broadcasts at Super Ball IX, Phish archivist Kevin Shapiro shared a version of “Waves” from Phish’s soundcheck on the eve of the Bethel run. This 30-minute behemoth, lauded my many fans as among the best pieces of music the band has played in the 3.0 era, at times touched on Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and at times recalled vintage Pink Floyd.