Music/Lyrics: Anastasio, Marshall
Vocals: Trey (lead), Page (backing)
Historian: Jeremy D. Goodwin, Martin Acaster
Last Update: 2016-03-10
Just as the gravitational force of the moon regulates the conduct of the Earth’s ocean tides, it’s quite possible sometimes for a singular entity to control the waves of emotion that flow within us. 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 marriage 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 dreamscape 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.
This ethereal, watery prayer is the masterpiece of Round Room. Phish provided the song pride of place in its debut appearance, opening the second set with “Waves” on their return from the Hiatus on 12/31/02. It remained a frequent caller on the following winter tour, appearing five times over the twelve nights. “Waves” did not vary greatly during 2003, with one major exception: the late second set rendition at IT on 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 SPAC offering, led in large part by the fine work of Mike. When Phish returned to the stage in 2009, the frequency of "Waves" 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 at the time as among the best pieces of music the band had played in the 3.0 era, at times touched on Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” and recalled vintage Pink Floyd.
Most notable among the post-Bethel performances that year was the 8/15/11 UIC rendition which spawned an elemental jam that resolved into a buttery segue into “Undermind.” In a thematic pairing, both versions the following year were accompanied by “Prince Caspian,” with the 6/28/12 Deer Creek performance floating laps around the 12/29/12 MSG take. From the five performances that comprised the “Waves” train in 2013, the 7/26/13 Gorge and 10/25/13 Worcester Centrum ones were pretty swell. Check out 7/5/14 SPAC for the only “Waves” bigger than a ripple in 2014, and go directly to the Deschutes River whitewater park (7/22/15 Bend) for the only one worth standing up on your board for since then.