Vocals: Trey (lead); Fish, Mike, Page (backing)
Historian: Mockingbird Staff; Jeremy D. Goodwin
Last Update: 2015-10-02
The early maturation period of “Wolfman’s Brother” was awkward, sprinkled with starts and stops. Although the version on Hoist holds up as a bouncy, fun tune, it seemed that the band didn’t quite know what to do with it initially in the live rotation. Early versions with horns (4/4/94, 4/15/94, 5/4/94) tapped into the tune’s delicious groove, but “Wolfman’s” was the poor younger sibling in the year in which “Julius,” ”DwD,” and “Sample” dominated the family of new songs. It was unceremoniously shelved for over a year after the “GameHoist” show of 6/26/94, surfacing finally as an odd and unexpected tour opener for fall tour ‘95 (it would go on to open another tour: the US portion of summer ‘98.) Although some fans noticed a hint of something extra special in the version performed in Philly on the opening night of the 1996 New Year’s Run, perhaps only an accomplished adherent of the I Ching could have forecast the role this song would assume in the year to come.
On 3/1/97, in a club in Hamburg, Germany, various latent inclinations in the band’s collective unconscious were stirred, and the “Wolfman’s” jam that night emerged as a vehicle for a new sound. Phish channeled a sound that they had been “hearing in their heads” (as Trey put it later) and summoned it into existence. A result of numerous subtle changes in the band’s approach towards music that had been accruing for a year (notably the focus on groove that was crystallized and encouraged by the performance of Remain in Light on Halloween ‘96), the Hamburg “Wolfman’s” was the first palpable evidence of what Phish jamming would be like in 1997 and beyond. Though this is of course just another chapter in the development of Phish’s ongoing, evolving oeuvre, the Hamburg “Wolfman’s” no doubt set the pace for the next two years or so of performances. Over the summer of 1997, this song was raised as a purple and blue flag: the emblem of a new age. The viciously funky “Wolfman’s” had descended from the mountain, and was ready to tell the world what he had learned. “Wolfman’s” was used a handful of times that year as the tool of a delicious new trend: huge set openers. During summer ‘97, it seemed sometimes that once they took the stage, Phish literally could not wait to delve into the rich subterranean world of improvisation. Regardless of its set placement, though, the insistent bass-driven groove of “Wolfman’s Brother” was consistently a welcome treat. Two particularly pleasing versions from this period are 8/2/97 and 8/16/97. The former is first set delicacy at the Gorge, featuring a well-executed return to the “Wolfman’s” theme; the latter is the second set opener of the first day of The Great Went. It includes a glorious, melodic jam after several minutes of thick funkiness.
"Wolman's Brother" – 4/2/98, Uniondale, NY
“Wolfman’s Brother” got better in the fall, as did the style of jamming it had helped to usher in back in March. The band had become more springy and aggressive within the groove-heavy context, and the electronic funk jams that ensued were sometimes remarkable to behold. A standout, capstone version of “Wolfman’s” occurred in Illinois on 11/19/97. This jam hinted at a breakout of “Walk Away” before segueing masterfully into “Makisupa.” The very next version, a week later in Worcester, Massachusetts (11/30/97), included a surreal heavy metal jam, during which Chris turned off all the lights in the room and Trey and Mike hid behind speakers on-stage.
By now established as a major second set jam vehicle along the lines of “Mike’s Song” and “Tweezer,” “Wolfman’s” continued to showcase cutting edge, marquee jams in 1998. It segued masterfully into “Sneakin’ Sally” on the first night of the Island Tour (as it would again at Oswego, though sloppily), and hosted the lion’s share of a jam-saturated third set on Halloween ‘98, which had the fewest distinct songs of any set since the Space Camp of summer ‘95 (see 6/22/95). A thrilling version leapt out of the second-ever jammed “Carini” on 12/28/98 in Madison Square Garden; this version showcased the most experimental jamming of that Run (though, as complete shows go, some fans prefer the glossy, upbeat fun of 12/29 or the deep and versatile strengths of 12/31).
Few “Wolfman’s” these days are second set show-stoppers. Indeed, by 1999 the song settled into a less experimental role, acting more as a warm up than the main exhibition. The versions from this period have a twist, as they tend to include an instrumental reprise of the “Wolfman’s” theme before wrapping up. Even the most uneventful ten-minute versions – see 12/31/97, 11/28/98, 12/30/99 – are a revelation given the song’s humble upbringings. Though usually maintaining its first set placement, the song made something of a comeback in 2003-04, with outstanding versions on 2/15/03, 7/7/03, 12/1/03 and 8/10/04.
Since Phish’s retuirn to the state in 2009 the song has continued in its less experimental role, though the versions from 7/30/09, 10/30/10, 6/12/11 (with a smooth segue into "Boogie On") and 8/15/11 have separated themselves from the pack.
"Wolfman's Brother" – 6/26/10, Columbia, MD
“Wolfman’s” entered new realms in April ‘99 when an incarnation of Phil and Friends – including Trey and Page – chose it as one of four Phish compositions to include in a historic stand at the Warfield. Notably, this tune remained in the repertoire of Phil Lesh and his rotating Friends. In fact, Mike joined with the group twice more to lend an extra bass to the song, on 3/10/00 and 4/8/00, and Trey played on the 2/12/06 version.
Trey has also played "Wolfman's" at several of his solo gigs. The version that should not be missed is the 11/18/10 Princeton performance where Trey plays the song on grand piano backed by the Scorchio string quintet. Another notable performance can be found on 5/14/05 where Mike sat in on the final show of the oft-panned inaugural 70 Volt Parade tour. Finally, completists will also want to seek out some of Trey's solo, acoustic performances; 5/7/99 and 2/22/11 should do the trick.
Lyrically, “Wolfman’s Brother” tells a story that is all but impossible to decipher. Indeed, it may be one of Tom Marshall’s last great surreal word sketches, before covering more “serious” territory on Billy Breathes and later work. It is mined, however, with many tasty verbal nuggets. Nifty turns of phrase (“this isn’t who it would be if it wasn’t who it is”) and potential slogans (“I might be on a side street/ or a stairway to the stars...” listen for a slight swell of applause after this line in the 8/16/97 version) abound. In conjunction with an acoustic performance of the song on his Acoustic/Electric tour in spring ’99, Trey recounted a story about the first time he met Fishman, and even likened Jon’s role in Phish to that of Paul McCartney’s as “the walrus” in the Beatles (though, it should be noted that it's not at all clear that the Walrus was Paul). While it's unclear how those roles are related, it is clearly significant to Trey, as he revisited that story at Coventry when he revealed that while "the walrus was Paul, when [he] was eighteen, the Wolfman's Brother was Fishman" (and also revealed that the telephone really did ring and he handed it to his friend, Liz).
The bouncy, enigmatic lyrics combine with a sexy groove (that on one occasion led to a "sexy bump") that encourages listeners to jiggle their limbs in a rhythmic fashion, creating a decidedly fun listening experience. Indeed, it takes only the opening piano chord to get the whole room shaking.