[Take the Bait is spirited deliberation centered around the hyperbole of Phish’s music and fandom, passionately exuded via the written words of phish.net contributors @FunkyCFunkyDo and @n00b100. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of phish.net, The Mockingbird Foundation, or any fan… but we're pretty sure we’re right. Probably.]
The Bait: What was the most impactful singular event of modern era/3.0 Phish (2009-present)?
Funky: The Baker's Dozen. Tahoe Tweezer. Magnaball. Hampton Fluffhead. Chilling Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House. Kasvot Vaxt. Soul Planet ... obviously. There have been many monumental moments in Phish’s modern era that have had historic musical and emotional consequence. Moments which, as they unfolded, palpably steered Phish and their fans into new, uncharted waters. After all, the ocean is lovKNOCK IT OFF FUNKY! Ahem. These moments led to, or built upon, new jamming trends, in-show soundscapes, and, perhaps, most importantly, improvisational bravery and courage with which Phish had not dared to experiment. The aforementioned volcanic peaks and explosions indeed were monumental achievements in Phish’s modern era that re-shaped the music henceforth. But, I can look back at one moment not yet listed, a moment which might seem lost among today’s heights of Phish, but a moment that I feel changed the course of the band in a way that no other note, jam, or show ever had: Superball’s Ball Square Jam, aka, The Storage Jam.
n00b: Well, there it is, your one Soul Planet joke you’re allotted for the entire run of this series. So before I get into whether or not I agree with you on this, I’d like to actually make a suggestion to add to your list of most impactful moments of 3.0, and that is the run at The Gorge in 2009. Now, I know that most folks tend to think of 2009 (and 2010, and 2011...maybe up to Dick’s 2012, actually) as the band’s most fallow period since the 80s, where the group was struggling to find their voice onstage in the face of their new paradigm as “middle-aged dudes living middle-aged dude lives that also happen to be members of one of the biggest touring bands in the world” and everything that entailed. And I’d certainly agree that early 2009 is the band at their shakiest, trying to do consciously what they used to do unconsciously (to quote my man Bob Dylan), and only intermittently succeeding at sparking improv that stands up today (say, the 6/7/09 Tweezer). But the Gorge run, in my humble estimation, saw the band starting to find their footing both in terms of jams and setlist constructions, culminating in the 8/7/09 show, a two-set masterpiece that serves as one of maybe two or three 2009 shows that could slot into 3.0’s peak years with nobody being the wiser. And while 2009 as a whole still isn’t much to write home about, I think that the seeds of the band’s late-career renaissance were planted in George, WA, even if it took a bit of time for those seeds to bloom.
Okay, so with that out of the way, the Storage Jam. Hit me with it.
Funky: I crushed that "Soul Planet" joke though, did I not?! n00b, if I didn’t know any better I’d say you were trying to seduce me with that sparkling little anecdote of Gorge 2009. I’ll take an aside for a sentence or two to indulge you, and myself for that matter, as I go hard in the paint for Gorge 09. The Gorge 2009 run was exactly what you are alluding to: an outlier in only the most positive sense. A peak of the modern era, that happened in the infancy of the modern era, that still holds up as a greatest show (8.7.09) and two-night run of the modern era. These two Gorge shows are so different in any measurable and intangible way with regards to where Phish was at in 2009. In so many words, these two shows triumphantly said, “We’re back, baby!”
Yet these shows didn’t have the trickle down effect that I am looking for with regards to a singular, important moment in Phish’s modern era. This is because these shows were, in fact, outliers in 2009 and even into 2010 and beyond. They showed what Phish could do, but that flowing sound, stout bravery, and cerebral jamming existed only within those two shows, specifically 8.7.09. When trying to highlight THE most impactful moment of 3.0, I am looking for the residual cosmic noise - the reverberations that eternally echo from a moment, but not prior to it. Waves that ripple as frictionless fluid through sets, shows, and tours to come… even through today. The Storage Jam signaled the rebirth of something important in the world of Phish. Something that had not been showcased or even toyed with, really at all, from Hampton 2009 to the seconds before a musical monster in Ball Square awoke in throws of dissonant ambience. Dark, heavy vibrations rattle the soul and shackle the brain. Music unsettling, yet deeply interwoven into Phish’s historical improvisational repertoire, showcasing just how unpredictable and shocking their music can be. The Storage Jam brought back evil, dark Phish, sure enough, but it also showed themselves that they were once again ready and able to dive down the rabbit hole, just for the fun of it, and return unscathed, if not better for it.
n00b: It’s something of a bummer that both this jam and the Drive-In Jam, the monster improvisational tentpoles of 3.0, have so few direct progeny between the two of them - an astonishing "Rock & Roll"at (yep) The Gorge over here, a brilliant "No Men in No Man's Land" at MSG over there. It’s a pretty interesting timeline divergence, actually, imagining an alternate dimension where Phish decided to really lean into this dark nastiness of the Storage Jam in 2012 instead of start developing the upbeat blissful hose jamming that has become the modern era’s maker’s mark. And given how much I enjoy that dark weirdo jamming (the Baker’s Dozen "A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing" has stuck with me for that very reason), it’s tempting to want to speculate about what the Phish of that particular dimension has been up to since then.
But I digress. I think you’re correct in that the Storage Jam is the truest pivot point of the modern era, and I think that stems from what it represents just as much as what it is. Here’s a fun stat I absolutely love to throw out whenever someone mewls about why a jam didn’t go 20 minutes or whatever - seven jams in 2009 extend past the 20 minute mark, which a) was the most 20-minute jams in 1 3.0 year before 2017 (tied with 2015), and b) three more than all 20-minute jams between 1983 and 1994 (and 3 of those 4 20+ minute jams were "Whipping Posts!" Ah, pre-August 93 Phish, truly an undiscovered country). Now, a few things about that. For one, I doubt most folks can name what they are beyond the two massive 11/28 jams, which I think speaks to their quantity of minutes more than their quality of improv. For another, the next year had a grand total of ZERO 20+ minute jams, which showed that the band had clearly decided to go in another direction with their improvisation. Fall 2010 is what I always call the tour most like early-90s Phish after their reconfiguration in 1994-ish - lots of fun setlists with cool segues and antics, not a lot of deep jams. That’s certainly not a problem, since I still enjoy many of those shows, but it’s not quite what I go for with Phish, and I think most folks would agree.
What the Storage Jam did was usher in an era of the band not just going deep, but going deep with regularity. While the length of the jams has still fluctuated as time has passed, the quality of the improvisation has improved steadily since the Storage Jam, as the band grew increasingly comfortable with long-form improvisation again. And we might not ever know if that would have happened again, without the Storage Jam forcing the band to figure out how to go deep for over 50 minutes and make it interesting and compelling. That a band still not fully reacclimated to each other managed to pull that off is a tremendous feat, and we’re still enjoying the fruits of that effort.
Funky: You just f******I nailed it. I use the phrase, “Jamming fo the sake of jamming,” when I talk about my favorite year of Phish, 2003. To describe what I mean by this, I must first define what I do not mean by it. Phish is a jam band, sure and true enough, improvisation is their nature. But as I alluded to in our previous episode, there are patterns and formulas woven into a lot of the fabric of Phish’s jamming. Now, these consciously-evolving patterns are not lazy, no, they are attributed to the sheer intelligence, commitment, and virtuosity they possess individually and collectively, as musicians and band. Phish seems to, within tours, find an idea and jam around it, practice it, and evolve off of it as shows/tours/years go on. It is brilliant and it works because they are so good at what they improvise as well as how they improvise. Still, there are discernable patterns. By no means is this a bad or negative thing and I don’t want our audience to think that, as those patterns are the central idea(s) which act as a tree trunk to the boundless limbs and leaves, the jams and segments, that might spring forth from that tree trunk. This process is central to how Phish grows their sound, and stays fresh.
But sometimes, some tours, some jams, there is no tree trunk. There are only limbs and leaves. Jamming for the sake of jamming. In 2003 jams blossomed and bloomed with beautiful abandon and patternless symmetry. There was balance and chaos, coexisting. There was a tone to 2003, of course, but the jams had no true root, only the freedom to flutter and glide and swirl and dive as they were supposed to be.
The Storage Jam felt like the first time in the “3.0” years that Phish just detached, uprooted, and went for it. I think it was, very literally, an internal litmus test to see not if they still had it (of course they did) but if this was a direction they wanted to explore again. It is not to say we were devoid of fantastic jams from 2009-Superball, there were some, but as you said, n00b, there was more structure to the shows, and the really big jams were relatively sparse. After Storage Jam, there were instantaneous, mountain-shattering reverberations in that 8.5.11 Rock and Roll -> Meatstick, a jam sequence which can be respectfully and seriously mentioned as “best-ever” or, perhaps, most impactful jam of the modern era. The ensuing Chicago run, specifically the 8.15.11 "Elements Show", further buttressed this reemergence. I’m also going to plug 8.9.11 "Light," as it too, opened unprecedented psychedelic chasms, quaking from the Storage Jam.. With Dick’s and NYE antics (presumably?) already planned by that point (I don’t think this feels like a stretch) I think Phish had proven and accomplished what they had needed to within themselves, need not revisiting the ideas again in Dick’s and NYE. Then, in 2012, we saw our first true flagship year of the modern era, and the momentum started to steamroll, downhill.
n00b: It’s funny that we’re writing this topic right around Trey's second Sirius Q & A since he mentioned there that 2013 was when he really felt like the band’s mojo had returned in this incarnation. I’m probably more inclined to agree with him than you and say that 2013 is the first true flagship year of the modern era, but that’s picking nits and is really due to just how wonderful the Fall tour is. That said, I think Summer 2013 could have been just as good, but the shitty weather that followed the band around really kept them from gaining true momentum, and the tour only showed the improvement of post-Storage Phish in fits and starts. That also said, Summer 2013 DOES have that one jam played in a casino parking lot folks seem to like, so…
I tend to be rather more prosaic than you about this band, so let me try and respond to your thoughts re: 2003. I’m not quite as enamored of 2003 as you are, but it would be practically impossible for anyone to be as enamored of 2003 as you are and I certainly agree that it’s a tremendous touring year, and a lot of it is due to that balance/chaos dichotomy you mention. I’m thinking of the Japanese art style Bill Evans talked about in his Kind of Blue liner notes, where the artist must paint on a thin parchment with a special brush in a way where an unnatural stroke destroys the parchment, so you can’t go back and change anything. It’s imperfect by its very nature, but also achieves a sort of perfection in its spontaneity and simplicity. And 2003’s jamming style is very much that - we’ll always disagree on how much of the jamming is truly wondrous and how much of it is “uh, someone want to go out there and shake Trey awake?”, but when the band really locks in you can hear that harnessed chaos you’re talking about, the band walking an invisible and winding tightrope. It’s what makes the touring year of 2003 so singularly unique, and really, it’s the last year the band worked that much without a net.
That’s sort of interesting that you go with the notion that the band didn’t have to prove themselves after the few fathoms-deep jams of August 2011, pivoting instead towards what they did at Dick’s and on NYE. I’ve always wondered if Trey made that pivot because he wasn’t that comfortable with that level of 2.0-style darkness, like he gazed into the abyss and the abyss decided to gaze right back. We don’t need to explore that too deeply, that’s just food for thought. It’s what makes something like the 12/30/12 "Carini" or the 7/20/14 "Ghost" so glorious a treasure, to be honest - the band just doesn’t jam like that as a matter of course nowadays, but there was a time where they did, and every time they access that darkness it’s like they’re briefly traveling back in time.
Funky: “I’ve always wondered if Trey made that pivot because he wasn’t that comfortable with that level of 2.0-style darkness, like he gazed into the abyss and the abyss decided to gaze right back.” This is a great thought which I am going to quickly expand upon. I think this thought is what drives Trey’s now-more-prominent-than-ever tenacity to make new music and write new songs. His songwriting is now weighted more on impactful emotional and sentimental moments of his life , rather than technically-masterful and virtuosic musicianship . Struggles with substance abuse, the loss of his sister, and emerging from darkness of 1999, 2000, 2003, and 2004, and ultimately his arrest in 2006 drive Trey’s much more "accessible" (read: cornily positive and heartfelt-sentimental) songs both in terms of lyrics and feel. He appears to face his demons, which spawned from music of the head, by writing new music which seems to flow from his heart, and (wait for it) soul. I could be missing the mark, but it sure doesn't feel this way, at least right now, much to the delight of some fans, and to the ::insert Comic Book Guy line here:: of some pitchfork n' torch wielding "vets."
Back to our point. In 2011, who knows, maybe, probably, there was in-house anxiety around the dark side of Phish’s improvisation, rightfully and cautiously so. But, by the same coin, maybe the Storage Jam was created to force Trey and Phish to face those demons head on. To confront them and say, “You exist within our world, we do not exist within yours.” I’ve listened to the Storage Jam two times while we’ve been exchanging these words, and I’ve been able to pick up on sounds, effects, and progressions used within IT's "Tower Jam" and "Soundcheck Jam". I kinda shook the cobwebs from my head when I first heard them, pressed the << button, and made sure I heard what I heard. And I did hear what I heard. And yes, I am doing my best Dr. Seuss impersonation.
This was not coincidental, the placement of these intergallactic vibrations, this was methodical, because these noises don’t really exist within a whole lot of Phish’s catalogue. Instead, they emerge when Phish is at the event horizon of musical improvisation. Phish toed that cosmic line once again, a line which once collapsed had sent them to the brink of oblivion… but not at the Storage Jam, no. They emerged from the cosmic abyss after some 50 minutes of deep space exploration by dropping, almost too poetically, into “Sleeping Monkey” of all songs… “my sleeping monkey is revived…” I think this synthesized on some level the full-band notion that they could, on command, go really dark, and really deep, and still guide themselves out of it. A microcosm, perhaps, of their reemergence of resurgence as Phish.
n00b: Just real quick on the point about Trey - I fully agree with you about the songs that he writes, and I legitimately feel like this is something people ignore just so they can get in their digs on "Set Your Soul Free" or whatever. Like, I recall someone saying “I’m now convinced Trey was ‘replaced’ by a clone from one of those Illuminati cloning centers sometime around 2008”, and my response was “is that what we’re calling AA now?”. And, I mean, I certainly don’t think Trey’s newer stuff stands up lyrically or musically to, say, "Fast Enough For You" or "Llama" or whatever, but at the very least I understand why he writes those songs (and even then there’s a "Mercury" here or a "No Men in No Man’s Land" there that doesn’t fit that criteria), and I’m fine with their place in the catalog (which, at the end of the day, is a small percentage - it only feels larger because they always play their newer songs more often than older).
Let’s sum up. I’m fully with you that the Storage Jam was the band testing themselves to make sure that they could dive back into the depths of their improvisational ocean and not get a round of the bends, and they pulled off that deep-sea dive in spades. And to go back to the Drive-In Jam, I think that’s one reason of why I love that jam so much (besides, y’know, the musical aspects) - the Drive-In Jam is the sound of a band that doesn’t have anything left to prove as far as their ability to dive deep goes, because they’d already proven it. The Drive-In Jam could just stand on its own merits, and its merit is that it’s a fucking incredible jam. But it wouldn’t exist without what they pulled off on Night 2 of Superball.
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