[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.]
Funky: Among the many, many elements of Phish that keep me in awe of them and their music is the sheer greatness and fullness of their sound. It’s not that it’s loud, it engulfs; it’s not produced or prepackaged, it’s fluid and polished; it’s not that it knocks you over with intensity (well, sometimes it does), no, it flows over you with freshness and gusto, even the same song you’ve heard 100 times or more.
Phish’s homogeneous personal and professional chemistry is so perfected, so refined, and so balanced that their pianissimo moments are as profound and powerful as their crescendo moments, and the moments in between don’t simply connect the aforementioned, they amplify it.
When someone asks me, “So, what kind of music does Phish play?” my response is to usually flail my arms and legs in different directions, at different speeds; a delicate dance I call Walking Through Unseen Spiderweb at Night. It is beautiful in its chaos - the men laugh, the women weep. My own professional artistry aside, Phish produces 1000-fold what my highly-controversial dance moves ever could. Just the four of them. I guess I am only one man to their four. How many people are you?
n00b: Let’s see - there’s the work me, the me with my family, the me with my friends back home, the me with my friends where I live…….not sure I’ve got enough fingers to count ‘em up.
n00b (up by $42,000): I'll take "Songy Sets" for twelve hundred, Alex.
Trebek: This Summer 2012 classic featured nine different songs in its second set, yet it is still regarded as of one of the finest sets of 3.0.
n00b: What is August 19, 2012?
Funky: What a wonderful place... sorry, I blacked out. This professional variance is not as “simple” or understood as it may sound. In fact, it is quite nuanced and layered, and, *easily* as controversial as my dance moves. Try telling a fan Fall 1997 sounds like Summer 1998, or, Winter 2003 sounds like Summer 2004. Mere months of time define extreme stylistic shifts. I still have the same haircut I did ten years ago. Phish I am not, but my mom still thinks I’m cool.
My point is, Phish, just the four of them, are able to produce such a breadth of sound, style, emotion, and imagery, that there is rarely, if ever, a need for another complimentary (musical) piece - CK5, you keep shining that thing in my face, man, you rule seriously big time. They are so good and what they do, in and of themselves.
So, when another musician steps onstage with them... I don’t know how to politely say this with respect to an esteemed, respected drummer like Bob Gullotti… well, I get nervous; I prepare to be let down. I am ready to hear Phish not in its purest form, rather Phish in slightly-off iteration. Will the chemistry be there? Will Phish dial it back to allow room for the new guy, no matter how talented he or she may be?
I’ve seen Phish with other musicians onstage, the 12.31.16 “Petrichor” production and subsequent set. While the "Petrichor" portion of the set was absolutely radiant and beautiful and among the most visceral, sensory-engaging concert experiences I’ve ever had, the rest of the set was pretty disappointing (for me - definitely not for the band). [Aside: I clearly recall ALL of them, even Mike, smiling ear-to-ear as the set shuffled along. As the inflatable cats and dogs piled up onstage, the horns wailing, it was super special, and humbling, to see such joy on their faces, especially someone like Mike, who rarely emotes during a Phish show. A lot of work went into the "Petrichor" set, and even though the set didn’t work for me, it was clearly working for the band - that’s rad.]
So, n00b, these Bob Gullotti shows happened smack dab in the middle of one Phish’s most well-known and kick-ass tours, Summer 1997. To add even more difficulty to Bob’s task, his shows were right after the out-of-this-world 7.23.97 show (listen to this “Ghost” right now, if you are unfamiliar). Kind of an unfair set up, don’t you think? Or is there something else happening at these shows that, perhaps, the fanbase and I are selling short?
n00b: Interesting insight on the normally much-maligned 12/31/16 III - kinda funny to hear about Mike enjoying himself during that set, since we all know Mike hates Phish now and hates playing all those new songs and would rather tour ten months out of the year with MGB but for the fact that he needs that sweet, sweet Phish cash. BUT I DIGRESS!
So let’s talk a little bit about guest appearances on Phish shows. I, too, tend to prefer my Phish raw and uncut, so to speak; given the delicate and lived-in chemistry between all four band members, anything that could upset that particular balance is always going to give me pause. Sometimes it works great, like when Karl Perazzo joined the band for four shows in Fall 1996 (although he mainly added color to the jams rather than having to drive them, which probably helped). Sometimes it doesn’t work all that great, like the semi-infamous Bill Kreutzmann sit-in on 8/2/09 (an interesting analog to the Gullotti shows, actually - we’ll get to that later on). And sometimes it’s just sort of in the middle, like Kenwood Dennard randomly cameoing in the encore of the wonderful 10/26/13 (his crisp and sharp timekeeping is a fun alternative to Fish’s usual more varied attack, but not quite essential listening). The point is that you get a mixed bag with guest appearances, and I don’t know that the juice is worth that particular squeeze.
If there’s one modern-day example that really sums up how Phish deals with sit-ins, it’s the (already kind of forgotten?) Bob Weir appearance on 10/18/16. While I still think the best piece of improv from that show is the "Playing In The Band" that closes out Set 2 - I’m a sucker for Playing, though, so that might just be me - the real litmus test of whether or not you’re going to like the set is the "Twist" that sits in the middle of the set. It’s a real Rorschach test for lovers of Phish’s improvisation, in that some folks can hear the jam sort of spiral unpleasantly out of control due to the fact that they’re accommodating a second guitarist who never plays with them who sometimes likes to travel his own path, and that other folks (like myself) hear a trippy and almost psychedelic experience from a two-guitar attack adding layers to Phish’s improvisation you normally don’t get (not to mention Mike Gordon holding the entire thing together through sheer force of will like Groot at the end of the first Guardians of the Galaxy). I think that "Twist" is essential listening, but I’m not sure I’d call it a truly great jam, and that’s entirely due to the unusual ingredient of Weir’s guitar playing introduced to Phish’s usual jamming recipe.
And that, I think, is why there’s (still!) so much trepidation and diffidence surrounding the Gullotti ‘97 shows. I do think that those shows coming off the heels of the excellent 7/23/97 show might have something to do with it, but I think that, at the end of the day, it’s the fact that you’ve got that unusual ingredient tossed into the jamming recipe, and a particularly strong one to boot. This isn’t just Perazzo giving an added spice to the 11/2/96 Antelope - this is a drummer with a style far more jazz-influenced than Fishman’s is, and a musician entirely comfortable with trying to yank a jam in whatever direction he sees fit. And the fruits of that particular labor are *definitely* not what you’d expect from the usual Phish show, which leads to an experience that, again, can act as a Rorschach test - some folks hear gloriousness, and some folks hear an unholy noise.
Funky: Well, I’m kind of split between the “unholy noise” and “gloriousness” camps. But before we pitch our tents, let’s answer the one pressing question that is surely on all six of our reader’s minds: why Bob Gullotti?? Well, as you deftly pointed out, Phish does have a lightly-dappled history of musicians sitting in with them. Usually, there is some sort of loose affiliation between the guest and member(s) of Phish, and thus, said member(s) give a “nod” to their friend by inviting them onstage to be gawked at and judged by Phish fans. What honor! Come play with us, uber-talented musician, and watch the beer lines grow! Vendors and toilets everywhere do not give thanks to Phish’s special guests. What honor, indeed.
With Gullotti, the connection lays within Trey’s 1996 project, “Surrender to the Air.” This lesser-known side project featured a pretty impressive ensemble, and Gullotti was the percussionist. Surrender to the Air was free form jazz which evokes fond memories of Lisa Simpson's love for jazz:
Man: Hmm... sounds like she's playing a baby with a cat. Lisa: You have to listen to the notes she's NOT playing. Man: I can do that at home. That's a classic Simpsons moment, isn't it?!
Anyway, Surrender to the Air... it is… uh… well, it is something, that’s for sure. Still, it was something enough to where Trey invited Gullotti onstage not just for an encore, or a song or two – Gullotti was onstage for one and a half shows (7.25.97 Set 2 and all of 7.26.97)! That fact, in and of itself, shows the respect that Trey, and Phish, had for this jazz drummer. That fact piques my interest.
So let’s get to it. Just how good were these show anyway? How good is this Gullotti guy to warrant being onstage for three straight sets of Phish?
Encore: Theme From the Bottom
 Unfinished; Bob Gullotti on a second drum set.
 Bob Gullotti on a second drum set.
 Bob Gullotti on a second drum set and Page on keys.
 Bob Gullotti on a second drum set.
 Bob Gullotti on a second drum set. No vocal jam.
 Unfinished; Bob Gullotti on a second drum set.
Funky: That 7.25 second set is setlist candy if I’ve ever seen it. But this is music, we have to hear it, not chew it, well, unless you take… no, no, nevermind. I am mixed on this performance, n00b. There’s one part of me that is truly blown away by the smoothness of the segues in the set. Smooth transitioning between songs requires all band members to be locked in, musically and creatively. To do this five times in a row… and to do it well… man, I am impressed. It shows off how rawly-talented, especially Gullotti, they all are to brilliantly weave songs together with a legitimate “new guy” onstage. I have a tremendous amount of respect for that. However, the jams themselves, between the segues… it’s not that they are bad, in fact they are quite loose and fun. Energized. Trey especially seems to be wailing away and playing with bravado and excitement, but it seems almost too loose. Not exactly jazzy… but not NOT jazzy. My technical musical terminology knows no bounds, loyal reader.
I caught myself a couple times double-taking on the music; you know when you have two songs playing at the same time, for whatever reason (iTunes and YouTube; phish.in and your own playlist, ect…), and sometimes they kind of sync up to create an echo affect? That’s what I was hearing, sometimes at least. But, there were not two songs playing. There was one. It’s not that Gullotti was playing off-beat or out-of-sync, but those added pops of jazzy percussion created a totally new, rhythmic, echo effect. It was weird, and I am not so sure if it was cool, or what, but it is definitely there. Trey has an ear for that kind of newness – taking chances – experimenting with music to see what fits and how far he can push it. I recall Trey talking about writing “David Bowie” as an experiment to see just how deeply Phish can improvise with mixed and undulating rhythms while still making people dance. Where is the threshold to make people STOP dancing?? Cue IT “Waves” … which ironically slips into “Bowie”
Maybe that was the effect Trey was going for – rhythmic and percussive depth; a sort of jazzy, free take not on the song as a whole, but on proverbial backbone of some Phish tunes and seeing how the new rhythm comes out – to see if people are still dancing. Still, it isn’t THAT jazzy, it is still 80% Phish and 20% Gullotti. I am being vague for a reason here, as I think you may be able to shed more technical light onto what we are hearing. My layman’s terms can only get us so far. Again, I like what I am hearing, especially from Trey, but the rest, well, it takes some getting used to. The again, Phish is an acquired taste. ::casts line out, waits for someone to … …… ……… TAKE THE BAIT::
n00b: Haha, if only I could shed more technical light onto all of this; hopefully somebody in the comments will be able to hip us a bit more to the more musical-training aspects of this performance. Whenever we talk about some of the wilder performances of Phish’s career, I’m often reminded of the Grateful Dead trying to convince Branford Marsalis to stick around for the second set of 3/29/90 (and a darn good thing they did) by telling him they’d play "Dark Star," and when Marsalis professed no knowledge of the song he was told “oh, you’ll love it - it’s free, it’s out”*, a challenge Marsalis thankfully accepted. That’s a very shorthand way of talking about without-a-net improvisation, like "Dark Stars" of every era or some of Phish’s grottier jams, but a way that works nevertheless, because you instantly know what you’re getting into with something like the 10/26/89 "Dark Star" or the aforementioned IT "Waves." And I think it’s also a pretty good way to describe 7/25/97 II, a set that’s near and dear to my heart, because of the elements that you say you don’t care for that much.
*quote from this article: https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/branford-marsalis-on-his-unlikely-collaboration-with-the-grateful-dead-233484/. Always loved Marsalis’ description of Deadheads calling him to thank him for getting them to play "Dark Star"
Take, for example, that echoing effect of Gullotti and Fishman hitting on 1 and 3 or 2 and 4 at precisely the same time. I hear the same thing, and to me it’s one of the most exciting parts of this set, because it’s something that never happens otherwise in Phish shows. I mean, that’s not always a good thing - them breaking into hip-hop never happens otherwise either, and yet I abhor the Jay-Z sit-in - but when it’s for the purposes of something like this, where the music takes on an odd and off-kilter dimension it doesn’t take on normally? That’s something to be celebrated. And the band makes it work, too; the occasional awkward moment aside, Gullotti and Fishman’s collective freneticism takes the jams to areas they didn’t always explore, not even in 1997, maybe their greatest explorative year. Take that "Chalk Dust Torture" that opens the set - yes, we’ve heard the band enter this sort of low-key zone before, but have we ever really heard it with this kind of drive or verve, and would it be possible without Gullotti in that second drummer chair? Or the collapse into spaciness at the end of "Ghost" - how often does that include a rhythmic section urging the jam along, rather than the bottom dropping out and the band floating in a pool of ambient noise?
So let’s go back and talk about the Kreutzmann sit-in at Red Rocks 2009. I gave it a listen for the first time in a while, and while it’s not quite as bad as I remember (the "Also Sprach Zarathustra" really is a swaggering good time), it confirmed that Kreutzmann and Fishman just didn’t work together, and it’s mainly because Kreutzmann is playing at such a relatively lugubrious tempo that it throws everything off and just kinda sounds like a mess. Maybe it would’ve worked better if they’d had more time to practice or more appearances together to figure each other out, or maybe it’d work better today with Fishman basically back to his 1990s self (he was certainly not his 1990s self in 2009), who knows. But hearing that sit-in again actually made me realize that 7/25/97 II is the closest we’ll get to Fishman playing with the 1972-74 version of Bill Kreutzmann - same jazzy influences, same ability to really push the pace (check out the 12/31/72 "Truckin’" to hear what I mean), and moments where you wonder where those extra arms he apparently sprouted came from. And I don’t know that 1997 Jon Fishman and 1973 Bill Kreutzmann would’ve meshed perfectly, either...but I figure that when their collaborating worked, it would really work, just like here.
So I guess the band enjoyed that second set so much that they invited Gullotti to sit in for an entire show the next night, and while I don’t think anything from this show matches anything played in 7/25 II, it’s just as much fun and there are some true treats throughout. The show-opening "Limb by Limb" wanders into brief punchy funkiness; "YEM" bubbles and catches fire and nearly slips into "Willie the Pimp" (god, if only) before instead segueing neatly into "Izabella;" "Timber (Jerry)" offers a surprisingly warm dark groove; "Harry Hood" takes an amusing detour into "Blister in the Sun;" Free snaps into a sharp, grotty rhythm very much unlike the usual "Free" rockout. It’s that Free, honestly, where I think Gullotti’s influence is most strongly heard in either show - it’s so far away from the usual churn of "Free," especially how it’s played nowadays, that it kind of begs hearing. And that’s what I really want out of my guest appearances - something that begs hearing because it’s so different, but not in the trainwreck sense.
Which brings us full circle, I think, to what you talked about up top, with your apprehension as to how a show will go when a fifth musician comes in to alter the Phish onstage formula. Much like how I don’t know that any of the Bob Weir 10/18/16 jams are truly great but all of them are well worth hearing, I wouldn’t say that any of the jams from these shows touch the best of 1997, but I absolutely think both of these shows are entirely worth the listen just to hear how Gullotti and Fishman made magic (and the occasional anti-magic) together. And I don’t think that you can ask for much more than that.
Funky: It’s not that you’re wrong, n00b, it’s just that … … … well, I don’t know how to finish that sentence. I have a healthy respect for the clockwork craftsmanship and pulsar timing that Gullotti brings. I understand his jazzy influence on Trey, stemming from Surrender to the Air, as Trey (assumedly) tries to evolve and weave that free jazz experience into a Phish show. I can hear the layered rhythms, and appreciate the skill that it takes to strike the same surface, simultaneously, between two people. I also can sense the band’s, well, Trey and Fish’s, excitement with him onstage. Still, despite these positives, there is just something amiss from the grandeur of Phish’s sound when someone else gets added to it. Sometimes, less is more.
It is amiss in these shows, in the 2003 BB King show, in the 2009 Kruetzmann set, and the Bob Weir sit in (no matter how much you wax poetic about the “Twist,” it doesn’t do a whole lot for me, but when Bobby sang “Miss You,” dang, that was heavy, but for altogether different reasons) … but it is not amiss in the volcanic, technicolor strutting of 10.31.09 “Suzy,” - you can’t lose ‘em all, amiright?!? ::crickets:: Anyway. It’s not that these are bad stretches of music by any sort of persnickety judgement passed here (mainly by me), it just isn’t Phish. When I see Phish, I want to see Phish, not Phish+, or Phish-, depending on how you view the guest.
Phish is four guys. Phish is a spaceship captain singeing guitar, a haute couture cactus hammering a bass, a lawn-mowing dad surfing like 25 keyboards, and a dude in a dress who, somehow, doesn’t move his torso while playing drums (drums: a plural singular). They’re weird. But it works. The weirdness is what make it work. Is anyone else weird enough to play with Phish? No. Well, actually, I’ve been on the Dick’s lot and there’s that one guy with the djembe (one guy?!) and… well… I’ve said too much.
Phish has the uncanny ability to produce sonic envelopment that wraps itself around your physical being, into your soul, and through your metaphysical aura (which is purple.) The hugeness of the music strikes the divine, warps reality, emotes introspectively, and blasts you off into dimensions about which only Carl Sagan could fantasize. That’s what brings us back to dozens and hundreds of shows – that inexplicably real feeling of cosmic amazement that leaves us mouth ajar, soul lifted, pants missing, wondering, for the xxth time, “Wow. How do they do it?” And although guest musicians only take that wow-factor down by a very small margin, well, sometimes it is the smallest things that make the biggest difference. Sometimes, less is less.
On the sweeping whole, the music of these shows (and other sit-ins) doesn’t “do it” for me, save that “LxL” and “Timber” -> "Bowie" combo; interestingly, all three of those songs are very jazzy by nature of their composition and their jamming alike, maybe that's why they sounded so good. My appreciation of influence from an all-time drummer et al is something that commands and gets my respect. I can only assume that Phish took something away from these shows which we fans cannot process or understand. Perhaps it was out of gratitude for their influence, or maybe it was musical symbiosis which we cannot understand, or, perhaps, quite simply, maybe they just had fun jamming with another highly-talented musician whom they all respected. Whatever it was, I am happy that Phish was happy and got to do something like this. BUT, my happiness counts too, man... ::takes ball and goes home::
I'm back... my mom told me I had to apologize.
It is always fascinating to explore new realms of Phish. You won't always like all of it, but you may like some of it. At the very least, you may gain some perspective and insight into just how broad and dynamic Phish's influencers are, and how much they impact Phish's music without us, the listener, putting too much thought into it - we kinda take them for granted, sometimes at least. Phish are our heros, but Phish has heros too. These three sets, and the subsequent asides we connected with sit-ins, shed just a bit more light on how broad, how selective, how precise, and how wide-ranging Phish's musical chops are. My respect and admiration for what they do, and how they do it, only grows.
If you liked this blog post, one way you could "like" it is to make a donation to The Mockingbird Foundation, the sponsor of Phish.net. Support music education for children, and you just might change the world.
You must be logged in to post a comment.
Phish.net is a non-commercial project run by Phish fans and for Phish fans under the auspices of the all-volunteer, non-profit Mockingbird Foundation.
This project serves to compile, preserve, and protect encyclopedic information about Phish and their music.
The Mockingbird Foundation is a non-profit organization founded by Phish fans in 1996 to generate charitable proceeds from the Phish community.
And since we're entirely volunteer – with no office, salaries, or paid staff – administrative costs are less than 2% of revenues! So far, we've distributed over $2 million to support music education for children – hundreds of grants in all 50 states, with more on the way.