|Originally Performed By||The Rolling Stones|
|Original Album||Exile on Main St (1972)|
|Vocals||Trey (lead), Sharon Jones and Saundra Williams (backing)|
|Historian||Jeremy D. Goodwin|
It has been observed that the great leap for the Rolling Stones on Exile On Main St was that the band fully absorbed the knotty roots of American music that had previously informed its work, giving bloom to a distinctly original hybrid. Nowhere is that evolution more evident than on "I Just Want To See His Face," which also sounds unlike anything else in the band's catalog.
Fading up from the steam of the churning "Ventilator Blues" and preceding the show-stopper "Let It Loose," this song – the penultimate entry on Exile's third side – floats by in just under three minutes as if a strange bit of dream interrupted by morning. Casual listeners might even mistake it for a trifle, and its dense soundscape and nearly inscrutable vocals discourage casual examination. But to engage with it is to discover something strange and beautiful, on its own terms an accomplishment equaling anything else on that definitive opus.
"I Just Want To See His Face" is anchored by murky percussion that is heavy on the bass and tom drums, two basses (electric and upright), and a strangely shaped lead vocal that is barely recognizable as Mick Jagger's. Lacking an obvious verse/chorus/verse structure it sounds like a snippet from a long jam, possibly an all-day church service in the deep South – an effect accentuated by the fade-in and fade-out on either end of the track. It is flavored by a judiciously employed electric piano and female backing vocals.
The exact personnel is unknown – Charlie Watts is assumed to be on drums, guitarist Mick Taylor on electric bass, an unknown musician (possibly Bill Plummer) on acoustic bass, another mystery man on keyboard (Jagger, or possibly Keith Richards, or maybe Bobby Whitlock), and producer Jimmy Miller on maracas and tambourine. Clydie King, Venetta Fields and Jesse Kirkland contribute key support and interplay with Jagger's lead vocal.
This piece does not have the more familiar gospel inflections of "Shine a Light" or ," but instead sounds like an Alan Lomax field recording of a mid-20th-century call-and-response jam with roots heading straight back to American slave traditions. Critic Bill Janovitz likens it to Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, the first-generation touchstone that inspired later interpretations like Bob Dylan and The Band's The Basement Tapes. It "sounds ancient and from another planet; a swampy, stompy gospel song that was recorded to intentionally sound as if it is a field recording document of a long-ago church basement revival meeting," Janovitz observes.
The lyrics – really just a sketch – are filled with artful repetitions and sound like the improvised testimony of their author. It's possible to read a critique of organized religion into the lyrics' key passage – "Then you don't want to walk and talk about Jesus / you just want to see His face" – but like the other themes in this rapturously strange song, this is nodded at rather than developed… and these words could be about a longing for death as well.
Just as "I Want To See His Face" sounds different from any other entry on Exile, the rendition played live by Phish on Halloween 2009 probably sounds as different from the original version as anything else in the band's epic performance of the entire double-album that night.
Phish, "I Just Want to See His Face" – 10/31/09, Indio, CA
Gone is the dense, murky inscrutability. Though Fishman admirably re-creates the original drum pattern (for a while, before adding brighter colors like snare and cymbals), the total effect is of a welcoming groove. With nearly three-quarters of the album complete, it is at this point in the set that one can really feel the band digging in its heels, looking around, taking a breath and feeling comfortable before launching into the stretch run of the performance. The song floats nicely out of a well-appreciated take on "Ventilator Blues," with some of the closing "Ventilator" vocals overlapping. (In fact, the transition is the only one in this very long show reckoned to require the "full arrow" segue notation in the Phish.net setlists, signifying a flowing, seamless transition between songs.)
The band milks the groove for over seven minutes, with Trey finessing a tasteful guitar line that references the signature drum part, and fashioning a refrain from the lyric "Let this music relax your mind." Once the transition into the song is complete, the guest horn players on hand that night lay out, but Sharon Jones carries the song vocally, providing a gorgeous counterpoint and much-needed weight to Trey's thin, reedy lead. When the two synch up for a climactic repetition of the song's titular phrase, the combination is stirring.
In Phish's Halloween performance, "I Just Want To See His Face" takes its time before emerging into an absolutely ferocious evocation of the slow-burn "Let It Loose," and the three-song sequence beginning with "Ventilator" is cited by many fans as the highlight of this highlight-filled set. It no longer sounds like a strange transmission from another world, but it luxuriates in a smoky groove that seems to float out of nowhere, suspending time with its unexpected length and finding just as much space between its companion songs as it wishes – still completely different, still unexpected, and still like a dream… though a pleasant one causing a smile as you fall to sleep, rather than an unsettling memory lingering as you wake. Let this music relax your mind.
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