|Originally Performed By
|Trey (lead), Page (backing)
|Cassidy McManus (donttouchthatknob)
What do we really want out of a new Phish song? Are we looking for more high-energy rockers like “Say It To Me S.A.N.T.O.S.”? A consistent jam vehicle like “A Wave of Hope”? Something with lyrics that are meaningful, if a bit cryptic, like “Drift While You’re Sleeping”? Something you might complain to your friends about, like “The Howling”?
Well, enter a versatile little song that can do it all: “Sigma Oasis.” “Sigma” was tied for the most played Phish song in both 2021 and 2022. It only got a couple chances to play before the pandemic, but the explosion of experimentation has made it a defining song for this post-pandemic era of Phish.
“Sigma Oasis” was written by Trey and Tom Marshall with help from Scott Herman. The song made its debut on 12/15/18 during a Trey solo acoustic set at the Macky Auditorium Concert Hall in Boulder, Colorado. Trey’s enthusiasm for the song was clear- not only did he choose to open the show with it, but when listening back you can practically hear him grinning ear to ear while delivering the lyrics. He even let out a delighted giggle as he finished playing the song.
This version is noticeably different than all the renditions that would follow. The acoustic version was faster. It was performed in a higher key–E Major instead of the D Mixolydian it would settle into. The guitar riff that Trey plays throughout was different, the rhythm more syncopated and the chords changing more frequently. And the most noticeable difference is a held out “ooh” that Trey sang between the verses. But the lyrics were the same, the melody is mostly the same, it is still recognizably “Sigma Oasis.”
The song lay dormant just shy of a year, until it made its Phish debut on 12/8/19 at the North Charleston Coliseum. Starting with a tight drum groove from Fishman, this arrangement was much more recognizable as the “Sigma Oasis” that Phish usually plays. The key has been lowered. Trey’s guitar part was no longer just built around chords, but also the short runs between the chords. This version didn’t have any lengthy jams, just short bouts of improvisation between the verses and chorus that would later be dropped.
The song then sat out the rest of Phish’s 2019 shows. It made a few appearances during the TAB run in January of 2020. These all stayed pretty faithful to the arrangement played by Phish. These TAB renditions were played at very different tempos, as Trey played around and eventually settled on what felt right. The last pre-pandemic appearance of “Sigma Oasis” was the 2/21/20 show at the Moon Palace in Mexico, where it opened the second set.
Now, before we move further, we have to ask ourselves an important question about “Sigma Oasis.” What exactly do those two words mean together? Is it just some nonsense phrase, like “Ramalamadingdong” or “Give Peace a Chance”? When talking about the song, Trey said it “rides this razor’s edge between literal and poetic.” But, what does that poetry mean?
Well, based on the context, we can infer that Sigma Oasis is a place. But, what does that place mean? Let’s start with “oasis,” because it’s clearer. An oasis, in the most literal sense, is a fertile spot of land within a desert. Metaphorically, an oasis is often used to describe a place or a person that provides sanctuary.
But what about “Sigma”? Sigma is a letter of the Greek alphabet. It is used to mean different things in different fields. In mathematics, it’s the operator of summation. In business, Six Sigma is a method of improvement. In chemistry, a sigma bond is a strong form of covalent bonding. Are they referencing one of those things? All of them? None of them? Your guess is as good as mine.
Maybe we’re going down the wrong path. To get a better sense of what it means, let’s take a look at the phrase being used in context. Following the debut performance, Trey says he’s “not sure if it’s a philosophy or a song.” The song’s philosophical thesis is best put in its chorus :
So take off, take off, take off your mask
The fear's an illusion, so don't even ask
You're finally weightless, so take to the air
Sigma Oasis, you're already there
Sigma Oasis is a place of sanctuary from the stressors of the world. A place you can take off the metaphorical mask we wear when we present ourselves to others. A place you don’t need to be afraid to be yourself. Rather than a physical oasis, this one is a state of mind. Comparisons can be made to “Terrapin Station” or “Paradise City.” But whereas some rise, some fall, and some climb to get to Terrapin, you don’t need that struggle to reach Sigma Oasis. You’re already there.
Now, you can understand why this song, this message, was the centerpiece of a Phish album released in April of 2020.
In March of 2020, as COVID-19 spread throughout the world, the world responded by going into lockdown. Life as we knew it paused as people stayed in their homes. As an optimistic two weeks at home stretched into months with an indeterminate ending, Phish’s summer tour plans were rescheduled to the summer of 2021.
With everyone home, alone, and constantly online, the band decided to make the most of it. Starting in March, they launched “Dinner and a Movie,” a weekly series of streams where the band would show video from old performances along with a recipe for a meal selected by the band and close associates.
Then, on March 31st, Phish announced they would be releasing their next album- titled Sigma Oasis. The album was recorded over a week in November of 2019 with producer Vance Powell. It was intended to be released later, but the band decided to release it in April to give people something to enjoy during the pandemic. The opening song was, you guessed it, “Sigma Oasis.”Phish “Sigma Oasis” from Sigma Oasis.
This version is a tightly and faithfully played rendition–experimental not in form but rather in texture. The album was recorded with all the band members playing at the same time, a la 2002’s Round Room, so “Sigma” (as well as the other songs) is really able to breathe. There are dynamics at play, and it even has a short jam at the end. Page’s synth textures add a lot to this song. And, with the overdubbing, this might be the best sounding vocals you’ll hear on the song.
The song’s message of finding sanctuary in dark times paired well with other songs on the album like “Everything’s Right,” “Leaves,” and “A Life Beyond a Dream,” as well as songs that would emerge during the pandemic like “A Wave of Hope.” The song and the album spoke to the times we lived in, even as it was recorded four months before those times began.
The days of wearing masks to the park and Zoom birthday parties did not last forever. As Trey would sing in a previously referenced song, this too shall pass, this too shall pass. As vaccination efforts made large gatherings like Phish concerts relatively safer and after further cancellations, Phish returned to touring at the end of July 2021.
“Sigma Oasis” returned quickly, being played during the second show of the 2021 Summer tour. The song no longer started with Fishman’s drum part, but rather Trey’s guitar line. And Page’s synth contributions from the studio recording became a regular feature. With this last bit of tinkering, the arrangement was finalized- or as close as you’re ever going to get with Phish.
The song first got a chance to stretch its legs during the 8/27/21 show at the Gorge. While it was only a couple minutes longer than the “Sigmas” that preceded it, it had a solid jam with a nice peak, and a well-played transition into “What’s the Use?” With this version, it became clear that the band was gearing up for “Sigma Oasis” to become a jam vehicle.
These plans were cemented with the 9/5/21 Dick’s “Sigma.” Clocking in at just over fifteen minutes, this was the first rendition that could really credit itself as a jammed out Type 2 “Sigma.” After a couple minutes in the Type 1 world, Page introduced some synth sounds and the band took off in free exploration. At first the jam found itself in a sweet, dreamy world. Then Trey started introducing loops, which led to an energetic and fill-heavy drum part from Fishman. It then settled down into “All of These Dreams.”
While the Dick’s “Sigma” didn’t have that energetic peak, the spaces they played in were very pretty and sensitive in a way the “Sigma Oasis” song often isn’t. While it never got weird, the band was nevertheless exploring what this song was capable of. Following this performance, the band didn’t immediately continue a trend of jammed out “Sigmas.” Rather, the song was used as a consistent, high energy set two song. A couple of these appearances were Set 2 closers (10/19/21 and 10/26/21), and a couple were Set 2 openers (the 12/31/21 live stream as well as 4/20/22). The song clearly captivated the band’s attention- as previously mentioned, it was tied for the most played song of both 2021 and 2022.
The next time the song was jammed out was 5/28/22 at the Amphitheater at the Wharf on the Alabama Gulf Coast. Once again a show opener, this jam had a constant sense of motion. Trey introduced a delay effect and the band quickly pivoted to a funk groove, led by an active bass part from Mike and a “2001”-esque drum part from Fishman. The jam eventually found itself in a world we’d call Bliss Jam, with Trey and Page passing a riff back and forth before Trey brought the vocals back in. The second longest rendition to date, it continued to push what “Sigma Oasis” could be.
Summer ‘22 was an especially good tour for “Sigma.” 7/16/22 features a “Sigma” sandwich, with the song opening and closing the second set. Free and fluid jams can be found on 7/24/22 at the Hartford Xfinity and especially 8/5/22 on the Atlantic City Beach. At 21 minutes, the Atlantic City “Sigma” became the longest rendition, appropriate considering that’s where the song was written by Trey and Tom.
Starting off in a blissful world filled with loops, it’s reminiscent of previous successful “Sigma” jams. Some nice interplay from the band, with Mike’s bass shaking the beach. But, around two thirds of the way through, Fishman introduces a new, faster tempo which kicks things into overdrive. After a wonderfully energetic peak, the song settles down into a funk groove before transitioning into “Cities.” If the Dicks’ performance asked what “Sigma Oasis” is capable of, then Atlantic City’s answer is a lot.Phish “Sigma Oasis” - 8/5/22, Atlantic City, NJ
“Sigma Oasis” continues to be played fairly regularly. Even as Phish finds themselves playing with shiny new toys like “Evolve” and “Oblivion,” they haven’t forgotten “Sigma,” playing it every four to seven shows. In 2023, it mostly served as a Set 1 song, appearing in second sets only twice. Sometimes it jams (like in 7/12/23, 7/21/23, or even a short but sweet jam like 10/10/23), sometimes it’s more straightforward and about the energy.
“Sigma Oasis” is an important song for whatever number you want to call post-pandemic Phish. The song’s message means something to Trey–as he said following the first performance, “I like it as a philosophy.” It’s had a strong maturation over the years, and has found itself very versatile. It can be a straightforward rocker or a launching pad for an unexpected jam. The future of the song is up in the air–there are plenty of things Phish could choose to do or not to do with it (will they ever encore with “Sigma Oasis”?).
But, of course, they’re never going to top the Atlantic City “Sigma.” And yes, that is the attendance bias talking.
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