Thought Out on the Page: The Brothel Wife

If you’re anything like me, the news of a new Trey Anastasio Band tour is greeted with the same forced excitement a mother shows when her five year old comes home from school with a new finger painting. It’s nice, sure, but it’s hard to care as much as you should. Maybe if Phish never existed we’d be buzzing about the TAB summer dates and trying to come up with a clever rhyme for a “Paczkowski Side” shirt to sell in the lot. But Phish does exist.

However, my intrigue for this tour grew when the news first surfaced about an acoustic set. Ever since I saved up two weeks allowance to purchase Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged album at The Wall, I’ve always been a major believer in the power of acoustic arrangements. I was one of the first in line for donuts and coffee early Sunday morning of Festival 8 so I could grab front row seats to the acoustic set, which did not disappoint in the least. Seeing and hearing Phish stripped down to their innermost parts in the beautiful outdoor surroundings created a magical feeling that morning that I know was shared by many in attendance.

What is so great about the acoustic arrangement is how it reveals the truth of a song. A song is really made up of two essential components—lyrics and melody. The rest is decoration. Phish are fantastic decorators; so good, in fact, that it is often easy to forget about the ingeniously built structure underneath. Only a song with an exceptionally sturdy foundation can excite us—jam or no jam—every time it’s played. Show me a vet who doesn’t get the least bit excited when the first notes of Cavern ring out and I’ll show you someone who is wasting his $60.

This appreciation for the essential nature of the song seems to be a guiding principal for Phish these days, and it has followed Trey along on his solo tour. Hearing my favorite songs in the world performed as solo acoustic pieces for the first time is nothing short of a revelation. There’s something magical about the way the crowd has become an integral part of the arrangements over these first five shows, with Trey encouraging them to sing along like a camp counselor around the fire. The combination of the intimate settings along with the familiar tunes and dedicated fan base allow for a real sense of community rarely seen at any concert. And Trey, for his part, seems to be reveling in it along with the audience.

If anyone questions Phish’s lyrics to you again, please play them the first sets from these shows. Listen to hundreds of people sing “I love meatballs so you’d better be ready”, or “Whatever you do take care of your shoes” or “Expanding exponentially like some recursive virus” as if they were the most important words in the world and you can’t help but feel the power of these lyrics even if you don’t appreciate the words.

The truth about Phish’s lyrics, ultimately, is that they are just incredibly fun to sing. Some of them have meanings that touch us, some of them have meanings that we sense but don’t understand, and some make no sense whatsoever. But they are all made to be sung—loudly and fervently. Whether the singing is best saved for your bedroom than at the shows themselves is more a question of etiquette than intent. There’s a time and place for everything. I’ll just say that there is something undeniably moving about the experience of singing and harmonizing with a large group that makes me wish I had acted more aggressively to get those TAB tickets for LA next month. Oh well, I guess I could always go camping.

Of course, the real tour is right around the corner. And while these acoustic sets are a nice treat, the only relevant question is what it ultimately means for Phish. Some would look at Trey’s newfound enthusiasm for performing Phish songs by himself, coupled with the surprising announcement that the band will not be touring this fall, as an ominous concurrence. Twelve hours ago, I would have agreed. But when I got to work and popped on the headphones this morning, I was greeted with two lines that told me everything was going to be just dandy:

The brothel wife then grabbed the knife and slashed me in the tongue / I turned the blade back on the bitch and dropped her in the dung”

I could devote a whole column delving into the lyrics of Cavern—one of Phish’s most interesting songs lyrically, in my opinion—and what the alternative lines mean or don’t mean. But for now it’s enough simply to acknowledge that Trey acknowledges how much these lyrics mean to him and to us. And as long as that remains true, the future is bright indeed.