I have gone through the past two years enjoying Phish shows; I was happy they were back and made the best of what I could get. Now, I am trying to pick my jaw back off the ground; I am hopelessly in love again.
Since 2009, I was wondering if I was being too critical of Trey. I was wondering if I was missing something others were getting–after all, article after article I would receive comments and emails about how I am a “hater” or “jaded”. I feel bad for the people that sent me these messages; if they thought the past two years have been “as good as ever”, I don’t know how they can now truly appreciate what 2011 has been offering us night after night. During 2009 and 2010, if you said every show was wonderful, that Trey was back on top of his game, it’s kind of like the boy who cried wolf when you attempt to compliment the band the same way now. The following observations and thoughts are not for these people–this article is for people like me; the people that knew something was missing and weren’t afraid to say it all along. If you were in the first group, you can go ahead and listen to the Albany Ghost, we’ll be listening to the Pine Knob Disease.
To explain briefly, I have felt that 3.0 Trey was missing something; he had poor tone control, poor dexterity, and a lack of an ambition to jam–until now. Starting with the pristine control Trey wielded during the Bethel Waves, Phish have been on a non-stop path of sonic destruction. They have seemingly found the final piece of the puzzle: Trey. I don’t know what happened during spring, but the band can musically communicate again. Trey isn’t just noodling while smiling at the front row anymore–now he is thoughtfully crafting guitar notes while gazing into space and pacing, he is looking at Page for licks and looking at Fish for cues.
However, the communication would be pointless if there wasn’t substance to back it up–there is. Trey’s finger dexterity has improved 100 fold since last year; it’s insane. It doesn’t matter what they play; it could be a song-based show like Great Woods, or a jammed-out throwdown like Pine Knob–Trey is attacking the songs again. When Trey is attacking, flubs don’t matter. Flubs once again equal creative risk–not musical carelessness.
One of the most significant aspects of what makes Phish Phish, and my favorite, is their tension/release style of rock. I’m not just talking about huge segments of tension building up to huge eruptions of releases that entire jams can be built around (like Star Lake ’97 Stash), I’m talking about quick swells of tension leading to melting flurries of releases–these can be found in nearly all songs that contain some sort of rock-driven jam, no matter how short. This was one of the biggest things missing in 3.0–until now. Take a look at the clip below to see what I mean; this is what sets Phish’s rock and roll on another level than other bands.
Darien 2011: Good Times Bad Times – tension/release clip
Despite its importance to Phish’s sound, tension/release rock isn’t the only kind that people like I crave. We also crave guitar solos with direction, rather than guitar solos that are aimless. Check out the solid mini-pattern that Trey uses as a backbone to his shredding in the 46 Days jam below.
Darien 2011: 46 Days – shred clip
While the tension/release and directional styles of playing certainly take improvisational focus to pull off, so does cleanly inserting a tease into a song. Teasing is another trait that Phish is well known for (usually Trey)–it’s also something that has been nearly nonexistent in 3.0 before 2011. Look at setlists so far this year; Riverbend is the only show so far that doesn’t incorporate at least one tease into a jam. These aren’t teases like the forced Guyute tease during Wilson at Utica last year–these are perfectly injected into songs, like they were made to be there.
One of my favorites was during Harry Hood at Blossom–before the Have Mercy and Lizards tease, please note the beautiful pattern Page lays down that Trey immidiately picks up on before building off it. To see what I mean by ‘pattern’, please refer to my article “The Key to Creating the Best Jams: Patterns and Themes” that I wrote one week before summer tour.
Blossom 2011: Harry Hood – Page’s Pattern > Trey teasing clip
While we’re talking about Hood, let’s discuss Trey’s glorious playing during the Darien show–shall we? I’ll admit it; I have hated on Harry Hood in 3.0–and I don’t take any of it back. Hood, along with Bowie, was a song that lost so much of what it was meant to be, I couldn’t take it anymore–I was at the point where I wanted the band to put it on the shelf. While the Blossom Hood was great because of the sandwich and teases, the Darien version is because it features a jam the way it’s supposed to be played. Although Trey doesn’t come to any explosive peaks, the river of notes at the end is a peak in itself.
Darien 2011: Harry Hood – Trey at end of Hood clip
Trey has also been very aware of what’s going on during the tour, and he’s having fun with it. Trey started the joke with us about going to “Page’s house” during the Bethel Makisupa. He has referenced going to Page’s house at least once nearly every show since. My favorite reference is in the clip below (WARNING: WATCH OUT FOR MIKE)
Great Woods 2011: Suzy Greenberg – Page’s house jam clip
Trey isn’t only having fun with inside-tour jokes, he’s also pulling off inside-show stunts. Like he teased the Have Mercy and Lizards that was played before the Harry Hood jam at Blossom, he also teased Blossom’s Possum jam at the end of Character Zero. Folks, reprising jam themes is serious business. For a good example of Trey reprising a jam’s theme, check out 9/22/99‘s Weekapaug reprising the Bathtub jam from earlier in the show. The clip below highlights how Trey ends the song the same way the Possum jam was played–with slow, descending notes.
Blossom 2011: Character Zero – Possum jam reprise clip
Let’s finish with one of my favorite moments of the tour so far; Trey played with some of the most jaw-dropping intensity and inspiration at the end of Bethel’s David Bowie. After two years of him playing pointless, linear, and cookie-cutter jams that stumbled into the end of Bowies, Trey nailed it during the song’s first outing of the year. Trey uses patterning, finger speed, and a snarling attitude in this clip–this clip makes me cum in my pants. I should mention that all Bowies so far this year have been wonderful–and Pine Knob’s marked the return of unique intros.
Bethel Woods 2011: David Bowie – jam ending clip
I want just one person that called me “too critical” before to try and argue that there was a single Bowie played with that kind of intensity before 2011.
2011 is the year, people. As long as the “break” that follows this summer tour is held to only the fall, it’s only going to keep getting better from here. Trey has made a fundamental change in his playing–this is not a flash in the pan.