The Story of Reba – The Finest in the Nation

12.30.10 (Dave Vann)

If I were to mention a man named Samuel Insull, would you know who I was talking about?  Not many would, but if you know the man, you definitely know your history.  He was an assistant of sorts to the great and knowledgeable Thomas Edison (let’s hope you’ve all heard of him).

Either way, this man Samuel had no money to his name and migrated to the United States, yet over the years he accumulated instinct and perspective from Edison as well as money to go off on his own and branch off of some of Edison’s ideas and put them to good use.  With the help of others, Insull was able to offer electricity to the masses at an affordable rate by opening the largest power plant in the world at that time.  He went from having nothing to owning millions, and you’d have to think of how he actually did this…and that’s ingenuity, imagination and true passion.

I know, I know, you didn’t come here for a history lesson.  However, I haven’t transgressed, I have a point and here it is:

How can a song with goofy lyrics and a musical composition that is off-the-walls crazy turn into the most beautiful improvisational jams us Phish fans could ever dream of hearing?  It could very well be that this Anastasio song could be just as ingenious, imaginative and passionate as our friend Samuel Insull…truly, the finest in the nation.

Reba is Phish, and Phish is Reba.  Reba, from the album Lawn Boy, has been a staple in Phish shows ever since its debut in 1989.  The catchy lyrics and soaring guitar solos have always been a fan favorite, usually followed by the always fun whistling ending.  Yet Reba is something so much more than this “set staple” we have grown to love.  It’s more than a song, even.  It has grown with Phish, or should I say it has evolved with Phish?  Through the years, Reba meandered away from being a beautiful, albeit short, guitar driven jams and ventured into something much, much more.  It contains the entity which is Phish.  It’s almost as if it’s a living organism, for every time you see Reba live, tears will come to your eyes as art comes to life on stage.

Reba will turn 22 on October 1st, so I beseech you to follow me through some of her more memorable performances throughout the years…and find out just how she got to be who she is today.

Phish played The Front in Burlington, VT on October 1st, 1989.  Phish, at this time, had already started gathering a following of sorts, and this show contained many gems that fans had already fallen in love with.  This night, however, they’d be introduced to Reba.  The song starts out much differently than what we’re used to now, beginning with the composed musical section that comes directly after the lyrics end.  Halfway through the musical composition, the lyrics begin, and only a portion of what the songs lyrics would eventually contain.  The band would then launch into another composed musical composition that wouldn’t find the album while chanting “bag it, tag it!”  This would eventually find its way into the usual composed parts of the song and finish out the way we’re used to hearing it.  The jam is driven by Trey, and Page is exceptionally beautiful backing up Trey’s guitar.  The jam travels to soaring heights, and Trey’s playing is gorgeous and has superb tension and release.  Fish’s drums lead to the end of the jam, per usual, yet there is no whistling.  A vocal jam closes out this Reba, with many “bag it, tag it” chants to start it off.

Reba had been born.  It was a little raw, and didn’t have the punch that later Reba’s had, but it was a masterpiece to say the least.  Over the next few years, the composed parts of Reba would form into it’s usual form (the one found on the album) yet it’s jams would remain close to form, using Type I jamming almost completely.  Then 1993 came around, and 8/16/93 occurred.  A first set Reba, stemming right out of Horn, would change the way we thought of Reba’s for years to come.

The audience would know they were in for a treat when the band started the improvised part of the song with some delicate tinkering.  Enter Type II jamming.  A darker sounding Reba would ensue while the band experimented with this type of jamming.  A slow drum beat would back dark, heart piercing chords from Trey, in which Mike matched beautifully with a bass line that meshed flawlessly.  The jam would eventually lighten up, and Page would add some beautiful piano additions to steer Trey back into a Type I jam.  This is where the jam got even better, for Trey locked in on a groove early while Page backed him nicely.  Mike and Fish would keep the jam grounded while Trey starts to experiment with little peaks into the unknown until he came back down into improvisation that had almost disappeared in silence.  Yet, out of the silence came Mike.  Mike set up the remainder of the jam, in which Trey quickly grasped onto his bass line and exploded.  Per usual, Page was there to accompany Trey with rich textured playing as he melted every single face in the audience.  Yet the band didn’t stop there, for this jam lasted around ten minutes after the composed part of Reba ended.  Trey’s guitar playing at the end is what hooked me on Phish from the beginning.  The tension between the band was building at a remarkable rate until it was released into the room, shattering windows and crumbling the foundation of the room.  If you could catch a video of this Reba, you’d see that Trey’s guitar actually burst into flames during the jam.

So to recap, in the year of 1993, Reba took a major leap forward by incorporating type II jamming while keeping the beautiful, soaring jams intact.  Over the next few years, Reba would continue to evolve.  With each different performance, the song got better and the jams grew more and more unpredictable.  Some amazing versions of the song from 1994 and 1995  are 5/28/94, 10/18/94, 10/31/94, 11/25/94, 5/16/95 and the much listened to 12/31/95.  It wasn’t until 1996 where I feel that Reba took its next big step, and that was during Clifford Ball.

Clifford Ball, in itself, was a huge moment in Phish history.  There’s no getting around it.  Having said that, this Reba is special for reasons completely unrelated to Clifford Ball.  Besides the fact that this Reba was played in front of 80,000+ people who love Phish, it came with a heavy dose of perspective.

Ready to Fuck your Face on 5.8.93 (via Phish.com)

The jam is very delicate and quiet at first, with Mike and Trey matching on a progression softly and blissfully.  This would not last long, for the band stalls and searches for its next path, which is quickly found.  Fish keeps a steady beat as Mike and Trey get a bit louder in there progression.  At this point, the jam is still relatively soft and slow, yet with a sense of tranquility.  Soon Page will join in on the keys to keep the peaceful groove streaming through the audience.  Then, suddenly, here we go!  Phish hooks on to an all-out groove, the band steadily getting louder and building up together; a beautiful example of how Phish locks onto one another.  With Page beginning to play faster, the jam begins to speed up with Trey as they take charge.  Mike and Fish take a backseat to Page and Trey for a bit, while the two build off of one another.  The band does a good job of layering this jam and keeping it very dense, creating an aura of calmness.  This, for all intents and purposes, would prove to be the calm before the storm.  Trey finds a few licks he likes and toys with it while the band continues to get louder behind him, attempting to build.  The band is completely in sync at this point, with a beautiful groove hovering through the crowd.  Then we hit a plateau of repetition, with Trey repeating his playing backed by a fierce Page on the piano, as he tries to propel Trey into a deeper jam.  This was a make it or break it time, for the jam could have peaked or floundered.  It did neither…it soared.  Out of the repetition came Trey with a steady but driven build up.  The band sensed it, the audience sensed it…something was about to occur that would change the life of everyone there that night.  Then, it happened.  The music of life erupted.  Trey’s guitar was replaced with an instrument of an angel, for Trey hits the most gorgeous peak…a sound of purity.  The beauty this peak contains brings tears to my eye just by listening to it.  My hair stands on end, I get chills, and my thoughts are dissipated.  The band must have also felt this, and while keeping a steady groove for Trey, his peak continued to soar to uncharted skies.  I consider this Reba, along with the 3/22/93 and the 8/14/96 version, to be defining Reba jams.  This Clifford Ball Reba would conclude by going into Cars, Trucks, Buses. I mentioned earlier that this Reba gave a heavy dose of perspective, and if you haven’t picked up on what that exactly is I will help you out…in a song like Reba, there is no limit.  To go even further, I should say that even with the band Phish, there is no limit.  A band that breaks boundaries and performs limitless jams…it’s amazing to step outside the box as a Phish fan and realize just how extraordinary that really is.

The Clifford Ball Reba IS Phish for me.  People ask me what my favorite jam is, and I honestly couldn’t answer that…but I know that this Reba was a defining moment for me.  I first heard this Reba when I was in high school in Spanish class.  I had just finished taking a test, which I failed, and was listening to my headphones.  When Trey hit the peak I let out a “HOLY SHIT” amongst the classroom.  People gave me startled looks, yet I felt sorry for them.  Here they were taking a Spanish test, and my face was slowly being melted by the most gorgeous music I have ever heard.

Reba had just grown again, and she let off no indication that she was done doing so.  Through the years, Reba went from a straight guitar driven jam to a gorgeous melody that climbs the highest peaks while incorporating both Type I and Type II jamming.  At Clifford Ball, Reba hit her highest peak, and nothing was going to bring her down.

From 1997 and on, Reba held its standards and maintained its reputation as the beautiful peace-bringer.  Many Reba’s were simply rich in textures and strands of melodies while never actually hitting an enormous peak, which is interesting and beautiful all in itself.  There are many, many notable Reba’s from this era that I would enjoy reviewing for you all…it would just simply take way too long.  If you’re interested though, take a listen to 2/21/97, 8/9/97, 4/3/98, 10/15/98 and 12/31/99.

Bethel 2011 (J. Riley)

It wasn’t until 2000 where Reba would face its first adversary, and that was the band itself.  A hiatus, and indefinitely, the band announced.  Reba was being locked away while the band was taking time off.  It would prove to be only temporary, however, for the band returned to action on 12/31/2002.  That night, Phish fans were introduced to a new sounding Phish, a sound that many have criticized over the years, including myself.  Would this tear away Reba’s beauty?  Was Reba’s reign as Phish’s most beautiful weapon end?  We found out on 2/15/03.

All things set aside, including Trey’s playing, Reba did maintain its beauty.  Though many times the composed parts were botched, the jams still maintained a glimmer of the angelic torrent of notes.  Some notable 2.0 performances of Reba are 7/19/03 and 8/2/03.  I know, not many notable versions, but the band didn’t stay together long enough to play many more shows.  They quit for good, ending their triumphant run in Coventry, VT.  I was there for both shows, and was satisfied with the Reba, although many fans will argue that there is nothing noteworthy from those shows.

So the story goes, and we all know it…the band DIDN’T quit.  Back with a vengeance, the band returned in 2009 with better sound and a more inspired Trey Anastasio.  The band sounded worlds better than they did 5 years prior, but did Reba survive the time off?  The answer to that question is a qualified YES.

Many of the 3.0 versions of Reba are chaotic and lack the thunderous endings and dense clouds of melodies we’re used to, but they steadily have been improving.  We sit here in 2011, with Reba about to turn 22, and us fans couldn’t be any prouder.  3.0 Phish saw the band incorporating Type II jamming back into Reba at times, something they rarely did during their 2.0 run, if ever.  With each Reba played, the band is seemingly finding her beauty and bringing her back, attacking the jams rather than letting them decay.  If I were a betting man, I’d say that Reba will end up soaring to the highest peaks again like she did all those years ago.  I recommend the 8/14/10 Reba for 3.0 listeners.

Sounds change, people change and even Phish songs change…and with every change, Reba has endured it all and has shown us the beauty that IS Phish.

To end this tale of Reba, I will bring things full circle.  I brought up the man Samuel Insull to prove a point, and a very important one at that.  Having nothing means little when you have the best repertoire a man can have;  ingenuity, passion, imagination…and above all, an understanding on how to make things evolve, especially when you learn from the best.  Much like Insull, Trey Anastasio has all of these traits.  Reba started as an idea, with nothing more than a silly performance on October 1st, 1989.  With the band collectively being resourceful, they raised Reba from a simple jam song to a beautiful piece of art that we know her as today; truly, the finest in the nation.