The Return of Bliss in Phish’s Holy Trinity

Phish’s playing has been improving consistently ever since the first notes of Hampton’s epic Fluffhead rang through the smokey air. I’m sure many of OPT’s regular readers are well aware of my admiration over the recent summer tour–many agree, some don’t. I have discussed Phish’s (mainly Trey’s) rejuvenated improvisational creativity and Trey’s improved chops in articles like the recent, Unlike ’09 & ’10, 2011 is Amazing and The Feeling I Forgot: IT is Back; however, there is one aspect of Phish’s improved playing that I have not devoted much discussion to.

Phish’s open jamming has improved, yes–the Pine Knob Diseases, the Gorge Rock and Rolls, and the UIC Waves. Trey’s dexterity and overall rock playing have improved too–the Bethel Bowies, PNC Rock and Rolls, and the Hollywood Bowl C&Ps. But there is a very important subsection of Phish music that not many pay as close attention to, something I call ‘Phish bliss’. After recording typeIIcast‘s episode about Reba last night, I realized how I’ve been ignoring this important aspect of the band’s music in OPT articles.

Phish-bliss jamming is the non-open style of jamming. The you’ll find this type of playing mostly in Taste, Limb by Limb, and Theme. However, the songs just mentioned are simply the blissful middleweights. The true bad boys of bliss make up what I call the ‘Holy Trinity’ of songs: Harry Hood, Reba, and Slave to the Traffic Light.

Hood, Reba, and Slave represent the most gorgeous of Phish’s improvisational rock. The three often stay in the confines of their closed-ended structures but reach musical nirvana before ending. These three were some of the weakest-played songs when Phish returned in 2009–yes, almost all because of Trey–but are now starting to finally reach the heights we have grown to expect from them over the years. These are the songs that are responsible for most of my in-show epiphanies, so I have been monitoring them closely upon the Phish’s return, hoping for versions that would move me once again.

I think Harry Hood was probably the weakest upon return; and, although Trey is now able to correctly play the ‘heavy metal’ section, it still needs the most improvement. Worcester’s from 12/28 was certainly an exceptional version–that will be the biggest argument against mine. I concur that it was amazing, and, while it was the beginning of the new-era of Harry Hood, it could have been the BEST EVER version if Trey wouldn’t have dropped the ball on the ending. Think if that insane calypso jam flourished into a soaring end of Harry Hood–the way the song is supposed to end. It would have been the best ever. Hands down. The song was good because of everyone but Trey. Trey was the missing link–until 2011.

10.20.2010 (C. Gadzinski)

I wasn’t about to take Harry seriously until I heard Darien’s (if memory serves). Ever since the second night of Bethel, when I realized there was a new fire under Trey’s ass, I was watching for Trey to start taking Hood seriously. He is. The noodling and build in Darien’s, and even Alpharetta’s, is an extreme improvement relative to the two years’ before. Trey has the ability to control his tone much better now and he plays his notes in the song with more direction than before. We saw this summer that he was able to build the jam once again as he has been building jams in all types of songs better again (like the tension in Stash). While he’s not exploding past the finish line like he should be, I see it coming next year, especially since he’s not having this problem anymore with Slave and Reba.

End of Darien’s Hood

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I turned my back on Reba until Alpine 2010’s. The song had no direction, no impressive guitar playing, and NO peak until [for the most part] 2011. Reba, as I mentioned on typeIIcast‘s Reba discussion, was created to bring us euphoria. The delicate improvisation in Reba should either amaze us or bring a tear to our eye. Reba jams are to start out quiet–Trey could not play quietly (or with any tone control) until this year. He played the entire jam without changing the sound/tone of his guitar at all. He never released a barrage of notes in our face while building up to the final peak before Fish rolled off his high-toms into the punctuated finish–until this year.

I started getting excited after Alpine’s in 2010. The atypical Reba encore in Augusta later that fall showed me it wasn’t just a flash in the pan. 1.1.11’s told me the song was coming back for real.

When Phish returned to Bethel, I was anxious to see how the song would evolve from six months earlier at MSG. We had to wait eight shows for it to be played! I was certain that Reba would be played at Bethel–after all, it’s one of their centerpiece songs. Then I was certain it would come out to play at PNC. Nope. We had to wait all the way until Riverbend in Ohio for it to be dropped. Riverbend’s Reba is very under-the-radar. Riverbend ended a fantastic three-night run in the midwest, with the first two shows overshadowing it. The delicate jam in Reba built up to a wonderful final minute before finishing. It’s really worth listening to. I also suggest checking out the Gin and Tweezer from that show.

10.20.2010 (B. Greenfield)

The Reba that got all the attention this summer, and rightly so, was SBIX’s. The fantastic jam contained a nice Dave’s Energy Guide tease before they bust out the first whistling ending since 2009 (and Coventry before that).

Trey really seems to have been able to get in his zone with Reba lately. He’s seems to feel more comfortable on stage and I argue that’s transferring into the quality of his playing in jams that have inherently-patient beginnings. No need to rush–just play. Patient beginnings bring us right to one of the most classic Phish songs of all time: Slave.

I feel like a disproportionate number of phans write Slave off as a song that’s not very special or impressive. Anyone that thinks Slave is “meh” or “always the same” doesn’t know what Phish really is. I’d love for them to listen to 6/13/94’s, 10/27/94’s, or  7/4/99’s and tell me they are “meh”. Slave harnesses pure emotion and soul.

7/4/99 Slave [short jam clip]

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The extremely quiet beginning of the jam is always deceiving. Even for me, I still never believe that it will end with sweaty, screaming, and passionate lovemaking between man and guitar–and it didn’t for 2009 and much of 2010. Slave kept making me cry, for the wrong reason, until the glorious segue from Tweezer on 7/3/10. That was the beginning of Slave’s upward trajectory (that it’s still on). The segue alone was beautiful, but then the patient Slave jam that flowed into the blissful finish wrapped up the song duo in epic fashion.

Slave didn’t do too much for me for a while after that. I was disappointed. After Alpharetta’s there were some decent versions–many will cite Broomfield’s or Charleston’s as great versions. They’re definitely good, but after I got the taste of 7/3’s in my mouth, it’s like drinking a Natty Light after a Guinness. It wasn’t until NYE when I was blown away again. The thoughtful and soulful playing after an emotional Waste on an emotional night was beautiful. It made me frustrated, as did the following night’s Reba, that I was about to wait six months (at the time I had no clue) to hear another one.

2011 has contained the most-consistently good versions of the song during 3.0. Blossom’s Slave encore was the prefect cap to a perfect night. Alpharetta’s (this time 2011’s), though oddly-placed, was very well-played. However, no version in 3.0 comes close to comparing with Dick’s rendition on 9/2 (Essex’s on 9/14 in a close-second place). The Dick’s version followed the particularly inspired jam in the Scents and Subtle Sounds that preceded it. The inspiration flooded right into the Slave. This Slave contained the longest note of 3.0, and probably 2.0 (I remember Deer Creek 2004’s to contain a particularly long note, but I have not listened to it since the show I don’t think). After holding the same note for nearly two minutes, Trey blows into the glorious ending. It was one of the true highlights of the “S” show.

All the pieces seem to be falling in place for Phish right now. Trey’s playing is back, the band’s creativity is back, the silliness is back, and the inspired, “blissful”, playing is coming back. People shouldn’t only look at how good Tweezers are or how well-nailed Fluffhead is. There are plenty of other important aspects to look at in between the popular topics.

I encourage you to be skeptical of any “phan” that can’t appreciate at least one of ‘Holy Trinity’ songs. Listen to Trey in the beautiful parts of concerts, not just the talked-about jams. Listen to Page and Trey in the UIC Limb by Limb, the Alpine 2010 Theme, and the Riverbend Taste. Fully embrace all the good Phish have to offer us during the time they’re around. They go beyond the Dick’s Ghosts and the YEMSGs.

But, here’s to YEMSG 2.0