Writing about writing about Phish

Here’s a really cool interview with Wally Holland, the author of the new 33 1/3 book on Phish’s “A Live One.” It’s like 60 Minutes on acid.

I credit Holland (“waxbanks,” to those who travel in certain circles) as one of the great writing influences in my career. He wrote a book a few years back about his life in the fall of 1997, where he transposed Phish’s revolutionary developments during that tour with the tectonic shifts going on in his own personal life at the time and since then. It’s an incredible book. (There’s a part toward the beginning where he essentially maps the band’s growth from mid-80s Burlington bar band to the Most Important Touring Band in American Cultural History. It’s dynamite stuff. Succinct and illustrative. If I had my copy handy I’d share a bit with ya.)

Even more than that, though, Holland’s phish.net show reviews became canon for me as both fan and young writer. Much like how David Foster Wallace described why he began inserting footnotes into his fiction, Holland is a master of using technical devices to fracture reality. (Also like Jon Fishman’s polyrhythmic breakdowns deep in the second set, say.) In particular, I’ve noted his hyphens and dashes and parentheses: These tools fundamentally change how the reader interacts with the material. It can be done poorly, or it can be done well — and that’s one of the great wrestling matches between writer and pen. It’s conversational, and it’s something that I’ve found very useful in my own work.

An example, from his 12/6/97 writeup:

“I tend to forget that the first set of this show even exists, because the second set is – maybe, I suppose we should say ‘maybe’ – the finest set of the finest year of Phish. Like the 11/17 show, this one’s got everything: knife-edge cow funk, classic rock homage, eerie soundscapes, that ambient-roar ‘space jam,’ and the whipcrack segues that would all but disappear a couple of years later. Twelve years after it went down, it’s the intense focus that gets me – the coherence: there are no dead spots, no throwaway moments, just continuous shared creation. Even Phish’s unfortunate musical dick joke (Sleeping Monkey) can’t dispel the breathless energy of the jam out of Tweezer. The suite of four tunes that opens the second set feels like an old-school Tweezerfest a la 5/7/94, though of course we don’t get back to the Tweezer theme until the set-ending Reprise. It’s all of a piece – Izabella is just a coalescence of the ‘space jam,’ Twist spills out of Izabella’s stop/start funk outro without breaking that loping rhythm, and Piper feels like gathering up shattered pieces of the three songs preceding it.

“Despite wandering freely between styles and tempi, the second set of this show feels like a single piece of music – certainly as cohesive as the previous week’s Runaway Jam in Worcester. It doesn’t have the upbeat catch-all catholicism of a show like 11/26/97, but it’s not meant to: this is a single statement. And I guess there’s a first set in there somewhere – probably right before the second set, now that I think of it – and if you’ve got an hour to spare you can probably listen to that one too. I hear the band’s decent.”

And from 12/7/97:

“Spectacular show, well deserving of SBD treatment. When 30something fans get nostalgic about the late 90’s, partly they’re longing for their college/grad-school freedom and irresponsibility, but mainly they’re thinking of astonishing setlists like this one. Phish doesn’t do first sets like this one anymore. Damn, just *lookit*: there really are four genuine segue arrows on the *first set* songlist, AND a couple of ridiculous bustouts, AND an old-fashioned Ice sandwich, AND an out-of-nowhere Tube Jam reprise that had phish.net readers excitedly/confusedly scratching their heads on 12/8/97 (I know I was). And that’s just the first set. The second frame is just ridiculous. And how good was Fall ’97? This superb show was just the lite’n’easy followup to the cataclysm in Michigan just 24 hours earlier.

“Get this show, obviously.”

For the first time again: Revisiting a late-90s pop gem

I spent some minutes opining on the legacy of Third Eye Blind’s late-90s stuff earlier this month. (They played Nautica May 29, and it was fantastic, but that’s not really the point.)

And so here’s another quick thought that I want to move on in greater detail. Or, if not a coherent thought, a heartfelt tangent for whom it may concern.

Probably the bulk of people who I’m connected with on [Facebook] were like 10 when the band’s self-titled debut came out. AND IT WAS AWESOME. Semi-Charmed, Jumper, How’s It Gonna Be, even London was accessible as one of the edgier tunes on the album. Graduate, duh. Losing a Whole Year, etc. But the themes on this album (most albums? most music?) tend to elude even the worldliest 10-year-olds, far as I was from that qualifier.

If you turned up the volume on Jammin’ 92.3 in your parents’ Chevy when Semi-Charmed Life came on but then sort of let the album drift from your consciousness and further back into your stash of CDs, then you might have missed out on some of the stuff Stephan Jenkins was doing with his lyrics. You had to grow up first. Or at least *age* a little. (Then again, maybe I’m projecting or something.)

College was a great time for these songs — a bunch of 10-year-olds from the late 90s aging into an amorphous bar scene and still having at least *the hits* to belt out at closing time (including, separately, Semisonic’s iconic Closing Time). Then, amid the haze of, say, a Court Street apartment living room, the deeper cuts would make a great soundtrack. Even as the band dropped a new album sometime around junior or senior year, the contrast between those (fine enough) songs and the early stuff just further illuminated the latter.

I dosed myself pretty heavily on the album over the years, now and then finding that a song here and there had burrowed into a strange place in my psyche. Time will learn you a few things, if you let it.

I remember very specifically that I got the album for my 10th birthday (thanks Mom & Dad!), unwrapping the telltale shape on hardwood floors in a home we had just moved into. Fall of 1998. Got my turn at being a “new kid” that year in school. But I wanted to hear Semi-Charmed Life and Jumper. It was upbeat and poppy enough to cling to; I couldn’t have told you what I thought the music meant at the time.

Each song on that first album is smothered thick with metaphor, which is one of the great things here. Jenkins was never talking about *the city of* London. The alcoholic weight in God of Wine is a placeholder (same for the meth bender in Semi-Charmed Life). Vampires, narcoleptic trips, graduation (well, that’s an easy one), the sink full of dishes, etc. etc. Distinctly tough shit for a kid to grasp in fifth grade. But yeah, it was upbeat and poppy on the surface.

It actually feels odd to enumerate that sort of shit — the signals I’ve weirdly homed in on — because how does a reader or a listener relay what they pick up in poetry? I guess, as I’m writing this, I’m falling back on the old ecstatic problem with art: The musician ‘encodes’ his/her message, I ‘decode’ it over the years, then ‘encode’ again in this highly unnecessary little thing here, then you’ve gotta ‘decode’ my riff again and either fire up Spotify and revisit this nigh 20-year-old spark of an album or ignore it altogether. Either way.

I think the main thing is that this is very much an Important Album. It’s a druggy, moody, depressing bitch of a thing to work through. It genuinely rocks at times, yeah, but it’s an extremely heady collection of songs (and I’m not even touching the instrumentation here, the time signatures, the effects, the guitar tones, the percussion, the jangly late-night lounge math tucked into each measure). I think I know where American culture is filing it away, but I’m confident that it’s another misstep in how most people treat music.

The show was great last week, by the way. Concerts are terrific because they’re so transitory. “This is only happening right now!” The great thing about albums, though, is that you can listen to them for the first time over and over and over…

(Excerpted from an ongoing series/book pitch)

Thoughts on Phish’s 2014 Summer Tour

The end of summer tour often brings about a sort of mild depression — one mingled gently with nostalgia and that bittersweet sense of victory over… something. “But there are no more summer shows!”* Of course, the overriding emotion here should really be one of ecstasy and wonder. Beneath the tremors of post-tour blues, it is.

Phish, likely and by all serious accounts the greatest band in the world, delivered a towering 22-show run across the East Coast and that sliver of the Midwest we call Chicago. This was a fierce bastard of a tour, building definitively off the successes of last fall. Gems are strewn about each show, and it’s almost impossible to fully calculate the magic that took place this summer.

I’m borrowing slightly from a .net thread in this review. Note that the three shows I actually experienced live were DTE and the two Porstmouth shows. I’ll attempt to avoid “I was there” bias, but I will say that, goddam, Portsmouth N2 now stands as my favorite show I’ve seen live.

Live in Portsmouth, Va.
Live in Portsmouth, Va.

Best Opener: Gumbo, Northerly Island, July 20: Of course, this jam merely set the stage for the Alpharetta Gumbo, which ranks mightily among the best jams of the tour. The song, thick with funk and imaginative lyrics, is a terrific opener – regardless of improv quality. There’s a great bit where the band fades away (Trey drifts into outer space), leaving Page to dismantle his clav with all due intensity. The outro jam during the last minute is icing and leads to a fine Runaway Jim and, in sum, one of the best shows of the summer. Note that openers were unusually strong this tour.

Best New Tune: Fuego. As potent the message within Wingsuit now is to me, I’ve got to hand this one to Fuego. It was the Summer of Fuego, for crissakes! “Fueg.0!” Phish nailed it when they penned this anthemic rocker and they happened to pin the young’un up on a few jam charts in just 14 performances (see SPAC, Mann, Portsmouth). The band toyed around with a number of different placements this summer, but I feel that the second set opening slot may be the choicest grounds for a fiery Fuego.

First Set Jam MVP: Bathtub Gin, Randall’s, July 11: This is one of those rare 18-minute, type-II beasts that comes ripping through a show’s first frame. And Gin, among the band’s historically Great jam vehicles, has offered up some top-notch playing this summer. The Randall’s outing was the peak.

Second Set Jam MVP: This category of course boasts the broadest playing field, so I’ll run a top 5 here. It’s hard to call this exhaustive, of course, so I’m picking jams that represent various forms of the band’s improvisatory mastery.

  • Light, Randall’s Island N3, July 13: The peak in this jam is just astounding. And it follows a brilliant jazz excursion led by Fish that ropes in a brain-buzzing Mind Left Body jam. So much to love in this one. That it’s packed in between the tour’s best Chalk Dust AND Tweezer? Well, that’s just peachy.
  • Fuego, SPAC, July 4: The first giant Fuego of summer was a real doozy. Mann was longer and more complex and Portsmouth was just downright funkier, but the SPAC Fuego stands tall with its majestic Trey-led peak. I don’t think it represents the band’s best *playing* of the year, but the structural integrity of this jam is a wonder.
  • Limb by Limb, SPAC, July 3: The circus explodes toward the end of the jam, as Fish lays down some cowbell mania and Trey bends his strings to the point of suffocation. It’s a truly mesmerizing jam and, more than anything, just straight-up unique. Nice > into the tour’s first Winterqueen, too.
  • Ghost, Northerly Island, July 20: The wah-ska vamp around which Trey centers this jam is aural crack. Consume at your own risk. Not the most mind-blowing jam of the year, but, good lord almighty, this one feels good. I heard the Weekapaug that follows ain’t too bad, either.
  • Harry Hood, Mansfield, July 1: I sorta hesitated to toss this one on the list, but its stature among the tour’s opening show grants it something of an iconic placement in 2014. Hoods have been getting weird ever since last year’s Hollywood Bowl outing, and this one takes that idea into deep space. Very psychedelic throughout, this jam set the tone for a summer tour that would go well beyond whatever limits were thought were in place since the band’s return five years ago. Thank ye heavens for this summer! And this Hood!

Second Set Jam Suite MVP: This is another excitingly big category. Let’s do a top 3.

  • Fuego -> Twist -> When the Circus Comes, Charlotte, July 25: Beautiful playing. The way Trey and, most importantly, Fish usher in the Twist is just divine. Not much else to say, really. This one leaves you without words.
  • Free -> Tweezer -> Simple -> Tweezer -> Free, MPP, July 27: Aside from the Tweezer jam, the NICU jam, and the initial realization that – oh, shit! – the band was casting another Tweezerfest into history, this little segment defines the joy of the second night at MPP. Simple is divine (Trey!) and the thunderous re-entry of Free is a triumph. Above all, MPP N2 shows the band at top segue form.
  • Mike’s Song -> The Wedge, Ghost -> Weekapaug Groove, Northerly Island, July 20: I already mentioned this Ghost in the jam MVP slot above, but this Mike’s Groove as a whole is really some kickass playing. In a summer that boasted all sorts of unconventional Grooves, this one reels in a genuine type-II Wedge jam and funked-out Ghostapaug frenzy taboot. Awesome.

Show of Tour: Randall’s N3, July 13. It’s really hard to make a solid case against this one. It’s the conventional wisdom as the tour concludes, but there’s no denying this show was unrepentant Phish destruction. From the opening Sand to the towering second set (28-minute Chalk Dust jazz madness -> “peak of the year” Light -> swamp monster Tweezer!), this one stands very tall among the rest of its field.

Sleeper Show: Portsmouth N2, July 30. I think you could make a nice case for MPP N1 here, as well, but the second night of Portsmouth (again, one I saw live) presented top-notch jamming via a real left-of-center setlist. The venue forced low attendee numbers (it holds only 6,500 or so) and it was a midweek show in a tour that boasted otherwise vanilla midweek shows. But Phish brought some ancient form of magical heat to the second set on July 30. The opening segment of the second frame – Fuego > Gotta Jibboo > Meatstick > Piper is just out of this world. And to follow that up with Billy Breathes? Wow.

Best Encore: Fluffhead, Alpharetta, Aug. 3. It was a divine end to the tour. When the opening notes to Fluffhead began at the conclusion of Alpharetta’s emotional, though fast-paced show, it was almost unbelievable. And four weeks after the SPAC debacle, Trey nailed this tune quite deftly. (I think Portsmouth also picked up the encore goods via N1’s Wingsuit > The Squirming Coil and N2’s Lizards.)

Diamonds in the Rough: Let’s conclude with just a brief list of the summer’s unsung heroes. These jams aren’t as noteworthy as the MVPs or the third-quarter anchors that everyone tends to discuss the morning after. But these cuts should be listened to at all costs.

  • Ghost, Mann, July 9: A sloppy script in the first five minutes is followed by utterly gorgeous jamming, particularly at the seven-minute mark and beyond. Trey’s coils trills around the other guys, and Page helps lift the band into the stratosphere.
  • Carini -> Ghost, MPP, July 26: This little segment featured some of the summer’s most majestic playing. A truly beautiful Carini leads into pure rock in Ghost, which I’d say was the summer’s MVP jam vehicle.
  • Waste > Backwards Down the Number Line, Portsmouth, July 30: This is such a nice pairing after the scorching improv from earlier in the set. It was a very emotional moment along the Elizabeth River that night.
  • Down With Disease, CMAC, July 15: There’s been plenty of talk about the mercurial Chalk Dust Tortures this tour, but the CMAC Disease travels through many forms with a much more interesting approach. There’s esoteric funk, major-key bliss, softness, aggression. This jam kinda has it all — a very psychedelic experience.
  • Boogie on Reggae Woman -> Run Like an Antelope, Orange Beach, Aug. 1: God, I’m loving this segue. It’s funky and it pairs two songs that you might not have thought would flow well together. A smooth transition into ‘lope is a fine, fine thing.

* Four weeks until Dick’s!

The Guitarist

Michael Bay plays guitar at the epicenter of the Cleveland blues world. As a mentor of sorts to the scene around him, he works both on- and off-stage to ensure a thriving music community around the region.

Last summer, I spent several weeks hanging out at his band’s weekly blues jams and talking about life over bowls of pho. The story that came out of all that shows a man who’s spent his life giving back to those around him. Bay is not only an unbelievably talented guitarist, but he’s also a empathetic, caring person – the kind of soul that makes this world spin ’round.

An excerpt:

There is a very old saying in the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism that tangos off the tongue like so: “Before enlightenment: chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment: chop wood, carry water.” Bodhisattvas have been riffing on that one for centuries.

In present-day Cleveland, Ohio, Michael Bay is working through a simple chord progression, methodically embracing the neck of his Fender Telecaster. Not so much the Buddhist he may outwardly appear, he is rather a guitarist. He is practicing. And as the shadows shrink back against the walls of his Tremont storefront on this quiet Tuesday morning, he will practice some more.

“I’ve been lucky to be in the right place at the right time,” he says, looking up from his instrument only to confirm how deeply he means this. The clean tone of his guitar contrasts against his raspy voice, and the words hang sweetly in the air. A cat named Goober perches on a nearby windowsill and surveys the neighborhood, occasionally casting a glance back at Bay, who is still flexing a bluesy lick.

The guitarist might be talking about how he met his girlfriend Denise Graham, about whom he speaks with Neruda-inspired love. He might be talking about how the guitar hanging on his wall right there—that Orville Les Paul he’s treasured for years—made its way back to him after being stolen one gray afternoon in Lakewood. He might yet be talking about a Wednesday night in 1994 that altered the musical landscape in this town forever.

Surely, though, luck has quite little to do with any of this. Bay’s been practicing since he was a young kid from the neighborhood whose name no one knew. And the practice is everything.

“It will become what it becomes if you let it,” he says, discussing the music he’s working on. Or is he talking about life? “Be in this moment now and listen—and let it evolve.”

Bay
Bay

http://www.clevescene.com/cleveland/the-guitarist-michael-bay-and-the-music/Content?oid=3648101

Note: I’ll be featuring a longform story each day for the foreseeable future on this website (some will be pieces I’ve written, others will be stories I’ve read by others). “The Guitarist” is one of my favorites from my own archives over the past year. Tomorrow, my latest story, “The Would-Be Kid King of Cuyahoga” will be published online and featured here.

Recently played

Here’s what I’ve been listening to, with brief annotations:

Bass by Keller Williams: I’m working on a feature about Keller, set to publish in time for his Dec. 28 gig here in Cleveland. The focus leans heavily on his latest album, Funk, and his work with Virginia soul band More Than A Little, which is all really great. And all of his albums are totally worth checking out. But Bass just hits the spot. “The Sun and Moon’s Vagenda” is such a nice opening track.

T.E.T.I.O.S. by Papadosio: For a sprawling double-disc album, this one is mighty cohesive. When I’m in the mood for electronic stuff, Papadosio nails it.

March 16-20, 1992 by Uncle Tupelo: Probably my favorite Tupelo album, though I most often find myself sifting through their catalog for those short-but-sweet Tweedy tunes (“Wait Up,” “Screen Door,” “Acuff-Rose”).

A Love Supreme by John Coltrane: My personal, if random?, follow-up to Miles’ Kind of Blue in my search to know jazz music.

Return to Cookie Mountain by TV on the Radio: A seminal college selection for me. “I Was A Lover” refracts memories of Athens every time I listen.

Tin Cans and Car Tires by moe.: Still relatively new to moe., even after all these years. I’ve got a lot of their shows on hand, but their studio stuff is really great and keeps pulling me in.

Oblique Orchestra and the yadda-yadda of jazz

(Telescope note: This article was originally written in May 2012. It was never published.)

The drummer crosses his arms. And as the sax and the bass continue to work off each other, the drummer sits in contemplation.

But what does he think? What keeps him from the rhythm?

He grabs a nearby piece of paper, glances at it, but doesn’t read it. He tosses the piece of paper to the side and it drifts toward the bass player’s foot. The bass player does not break his concentration. The fingers on his left hand work the top of the neck with furious, angry passion. With his right hand, he grabs a nearby bow and crashes it into the screaming tonalities of his four heavy strings.

The drummer continues to stare straight ahead, arms akimbo now. His face is etched in stone.

Before bela dubby closed, the coffee joint hosted a wide range of local musicians.

Oblique Orchestra, one of Cleveland’s most renowned free improvisation jazz groups, is holed up in the dying days of a local coffee joint. If one happened to walk in on the place in the dead of winter, perhaps late 2011, for instance, one would see an array of artwork on the walls. Some would have called it “garbage.” Some would have been right.

In the coming weeks, the place will be converted to a taco stand of sorts. And, as the rumblings among the regulars put it, there ain’t gonna be no wedding. No more jazz, they say. No more noise.

At least not the kind of noise the audience is privy to tonight.

The drummer, who one might mistake for an ancient gargoyle, lifts a stony arm and lets a well worn brush caress the snare. The sound is barely perceptible. No doubt the bass player heard it, though. He may be lost on some other plane altogether, but as his fingers tackle the e, a, d, g, he’s still tuned into the jangly meanderings of his comrades. The drummer’s brush, the sax player’s gentle coo.

Before long, however, that sax player’s gonna melt the wind. His tone is smoky and it calls to mind visions of dark alleys, undocumented meetings with people who have no names. It’s sultry, this ascending lack of structure. And the audience is on in the secret, whatever it is.

In the near future, the bearded priest sitting next to me will quietly choke: “That was incredible.” With a certain eye, one would discern a stray tear on his cheek.

And as the sax and the bass continue to wail against each other, it’s time for more hard drink. It’s time to get lost again.

If there’s one thing that these cats can teach us – and it’s not altogether clear if there even is that one thing – it’s that the only way out is in.

The only way through this mess is to dive right into the ecstasy of it all and enjoy the fallen fruit. Coffee, tacos… It doesn’t really matter what the others do with their time.

The jazz of life will go on.

Listen, the drummer’s tap-tap-tapping the hi-hat now. And isn’t that the beating of your heart?

Dispatches from summer tour

(Cross-posted from The Telescope on Tumblr.)

Still coming down from two FANTASTIC Phish shows this weekend… After a stunning Saturday-Sunday, PennsylvaniaOhio knockout, I’m still kinda reeling from the madness imparted by our dear friends from Vermont.

As with much of the band’s music, these two shows are marinating joyously. I’ve worked my way through Burgettstown’s second set (my call for the highlight of the pairing) several times, but I’m still attempting to comprehend the pure zaniness of Blossom’s two-set affair.

June 23, 2012

Let’s start with the cream of the crop: Saturday night’s Mike’s Song>Simple>Light>Weekapaug Groove>Seven Below, an awe-inspiring run of tunes that Heather Vaselaney quickly saw fit to dub “Mike’s Simple Light Groove.” Needless to say, there wasn’t really anything *simple* about this outing. From the depths of Mike’s Song, the band quickly upped the ante during Simple’s absolutely from-the-recesses-of-outer-space soundscape. Ebbing into the relaxing air of Phish’s well known ambient jam mindset, the second set of Burgettstown gets downright heady.

By the time Simple was wrapping up, Trey started in on the opening chords to Light, which is quickly becoming one of the starts of the era. I’m still uneasy about the “fizzle out and start anew” approach to transitions, but, in retrospect, this move into Light seemed to work quite well. And, as hinted moments ago, anytime Light begins, it’s safe to assume that the crowd is in for a wild ride.

Light, and the positively delicious segue into Weekapaug Groove, offered the high-water mark of the evening (and, quite possibly, the weekend). “Plinko” jams lead into deeper and deeper waters as the boys stretch their legs and open the song into an airy, seemingly ceaseless patterns of sounds.

Seven Below was an absolute surprise and it dished up more than its fair share of wonderfully upbeat jam segments. The set moved onward to a chill-down moment in Bouncing Around The Room. I’ve seen this song placed deep in the second set twice now and, honestly, I dig it. It’s always a delight to hear the drums begins and hearken back to past history. Bouncing is a classic and fans would do well never to forget that fact.

With a heated Julius and a downright emotional Slave To The Traffic Light to cap things off, this set is *must-hear* stuff. Check it out. Now.

And stick around for The Lizards in the encore slot. Yet another surprise that had everyone cheering, going absolutely nuts and smiling from ear to ear. Awesome.

I’ll jot down some thoughts about last night’s Blossom meltdown shortly. Right now, I’ve got that sick-nasty Tweezer humming through my headphones and it’s wonderful.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: You’d better hope on tour now. This band is on fire and they’re just not letting up. There are amazing runs all across the country in our future. Jump on board the train and enjoy the ride.