, attached to 1987-08-21

Review by waxbanks

waxbanks Let me admit a personal bias up front: I've never gotten much out of Phish's pre-1993 music. I used to keep a December '86 tape around (decent Whipping Post as I recall?) but I've never replaced it with mp3's, and don't really feel any need to. In fact I only half a tiny handful of pre-1993 tracks on my hard drive at all. I'm not really in a position, therefore, to judge this show relative to others of its time. (@SlavePhan has done a superb job of this anyhow.)

Phish were a different band in 1987 from the institution they've become - freer in some ways, endlessly curious, arrogant like young guys tend to be, funny, brash, quick on their feet, and most importantly *new*...not a lot of miles on them, emotionally or otherwise. (This was only their second show outside Vermont, remember.) It's interesting, I think, to compare their late-80's material to their more fully-developed early-/mid-90's style - to try and hear the throughlines running between their immature music and what came after.

The first thing I notice about this show (v0 mp3 from hoydog23's spreadsheet) is the *sound*: Page has to rely on his early electric instruments, particularly the Rhodes(?), which muddies the ensemble texture somewhat. Really underscores just how far they came as collective creators over the years - and how not-really-rock they were in those days.

Quite a nice AUD all things considered though!

There's also the matter of the vocals, which are (as they say) 'cringeworthy.' Not for technical reasons, really: the problem is that they sing the entire show out of the sides of their mouths, as it were. Most of the lyrics here are stupid or silly, the musicians know it, and - crucially - they're compelled to apologize, in a way, by ironizing or parodying the performance.

It's hard for me to focus on the music when the band is delivering the songs with a smirk; this is a problem throughout the show. The Curtain's climactic vocals are undercut by cheesy falsetto and childish screaming; Trey sings Wilson in a totally misbegotten rube's accent; Golgi, Camel Walk, McGrupp, and (of course) Sanity are sung with Trey's weird early mix of sincere goofiness and a dose of self-conscious embarrassment.

When I say there were a comedy-rock band in those days, this is part of what I mean. The songs were part of it, extraordinary as they were and are.

The jamming too. Maybe most of all.

Trey has spoken many times, over the years, about his/Phish's early improvisatory approach, which was always *supplementary* to his compositions: to have each band member play at all times as if part of a single Great Chord, with everyone's ears tuned to the vibrations of the preceding, diabolically complex written music. This has the major effect of always pulling the band toward ensemble order: four-bar and sixteen-bar phrases, hard group downbeats to resolve rhythmic suspensions, diverging from and then coalescing around the going chord (progression), thickening and lightening the rhythm bed in close concert with one another, and of course their famous ability to change dynamics as one. They play like a flock of birds, nominally leaderless, all as one.

But in the early days they didn't have the same level of responsiveness, nor the mature ability to sit with an idea and let it dictate its own expression and evolution. If you've read 'The Princess Bride' you know what I mean: when the boy Inigo challenges the six-fingered master swordsman to a duel, it's over quickly without any uncertainty as to the outcome, but for a few seconds the master is terrified, because even in that hopeless minute the boy's genius shines through. That's how Phish jammed in those days: impetuously and impatiently, able to provide thrills without ever sending your heart soaring.

Even their funk grooves had air quotes around them.

Just listen to this version of Funky Bitch, which @SlavePhan has singled out for praise. I don't hear anything particularly wonderful here, quite the contrary: Trey doesn't seem to know what to do with the blues, his clever ideas (like building tension with a plodding triplet line in his third-last chorus) cut against the groove instead of flowing from it, and there's no sexiness or swing at all in his playing. (In a song called FUNKY BITCH, for Christ's sake!) He sounds like a tourist in someone else's genre. They play so well, but...why?

Same category of thing happens in Harpua, where the rhythm patterns sound overstuffed and clunky like one of the old space-filling Hey exercises instead of, y'know, a groove; in the modes-by-numbers solo on Curtain With; in the gradual breakdown of the Camel Walk jam; in the rote nature of the Flat Free playing, which is the kind of thing Phish fans like me have (for years!) inexplicably cited as evidence of Phish's 'jazzier sound'; in the related weird practice of playing a haunting song like Swing Low Sweet Chariot as bright midtempo swing.

...

...but...

...

The good parts are stunning, as they tend to be with Phish, though in a different fashion from what latter-day fans (like me) would think of as normal.

The show's highlights reveal a band about to break through an invisible musical barrier into something extraordinary. At this point Trey's band had picked for themselves an interesting musical problem: how do you fully integrate true four-sided rock-idiom improvisation into these complex, formally ambitious compositions without descending into pure randomness.

Their solution has become famous: the 'Hey' exercises, the Oh Kee Pah ceremony, the 'become one chord' style, the democratic musical approach, the really unprecedented level of group *listening* that all four musicians demanded of each other. At this point in their history, though, after just a few years together, their solution was still more proof-of-concept than emotional wellspring. But even after a quarter-century, just hearing the concept proven is still a *thrilling* experience.

Indeed, *thrill* is the emotion Phish have always been able to share: their own, their fans', the sheer joy of musical communication. This first show at Ian's Farm is genuinely exciting, even to me: it overflows with promise.

The jam out of Clod, for instance, is a perfect demo of Phish's improvisatory approach. The ear-boggling intricacy of the composition carries over into rich group improv, which grows in complexity and intensity without losing the basic Clod sound. The Skin It Back jam sounds like an attempt to harness the energy of a Dead/Allmans (or Trey Band!) improvisation without the benefit of genre cues: an experiment in shaping new music at high speed from scratch, not as solo statement or remembered social experience, but as stochastic sonic architecture. The aim isn't 'beauty,' nor is it 'fun' exactly; it's a bit like a private musical algebra, all about balanced group *sound*...

All the music is very very *busy*, of course, as Phish's jams almost invariably tended to be prior to 1997; even the McGrupp > gnarly Stir It Up jam provides little space for relaxation. (Y'know, a couple of generations of players came up revering logorrheic genius John Coltrane, seeming to forget that his most important mentor was lyrical-minimalist genius Miles Davis...) Trey can't resist the urge to insert stupid pseudo-Rasta 'rapping' into the long long reggae jam, but the onset of David Bowie restores the band to a more familiar order, and the song journeys far from its moorings while keeping to Phish's comfortable 1970's jazz-lite jam-rock milieu. The competence on display is impressive as always, but more exciting is the way the band is starting to surrender to (ahem) a musical energy much larger and more organic than their own identities. At its best moments, the music stays busy but doesn't seem it: it gets 'tight-loose,' containing lots of musical information while still moving fluidly. The long third-set jams point in this direction, which the band would explore in the mid-90's.

Indeed, for a couple of years Phish played seemingly effortless 'tight-loose' music every goddamn night, all night. Not in 1987 though.

Trey is a skillful melodicist but his solos usually stay away from traditional one-man 'here is what I feel' statements in favour of a sort of musical building-block approach: he's always trying to feed his playing back into the collective sound, the atmosphere, the groove. As much a rhythm player as a lead voice. That approach is already paying dividends at this early stage. The density and well-wrought quality of the jams is surprising; even if the band had yet to learn the value of space and sparseness, they were doing a lot of work in their own clattering early-maximalist style, led by Trey's fluent, voluble guitar playing.

But the fetish for musical order can get in the band's way at times. Quoting 'Tom Sawyer' in the middle of the Bowie jam makes sense given the patterns they're already playing, and that's exactly the kind of whole-cloth construction Trey delights in, but what difference does it make? Playing those off-time arpeggios later in the jam makes for a neat intervention, but hadn't 'Remain in Light' been out several years when this show was played? Weren't white minimalist art-rock nerds allowed to play music from and for the body at this point, rather than just the head?

It's still exciting, engaging music.

They say everyone's got 2,000 apprentice pages to work through before writing real poetry. This is apprentice work by Phish, even if their formal ambitions and extraordinary natural talents marked them as special from the start.

Yet you can't fault them for being who they are - now or then. The prickly brilliance on display at this show, in the third set especially (as (self-)conscious intention dissolves), would find its sensual and empathetic complements as time passed. It's certainly possible to take great pleasure in this music, as @SlavePhan obviously (and generously) does, but I find it a pleasant warmup to Phish's soul-searing mid-90's music, when the band's nervous edges and whipsmart self-referential intelligence started to take a back seat to a full exploration of their emotional palette.

All this said, I should listen next to some Amy's Farm stuff, which marks an intriguing creative midpoint between this band, barely old enough to drink, and the rock quartet that could bring a storm to Red Rocks and set off nuclear explosions night after night in 1993.

Thanks for spending time on this show, @SlavePhan - it's given me a lot to think about and I'm glad to have finally heard it, even if I'll never be a diehard 80's Phish fan.
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