Petrichor

Originally Performed ByTrey Anastasio
Appears On
Music/LyricsAnastasio
VocalsTrey
Phish Debut2016-10-14
Last Played2017-08-05
Current Gap4
HistorianJake Cohen (SMOOTHATONALSND)
Last Update2017-02-01

History

From practically the beginning of their career, Phish built their catalog on Trey Anastasio’s classically inspired, long-form compositions. Through-composed, suite-like songs such as “Fluffhead,” “You Enjoy Myself,” “Reba,” and “Divided Sky” carry the spirit of 1970s progressive rockers like King Crimson or Genesis, and show the influence of Trey’s mentor, the jazz-influenced contemporary composer Ernie Stires, along with the experimental spirit of Goddard College in the 1980s. 

“Petrichor” is the latest addition to this repertoire, debuting as a Phish song on 10/14/16, as the opener of their Fall 2016 tour. However, “Petrichor” underwent a long journey to get to that Phish stage in North Charleston, SC. Like other Anastasio compositions such as the opening to “Pebbles and Marbles” and “Time Turns Elastic,” “Petrichor” began its life as an orchestral piece, composed while Trey was working on his Broadway musical Hands on a Hardbody. As per phish.com: 

“Anastasio began composing ‘Petrichor’ in November of 2012. In his spare moments, he began working out the melodies, using his iPhone to capture hundreds of voice memos. Over the course of two years, that early inspiration evolved into an intricate, thought-provoking opus.”

Trey debuted the orchestral version of “Petrichor” on a three-city tour in September of 2014, performing with the Oregon Symphony Orchestra, the Seattle Symphony, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Named for the earthy smell that follows rain on dry ground, “Petrichor” has an almost pastoral, Debussyan quality at times. It is essentially a concerto for electric guitar and orchestra, since Anastasio is the soloist while the orchestra provides accompaniment, countermelodies, accents, and coloration. 

As a Phish song, fans first encountered “Petrichor” on Big Boat, which debuted a week before the song’s first live appearance. The album version is Phish’s greatest fusion with orchestral sounds, as the Big Boat track features winds, strings, brass, and percussion in addition to the four members of Phish. Although the orchestral version was arranged by Don Hart, Anastasio himself arranged and orchestrated the Big Boat version. Trey also provided lyrics for melodies that he previously played on guitar.

Trey Anastasio and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, “Petrichor” 9/26/14 Los Angeles, CA

Like other songs on Big Boat such as “Breath and Burning” and “Friends,” there is an apocalyptic quality to the “Petrichor” lyrics, hinting at the severity of a changing climate: “And oh, oh, oh, and the rain came down and washed it all away / The time is here, the day is new / We’ll find a way back home.” Later in the song Trey is even more explicit, singing “And the clouds will open and the seas will rise … And the glaciers will melt and the trees will fall.” These lyrics took on a deep resonance during their first performance in North Charleston, which had just suffered flooding at the hands of Hurricane Matthew a week earlier.

“Petrichor” consists of six sections connected in a suite-like fashion. It opens with an airy melody that Fishman plays using a bell sound on the Marimba Lumina along with Page above Trey’s arpeggiated guitar figures, creating a wide, expansive sound. This makes “Petrichor” one of two songs to feature a composed, rather than improvised, Marimba Lumina part (the other one is “Mercury”).   Part of the lightness at the opening is because the melody is set over a different harmony than the key of the song. Eventually the opening melody repeats with Gordon now firmly grounding the music in the home key while Fishman plays a more rhythmic marimba part.

The opening section also introduces the idea of Trey playing rising and falling melodies without much accompaniment as the connective musical material between sections. These solo passages make perfect sense when considered in terms of a classical concerto, the genre in which “Petrichor” began its life, but they seem odd and out of place in a Phish song.

Following this opening section, at 1:24 (all timings reference the Big Boat album version) Fishman moves back to the drums and begins a section with a much higher degree of rhythmic drive. This section is also perhaps closest to some of Anastasio’s earlier compositions in its use of rhythmic irregularities and chromatic melodies, but is full of uneven phrase lengths and frequent sudden shifts between styles within the section. Just as the section feels as though it is gaining a foothold, the band switches rhythms, often interrupting what seems as though it will be a regular four- or eight-bar phrase. As a listener we are never able to fully orient ourselves within the metrical framework, and as such it feels wandering or random at times. Yet it is, in fact, highly ordered, with large degrees of motivic cohesion where one fragment of melody or rhythm reappears in many different parts within the section. 

This second section also introduces one of the signature rhythms of the song, played by Trey at the very beginning of the section: a jaunty, syncopated figure that reappears frequently, sometimes slightly altered. In the closing passage, we hear powerful full band chords with drum accents and fills, all while Trey is playing more long, ascending lines. This last part does offer a nice bit of closure to the section which overall feels rather disjointed.

The third formal section (beginning at 3:18) is somewhat more like a conventional song because it sticks to even four-bar phrases, has a verse-like internal repetition, and the first appearance of lyrics. The entire section features a single drumbeat from Fishman—the same lilting, cymbal-heavy pattern with a snare drum on the fourth beat of each measure that was heard for one of the parts of the second section—as well as a new guitar arpeggio figure. Gordon is relatively inactive during this part, mostly just providing two single notes of harmonic support that adds to the lilting, unmoored quality of this section.

On the second pass through the “verse,” and more than four minutes into the song, Trey finally sings “And oh, oh, oh, and the rain came down and washed it all away.” On the next line, “The time is near…,” he adds in more of the ascending melodies from the end of the second section, again connecting these sections. The band then repeats the verse one more time, now with more vocal harmony from Page and Mike. Instead of moving to the “time is near” lyric, Trey plays a beautiful bit of soloing before returning to “find a way back home.” A meandering guitar part accompanied only by Gordon’s bass notes then leads into the song’s fourth main section at 6:21.

This section is the song’s emotional core, a slow, dramatic, gradual build towards a frenzy of drum activity at the end. At nearly half the speed of the opening sections, it features a lethargic triple meter in 6/8 time. The section features a sixteen bar chord progression played using an arpeggiated figure that incorporates fragments of previous melodies, with Fishman playing a sparsely accented pattern all the while maintaining his feather-light touch on the ride cymbal counting out the six beats. Page plays the melody the first time on grand piano with Trey adding single color tones, and then Trey plays the melody the second time through along with Page in counterpoint, creating a beautiful interweaving of sound. On the third pass, McConnell and Gordon play an aggressive triplet figure which changes the meter to a faster 12/8, while Anastasio plays distorted double bends. Halfway through this third pass, Fishman joins in with an energetic flurry of drums, re-establishing the beat. The section ends with Trey playing a circular guitar figure high on his guitar in a triumphant, climactic gesture.

In a song full of abrupt transitions, the sudden shift from the fourth to the fifth section (at 9:14) is by far the most jarring. From that emotional triple meter climax, the song then seems to switch gears entirely with a fast duple meter rock beat and country-rock guitar rhythm. Here the influence of Trey’s Hands on a Hardbody songs feels most audible, as this section could almost be an outtake from the musical. Still, it offers a catchy beat and lyrics (“And the clouds will open…”), and makes for a good dancing opportunity live in concert. Yet that dancing is short lived, as the section is cut short halfway through what feels like a second “verse” of this section. Trey then plays his longest unaccompanied solo passage, almost like a cadenza, before landing on a trill. Once that trill is established, the full band offers a pattern of loud chords with cymbals.

Finally, the sixth and last section begins at 10:48 with a gentle and almost childlike descending melody, with Page playing an incredibly high note on the organ and Fishman coming in with a quiet, gentle rock beat. As a countermelody to this descending figure, the band sings “And the rain came down” over a standard eight-bar phrase twice, then plays a jazzy turnaround figure that feels like a hackneyed Broadway gesture before repeating the entire section. After two passes through the lyrics, we get the first bit of improvisation in the entire song, with Trey soloing over the entire progression. 

In all the live versions so far, the jams have remained relatively tame. Following the chord changes exactly without any deviations, Trey does create some drama and arc by moving higher up the neck on each pass through the chords, increasing the number of notes and level of distortion on later passes. The 10/19/16 version from Nashville features some “David Bowie”-like circular riffs at the peak, while the 10/24/16 Grand Prairie version has some exclamatory guitar yawps at the end. The end jam also gives Gordon the most opportunity to add movement and drive to the song, as he assumes a more active role. Still, no version has yet built to the same kind of exultant and exuberant peaks we often get from a “Divided Sky” or “Fluffhead” jam. After the jam, we hear the closing lyrics one more time, another solo guitar passage, and then the descending turnaround figure is extended down through the octaves to a final A, ending the song after about sixteen minutes. 

“Petrichor” had its most conspicuous appearance opening the third set as part of the New Year’s Eve stunt on 12/31/16 at Madison Square Garden. Similar to its album version, the song featured Hamilton percussionist Andres Forero, second keyboard player Jeff Tanski adding percussion and string sounds, and the TAB horn section of James Casey, Jennifer Hartswick, and Natalie Cressman who also sang backing vocals. The filled-out sound and obvious practice gave the song a boost of energy, delivering the finest live version yet, especially with the horns and vocals during the third section. But its most memorable feature was the elaborate scenic design by Phish NYE veteran David Gallo that began in the fourth section with a theatrical downpour of rain. As thousands of tiny “water marbles” fell from the light rigging to simulate the deluge, a line of faceless dancers and jugglers with umbrellas told a choreographed story about individualism realized and then destroyed, which turned into a full Broadway rock dance routine for the fifth section. During the sixth and final section, color-changing umbrellas descended from the rigging on cables and did their own choreographed dance, with the song eventually leading into the countdown to midnight and a balloon drop that included commemorative rain drops and “raining cats and dogs” inflatables. 

12/31/16 ”Petrichor” > “Auld Lang Syne” > “Suzy Greenberg” New York, NY

“Petrichor” certainly has many fans who are drawn to the song’s powerful music, and gained many more after the dramatic New Year’s version. But like some of the more recent long-form Anastasio compositions, it also has detractors. Part of this might be the way that it is quite different from Trey’s earliest compositions. A piece like “You Enjoy Myself” was composed with a classical orchestra in mind, but Trey didn’t have an orchestra to perform his work. He had Phish. So instead those pieces came to life on the instruments of a rock band, which accounts for much of their wonderful idiosyncrasy. With “Petrichor,” Trey wrote music for an orchestra to perform. This meant that certain orchestral techniques, such as playing with subtlety and tone color coupled with the lack of drum set, direct the compositional style.

Another significant change between earlier long form Trey compositions (up through “Guyute”) and later ones (starting with “Walls of the Cave”) is that the earlier pieces featured much more harmonic dissonance, angular chromatic and occasionally atonal melodies, polyphonic textures, and drum parts that follow the melodic instruments. There are a variety of factors that might contribute to this difference, including the shift in Trey’s songwriting during the later 1990s towards simpler song forms and melody, best represented by the songwriting trips with Tom Marshall that led to songs like “Waste,” “Dirt,” and “Farmhouse.” Or maybe the move to more groove-based drumming meant Fishman follows the melodic leads less. Or perhaps as Trey moved further from his academic training in atonal, dissonant writing, his compositional sensibilities matured to concentrate more on subtle chordal shifts, singable melodies, and formal unity between sections of a piece.

Unlike those earlier compositions, “Petrichor” has more melodic and rhythmic unity among sections, which has led some fans to hear the song as repetitive. A suite such as “Fluffhead” features a very different style in each section. In contrast, many of the sections of “Petrichor” seem to share a general style of consonant harmonies, light drums, and singable melodies. Part of this is a result of the unique circumstances of its creation, with Trey recording melodies in a fragmentary fashion. Yet this may also have been because he began recording these melodies during work on Hands on a Hardbody. As such, many of the melodies from “Petrichor” have a musical theater sensibility. 

Set placement is especially crucial for “Petrichor.” The opening lacks the excitement and energy that accompanies songs like “Divided Sky,” “Fluffhead,” or “You Enjoy Myself,” which means that some fans feel as though any energy previously built up in the set can be lost at the mellow start of “Petrichor.” It has mostly appeared in the first set, serving a role similar to “Divided Sky” as a mid-set long composition. 

While many fans have drawn comparisons to the maligned “Time Turns Elastic,” another long-form 3.0 composition that ate up a lot of set time and did not receive the same welcome as Trey’s ‘80s compositions (so much so that Phish stopped playing it after 2010), there are significant differences between these two songs. “Petrichor” has far more distinct instrumental melodies, in part because “Time Turns Elastic” was originally written on an open-tuned acoustic guitar and so many of its parts were extrapolated from finger-picked chords rather than individual melodies. “Petrichor” also has far fewer lyrics and lyric sections, aligning it more with Trey’s earlier pieces. Regardless, Phish is clearly content making “Petrichor” a regular part of the rotation, appearing at all but one stop on its debut tour of Fall 2016 and ushering in 2017.

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