Whatever the Spirit Moves…
Phish shows ooze with improvisational energy, taking the listeners on musical excursions that seem to end far too soon. Constrained by curfews, travel schedules and other factors that exist when touring, shows are the best bite of Phish a fan can get. Most of the time.
This past weekend, while many of us were catching the end of the most recent tour, the anniversaries of nearly all of Phish’s summer festivals passed (IT was two weeks before). With Phish’s only announced tour date being a festival, the thought is clearly on the minds of a lot of people. The surroundings of a festival offer a great deal more space for the band to unleash their creativity, both in musical and other ways.
In the history of Phish, there have only been a few times in a live setting where the band has shed all barriers and simply jammed with no constraints. Removed from the normal concert setting, stripped of any song’s frame, the band uses their creative energy to guide them through new levels of musical discovery. As Trey said at Lemonwheel in ’98, “not a typical Phish set, whatever the spirit moves”. Each time, the result has been masterful, propelling the band into a new form of improvisation. Today, we look back on “The Flatbed Jam”, “The Ring of Fire” and “The Tower Jam” (the disco tent jam from the Great Went is not included because it’s not really Phish.) Each of these jams exhibits the rawest form of jamming the band has ever displayed live.
1. The Flatbed Jam
Perched upon the back of a flatbed, the band rode through the Plattsburgh Airforce Base during their Clifford Ball festival. With only the most essential pieces of equipment on board, the band entered into a simplistic, minimalist jam that features no identifiable lead instrument. The bands “stage” setup is reminiscent of their very early years. With Page on a Fender Rhodes only, and Trey using only his tube screamers, it is a rare treat. With all of the band’s “safety mechanisms” (as Trey likes to call them) stripped away the jam is able to reach musical peaks that could not have occurred otherwise.
Each band member creates a greater part of the whole by contributing a small pattern to the jam. Beginning as a soft outside jumble, the jam transforms slowly. Traveling through numerous sections of harmonic interplay, it constantly leaves a question unanswered. Bordering on eeriness at times, the jam delves into the dark before finally returning to a midpoint somewhere between light and dark. The jam sits in this state of limbo, building tension. The tension continues to grow as the song progresses, building up to a climactic release. Finally, once the band arrives at this point of melodic release, the soaring melodies travel through the night air and the band rides off into the night…
The flatbed jam was released this year with the Clifford Ball DVD package, for those of you who have not seen it. I highly recommend it. Here is a clip of the flatbed jam with some words from Trey.
2. The Ring of Fire Set
The Ring of Fire Set occurred at Lemonwheel in the summer of ’98. Summer ’98 ads said, “in addition to their other amazing exploits, will exhibit themselves in a TEMPLE OF FIRE!”, which was finally revealed at the festival. After finishing “Tweezer Reprise”, Trey went on to explain the rundown for what was going to go down for the rest of the night, and the concept behind the temple of fire.
The crowd took part in some candle dipping which then became the lights for the stage, there was no lightshow. The concept according to Trey was that the fans light up the band with energy, and so the symbolic flame from the candles that the fans had made was a representation of that. Before the candles and torches were brought out to surround the stage and crowd, Trey said the following:
“Phish will now perform in a ring of fire, for those of you who have been wondering what that was all about. This is what it is. We’re going to create a Ring of Fire starting with your candles and going out with tiki torches so that we’ll be encircled in fire. Our music that we’ll be playing is really intended to be almostt kind of in the Brian Eno philosophy of ambient music. I’ve always kind of had this dream of being part of the turning off the lights and having the glowsticks going. There’s a very cool feeling when we’re playing up here and it’s dark and you feel like people are just wandering around taking in the scenery and you’re kind of creating a different kind of music than you know, we get up here and make the big bang out of things. So, you know what I’m talking about.”
The ambient jam that followed is one of the finest pieces of Phish music I can think of. Featuring a fully equal-part jam that pours with melodic improvisation. Just under an hour in length, this jam is a set of Phish showing off what they do best. This is what every fan craves and dreams of.
The set itself begins in a simplistic, minimalistic style, similar to the flatbed jam. However, the direction and peaks that this set reaches are unmatchable. This jam features Phish in their comfort zone, the stage, and with all of their tools. The music we hear sounds like Phish rather than just pure ambiance. Leading through peaks and valleys, no individual member of the band carries the jam, each member plays an equal role in contributing. The result is one of the finest hours of Phish. Ever. For your listening pleasure, the entire ambient set is available for stream and download below (Listen at 9:00 for one of Trey’s nicest melodies ever, and at 34:45 for a great natural funk).
3. The Tower Jam
At the IT festival in 2003, Phish snuck out to the old air traffic control tower under the cover of the night. With lights controlled by Chris Kuroda, and synchronized dancers suspended from the tower, the band launched into a secret late night set. Atop the tower, the band started off with an alien-like ambient jam full of layered effects and siren like sounds alerting the campgrounds of something Phishy.
This jam is perhaps the best thing that came out of the band during the ’03-04 period. Going back to their roots of pure improv, and fueled with the outside factors that were effecting the band at the time, this jam is heavy and dark. Exploring all realms of outside music before crashing back, at some point during the Tower Jam, liftoff is definitely achieved. Similar to the Ring of Fire Set, this jam is an hour long, and is a fully equal part jam. The major difference between the two is the increased use of effects in the Tower Jam, thus making for a far more outer-worldly experience. In terms of the atmosphere the Tower Jam was quite a spectacle with incredible lighting and dancers synchronized with the music and lights. The tower jam was released with the IT Festival dvd, and can be downloaded at livephish.com. I have posted part of the Tower Jam from youtube below.