The Power of the Slow Song
Ever since Phish’s reunion last year, the band has gradually regained their stride in becoming the band they were before the first hiatus. Stepping back into the shoes of Phish was clearly not easy, but as the tours progressed so did the band. As time passed we saw “YEM” once again blossom into an intricate masterpiece – a major step from the sloppy mess which it had become. Each piece of the puzzle was required to fully recreate the experience that is Phish, and as they were put back into place the experience became whole again. But one of the missing pieces that was required to complete the picture was the power of the slow song – something that was missing in many of the sets in 2009 and 2010.
I was once told that it is far more difficult to play music slowly than it is to play it fast. One may wish to turn to Coltrane’s Ballads for perhaps the best example of this philosophy. Coltrane was a man who could play faster than almost any other. But on Ballads, he reserves himself allowing the beauty of the music to shine through the spaces between the notes.
This summer, on more than one occasion Phish (or more specifically Trey) tried to inject slow songs into places they simply did not belong. Rather than providing moments of beauty and grace, these songs sucked the energy from sets and were far from welcome additions. I won’t list specific versions – it’s all personal preference – but I think many will know the shows to which I am referring. However, as this year’s summer tour neared its end, the band seemed to rediscover the power that a slow song can behold.
Placement and execution are the most essential aspects when delivering a slow number. Slow does not mean a lack of energy, but rather a reduction in tempo. To to draw a comparison, when you’re driving it’s fun to go fast, but if you never slow down you might not get to enjoy the scenery around you. It’s the same in music – a set that constantly charges along is not as interesting as one that explores variations in tempo, and volume as well. The truth is, Phish has so many amazing slow songs it troubles me why they are not played more often. And that’s not to say the ones that were played are not great songs, they just weren’t delivered properly in most cases.
Injecting a slow song into a set is always risky; Phish sets carry an energy that travels like a wave from start to finish. Here’s an example, and one of my favorites, of a perfectly placed slow song from the Spartanburg Memorial Auditorium in Spartanburg, SC on 10.29.94. The band slips out of “Antelope” and into “Sleeping Monkey” in seamless fashion managing to contain the energy of the set. The wave comes crashing down following the solo in “Monkey” and the band slips back into “Antelope” riding the swell.
“Run Like an Antelope” > “Sleeping Monkey” > “Run Like an Antelope” (10.29.94)
I have a personal affinity for “Lifeboy”, especially when it comes out of an exceptionally heavy jam. There are numerous occasions where this has occurred, but one that I have always enjoyed is the “Ghost” > “Lifeboy” > “Bowie” from the second night of Alpine ’98. When placed in such a fashion between two major jams, a slow song can act as a guiding light between the two psychedelic adventures that surround it. I can think of few better examples.
“Ghost” > “Lifeboy” > “Bowie” (8.2.98)
Sometimes a slow song can stand alone offering a moment of beauty as strong as any heavy jam. These are moments when you look around and see the people around you with their eyes closed, taking it all in. Perhaps one of the best examples of this was the long-overdue “If I Could” from 6.28.00 at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmden,NJ. Few words can describe it better than those used in the 2nd edition of the Phish companion:
“The concluding jam takes the song’s metaphorical admonitions to heart; walking on water, soaring through the clouds, and taking the captivated audience on a joyful ride of bliss that quite literally evoked tears from many in attendance.”
“If I Could” (6.28.00)
In the second half of the second leg, Phish seemed to rediscover their ability to inject a slow song into a set without drawing all of the energy out of it. On these occasions, the slow songs acted as musical plateaus amidst the rock-centered sets in which they were placed. This idea first came to me in Alpine Valley when the band unexpectedly arrived at a perfectly placed rendition of “Dirt” during “Mike’s Groove”. This was a welcome break in a set that charged along without holding back.
“Mike’s Song” > “Dirt” > “Sneakin’ Sally Thru the Ally” (8.14.10)
Again, in Jones Beach Trey finally had his moment when he led the band into “The Horse” in a delicate segue that allowed the energy of the set to continue. After a summers worth of unsuccessful attempts, Trey finally managed to wind the jam in to “The Horse” > “Silent” after a rockin’ “Tweezer” without sucking the energy out of the entire venue.
“Tweezer” > “The Horse” > “Silent” (8.18.10)
[All photos provided by our good friends at Glowstickwars.com]