Soundcheck Jam at Watkins Glen
Phish’s festival soundchecks have, over time, become something of lore. Starting back in ’96 at The Clifford Ball, the band used these coveted soundcheck slots as somewhat of a primer for the following days’ musical happenings. Free to explore, Phish is able to stretch out as they would have in the endless days and nights spent practicing above Languedoc’s garage in Winooski, VT. With ample time to set dials and knobs to their suited positions, they become more like extended jam sessions displaying Phish’s sound and direction-du-jour. In short, Phish gets to be Phish. And we get to listen.
So when the quartet took to the stage to test their equipment on Thursday afternoon at Watkins Glen, fans quickly gathered around radios and nearby fences surrounding the concert grounds. Situated on the very site of the Grateful Dead’s legendary 1973 soundcheck, the music carried an added significance, especially for your humble narrator. And adding to the excitement was the not so distant memory of Phish’s soundcheck at Festival 8—arguably one of the finest pieces of music since the band’s return. All factors combined, this was a special moment and Phish rose to the occasion.
Many wonder why the band chooses not to stretch out as often in the live setting as they used to. It’s an issue Mike Gordon recently addressed in one of his hotline messages, and one that has followed the band ever since the first shows of 3.0 were played at Hampton in ’09. But during the soundcheck, Phish opened the doors to its current sound, or direction—or whatever you want to call it—and for a short time, we heard what it was like for the band to simply…jam. What followed were two of the most prolonged and transcendent pieces of music in recent history.
The first segment opened the soundcheck, growing out of a section of spacey noodling before giving way to a groove that could have come straight off the rarely mentioned Victor Disc. This jam opened the eye on Phish’s recently explored psych-jazz sound—Trey taking more of a rhythmic role, Page’s organ way up in the mix, Mike digging in on a near-walking bass line (Jon was already a jazz drummer)—and for over 10 minutes, they grooved on this sound exploring its tunnels and arroyos.
“Soundcheck Jam I” (6.30.11)
But the true magic came after the quartet had warmed up, tested their instruments and ran through a few typical soundcheck numbers. Perhaps in preparation for Saturday night’s secret set, Phish shot straight for the cosmos, treating us to the special soundcheck we had all hoped and wished for (some of us maybe have even dreamt of it).
Channeling the energy from the Dead’s soundcheck “jam,” Phish patiently brought us into their world showing that nothing is missing from the band in this day and age. No lack of drugs, no lack of intent, no lack of ideas. Comparable to previous festival soundchecks, albeit different, this was a section of music that—and I hate to call it this—was purely 3.0.
The jam breaks into several sections over the course of 20 minutes, each exploring a distinctly different sound. The first starts as a gentle, melodic section with Trey playing some outside, phrygian patterns (avec whale-call). It noodles around, eventually flowing into a dark, Krautrock-like jam with Page hammering it out on Rhodes and Trey looping and reversing drones atop. Several measures of ambient space follow, before the second, Fishman-led, segment emerges.
Without hesitation, Mike immediately latches onto one of Fish’s trademark odd-time signatures and, before long, a new song, somewhat reminiscent of a blusier “Ghost,” comes to life. This second jam, which could have been plucked from an fusion-era Little Feat groove, would be considered, by most, to be more of a “Type I” jam with Trey soloing above a chord progression. But without a song to depart from, it was simply Phish showing one of its many faces, and one that they seem to enjoy wearing more frequently at this stage in their career. For the next portion of the jam, it was a literal bliss-out with Trey soaring above the ultra-tight groove until it came to a somewhat abrupt finish.
For many of us (Deadheads), the moment the Watkins Glen rumor came on the Phish radar, our minds immediately turned to the soundcheck. While it may not have counted for “stats purposes” we were able to sit as the band openly improvised without any limitations or restraints. The festival soundchecks are the full moon to Phish’s inner wolf, and each time they rise to the calling. This time around, it was no different.
“Soundcheck Jam II” (6.30.11)
Download the Watkins Glen Soundcheck via the Phish Spreadsheet here.
[Psych art via Max Capacity. Click the picture for full effect]