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]
Phish kicks off their fall tour tomorrow night with a show at the Austin City Limits Festival. The band soundchecked one of the songs written by Trey and his new songwriting partner Amanda Green, “Burn That Bridge”, who he has reportedly been working with for the past few weeks (while his old pal Tom Marshall went off to work with The McLovins). They seemed to be working on the song, and were said to have played it multiple times. It was also reported that the members of Phish played with at least one of the other musicians featured on the lineup. Possible guest appearance maybe? Stay tuned…
Last week, we shared some of the magic that goes on during Phish’s soundchecks. This week, we continue with some more, memorable soundchecks. In their early years, they used their soundchecks to test their instruments, run through a few numbers, and that was it. As they progressed, and required less warm-up, they began to use soundchecks as a time to experiment, to try new things. Playing covers that have never graced the stage, exploring spacey sounds in extended forms, soundchecks became a unique time for Phish to let loose, and be themselves. Today we will look at more special moments from Phish soundchecks, including the incredible hour long ambient soundcheck from IT. Also, we have shared the mother-load of sound checks for download, enjoy!
1993.7.18 IC Light Amphitheater, Pittsburg, PA
This entire soundcheck is enjoyable. It has significance also, as an abbreviated version of “Guyute” was played. The song did not make its live debut until over a year later on 10.7.94 in Bethelehem, PA. The band can be heard working through Trey’s new composition, offering a rare look at the band learning a new number. Following “Guyute” the band plays a 16 minute jam, featuring Trey singing “Lucy’s in the subway with daffadils”. A great piece of music full of Trey’s ’93 style shredding.
“Jam” 7.18.93 Soundcheck
2003.7.12 Gorge Amphitheater, George, WA
Known as the “Cone Head Blues”, this jam is reminiscent of the Providence soundcheck. The sound check begins with Trey’s palm muted notes riding over-top of the funky groove. Trey’s soloing has an added jazzy twist, with phrasing similar to Coltrane. A great, funky jam to throw on when looking to dive straight into a jam.
“Cone Head Blues” 7.12.03 Soundcheck
2003.8.1 IT Festival, Limestone, ME
There have been few times in Phish’s history that have featured an hour long improvisational set. Many of us dream for the day that the band takes the stage and simply jams for an entire set. This happened once, during the Ring of Fire set at Lemonwheel (discussed in our article Whatever the Spirit Moves).
IT acted as the band’s platform to fully regain their ‘creative spark’. While many aspects of 2003 are looked down upon, the band was clearly in an evolutionary process, experimenting with new musical concepts. Attempting to push their music forward, the band used IT as a chance to fully develop their new sound.
The soundcheck begins as an ambient layer of sounds that slowly unfold into a spacey, psychedelic jam. Evoking the free spirit that exists in the open environment of a festival, the band let loose and created some very interesting music. The jam follows through several sections with Trey softly gliding above, before diving into the dark. The jam progresses toward a bluesy groove which Mike then graces with the lyrics to the rare Little Feat cover “Skin it Back”. There is a brief pause before the band dives back into some ambient psychedelic improv. Clearly trying to summon the creative forces, the band takes an extended outside journey for the rest of the jam, making this one of the most memorable soundchecks. Note: An excerpt of this soundcheck was used for the repeating clip on the IT DVD (listen at 10:50).
“IT Soundcheck” 8.1.03 Soundcheck
Livephish has also released some of the best soundchecks, most notabley the soundchecks from Alpine 7.8.00, Darien 9.14.00, Nassau 4.2.98 and Coventry 8.13.04 (if you have not heard these I highly recommend them). Here are some soundchecks, for download, from over the years:
Peering behind the scenes of Phish provides a look at the band in their raw, playful form. During shows, they are compelled to put on a show, to deliver. Thus, they cannot fully be themselves. Thought they have tried to make things as relaxed as possible on-stage, there are certain elements that prevent the band from simply playing as they want. Fans want to hear certain songs, certain covers may not go over well in live shows etc. As a result, Phish has often used their sound check time not only to test their equipment, but also to unleash their playful spirit, and try new things. Often including fun, joking lyrics, sound checks have been known to lead to some incredible jams. Sometimes, the band decides to bring songs from the sound check to their live shows, other times they are simply used as practice vehicles, or fun covers.
At times, sound checks provide a glimpse into the bands’ personal jamming style. While studio sessions such as The Victor Disc offer a raw look at the band in a studio setting, the sound checks offer a live experience. When arriving early to a venue, one can often hear Phish’s sound check from the distance. For example at Darien lake the band was heard working through sections of “Sugar Shack”, and at SPAC they were overheard playing MGMT’s “Kids”. Even though most sound checks are kept private, some have been officially released and others have been leaked through various sources. Recently the band released the sound check from Hartford, showing the playful spirit that exists before the show starts. Over the next while, we will present many special moments from Phish’s sound checks. Today, we share three of the finest moments, showing the magic that takes place behind the curtains.
1992.3.19 Palace Theater, New Haven, CT – Andrew
This sound check shows the band experimenting with outside, fusion-style jazz. What begins as a series of drum beats, leads into a full-on jazz exploration. Page is the first to join, adding Hancock like organ fills. Trey then adds a furious jazzy, modal solo to the mix. This is a great listen to Phish in their early jamming days. Heavily influenced by jazz, the jamming style is noticeably different to the examples that follow. The jam is dubbed “Andrew” as Trey furiously begins yelling that name toward the end.
Listen to 1992.3.19 “Andrew”
DOWNLOAD the entire 1992.3.19 Sound check (featuring “Shaggy Dog”, “Andrew”, “Mound” and a discussion of the show’s setlist).
1998.4.4 Providence Civic Center, Providence, RI – Providence Sound check
From the legendary Island Tour, this sound check shows the band letting loose with a killer jam. More straightforward than many of the intergalactic ’98 jams, this sound check features a heavy funk groove which Trey shreds apart for the first few minutes. After locking into an interweaving pattern, the band carries the jam to a higher level with each member following the same melody. This sound check enters into the same groundbreaking territory that would unfold throughout the entire Island run.
Listen to 1998.4.4 “Providence Sound Check Jam”
1999.12.29 Big Cypress Indian Seminole Reservation, FL – Big Cypress Sound Check Jam
An ambient exploration into musical discovery, this sound check is a must-listen for any fan of Big Cypress (which I assume most Phish fans are). Big Cypress lacked an open-ended, free-form jam such as this one. Rather, the show consisted of song-based jams that lead into exploritory worlds of their own. This sound check, however, is built from the ground up, on the spot. The masterful ambient composition, layered with effects makes for a great listen. Very much in the style of the Big Cypress jams, the band takes an intergalactic approach, which goes from ambiance to an intense, energetic jam.
Listen to 1999.12.29 “Big Cypress Soundcheck Jam”