Today is Not Yesterday (and Cannot Be)

The following originally appeared on the blog:

Today starts Phish summer tour 2010, and I can’t help but get sucked into the whole “Phish 3.0” debate: are they still any good? Can they still jam? Will there be any notable performances? Will 2010 be able to hold a candle to Phish 1.0 shows?

My friend and colleague ZZYZX recently pointed out that Phish has seemingly been misremebered for their long, exploratory jams, when in reality, they didn’t “jam” much until the late 90s. He also points out that perhaps there’s less work required to hit the jam stride, the sweet spot of the jam, so to speak.

I’ve been sucked in a few times to debates with people who maintain that Phish isn’t the same band they used to be. Of course this is true, they’ve got decades more experience, they aren’t trying to find themselves like they were in the 80s, and they’re at a different point in life. But what’s also true is what got us here may not get us there, to borrow a business motivation phrase.

When I hear the complaint that Phish doesn’t write like they used to, citing songs like Reba and Fluffhead, I’m bothered.  Phish does attempt songs like those still: see Time Turns Elastic. Walls of the Cave. Waves. Pebbles and Marbles. The challenge is that these are new, and new is never as good as old when it comes to music.

Let’s look at Time Turns Elastic. I’ve advocated for Time Turns Elastic before, but let me just highlight some of that here. Those noobs who make smarmy jokes suggesting TTE is only for pee breaks annoy me. Time Turns Elastic is a musician’s wet dream: I dare you to try to count it out. It’s got definitive sections, much like Fluffhead. It’s got a happy ending jam a segment, like The Arrival. It’s got some fun, warm sections, like Reba. And some tough-to-figure-out, intricate composed sections a la Divided Sky. But for whatever reason, there is a large group that simply doesn’t like this masterpiece. So much so that it was voted the worst Phish song in a recent poll on Meanwhile, the return of Fluffhead had phans creaming in their drawers. That doesn’t make sense to me.

I’m forced to maintain that older equates to better for too many. We’ve heard Fluffhead a thousand times, it’s part of Phishtory, and it reminds us of a simpler time. It evokes emotion in a way newer songs just don’t… yet. I think in time, should TTE become a rarity, it will get its due. In the meantime, Fluffhead was first.

There’s a certain pride, with a band, in being there first. I only heard of Phish for the first time – that I can remember – in 1992. By then, several of the staff had already seen more concerts than I have since. I wonder sometimes if I would have even gotten into Phish if it was 1988 when I first saw them. Or 2004. The state of the band when you first took interest in them undoubtedly shapes your judgement of them in all subsequent phases of their career. But I think we’re unique here, because we have so much of the history captured on tape for posterity… and repeated analysis. I think that many of us are brainwashed because we don’t revisit the totally average shows nearly as often as the epic shows of days past, so we start to believe that the quality used to be higher. We compare every show we attend now to the highlights of days past. Dip that ladel in the tub, and your creation will yield disappointment – the purple paste of “Phish 3.0” being a letdown. It’s not. It’s exactly what anyone paying close attention should have expected. It’s the natural evolution of Phish.

Phish is no longer a bunch of kids trying to define themselves. They’re a bunch of 40-somethings who have experimented and found their comfort zone. They’re evolving, but at the same time, narrowing in on what makes them happiest and will sustain them longest. They like a variety of music and styles and like variation in their setlists. They like adopting wacky covers, sometimes only once (e.g. Rhincerous, Layla, Golden Age, Terrapin Station). They like playing their classics. They like shelving songs and surprising audiences with their unexpected return. They like treating remote audiences to something special. They’re not a jam band or prog rockers or hippies or old men or young men – they’re amorphous. They’re not just performing, they are creating an overall experience.

In 2009, Phish honed their skills and ambitiously aimed for flawless execution. People complained about lack of variety (AC/DC Bag to open seven shows in 2009?), but Phish played 248 different songs last year, a full third of their entire twenty-five plus year repetoire. What will 2010 have in store for us and will it appease the masses?

Stay tuned to to find out.