PHISH FRIDAY: Bucket Full of Thoughts on Wingsuit

After taking two years off from the costumed-set Halloween holiday tradition they had famously crafted, Phish returned to Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City for a three-night run and started it off with arguably one of THE most important shows of their 30-year career. In one of their Phish-iest moves yet, one that will be debated by the community forever, Trey, Mike, Page and Jon collectively decided to cover their future selves in a show they called Wingsuit, debuted as twelve new songs from an unrecorded album that nobody but the band had heard before. Songs so fresh, we now know, that the band said they may change once the recording sessions start in Nashville with Producer Bob Ezrin this week.

Just before showtime as the news hit social media, our crew gathered outside and began talking about this epic Halloween decision. Some still thought it could be a prank and rumored frontrunners Rock of Ages and Eat A Peach would still get the treatment. But once I read the inside of the Phishbill I could tell this was the real deal. Phish was excited to share what they had been working on, and with everyone already donning a costume for Halloween — friends, family, diehards in town — they couldn’t wait any longer to show us their future selves.

Put your wingsuit on…

For me personally, seeing “new” and fresh music from the band is my favorite aspect of religiously following them from state to state, even if it sucks at the time (paging “Dr. Gabel”). It means they’re experimenting, which usually breathes new life into their old catalog and playing style, so ultimately even something that falls flat at the time can still be a win win. The best thing about the collective whole of Wingsuit is that, simply put, it didn’t suck. It’s actually some of the best debuts in a long time, with the most collaborative music the band has ever created. It was obvious from the very first note, from the jams to the lyrics, that this fresh material is going to lead them to even grander things. The sky is the limit for where these can go in the studio. It was a collective band breath of fresh air, not regurgitated Trey Anastasio Band songs or something left over from the Joy sessions (ala Party Time).

The note in the playbill that stood out to me and upped my excitement before the show:

Mike had some journal entries of his favorite live Phish jams that he remembered from over the years, so we went back and listened to them, and re-learned some of those spontaneous musical moments, reconfiguring them to be parts of the beginnings of songs.

FINALLY! I’ve always wondered why this wasn’t the norm whenever they were working on new material. The band’s live shows are a bottomless treasure trove of unique jams. Why not utilize that to it’s fullest? Phish is certainly my favorite act but their studio albums are always lacking the energy of their live performance and because of that, they fall flat. This time, after almost thirty years of making music together, perhaps they’ve found the magic key somewhere in Mike’s jam journal to help to bridge that gap (or at least I hope they have).

The playbill laid out the beginning of their process — Vermont, fireside chats, Vlad the Impaler, and good food. The second part was bringing producer Bob Ezrin on board, whittling the songs down from a larger list. Then finally, the third part would be making us part of the process, live on October 31st. A test run of sorts with the disclaimer that some of these songs might not even make it past stage three. Awesome!

And it feels good…

Thank you, Phish. It can’t be said enough. The band gave us what I’ve always wanted — to somehow, someway, be included in the process. If I need to wear a wingsuit to do that, it’s on. Some could say I was drinking the kool-aid off the boardwalk and maybe I was, but not only did it taste great at the time, it also delivered on the promise of a healthy and nutritiously sweet future.

Halloween wasn’t just about the new material. It was about the health of our favorite band, their creativity, and their music as a whole. Their re-energized aura was on display all summer and fall and especially in Atlantic City on that boardwalk. Many people were saying that the band sounded so together this year, more so than they could remember — but why? We couldn’t pinpoint it at the time.

The reason was Wingsuit. No reliable source had leaked out anything that the four band members were even hanging out, let alone rehearsing together in that famous Vermont barn. I was actually a little peeved at Phish for publicly stating there would be new material on the horizon in 2013, and here we were, in October and going into the end of a fall tour, with very little to show for it.

The trick was on us all year long. The treat was everything that the crowd had actually been asking for: more Type II, more jams, more “Tahoe Tweezers”, etc. And that’s what they delivered: the entire second set played out like an 82 minute Type II Jam. The mystery was consistent all set long, even with the tracklist from the Phishbill right in front of our eyes. We didn’t know the average song lengths, the changes, the lyrics, the jam segments. We didn’t even know when to clap — or WOO! Surprises at every single turn.

It was like riding a newly-constructed roller coaster blindfolded. Or being pushed up the edge with nothing but your wingsuit handy…

And gliding away, you fly where you choose

I will play devil’s advocate for a second in saying the band may have escaped all negative reaction by covering another band’s album like most were expecting on 10/31 and then debuting Wingsuit the next day. But I’m happy they did what they did. A huge declaration and reminder for all of us to always expect the unexpected and surrender to the flow. Phish got to where they are by doing what they want, when they want and how they want. Back in Chicago during “Harpua” they told us they’d do it their way, and they’ve certainly lived up to that.

If they had picked a cover album, again, there is a large percentage that would still have been disappointed. Phish took a risk on Halloween and knew the consequences. They take a big risk each time they cover another band’s album but this upped the ante in my opinion. Remember the Velvet Underground Loaded hangover? So they did it their way, like they always have.

Even if you despise the new music, at least take solace in the fact that the funk jam in “Theme From the Bottom” likely wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for the band’s new direction. Every song in in their catalog gets a re-charge when the band is this confident. Hell, they took a jam from 1993 and somehow worked it into the new album according to the Phishbill. You couldn’t keep the smile off my face after I read that. Anyone care to guess which song?

It’s only you, be you, cause you’re the only one

On October 31, 2013 the band presented themselves in their most vulnerable state since March 2009, but in an entirely different way. No other high-profile band could have done this, or even thought to attempt this: let’s debut an entire album’s worth of never before heard material, live in concert and via webcast, to a group of fans who hang on their every note and notoriously despise “new” songs.

Phish certainly tricked us this Halloween, but then treated us to their newest freshest creation in Wingsuit. Included within were some very forward thinking pieces of the band’s music that I can’t wait to hear live again while simultaneously wishing that other pieces of the would-be album get re-worked or certain pieces dropped entirely. All par for the course when you are playing the game of Phish and watching them debut new material.

To recap, here’s what the band debuted:

  1. The title track “Wingsuit” has some very poignant lyrics about the current state of Phish especially “Nothing lasts, nothing stays…Caught in this procession of unchanging days.” Plus Mike uses his now infamous drill at the end. The drill we all thought could be a hint leading up to the Halloween album was exactly that.
  2. “Fuego” will likely make an immediate impact on setlists and already has the support of the fans, even the biggest of critics. Lyrics about Vlad the Implaer, Rollin’ with Diego and a built in jam segment that already pops live. This has second set written all over it.
  3. “The Line” as Trey noted was based on Darius Washington Jr., who missed two free throw attempts in a very important basketball game that would have landed his team in the Big Dance. After the show in an interview with the Memphis Flyer Trey remarked “It really spoke to me on a personal level, because I’ve gone through some difficult moments in public, too…Those tough moments can ultimately become gifts though.” The background vocals really worked in this one too, elevating the song from TAB crossover territory to distinctly fresh Phish.
  4. “Monica” is one of the catchier tunes Phish has laid down. It will be very interesting to see if they keep it acoustic as they did on Halloween or carry this one over to the electric side. Either way this track contains vocals from everyone as they overlap “Sing Monica!” and contained some of my favorite lyrics:

    You gave me one last taste – retreated me
    That cut me off at the knees – defeated me
    From your ivory tower – inspired me
    And stole my manhood – desired me

  5. “Waiting All Night’s” intro sounds like YEM at first but then goes a completely different direction lyrically and figuratively. Definitely one of the songs that may have more work left to be done but I think they’re onto something here stylistically.
  6. Not much left to be said about “Wombat” except it contains one of the funkier grooves on the album and is obviously going to take the “Meatstick” role in setlists going forward. With 92-year old Abe Vigado “dancing” in a wombat suit, Phish immediately created a reference and connection to this song right off the [wom] bat. Had to have that!
  7. “Snow” was next and seemed to really fall flat live. This was one of the tunes that Mike Gordon and Scott Murwaski wrote together and well, after just one time played live, lets hope it gets strengthened or I’d rather see “Yarmouth Road” make it on the album instead. I could be in the minority here but the vocals on “Snow” should potentially be left to the Fleet Foxes of the world, not Phish.
  8. “Devotion to a Dream” was another song I could easily see sliding into the first set. The beginning, especially how Trey begins his vocals, reminds me of another TAB song I can’t quite put my finger on. Anyone else think this? If so, please leave a comment as it’s been driving me crazy ever since the show.
  9. “555” is the Mike Gordon tune that has second set jam written all over it. The jam segment sounds like portions of that all-star “Light” jam from 8/19/12 at Bill Graham’s Civic Auditorium. Thank you, Mike Gordon’s Journal!
  10. “Winterqueen” sounds very similar to what comes out of “Alaska”, yet this one is much more gratifying and fulfilling because this is a much, much better song in my opinion. And it has some of my favorite lyrics in retrospect; it was hard to hear and digest everything live but the lyrics were quite powerful on a second and third listen:

    The Prince of Music, on guitar
    Neglects to play a single bar
    The music trapped inside his head
    Resounds and fills the space instead

  11. “Amidst the Peels of Laughter” is another one of the songs that I feel has a short shelf life especially with the cringe-worthy lyrics “Jack and Jill went up the hill…” but who knows. It’s a Trey/Tom tune but one I won’t be clamoring to hear again anytime soon, even in the ballad slot. Tom Marshall actually wrote up the Song History for Phish.net which you can read here.
  12. “You Never Know” also didn’t do much for me musically at the time but the story behind it did. Before Phish launched into the track Trey remarks that it’s about a guy who stole their money — and yep, story checks out. 13 years ago, Phish had close to $5 million scammed from them by a Manhattan financial adviser, Dana Giacchetto. They’ve since been paid back. Ironically this shares the same song name as a Dave Matthews Band song.

There’s nothing to say and nothing to lose

I must admit that although I already had plans to attend this upcoming New Year’s Eve run at Madison Square Garden, I wasn’t exactly anticipating the run like in year’s past. After Halloween, I’m all-in.

And like it or not, this is the new batch of songs the band will be rolling out. Just like in 2009 with Joy, Phish will be putting this new material on display. The interesting part is we likely haven’t even seen our last debut of 2013. Phish has a few more in the chest now that they’ve finally let the cat out of the bag on the new album. I’m actually hoping one of the songs they’ve kept from us will be used for the Midnight NYE Gag just like “Seven Below” played a part in 2002 when it was debuted. Other tracks that will likely be in contention for the new album are “Steam,” “Halfway to the Moon” and “Say Something”. And yet “Steam” could also go the way of “Buried Alive” and “Camel Walk” and never see a proper album inclusion. Whatever it is, Phish has hit the reset button on the flow of their concerts and especially how setlists will look. With so much new material to invest themselves in, the music will get more onstage workouts during the MSG run and all of the fans in attendance (and on their couchs at home) will have had some time to process what this Halloween run was really all about.

Time to put your wingsuit on
Time to put your wingsuit on

It sure is. See you at Madison Square Garden!

*Header Image from the official 2013 Phishbill.