Monday, August 7, 2017

Mary Halvorson and Phish

What is a band?  For three nights in July my two favorite musical artists had overlapping residencies in New York city.  July 21, 22 and 23, 2017, guitarist Mary Halvorson was playing the last half of her six night stint at the Village Vanguard, while on those same dates Phish was starting their 13 night Baker's Dozen run at Madison Square Garden.  I didn't go to either event.  But that's not really the point.

I have seen Phish 60 times over the last 23 years.  They've been my favorite band from 1994 until now.  That has remained constant.  What has varied over the years is how I listen to and view Phish compared to other musical artists.

In my  20's, when I wasn't listening to Phish or the Grateful Dead, I still wanted to listen to some of the tumble-down bands associated with the jamband genre, including moe., Leftover Salmon, Yonder Mountain String Band and Sector 9.  In my 30's, indie-like bands such as My Morning Jacket, Dr. Dog and Ween got in line behind Phish.  Now, in my 40's, I'm not really looking for the next band to really get into, and Phish has only increased the distance between themselves and the other standbys.

With so many places to hear and consume music, both old and new, I do probably listen to a wider variety of stuff now than ever before.  Definitely heavy on jazz and older, ethnic folk music.  However, it's also easier now than ever before to simply listen to Phish, with access to so much of their live shows online.  Phish plus everything else.  With one exception.

Around 2013 to 2014 I started checking out a little known New York-based avant-garde guitarist named Mary Halvorson.  Her angular, unsettling playing requires some major recalibration of the ears, but I stuck with it and have been slowly delving deeper and deeper into her surprisingly vast and constantly expanding output ever since.  (Her discography includes 40+ albums findable on Spotify plus many more through other sources).

Phish's complex compositions and inclination toward 20+ minute improvisations helped prime my senses for something really out there, and Mary Halvorson stepped in and opened a door I didn't even know was there.

Where Phish has a whole community surrounding it, Mary seemingly has none of that baggage. Phish you can at least peg as being a form of "rock".  It's difficult to tell what Mary Halvorson is.  Experimental jazz is the closest term we have to encapsulating her untethered creativity, but I don't think it can be branded.  She's more about practicing her instrument than marketing her product.

Poster art, performance art, phan art, inside jokes, engaged online forums, a killer light show, setlist analytics, "Shakedown Street", goo balls, parking lot scene, bootleg t-shirts, blissed out jams, audience participation, hippie white person dancing, and more are all part of the Phish experience.  With Mary Halvorson I don't know that you even get a sticker.  She sits there on stage looking at a music stand that has some sort of written notation on it that helps elicit the unmistakable sounds coming out out of her guitar to her amp.  No frills.  No negative bias from critics.  No preconceived guidance.

Phish can go to deep outer space and bring a crowd of 20,000 right along with them, but Mary's music seems bent on shaking off even the most ardent, or not even concerned with that at all.  It's a totally different set of emotions being triggered when I listen to her music.  Both have their faults: Phish and their predictable tension/relief peak jams; Mary Halvorson and the when-in-doubt revert to noise and call it free jazz card.  But hey.

There is no connection between the two, other than both seem like the culminations of pathways that can lead forward or backward.  They aren't stopping points along the way.  They are the journey and the destination.  Still, Amazon is not going to recommend one if you like the other.  You're not going to hear Mary Halvorson on the Jam_On channel.  The connection I'm making is based on the appeal they each have to me.  Basically, I just typed the words "Mary Halvorson and Phish" in the post title and then had a blank screen below that needed some more words, a couple images and a couple videos.

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