Thursday, December 5, 2019

Phish As Music Curator

Season 1 Episode 8 of the podcast Long May They Run - a season dedicated to the band Phish - discusses how Phish served a music curator and influencer for its fans. It made me think of some ways that Phish directed or confirmed my musical interests.

Halloween Albums
The most obvious example for anyone would have to be the full albums they have covered on Halloween. I was ignorant and agnostic about Talking Heads during the mid-90's so when Phish covered Remain In Light in 1996 that really exposed me to that band and caused me to seek out Remain in Light and other Talking Heads albums on CD. In my case, learning about Talking Heads would quickly turn me toward David Byrne's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts album with Brian Eno.

Learning about Brian Eno leads directly to his Music for Airports album and ambient music in general, even before Phish started playing its own Siket Disc brand of ambient. Eno's Music for Airports was eventually covered in the studio by the new-music ensemble Bang On A Can All-Stars and that version of Music For Airports quickly became an all-time favorite album of mine. Bang On A Can will be at the 2020 Big Ears Festival, my present day favorite festival. So there you go. Learning about Brian Eno leads to Cluster and other directions too. Maybe that's even how I got to Tortoise.

Circling back to Talking Heads, they were part of the New Wave or No Wave music scene of early 1980's New York. Learning about this scene brought me to Liquid, Liquid, a band I would never have known about otherwise!

None of the other Halloween albums really had the same impact on me as Remain In Light, although I remember really liking Loaded after they covered that Velvet Underground album in 1998. My local library at the time had Loaded on CD so I burned a copy. Unfortunately that's really the only Velvet Underground album I ever got to in that pre-streaming world. Worth exploring now?

I was fortunate to already really be into the flatpicker Norman Blake as early as 1991 or 1992, before I had ever even heard of Phish. So as I was learning about Phish I also learned that they did a cover of Ginseng Sullivan. This was so out of left field that it really increased my appreciation for this new awesome band I was getting to know. Same with the bluegrass band Hot Rize. I already loved the self-titled album with Nellie Kane on it before I knew that Phish played that song. And I'm pretty sure I already dug The Flatlanders (the legendary Lubbock, TX band with Jimmie Dale Gilmore in it) before I knew that My Mind's Got a Mind of Its Own was a Jimmie Dale Gilmore cover.

I also think I had seen the Del McCoury Band open for the David Grisman Quintet before I made the connection that Beauty of My Dreams was a song that Phish got from Del McCoury. I guess I was pretty up to speed on bluegrass back in those days without any help from Phish. Or at least the same kind of bluegrass that Phish was choosing to cover.

Leo Kottke and Jamie Masefield
I couldn't have been the only Phish fan who became a fan of Leo Kottke after Mike Gordon collaborated with him on Clone and Sixty Six Steps. I wonder if it worked the other way; if Kottke fans became fans of Phish after hearing Mike play with their guy? Likewise it didn't hurt Jamie Masefield's Jazz Mandolin Project to have Trey and Fishman join him in 1994 for a handful of performances as Bad Hat, or to have Fishman join them for some tours and an album or two. Where is that Tour De Flux album? I remember it being awesome. Is it not online? Might have to remedy that if I can find my old CD copy.

Medeski, Martin and Wood
For Medeski Martin and Wood I'm pretty sure I first heard of them after reading a review of of It's A Jungle In Here or Friday Afternoon in the Universe in an issue of Relix magazine. The magazines Relix, Dirty Linen and No Depression were my primary sources for finding out about new music back then. That and the All Music Guide book (before it was a website). I got both of those MMW CDs and very soon after that heard Friday Afternoon in the Universe being played over the PA either pre-show or during the set break at some Phish show. Hey I said, I recognize that music said I. It's no stretch of the imagination to see how learning about MMW could lead to learning a teeny tiny bit about the whole New York "downtown" jazz scene that had happened just prior: Zorn, Frisell, Ribot, Lounge Lizards, and so on. And then staying tuned to what's happening there on through the 2010's meaning Mary Halvorson.

I think a lot of Phish fans were exposed to Ween when Phish started covering Roses Are Free in December 1997. I already knew about Ween by then and already loved the albums 12 Golden Country Greats, The Mollusk and Chocolate and Cheese. In fact I already had live Ween "bootleg" tapes as early as summer 1997 and remember playing one on a boombox in the parking lot of the VA Beach Phish show that summer. Since this was pre-Roses Are Free it only drew dirty looks and frowns from passersby. Whatever I was playing it was not cool...yet. Back then you only had like two or three acceptable choices for pre-show boomboxes: Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia Band, Grateful Dead or Phish. Maybe Zappa if you had the gumption for that. I liked to push the envelope and would jam stuff like Miles Davis Agharta or Tony Rize Manzanita in the lot. That seems pretty tame by today's standards but it sure felt like it was pushing it back then.

Sun Ra and King Sunny Ade
There was a time in the 90's when Trey seemed to mention Sun Ra or King Sunny Ade in every interview. I made note of those names and first chance I got I obtained copies of Sun Ra's LanquidityOn Jupiter and Sleeping Beauty albums. This is when a lot of Sun Ra stuff was still out of print so I had to use extreme means to obtain them. King Sunny Ade wouldn't sink in until later, but it was still a direct result of Trey planting that name in my memory ten, fifteen years prior. That may be why I'm so open to African music to this day, including Mulatu Astatke, Hailu Mergia, Manu Dibango, Kokono No. 1, Idris Ackamoor, and more.

Learning about Sun Ra also opens one up to accepting Trey's very experimental Surrender to the Air project, which featured Marshall Allen, Michael Ray, and Damon Choice of The Sun Ra Arkestra. Surrender to the Air also included John Medeski and Marc Ribot, making another connection back to that downtown New York jazz scene. If you can tolerate Surrender to the Air you're ready to be absolutely free. Years later I would get to see the Sun Ra Arkestra with Marshall Allen at the Richmond Folk Festival, my other favorite music festival. That was one of the best musical experiences of my life.

Obscure Cover Songs
I first learned about Phish in 1993 and didn't see them live until 1994. I would hear a song like Ya Mar, Timber, Avenu Malkenu or Back at the Chicken Shack and not know whether it was a cover or original. I guess Ginseng Sullivan was an unknown song to a lot of people. Perhaps this technique stemmed from the Grateful Dead who had several cover songs that they had made their own such as Jack-A-Roe, Peggy-O or Going Down the Road Feeling Bad. Eventually you learn that Ya Mar is not a Phish original but a cover of a song that Mike Gordon heard a calypso band called the Mustangs play while on vacation in the Caribbean as a young man. Or you learn that Avenu Malkenu is an arrangement of a Hebrew prayer, ahem, arranged by Phish in 5/4 time signature because why not? Could this early exposure have led me to my present day love of Caribbean and Klezmer music?

The Necks
Phish Festival Secret Sets
The last thing that comes to mind are the late night unannounced sets of all-improv instrumental music that Phish would play at its campout festivals. Talk about Type II. The infamous Tower Set from the 2003 It festival for example. I remember thinking that Phish should just do that type of music for a whole tour. But since that wasn't going to happen I wanted to know where else I could turn for that kind of music, if in fact that is a "type" of music? Well there's an Australian band called The Necks that to my knowledge pretty much does just that - every show is all improv music in a somewhat similar vein. The Necks will be at Big Ears 2020 as well.

I've mentioned Big Ears a couple times in this post. That high-brow culture of experimental art music might seem far removed from Phish's brand of crowd pleasing heady show-biz, but to give credit where credit's due plenty of that Phish jamming from 1994 through 2004, if viewed from an unbiased lens, could have more in common with Steve Reich or Ornette Coleman than it does many of the common jamband festival bands of today. Whether it's music for 18 musicians or music for four musicians, nobody else does that in-the-moment improvisation that's so good it sounds like it must be composed, but it's not it's improvised type music better. You can go looking for alternatives but you'll always return to the source that is Phish.

Coventry and its Aftermath
I did not have a positive experience at Coventry by any stretch of the imagination and so when Phish came to an end in 2004 I was simultaneously done with all-things Phish for a little while there. Good riddance in a way. Rather than a band dictating how I budgeted my life I was now free to explore other interests like travel simply for the sake of travel, beginning with a trip to Ireland in November 2004 that, not surprisingly, was my first exposure to actual Irish traditional music. Or greater than that, it was where the concept that music as something that amateur hobbyists can do for fun for their own enjoyment hit home. I realized that music was not just the sacred domain of these idolized figures that we have put on a special pedestal for our entertainment and hero worship.

So by 2006 I had started trying to play Irish tenor banjo, an instrument I had seen played in Ireland during my trips there. I quickly realized that the repertoire that works for Irish tenor banjo is not necessarily strummed versions of Neil Young or John Prine songs but plucked or flatpicked melodies to instrumental jigs, reels, hornpipes and other types of "fiddle tunes".  Further travels to Jamaica would generate an interest in Mento and other Caribbean music forms.

By the time Phish came back in 2009 I was more than ready to return to them with a clean slate, but I was also way down a path that had formed during the five year breakup. The primary thing driving my music taste now was the knowledge that I can play music for my own enjoyment. You can pluck a string and create sounds that way. In other words there are more options than just clicking play on a recording or waiting for a band to perform on stage in front of you at a preordained time. I may not have arrived at this epiphany had it not been for the post-Coventry five-year hiatus where we all had to reevaluate what to do with our lives. Could I perfectly cover all the parts of Guyute? Of course not. But could I learn the basic melody to common folk tunes like Kesh Jig or Arkansas Traveler and then learn how to sit in at open-minded Irish sessions or old-time jams anywhere in the world? You bet. That's a different type of music appreciation.

These days at age 45 it's all come back around and merged into one. When you start playing music for the first time at age 32 it doesn't matter how much music you have listened to up until then, playing it is still hard. Developing your ear is still hard. I'm only just now developing the ability to get out my instrument and figure out by ear the little melody that Trey happened upon briefly during the 11/29/19 version of Light for example. It's that potential that allows me to appreciate Phish even more and fit it into my current obsessions. I'm not working toward being able to play a note for note recreation of Horn on my tenor banjo. But an improvisation or melody-line hidden in a Light or Stash or Limb By Limb or Brother can certainly provide the fuel for me to then create my own melody inspired by it.

That's enough.

No comments:

Post a Comment