Why you should care
Because all those tours, obsessive fans and Madison Square Garden New Year’s Eve shows have to mean there’s something worth listening to, right?
Let me be clear: I am not a Phish fan.
But due to circumstances and social circles (read: my spouse), I’ve listened to them a lot, despite my predilection for only their pop-ier songs, which alone flags me as not a true believer. I still don’t get it, really. Especially one song that has apparently captivated fans this year — a 36-minute version of their song “Tweezer,” played this past summer at Harvey’s Lake Tahoe Arena in Stateline, Nevada.
So what gives? Why the hype? OZY decided to investigate in advance of Phish’s New Year’s Eve shows, the fourth year in a row the band has taken over the iconic Madison Square Garden in New York City, where they play four shows, starting Saturday, Dec. 28.
Despite a notable lack of success when it comes to things like hit records, Phish is a huge player in the music business, ranked 31 for musician revenue in 2013, ahead of Mumford & Sons and Blake Shelton — who, unlike Phish, have iTunes-friendly, best-selling albums. Not bad for a jam band that specializes in leisurely musical improvisations.
Band member Mike Gordon isn’t even sure what happened that night in Tahoe, the song spun out so far from its roots.
Someone even started a Twitter feed as the personification of this one song. That’s right. A song that tweets.
On paper, the ”Tweezer” jam represents everything that drives non-fans batty. It is more than half an hour long. It meanders. It leaves lyrics and familiar structures behind. Music magazine Relix featured a list of rock albums that are all shorter than this one live song.
I asked some musically inclined friends to explain the appeal. John Flanigan, a New School music major who performed with the Opera Quotanis and the Opera Orchestra of New York and now writes about music and the creative arts (when he’s not following Phish on tour), broke it down by minutes.
Then the crowd starts “woo”ing; then the band incorporates the “woos,” and then the crowd and the band are playing off each other.
In this case, Flanigan says, the musicians aren’t just improvising around a set structure, which is usually what happens with musical improv. Instead, they are composing on the spot.
There’s about four and a half minutes of composed song, and then another four and a half of typical jams, which you can listen to here.
And then they spend about 25 minutes going musically bonkers.
They pick up a rhythm built on downbeats, Flanigan says, and then the crowd starts “woo”ing; then the band incorporates the “woos,” and then the crowd and the band are playing off each other.
“It’s a truly unplanned phenomenon that was was born out of inspired playing,” he says.
Max Gallico, who attended the Berklee College of Music, has worked as an itinerant musician, teaches guitar lessons in Brooklyn and performs around New York City, agrees.
”I can’t think of another musician or band who does this as well,” Gallico says. ”I have seen musicians in concert like Herbie Hancock who are capable of even more adventurous and musically amazing improvisations. However, I have never felt like this level of crowd participation was welcome.”
And that is why they both keep following the band.
”This is why I love Phish,” Gallico says. ”Not for any individual musical accomplishment but for a communal musical experience that is shared with the band and all of the audience.”
The video captures some of it, and at 2:35, you can see bandleader Trey Anastasio register the interplay.