Interpretations on 12.31.2016, Set III

I’d like to step aside from the Venue Project for a minute to get some of the innumerable thoughts down that have been swimming through my head since walking out of Madison Square Garden after the NYE show a couple of days ago. I have debated with myself about whether I should post this because, well, it could be taken in a few different ways depending on your approach and it definitely opens me up to the type of criticism that tends to divide our scene rather than bring it together. But you know what? I don’t care. If nothing else I want to flush this stuff out so that I can process it, take what I need from it, and move forward. Not sharing that seems to me to be the wrong way to go about starting that course of action.

 

Before I start this I feel like I should make a few disclaimers. First and foremost, I am not musically trained, can barely play an instrument, and do not have the vocabulary to speak to the specifics of the music that Phish plays. I am but a simple fan who has spent countless hours listening to this band and following them around the country to the extent that it is as much a part of my life as anything else I hold dear. This passion is why I write about the band and even without the formal knowledge that would undoubtedly make my posts more worthwhile I am comfortable with where I am in the stratosphere of our scene. What I do have is a background in liberal arts having read, dissected, discussed, and argued many of the great works of Western literature and art with people much more intelligent than I could ever pretend to be. This background and my obsessively analytical way of approaching my takes on Phish are my utility belt and crutch at the same time but at the very least I think that provides a bit of context about how I am looking at the Gag that Phish performed this past New Year’s Eve.

 

Unlike most of my posts, this will not be a full show/run deep dive through the minutiae of the show(s) but instead some thoughts on how I personally interpreted the art that Phish created for us with the spectacle of Petrichor and the set that unfolded in its wake. I am also not looking to turn this into a lit crit piece so outside of quoting some Phish lyrical content I won’t be trying to relate this to any Big Themes in the world of art and literature. Heck, I’m not even going to touch on the visual reference points that to me seem almost obvious (looking at you, Rene Magritte and Giuseppe Maiorana, amongst others…). I’m already making some fairly large leaps and assumptions so no need to dig a deeper hole for those who might deride this.

 

One of the things I often say about Phish shows is that ‘we all attend the same concert but experience a different show’. I state this again here to drive home the point that I have no insider information and no expectation that my words and thoughts on the matter hold any more weight or truth than the perspective of someone else. As much as we try to let go of it all, each time we see the band we bring everything in our lives leading up to that moment with us. It is unavoidable. And at a show our individual experience is shaped by the moments we have with the music, the people around us, and everything else that carves out the memories that we take away from being in that place at that time. All of that contributes to how we engage with the experience and influences our personal reactions to what occurred (or didn’t depending on what set of expectations one has). What may be a life-changing, mind-expanding journey for me might be the worst show ever for someone else and vice versa with many thousand varied experiences falling somewhere in between or around those poles. For me, the truth to be found in seeing shows is a personal one and not something universal that will apply to those around me. Heck, it might not even apply to the folks you shared the experience with directly in the moment. In my mind, that makes it all the more interesting to discuss since by doing so we can learn more about the experience from another perspective.

 

I know that this may simply be a personal reflection that doesn’t resonate with anyone else and reflects only the journey I traveled that night. It is not meant to be seen as anything but that. If you want to read such a thing, please be my guest. I am not looking for validation or hetty points or whatever. We all have times at shows where everything makes sense whether it be in the beauty of a Hood Jam or connecting through dance with a stranger or something else entirely. This is how the set unfolded for me. If it isn’t your bag, so be it.

 

I was lucky enough to be able to attend all four shows on this latest MSG run and experienced each night from the Floor taboot. That alone puts this run into memorable territory for me personally but even further I was sharing it with a bevy of long time and newer friends including my wife, her sister and boyfriend (who I also consider a dear friend), two of my oldest best friends (who are married), and one of my newer friends in Phish not to mention the numerous wonderful individuals I have been lucky enough to meet over the years at shows, on the internet, and in person who all contribute to this wonderful thing we all share. Each night seemed to build on the prior one with themes emerging as we went along including the a cappella openers, second set mashup jam fun, bustouts, and more. By the time we got to New Year’s Eve there was a palpable buzz of anticipation as everyone waited to find out what the band had in store for this year’s big finish to the year. If I wanted to I could probably scratch together a pretty loose argument for a theory on the theme for the entirety of the run but my main goal here is in approaching the Petrichor production (and to an extent the balance of the third set) as that is to me the most overt example of Trey and the rest of the band building an artistic theme from this run.

 

At the start of the third set the stage set up had been augmented not just by length as Trey discussed in setting up the wonderful walkabout by Page and Mike for Lawnboy in the first frame but also by adding a full percussionist’s rig as well as three mike stands for what was assuredly going to be a horn section. There may have been more added but that was about the extent of what was visible to us at the back of the floor. When the musicians all walked out on stage Phish was joined by the TAB horns (James Casey, Jennifer Hartswick, and Natalie Cressman) along with Andres Forero (percussionist, of Hamilton fame) and (unseen until later when Trey pointed him out) Jeff Tanski on keys and other “symphonic” sounds. As the band started into the quiet beginning of the orchestral piece the crowd listened intently, producing a pregnant silence not too dissimilar from the awe we all felt during the Magnaball WTU?. This was different though as the anticipation for how the gag would unfold was building as the band moved through the structured piece into the more upbeat phrasing that first introduces the horns.

 

If you watch the video (and I HIGHLY recommend that you do, many times over) you can see the incredible smile on Trey’s face as this thing that he has worked on for so long is finally unfolding. That smile is evident throughout and really shows how happy Trey was to share this with all of us. They bounce into the first set of lyrics, introducing the main theme conceptually with the repeated phrase of “and the rain came down and washed it all away” as the crowd begins get into the groove being built. The song passes into the ‘pre-storm’ guitar-led segment and sixteen persons dressed in black suits with black bowler hats atop their heads and black masks shrouding their faces walk to the front of stage as Page plays the melodic interlude on the baby grand. In the moment my immediate thought was that these were the ‘no men’ referenced in the song No Man In No Man’s Land. As these ‘no men’ (that really works on many levels) form a line across the stage rain begins to fall, reflecting the lights and cascading as sheets onto the dancers, band, and rail riders alike. The dancers move with the music and take out black umbrellas, coming together to form one protected whole before separating with one dancer having taken off his mask at center stage. He then performs a series of tricks with umbrellas, juggling them and balancing one on his nose as the storm proceeds. He is playing in the rain without a care for the nuisance of being wet, something we all did as children (and that hopefully some of us still continue to do today).

 

The music shifts as Trey plays descending notes that seem to signal alarm and our lone known man is grabbed by the No Men who re-mask him, robbing him of his individuality and returning him to anonymity as one of the No Men grabs his umbrella and breaks it before throwing it aside. Another individual shows herself, flashing her brilliant red hair as she is tossed and accosted by the No Men, eventually being re-masked as well. A third No Man briefly shows his individuality but is quickly subsumed by the group and returned to the normalcy that they endeavor to maintain. The music here is building to the transition point where our next set of lyrics will come in and as this happens the dancers create a pyramid of uniformity around another one who has gone “individual”, flipping him upside down and shaking him before he escapes just as Trey sings the line “and the clouds will open and the seas will rise.” This individual then leads the No Men through a coordinated routine that includes each person “picking him/herself up by the collar” amongst other evocative moves (all while Trey sings and beams that wonderful smile behind them). After Trey sings the “when there’s no more future and no more past we’ll be on our way back home at last” lines the dancers slowly come back together at center stage but this time something is different. While the rain still falls, none of them is engaged in keeping the status quo but rather they are all distracted by a group of white/lit umbrellas that are slowly descending from the ceiling. As these new umbrellas come to rest just above the outstretched hands of the No Men they all shed their masks to reveal their individuality.

 

The band is playing the hopeful main theme now as the white umbrellas rise and fall into various patterns above the dancers. The band begins to sing the refrain “and the rain, and the rain came down” as the dancers leave the stage in a way not too dissimilar from how people passing on a busy city street would pass by each other, almost bothered by the nuisance of interaction. The umbrellas are moving through coordinated orientations, appearing almost as if they were jellyfish swimming and forming shapes such as an infinity symbol or a double helix with an array of colors and other lighting fills highlighting each one in turn as Trey takes the soaring lead and the rest of the band swells. At this point the rain is all but stopped, having accomplished its role of cleansing the No Men of their anonymity. As the song comes to its end the dancers return to the front of stage and we are nearing midnight Trey says “well, it is never too soon to get out of 2016 so…” and begins the countdown (a full 2-3 minutes early) to the expected Auld Lang Syne. The umbrellas are lit as a rainbow now and Trey says “aw, what the fuck!” laughingly acknowledging his early timing as they hit New Year’s and the ceiling (sky?) opens up and drops a massive deluge of balloons and other stuff upon us. It takes a second of recognition but most of the balloons are inflated cats and dogs such that it was literally raining cats and dogs on us. There are even cat/dog noises accompanying the deluge which also includes small foam raindrop-shaped stress ball thingies, confetti, big bouncy balloons, and so much more. By the time they finished up ALS the entire stage and floor area was overflowing such that we were up to our necks in cats, dogs, and whatnot. The No Men – though unmasked – oddly stand motionless with sullen faces but then Trey counts off the start to Suzy and they turn away from the crowd before throwing down their black suits and emerging in bright yellow outfits and with faces beaming, befitting the raucous abandon of the celebratory jam.

 

It is pure mayhem at this stage as they find spaces to dance and the band plays amidst the masses of balloons (with the various techs trying in vain to clear scene). Everyone is acting individually now with the dancers playing around and getting into the spirit of the old anthem about that free spirited gal no man can tame. The band jams along for a bit with the horns and added percussion adding that punch to the song that horns always do with Suzy. As it ends Trey never fully stops playing but starts in with the rhythm line for NMINML and we are off again into another dance party. The dancers and such have departed but the party ain’t over by a long shot. This song choice is very purposeful to me once you start to read into the lyrics:

how far have we fallen, how far can we go?
how far will we fall, if there’s nothing below
you stand on a rock, suspended in air
emblazoned with sunlight keenly aware
that we’ve broken free, something has changed
a tear in the fabric, some tiles rearranged

we are the no men in no man’s land
we are the no men in no man’s land
darkness the one thing we all understand
we are the no men in no man’s land
we are the no men in no man’s land

and the truth will rise above, and fiction fall beneath
although the lies may bite, the truth has all the teeth
you see us as a window, you’re happy that we’re here
exposed to all the elements, while inside all is clear

but if you hold a mirror, and you turn it to one side
the depth you see within at first, will find a place to hide
we are the no men in no man’s land

the loss of all motion, the absence of sound
when there’s no sun to circle around
we are the no men in no man’s land

Something has changed here. No longer are we under the weight of the storm that was 2016. In coming into the new year we are able to shed the “friction” and “lies” that dragged us all down which if you want to take as an overt political statement I’d be hard pressed to argue against. But even on a simpler level this song represents the move from conforming to being ourselves, understanding the darkness but not letting it define us.

 

Petrichor was the metaphor for that personal revelation and Suzy is the example of what freedom can look like (albeit under the guise of a person so different as to be seen as needing professional help). NMINML then punctuates the message of looking inward to become our best outward selves. But it doesn’t stop there. The next tune, Breath & Burning, is one that many probably audibly groaned to hear the band play in that spot but just listen to the lyrics and it fits the theme:

Breath and Burning
We are made of sand
Slowly turning
At the waves command
And what does it matter
If the nightmares all came true?
The black clouds that scattered across
The sky so there’s nothing left we can do
Let’s celebrate while the hurricane
Throws salt and water into the room
The canary died
The healer lied
The yellow fields disappeared too soon
Mid-air voltage blooms and grows
Unstoppable, it’s instant heat
And as sinners plea on bended knee
We’ll be dancing here for days
Breath and Burning
We are made of sand
Slowly turning At the waves command
And what does it matter
That the end’s in sight?
We’re not going gently
We’re gonna rage with Page at the dying of the light!
The sudden unexpected fate
Of sunken ships
Was our future path
Your string of beads did nothing to
Prepare for you what was sure to pass
Shadow wheels in shipping lanes
The angry winds blew straight from hell
And the tortoise pulls his head inside his shell
Breath and Burning
We are made of sand
Slowly turning
At the waves command
And what does it matter?
It’ll be over soon
Our heads on a platter
So lets spin in the light of the moon
We’ve still got the light of the moon
We’ll dance in the light of the moon
Breath and Burning
Breath and Burning
Breath and Burning
Breath and Burning

This song speaks to hope and not allowing the many negative outside factors alter who we are and how we act. At a certain point, you cannot change or influence those around you. But you can change how you approach your interactions with others and more importantly how you approach YOU. As cheesy as the line is, there is hope in the idea: “and what does it matter that the end’s in sight? we’re gonna rage with Page at the dying of the light.” When the shit hits the fan would you rather be complaining about the stench or making the best of a bad situation?

 

At this point I have probably lost most people. I get that and have to reinforce that this is the interpretation that I took from the show in the moment and upon reflection after the fact. Song choice and thematic intent are messy subjects when it comes to Phish because as I mentioned above we are all coming at this from vastly different sets of experience. It is more than likely that this is not the true intention of what Trey was looking to do when crafting this project. But I like to think that he’d be open to this type of investigation. Let’s get back to it. Don’t worry, I’m almost done…

 

After Breath & Burning the band counts off another song with a high groan potential for the fanbase. Tide Turns has always felt like more of a TAB type of tune to most and based on the performances of it and the music it offers I can easily see that argument being made. But here in the context of this set the lyrics take on a slightly different meaning than how I had originally read them when first hearing the song. I have been talking about not losing yourself in the anonymity of conformity in our culture which is mentioned in the first stanza and continued throughout the song:

When you’re lost in the darkness
And the lonliness cuts so deep
When every breath is suffereing
And you’re longing for sleep
You don’t have to be alone
I’ve still got a kind word to spare
I’ve still have an ear to listen
I’ve got time

I’ll wait with you till the tide turns
Yes I will
I’ll wait with you till the tide turns
I’ll wait with you till the tide turns
Till the tide turns…

When the wolf is at your door
And the mirror holds your nightmare
There’s no need to hide your tears
If it’s too much for you to bear
You don’t have to be alone
I’ll still always be here for you
Together we can make it through
We’ve got time, yes we do

I’ll wait with you till the tide turns
Yes I will
I’ll wait with you till the tide turns
I’ll wait with you till the tide turns
Till the tide turns…

You don’t have to be alone
I’ll still always be here for you
Together we can make it through
We’ve got time, yes we do

I’ll wait with you till the tide turns
Yes I will
I’ll wait with you till the tide turns
I’ll wait with you till the tide turns
Till the tide turns…

This is a song about not only finding yourself but of offering connection for those who need it. The message is clear. You do not have to be alone in all of this. Even as we are “slowly turning at the waves’ command” (from B&B) the narrator is offering to be there, offering hope to the individual in this personal struggle. This could apply to so many circumstances in our lives. How many of us have wanted to take that risky step into the unknown but were afraid to do so? How much easier was it to do such a thing when there was someone there to help you, support you, and guide you through that transition? In a sea of No Men we seek connection with individuals, something that our little community fosters but that is less prevalent in the wider world of our culture(s). Perhaps the message is not just to find the support you need but to be the one there to give it when you see the need in others as well because “together we can make it through.”

 

When they started up the next song, 555, along with really being excited that we’d get to hear this song with horns I found myself paying closer attention to the lyrics than I had before:

They’re tyin’ a blindfold cross my eyes
I rest my face down
Skidding on switchbacks near the sides
Gonna try to bust out

Get up, jump out, don’t wait, gotta get away
Hop off, roll down, spring up, live another day

Sprint on cobblestones past the tracks
They kept my money, and my water
Don’t wanna run ‘cuz I want it back
But I know I really ought to

If I don’t break away clean
I might stray from the scene
Make an escape when it arrives:
The 555

They bought my soul for a pile of cash
Everybody else got paid out
They’re closing in I gotta dash
I gotta find a way out

Hop off, roll down, spring up, live another day
Get up, jump out, don’t wait

If I don’t break away clean
I might stray from the scene
Make an escape when it arrives:
The 555

In our context this song speaks to the struggle of breaking free from “them” and weighing the frustration of being able to “break away clean” else one escapes/leaves this “scene” entirely. That is, we often find ourselves struggling to be individuals who still desire to be able fit into a group or community which can cause some to “get up, jump out, don’t wait, gotta get away, hop off, roll down, spring up, live another day” by removing themselves from participation in such community. We constantly push and pull between wanting to be individuals and wanting to be accepted within the greater whole.

 

Interestingly, the next song is not one I would have thought would fit this theme but once I took a closer look at the lyrics it fits perfectly after 555. Up through now we have seen the struggle to brush off the negativity of outside influences with the goal of allowing one to remain an individual followed by songs of hope and connection and then one about struggling with all of that. So when Ocelot started up I thought that perhaps the theme was complete only to find relevance in the words sung:

Ocelot! Ocelot!
Where have you gone?
Morning is over
and noon slouches on

Your stripes could all fade
in the poisonous day
When you see the sunlight
move out of the way

You prance with the beasts
who parade every night
And silently slouch
through the forest by light
Don’t be the only one left on the block
Come hide in the herd
and float with the flock

Ocelot! Ocelot!
Where are you now?
You never listen to me anyhow
You wandered and ambled
you walked, now you run
Knowing you’ll bake
like a snake in the sun
You prance with the beasts
you parade every night
And silently slouch
through the forest twilight

Don’t be the only one left on the block
Come hide in the heard
and float with the flock

You prance with the beasts
you parade every night
And silently slouch
through the forest twilight

Don’t be the only one left on the block
Come hide in the heard
and float with the flock

Ocelot! Ocelot!
Where have you gone?
(Won’t you come out to play?)
Ocelot! Ocelot!
Where have you gone?
(Won’t you come out to play?)
Ocelot! Ocelot!
Where have you gone?
(Won’t you come out to play?)

Hey what do you know? Another song about finding connection but maintaining individuality! Granted, the connection is loosening now and I wouldn’t fault anyone for telling me this one is a stretch. But how many times have you wanted to feel included when you were somehow left out? Sure, it feels great to be your own person but sometimes you want to be able to blend in and “float with the flock”. This song brings that home by pointing out that no matter how bright your individual “spots” are sometimes it is fun to simply “come out and play.”

 

The set then closes with the instrumental shot of energy that is First Tube, a song that may not have any of the overtones that I am connecting here. Then again, perhaps it does. Early versions of the song as performed by that short-lived early incarnation of Trey’s solo projects ‘8 Foot Fluorescent Tubes’ included Heloise Williams repeating the phrase “free thought” over and over. No man is an individual without free thought. Something to ponder. It’s a very loose connection but I think it offers up a closure point for the theme I am looking at here. Plus getting a Phish First Tube with TAB horns was a nice treat even if they didn’t take this (or really any) of the songs too far afield.

 

The idea of catharsis is often bandied about when discussing Phish’s music, particularly singular jams but often when looking at the arc of a particular set or show, for example with a well placed Slave or Hood that caps a deep dive set by bringing us all back into the light. I find it to be an overused term for the most part but I can attest that with this set that I experienced it in the moment. The tale that Trey wove brought forth a lot of emotional weight for me, weight that I was able to purge in the joy of that First Tube closer. Heck, even the Loving Cup encore helped in that regard what with the wonderful feeling that comes from belting out “what a beautiful buzz!!” at the top of your lungs with 19,000 other people. Phish generally ends their sets and shows in a manner that allows for such release. That is perhaps one of the things that many of us chase more than anything: that feeling of being able to lose yourself in the music, letting all the worry and weight of life slide away if even for only a few moments, and connecting with those who surround you. On this night, to me, the message was clear.

 

If you have read this far, I appreciate it. It seems that each year our dissections of Phish’s NYE Gags get more and more divisive as we have more points of comparison to relate them to. Was this set as compelling as the Hourglass NMINML jam from 2015? Musically, no way. I have been fortunate enough to see Phish on NYE several times and each time I know that there is more to what they are doing than a simple collection of songs being played. It is natural for one to want to find connection to the music just as we yearn for connection with other people. We want to be able to relate these experiences to what we know and understand or perhaps to foster questions about that which we do not comprehend. I know that my experience this year and in years past is different from what others got from the show. And I am probably reading more into this than ever intended by Trey and the band. But the very fact that this music can foster such thoughts in us is encouraging because it gives evidence to something that Mike Gordon once wrote to me on a postcard many many years ago after I sent in a letter to the band (the exact substance of which I have long since forgotten).

What you have written is far beyond the realm of a compliment. It’s an indication that the deeper thing – that deeper thing – is happening. Thanx so much.

Mike Gordon (Phish)

Art is defined by interpretation. Without context, real or projected, there is no meaning to it. To me that causes it to lose intrinsic value. We tend to shy away from this sort of perspective on the art that Phish creates or perhaps many of us do not view it in that construct. I am not here to say why that is. All I can do is reflect on what this music did for me and caused me to feel. At the root that is the goal, right? My interpretation is a product of what I observed visually, aurally, and physically along with the concepts I had swirling around my in head looking for external meaning or import. Phish provided the story and for that I thank them. I have found value in the experience that they gave me by way of their art.

 

 

12 thoughts on “Interpretations on 12.31.2016, Set III

  1. Really a great read T3. I thought I would be loaded for bear when I read it, but it really is a thoughful view at the various (somewhat) continuous themes that have been floating through Trey’s heads and into his lyrics. Well done.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ha! I was expecting you to come in hot definitely a lot of “me” here. I’m not trying to push external context onto the band’s intentions. Just processing it for myself

    Like

  3. I love the assessment here, and it has hard to not at least acknowledge the theme of rain helping wash out the negativity and allowing us to celebrate that: Yes! We are still here!

    Thanks for sharing this. I know that it was very personal to you and it can be a bit intimidating to share such interpretations in our community. I for one think this is a great write up and something you should take pride in and own.

    Thanks!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I’m down with everything except the linkage to that song about a cat. As a cat lover, I refuse to see it as anything except a song about a cat.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Great read T3!!! I dig your introspective look at the set and song lyrics. I figure Trey brings us broadway to make us think and ponder, or at the least enjoys the process himself immensely.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Well that was wordy…but well worth the time & effort. Ha! Thanks for sharing your experience T3. Definitely given me some things to ponder.

    Liked by 1 person

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