Phish, live at the UNH Fieldhouse May 8, 1993
Phish has never been an easy band to love, it takes hard work and an extremely specific social context for the music to take hold – but once it does, once it becomes the official soundtrack to youthful good times, it never fully leaves the lives of its long-time listeners.
The concept is pretty straight forward: stoned nerds meet up in the late ’80s in the Burlington, VT area. Channeling the sounds of the Grateful Dead and Frank Zappa, they become the ultimate bar band on acid, then they cross over to playing colleges. Over the next ten or so years they produce some of the most popular and enduring music of the ’90s (yet never really appear on MTV or FM radio) with a serious bent towards goofiness and a penchant for mind-bendingly intricate musicianship. Constantly touring, they close the decade out as one of the world’s highest grossing live acts.
What’s so appealing about this music is that it’s always in good spirits – it’s always ready to affect your mood in a positive way – and the song I’ve selected here is a prime example of the band at their finest… or, more accurately, phinest.
If you spent any time at all around a high school parking lot or university hacky sack green in the early to mid 1990s, you’re probably familiar with the refrain ‘Bag it, tag it, sell it the butcher in the store’. If not, I’m sorry because you totally missed out.
Reba is comprised of three distinct movements (and a parenthetical fourth: the final, whistled refrain), the first, which includes the lyrical portion of the song, tells the children’s booky tale of an over-eager cartoony home-chemist (kind of betraying Trey’s roots as the son of a woman who wrote songs for Sesame Street); the second portion sounds like what you might expect if an early 1960s eastern European master of animated film commissioned an avant garde jazz quartet to score an unfinished film he created based on the first part of the song (the narrative of Reba mixing all these crazy ingredients in her bath tub); finally, at around the 6 and a half minute mark, the song opens up and… well, you really ought to hear for yourself.
One component of Phish’s phenomenal popularity is their ability to continually, almost infinitely, ratchet up the rock; and this particular performance is a prime example. Gifted with incredible dexterity and working with an amazing aural palette, Trey is able to move the music from cool, quiet submarine depths to soaring aerial heights within an impressively compressed matter of minutes – and then he keeps pushing it, higher and higher… and higher!
There’s an amusing moment in Bittersweet Motel (a 2001 documentary about the band) where bassist Mike Gordon criticizes his guitarist for playing too many notes. It’s a spot-on comment: so many performances become … not exactly marred, but weighted down by overly complicated playing that when an incarnation of Reba like this one comes along – so simultaneously ambitious and restrained – it’s truly a work of wonder.
A series of images from the event itself (at the Durham Field House – Go UNH!) follow below/after the jump. Oh, and not to diminish the context of this song, the whole show (which is awesome – the Stash > Kung > Stash alone is worth recommending) is available here.