Embrace the Darkness

10/18/94, Nashville, TN, Vanderbilt University Memorial Gym

We’re still not into the sweet spot of Fall ‘94, but this show brings us two notable jams that revolve around an essential ingredient of that era’s sound. David Bowie and Reba, only separated by a Horse > Silent, make this second set the tour’s most adventurous to date with two improvisations unusual for pre-94 Phish, but increasingly typical for the band going forward. But what’s different?

The basic form of improv for every band that’s ever been tagged the prefix “jam-” is to pick a chord sequence (the simpler the better) and build from a quiet start to a euphoric ending. Phish mastered this method right away — certainly by ’88 — and spent a lot of their early experimental energy on grafting this format onto weirder and weirder compositions. The formula started to change in the summers of ’93 and ’94, but the innovations there were more around finding the spontaneous connections between songs, chaining together giddy suites of segues.

Fall ’94, on the other hand, is known for expanding the potential within songs — every track included on A Live One was a discrete performance taken from different shows, stitched together artificially. That reflects the band’s focus on expanding their improvisational palette, adding new colors and detours to jams that were previously formulaic in their overall structure. Though this mostly gets short-handed by fans into Type I vs. Type II jamming, there are many individual components of that distinction worth investigating.

Bowie and Reba are pretty similar structurally — they’re both classic Phish songs in the mold of several intricately composed minutes giving way to an extended jam. You can also find countless examples of these songs, both pre- and post-94, that stick to the basic ramp-up style of jamming. And on this night in Nashville, both songs take an unexpected path triggered, in my opinion, by a very similar move that would come to be a common feature of Fall ‘94.

Specifically, you can hear these inflection points at 8:00 of the Bowie and 8:45 of the Reba. In both versions, it’s business as usual up to that point, but a sudden injection of darkness knocks them both off course. It’s less pronounced in the Bowie, which almost always trades in dissonance vs. consonance tension/release, but a solid 3–1/2 minutes of “ugly” playing from Trey, even across a key change to major, is an abnormally long patch of dissonance that perfectly sets up a joyous return to the normal chords at 11:50.

This method is much more noticeable in Reba, which typically sports a less abrasive jam. After some rather pleasant, albeit typical, quiet riffing by Trey at the outset, things start going awry with a segment of fluttery soft/loud dynamics. When the volume comes back up, Trey is playing another awkward, arrhythmic riff, quickly echoed by Mike and slowly, which gently evolves over the next three minutes until ripping into an unusual mid-jam peak. By 13:10, they’re so far afield from your normal Reba that they essentially hit rewind back to the typical start of the jam before launching a more typical build. (Curiously, both jams also include Dave’s Energy Guide-like playing, which becomes a full-blown tease in Reba.)

These dark patches are in no way unprecedented for Phish. But hearing them in close proximity, in two consensus excellent jams, draws extra attention to this strategy. It’s not even really the discordant segments alone that stand out, but the combination of disturbing detour and delirious return that suddenly sounds like a more modern Phish. Instead of the strictly technical toolkit of improvisation, based on tension/release and building intensity, there’s an emotional versatility to these jams that will become the band’s true specialty, the dimension that lifts them above and beyond their scene.

(The Bela Fleck guest appearance is good too.)

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