Radioactive Material

7/13/94, Patterson, NY, Big Birch Concert Pavilion

There’s something elemental about songs, in the Periodic Table sense of the word. Drill inside them, and you get the protons and electrons of chords, melodies, and rhythms; even deeper, the subatomic particles of individual notes and timbre. A level above songs, and you get the molecules of album sequences and concert setlists, combinations and contexts that create complex effects from simple building blocks. But most importantly, songs are — at least for 99.9% of pop music — immutable for a given artist. Just as carbon is (almost) always carbon, the Rolling Stones performing “Satisfaction” is usually going to sound exactly the same.

These laws of musical chemistry help explain why we find it so compelling, even dangerous, when the essential structure of a song is violated. A remix, a rearrangement, a cover version, a mash-up — there’s something “wrong” about these transmutations of the source material, particularly when the original is very familiar. The reward of uncertainty is at play here, the thrill of the unexpected, like a twist in a book or a slot machine jackpot. And like the latter example, the low success rate is part of the pleasure, as so many of these reimaginations fail to stick the landing. To return to “Satisfaction,” for every successful, transformative cover (say, Otis Redding’s or Devo’s), there are thousands of misguided attempts that fall far short of the original.

In chemistry, too, when you mess with the traditional structure of an element, bad things usually happen. Add or subtract a proton or neutron or electron from an element, and you get atomic instability, better known as radioactivity. And radioactivity, generally, is not something to trifle with — just ask Marie Curie or people downwind of Chernobyl. But used in the right way, radioisotopes are a wonder of science, providing us with everything from cancer therapy and nuclear energy to artifact dating and smoke detectors.

So put a yellow and black label on most covers, remixes, mashups, etc. — messing around with the elemental structure of a song is best left in the hands of the professionals. Working with these volatile substances requires training, planning, constant vigilance, and safety procedures. By no means should you just, for example, try to collide two songs together and mix their components on the fly, unless you are very, very good at what you do…a savant, at the very least.

In the last few minutes of the Possum that opens 7/13/94’s second set, Phish suffers the musical equivalent of a laboratory accident. An especially frisky Trey was pushing the envelope the whole night — particularly on the torrid first set Down with Disease, where he manages to completely lose the rest of the band for about 30 seconds — and his Possum solo seems to finally crack the firmament for good, with the reprise at the end of the song full of missed cues and out-of-sync vocals.

A normal band would probably pause and get everyone back on the same page. Phish only takes about five seconds off, but may still be trying to catch their breath with one of their simpler songs in Cavern. But about 30 seconds in, the band realizes they’re still off-kilter, and decides to steer into the spin. Between 0:30 and 0:45 of Cavern, a remarkably fluid transformation occurs from the smallest of triggers — near as I can figure, only an unusually chunky Mike tone lights the fuse for a instantaneous costume change into Wilson. The fact that the band doesn’t instantly collapse when Trey starts singing the “wrong” lyrics is impressive, even more so when you consider that Fish doesn’t pick up on the switch. He just sticks to the Cavern drums, with an internal monologue that probably starts at “Oh shit” before quickly settling at “Hey, this actually works!”

If the return to Cavern’s finale is a little shakier, it’s entirely forgivable, given the mental exertion it must have taken to simultaneously process two songs at once for the previous three minutes. It’s a feat of chainsaw juggling, working with radioactive elements at the extreme, some seven years before “mash-ups” of two disparate songs became a pop culture craze. The maneuver even approaches a kind of quantum chemistry, or less scientifically, an especially arcane form of alchemy — not only can you turn lead into gold, but can you make something lead and gold simultaneously?

Phish being Phish, they figure if they survived this first flirtation with nuclear fusion, they might as well give it another go. After a genre whirlwind of a Tweezer with an embedded Julius, they appear to land on the thrash bludgeon of Big Black Furry Creatures From Mars, before — again, with astonishing grace and communication — downshifting into the bluegrass gallop of Scent of a Mule. Like the Wilvern/Cavson, there’s no stench of contrivance here, even though there’s something of an antecedent in the acoustic, bluegrass-y BBFCFM reprise from 6/21/94. Sure, there are stumbles — nobody’s quite sure how to translate the usual BBFCFM pauses — but somehow, it works, writing a quickie dissertation about the unappreciated similarities between punk and bluegrass genres and making a sly lyrical connection between Mike’s two songs about aliens for extra credit.

Through all this madness, the context is important; remember that working with radioactivity should only be done in a controlled, safe environment. This midweek show at an upstate New York ski resort was played in front of a congregation of the truly devout, those who could’ve driven five hours north to see the shambling remains of the Dead, but instead chose Phish. To a less initiated crowd, these high-wire acts might have scanned as confused musical garbage. But an audience aware of what the band is attempting is fittingly sent into a rapture — they’re in on the joke, always one of the most addictive qualities of Phish fandom.

Having pulled off these high degree of difficulty moves on a hot July night, Phish, perhaps surprisingly, only rarely returns to this same sort of song fusion. There are occasional examples throughout their career — you only have to go as far back as 7/27/14 to find instances, both successful and calamitous — but for the most part, they leave this trick on the shelf while some other jambands have made (usually pre-rehearsed) mashups a regular part of their arsenal.

Phish, instead, used these experiments as a stepping stone to deeper forms of radioactive manipulation. Once you’ve gained this ability to hold two (or more) musical threads in your mind simultaneously, it’s almost a waste, and surely a novelty, to only use it on pre-composed songs. Famously, one of the band’s exercises of the time was “Two Plus Two,” described in Parke Puterbaugh’s biography as where “one musician picked another person in the band to hook up with while still listening to the other two.” You can already glimpse this polyphonic approach beginning to gestate on 7/13/94; most thrillingly, in the brief return to Tweezer after the BBFCFMule when ¾ of the band sticks to the standard Tweezer vamp as Trey confidently explores a separate track, sustaining a monstrous, distorted drone for almost two minutes.

A page later, Puterbaugh writes about watching the band practice Taste in 1995, observing that “every song was always in the act of becoming, subject to amendment and revision.” That’s true of practically every era in Phish history, but never more so than the period we’re about to enter, where the possibilities of a given performance suddenly expand and experimentation becomes a routine act, flaunting the elemental nature of songs on a nightly basis, playing with radioactivity until mutation becomes the norm.

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