Standing in the very last row of the Santander Center in Reading, Pennsylvania on Tuesday night, I felt privileged to be part of an inspired and inspiring Phish show. The jams were complex, funky, a little dissonant (in that Halloween groove), and incredibly well performed. A work friend accompanied me, for his first show, and his comments were along the lines of “Wow, that’s hard” (a cappella vocals), “Reminds me of Dixie Dregs” and “Reminds me of Allan Holdsworth”. He’s an accomplished keyboard player himself, and none of those statements are faint praise. At the grand pause in “Divided Sky,” my one thought surveying a velvet sea of lighters, was that somewhere Lou Reed was looking on and proud of the boys he nudged into rock and roll mayhem. My concluding thought for the night was that having only touched on “Walk Away” and “Good Times, Bad Times” (both summer tour staples) as cover songs, Phish was remarkably comfortable in their own musical skin, evidenced by their set lists and depth of jamming.
Two nights later, after all of the pre-gaming hype and hyperbole, Phish introduced “Wingsuit” as a collection of songs from a new album. And I’m at a loss to understand why people seem so upset by this. Anyone on the Boardwalk (and those of us couch touring at home) got to hear new songs, performed in the sequence and setting intended, for the first time. I can only compare the joy to that of Tuesday afternoons at WPRB-FM in the early 80s, when the UPS man would bring us the new releases for the week and all of the DJs would fall on those random brown boxes, only to then scatter and listen and review and ruminate.
The collective kvetching seems to fall into two categories: Phish didn’t cover someone else’s material “like they always do” and the new songs aren’t like their first four albums. To the first point, if you really want to see someone do Led Zepplin IV, go see “Get The Led Out” locally. Phish did what they’ve been doing for the past year or so — staying true to their musical biases, creating great sounds, and popping in a few not-so-subtle jabs at the parts of fan base that believe a set list is a Wikipedia entry to be crowd-edited ad nauseum (see Chicago “Harpua” as evidence). As for the songs themselves, they are rich, complex, lyrically deep, equally fun and funky and fundamentally probing. This is the return of the son of “Joy”. Fewer songs with minimalist obscure lyrics and more songs with equally intricate parts across the whole band.
And I’ll go way out on a limb (by limb): “Wingsuit” is Phish’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” Misunderstood, complex to write and produce (over time and space), but when seen through a decade long lens of musical history, it’s one of the greatest albums of all time. The composition and lyrics on “Wingsuit” reflect maturity as song writers, musicians, and a few decades of life experience.