Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Meta Phish

One thing that can be definitely said about Phish fandom is that we're a passionate group of opinionated people. From the tiniest drop of information that gets leaked or spread on the internet raging maelstroms self-form and accusations of "fluffing" and "hating" develop almost instantaneously. And this seems to be because we all care so much that we provide that instant gratification. We all need to be the first to have their voice heard. To opine. To start the discussion.

But when do we know when we take it too far? 2013 was viewed as a renaissance of sorts for the band. As summer tour tapered off and transitioned into the best fall tour we've all seen in 3.0 followed by a phenomenal New Years Eve run, lots of talk focused on what the band was telling us.  Not with their music explicitly but with the underlying messages and themes that were more implicit. Lots of signals were said to have been sent by the band that have been discussed in multiple other places: Ha Ha Ha > Possum, Most Shows Spell Something, Harpua The Right Way, Icculus on NYE. In a lot of cases though, we as the fans weren't simply talking about songs or jams or placement; we instead were discussing the message that the band was trying to tell us. On a meta-level. To some peoples perspectives, it was like the band was breaking the fourth wall at the concerts to speak directly to us. But how many of these signals were the band actually saying something to us and how much was it normal Phish?  Icculus has always been about reading the book. Possum in 2014 was played about once every 3 shows and that was the gap both before and after Northerly. Ha Ha Ha has been played about once a year in 3.0. Did the band try to speak to the fans by placing these songs together or was it something more innocuous. Most Shows Spell Something, on a whole, seems to be saying something (maybe that the fans are missing the message) but conversely that could simply be viewed as a continuation of the previous Dicks N1 setlist pranks.  Was this some sort of mass induced apophenia where we're finding patterns in the ether where randomness is more likely?

In 2013, the musical high watermark was the Tahoe Tweezer, a sprawling 37 minute journey through multiple musical movements and different jam segments. As the story goes, a Phish fan met Fishman the night before and talked about some of the previous sprawling versions of Tweezer (I believe specifically Mud Island). Then we have the Tahoe version the very next day. Was the influence of this discussion a driving point of the improvisation or was this something the band was tentatively planning on doing anyway. To what extent does the band try to push boundaries on musical structure? Is it important to ask these questions? I'm not sure which I would prefer actually. If fans through our interactions with the band are having any say in the construction of the improvisation then what we're hearing may not be the band's intent (even if it's what we want to hear). And if the band is making the conscious decision to push the envelope and break the mold and it results in a Tahoe Tweezer, then why won't that happen more frequently? To wit, I'd rather reject both of those models of thinking and prefer it be attributed to randomness - the band was locked in and built on the groove that was developed and let it organically occur. Without full knowledge of the band's processes it's ultimately semi futile to even take a side. But the fact that we still maintain our positions says a lot about our views on our roles as fans.

The same meta-phish discussions are going on with the Fuego release. Two songs have been released so far (The Line and Waiting All Night) and they are both ballady songs that don't seem to liken themselves to free-form improvisation. So naturally, Twitter and message boards were alight with discussions on what these songs being released means for 2014 setlists and what the band is telling us with these choices and how it impacts what the bands next steps are and I just want to step back and say they might not necessarily be telling us anything. They're songs. Maybe the band was just pleased with the mixing on Waiting All Night. The Line so far has been the most played song of the Halloween debuts (albeit with only three versions). There are infinitely number reasons for those songs to be selected for singles. Do we really need to know why or understand these reasons? This is even more true for the meaning behind why the album is called Fuego and not Wingsuit as originally assumed. Some discussion has centered around the whys for the change and what the cover art means and what the color scheme of the album dictates and again, we need to step back and think that it might not really have any higher meaning. It doesn't need to, sometimes things are tautologies and are just the way that they are. I know I'm just as guilty as everyone else for trying to ascribe meaning to choices the band makes and projecting my personal experiences on the concerts I'm attending on a whole (which was a topic by the HFPod guys in their intellectual webchat with Zac and Wally bringing up excellent points on the matter and in The Baby's Mouth Essay). But is this a requirement? Do we need to interject ourselves into the concert or can we simply be observers?  The fandom has moved on from simply expressing what particular versions of a song are the best or the writer's favorite and is now into discussing why the ranking of a series of jams are important. From a meta view, we're not simply talking about the band anymore, instead we're discussing the ways to talk about the band and what those requirements are.

Every Phish show has thousands of possible iterations and combinations of songs, placement, improvisational moments. And, in general, all discussions on the concert experience (both positive and negative) are fairly well received. Which really speaks numbers about the ability of fans to get along and (usually) co-exist.  I'll never (hopefully) tell anyone that they're enjoying my favorite band incorrectly. Or over analyzing. Or getting too meta. I personally like doing that myself too much. But I think in 2014 I'm gonna try to take things a little bit more on face value. And try to realize that sometimes a concert is just a concert, a Tweezer is just a Tweezer, and know that that's ok.