Album Review: Phish – Joy

As maligned as it is, Phish’s studio catalog does one thing really well: it provides brief but telling capsules that mark pivotal moments in the evolution of the band’s music, lives and career. Joy is unlike any other album they’ve released in terms of subject matter, since many of the songs were born of the unsavory circumstance of drug addiction, faltering friendship, and even death. It’s not an album of dreary dope-addled tales, though. It’s one of abandonment, redemption, and hope, by a band that had been declared dead.

Most fans will find Joy similar in sonic quality to 1996’s Billy Breathes, and there’s no harm in that. The two albums share a producer (Steve Lillywhite) and feature a mostly concise, shimmering batch of songs. However, Joy also shares aspects of 2002’s Round Room, in that a great deal of it was recorded in real time, and there are rough patches left in for authenticity. The same divergent calculation can be made with each album – there are shades of the tightly wound rock of Hoist, the drowsy funk-rock of Story of the Ghost, the all-encompassing stylistic structure of Farmhouse, and the calculated prog-rock of Junta. Much like Phish’s entire career, Joy is inspired in equal part by new and old.

Comprised largely of guitarist Trey Anastasio’s compositions, Joy also includes one track each from bassist Mike Gordon and keyboardist Page McConnell. Anastasio, as always, is monstrously evocative and nearly predictable in tackling the subjects we all knew he’d get around to. Gordon and McConnell are less dramatic but equally sophisticated in their contributions. The band casts dark and light atmospheres at will, channeling different eras and aspects of their history throughout the album.

The opening three songs encompass an expansive range of emotions that can be interpreted in highly personal ways. They also exhibit the band’s legendary range. “Backwards Down the Number Line” serves as the shamelessly goofy and emotional pop tune, “Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan” conjures the hazy, menacing rock delirium of Phish circa 1997-2004, and “Joy” provides heaving balladry a la 1999’s “Bug,” with its striking chorus and swaying arena-rock refrain.

Gordon’s “Sugar Shack” chugs along as only his creations can, with fantastically oblique lyrics and fussy, tempramental melodies and time signatures. After this point, the album’s wheels start to rattle a bit, and the flow of the journey gets shakier. “Ocelot,” perhaps the most natural-sounding of the album’s songs in the live setting, comes across as messy and disjointed here. “Kill Devil Falls” is quite the opposite, and its vigorous tempo is on full display, complete with a big sing-along moment at the end that sounds as huge as it should.

The album is lyrically impressive until the feathery “Light,” which contains a real groaner of a line in the second verse – “It takes a few moments of whirling around ’til your feet finally leave the ground.” That line and some of the lyrics in the compositional opus “Time Turns Elastic” are the only real missteps in the lyric department, as most of the songs have deliciously cryptic or jarringly resonant wordplay to compliment the music. Even the deceptive simplicity of McConnell’s flippantly recorded “I Been Around” will stir feelings in Phish fans who know what the band has endured, both personally and professionally, over the last decade.

Still, the album flounders to a close. The placement of “Time Turns Elastic” doesn’t compliment the record as a whole. The 13-minute multi-section song serves as neither opening fanfare, thematic centerpiece nor closing flourish, and the dreamy creation almost feels intrusive in the midst of so many soul-baring, reflective songs. The band goes for gravitas with “Twenty Years Later” in the last spot, but the song’s majestically defiant chorus falls flat in terms of atmosphere and sound quality.

A strong start, plenty of diversity, and an uneven overall experience make Joy similar to other Phish albums. But the triumphant nature of the album’s existence and the unique lyrical content within help turn it into more than just a catalog item. The songs on Joy will always remind those who hear them of the end of a decade and the rebirth of a band.

Rating: 8.4 out of 10

Live Review: Phish – Merriweather Post Pavilion, August 15, 2009

Having recently pressed their collective “reset” button after a half-decade of nonexistence, the guys in Phish have so far used 2009 as – to cop a phrase from the sports world –  a “rebuilding year.” The indulgent comeback shows in March served as an enticing prelude to an early summer tour that satisfied but merely hinted at what the band is capable of. Glimpses of the relaxed, confident, daring band that once destroyed America on a yearly basis gradually became visible through the careful murk of predictability that otherwise dominated the shows.

The band’s next-to-last tour stop at Maryland’s idiosyncratic Merriweather Post Pavilion found them in yet another transition. Starting in late July, the late summer tour found Phish reaching deeper and deeper into their catalog and producing gems of varying half life. The Merriweather show proved relatively mild in that department, but thoroughly thought-provoking and entertaining nonetheless.

Phish - Merriweather Post Pavilion, August 15, 2009

Phish - Merriweather Post Pavilion, August 15, 2009

The first set provided interesting, if not flawless, sequencing. Many bemoaned the aesthetically unremarkable “Crowd Control” opener, but fans with a nose for profundity sensed significance in the song’s standoffish lyrics. Given the venue’s parking woes, porous perimeter security, and divisive seating arrangements, the sentiment seemed appropriate. In spot number two, the upbeat music and regretful lyrics of “Kill Devil Falls” birthed the night’s first pronounced instrumental excursion, a brief but focused stream of fast-paced fretwork and relentless rhythms.

Rocking Saturday-night crunchers like “Axilla I” and “Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan” were balanced with more reserved offerings, like keyboardist Page McConnell’s “Beauty of A Broken Heart.” This introspective piece proved a bit languid, while the demented musical short-story “Esther” and the diabolically challenging “Foam” – certain sections of which guitarist Trey Anastasio flat-out struggled with – were better received among the devoted throng.

The eye-popping first segment of the show also featured two aggressive songs that hadn’t been performed since July of 2003 – “The Sloth,” a menacing tale of greed and gluttony culled from Anastasio’s decades-old “Gamehendge” song cycle, and the brief near-instrumental “Ha Ha Ha.” Anastasio commented on the fact that, despite botching the intro to the song, drummer Jon Fishman penned “Ha Ha Ha.”

Anastasio then announced the world debut of another Fishman-penned song called “Party Time.” The song’s moniker, which was once rumored to be the title of the next Phish album, served as its only lyrics. The band offered a fun and funky rock groove during this spirited half-joke of a “song.” I can envision “Party Time” emerging from the chaos of “Auld Lang Syne” during a big Phish New Year’s Eve party.

“Strange Design,” while not particularly rare, served as a noteworthy personal moment.  I hadn’t witnessed the song live since my first show in the Fall of 1996, and a huge statistical gap was closed by this performance. Roundly satisfied by the set, I wandered out of the pavilion and soaked up the overall atmosphere during the lengthy “Time Turns Elastic” set closer.

“Time Turns Elastic” spans approximately 12 minutes, but features little deviation in structure from performance to performance, so its become as polarizing as any new Phish song among the fanbase. I enjoy “TTE,” but I don’t feel obligated to stand at rapt attention while it uncoils through several unique sections before finally striking with blazing grandeur at its climax.

A seemingly endless array of food and beverage options await the setbreak wanderer at Merriweather, and it wasn’t long before I had one of my favorite beers in hand and good friends all around as I excitedly awaited set two. It was about time for a “Tweezer,” and there’s no better place for it than the start of a second set, with Chris Kuroda’s light show accentuated by the complete absence of sunlight.

Merriweather’s flowing, slow and steady “Tweezer” isn’t going to set a veteran listener’s heart racing by any means. The song’s 10-minute running time is split neatly between the vocal section and the free-form ending, affording the band little time to experiment. Instead, this pleasantly concise weekend warrior of a “Tweezer” hit a moderate peak, quickly grew tired and was replaced by the chiming intro of “Taste.”

Gordon and Fishman - Merriweather Post Pavilion, August 15, 2009

Gordon and Fishman - Merriweather Post Pavilion, August 15, 2009

The band has displayed an odd fascination with the “Tweezer” and “Taste” combo this year, offering the same segue at the Hampton shows in March. The gleeful “Taste” easily found the dramatic flourishes and blitzing guitar solo that define it, and Fishman and bassist Mike Gordon happened upon a particularly restless, multifaceted rhythm that nudged Anastasio’s nimble solo further and further into the cosmos.

The night’s most inspired creation was yet to come, though, but there was even a calm before the storm. The band kept the vibe jovial with the jaunty “Alaska” before the horrendously placed ballad “Let Me Lie” brought things to a muggy standstill. This thing is a real groaner and more than enough reason to grab a drink or take a bathroom break. Normally, the Round Room-era boogie “46 Days” that followed wouldn’t be the best way to bust out of a setlist funk, but the band clearly had special treatment in mind for this otherwise ambiguous song.

“46 Days” stayed on a normal course at first, with the accommodating structure giving way to a strutting funk-rock jam. Said jam soon veered off in numerous directions, touching down in foreboding forests of synthesized sounds, entering black holes of ambiance, and scaling majestic improvisational peaks. Mesmerizing atmospheres and pastoral sonic landscapes manifested throughout the band’s deconstruction of sound, which finally, peacefully drifted into the opening strains of The Velvet Underground’s “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’.”

Performed only three times to date and in hibernation since Halloween 1998, “Oh! Sweet Nuthin'” re-surfaced at the Shoreline show 10 days before Merriweather. It seems to be back in the rotation, and I’m for it – it’s a far better choice than “Let Me Lie” or “Anything But Me” if the band just has to play a ballad. It provided a nice moment of measured melancholy before the sly intro of “Harry Hood” materialized from the final chords.

Like every essential Phish song – “Tweezer,” “Tube,” “Run Like an Antelope,” and the like –  “Harry Hood” has already seen its pinnacle and will likely never return to the effortlessly glorious quality found in versions from the 1990’s. Still, the band manages to squeeze plenty of moody, cinematic goodness from “Hood”‘s majestically restrained closing jam, and this one soared a bit higher than most recent versions.

Anastasio and Gordon - Merriweather Post Pavilion, August 15, 2009

Anastasio and Gordon - Merriweather Post Pavilion, August 15, 2009

The second set seemed to fly by, and the encore flew just as fast and with a great deal more volume. Perhaps nodding to the town’s 11 PM cutoff for concerts, the band and crew proceeded to make one hell of a racket around 10:55. Two of the loudest songs in their repertoire – a ballistic version of Led Zeppelin’s “Good Times Bad Times” and the bombastic three-minute juggernaut “Tweezer Reprise” – comprised the show’s finale, and the intent of the song selection was unmistakable, even from my spot in row MM. The encore was probably the loudest I have ever heard the band in an amphitheater setting, so if they wanted to shake the very earth beneath Columbia, MD, I believe they succeeded.

This show – my 59th Phish show – strangely stands as one that I was not ready to see end. It’s not that I’m usually ready for a show to end, but I’m always quite accepting of the fact and well aware of flow of the concert. On this night, I couldn’t believe that “Harry Hood” was really the end, and the encore was all that was left. The setlist was uneven and didn’t please everyone, but Phish shows always please as many people as they leave nonplussed. With so many rare treats and memorable moments, I was incredibly satisfied by the show and I felt that the band was just hitting its stride when the encore rolled around. As jaded as Phish’s longtime fans are, it’s becoming apparent in 2009 that Phish’s extended absence will definitely serve to make out hearts – and ears – grow fonder.

All Photos by Esther Rodgers

08/15/09 Merriweather Post Pavilion, Columbia, MD

Set 1: Crowd Control, Kill Devil Falls, The Sloth, Beauty Of A Broken Heart, Axilla I, Foam, Esther, Ha Ha Ha, Party Time, Tube, Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan, Strange Design, Time Turns Elastic

Set 2: Tweezer > Taste, Alaska, Let Me Lie, 46 Days, Oh! Sweet Nuthin’, Harry Hood

Encore: Good Times Bad Times, Tweezer Reprise

Album Review: Dave Matthews Band – Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King

It took them most of this decade, but with Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King, Dave Matthews Band have finally rekindled the essence that originally intoxicated their fanbase during their 1990’s heyday. The band has never lost their touch in the live setting, but this album is full of songs that will revitalize their set lists and hang around as concert favorites for years instead of months.

Big Whiskey and the Groogrux KingMore ragged than 2001’s painstakingly-polished Everyday and more cohesive than 2005’s hit-or-miss Stand Up, Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King (BWGK) stands as DMB’s most natural-sounding and emotionally charged record of the young millenium. Fittingly, the first and last sound listeners hear during a start-to-finish listen is the late Leroi Moore’s succinct saxophone. Both of these moments, brief as life can be, capture him and the band in the midst of spontaneous improvisations, the most private and personal of musical forms.

Moore, who was tragically killed in 2008, is eulogized by Matthews’ own album-cover artwork, but this album is far from a downer. Like the jubilant jazz-funeral artwork, BWGK pays homage to Moore with a celebration – and occasional lamentation – of life itself. BWGK is full of Matthews’ favorite subjects and frequent ruminations – religion, life, death, sex, war, sadness, fun – all of these are found among the album’s resonant lyrical content.

As varied as the subject matter are the musical styles within the album’s 13 tracks, and there’s a signature DMB style to appease every part of their fanbase. There’s maniacal, screaming Dave – the likes of which hasn’t been heard in some time – on the worrisome “Time Bomb,” sweet and playful lovin’ Dave in “Spaceman,” and hopeful Dave on “You and Me.”

Sorrow and loss don’t dominate the album, but a sense of imminent danger does. “Dive In” is a bitingly sarcastic environmental warning, and the foreboding, explosive “Squirm” reinforces the band’s continuing infatuation with Eastern tones when they want to make things extra dark. “Squirm,” a la older favorites like “What You Are,” “The Last Stop,” and “Minarets,” draws evil energy from a dense, exotic melody.

The band trumps the sharper, edgier sound of Stand Up by incorporating powerful doses of electric guitar from Tim Reynolds and Jeff Coffin’s aggressive sax work (the album also features contributions from Moore, but it is often difficult to discern who’s on sax). Carter Beauford’s busy, perfect drumming is punchier than ever, and aided by Stefan Lessard’s smooth, worldly bass playing, Beauford propels the album’s mood swings with vibrant rhythms that slowly take over the listener’s muscle movements.

Every song is worth mentioning and full of pleasure, and there’s a wonderful flow to the experience. Guest banjo player Danny Barnes adds some needed twang to “Alligator Pie,” in which Matthews combines imagery of post-Katrina New Orleans with his daughter’s plea – “Daddy, when you gonna put me in a song?” The album was recorded in New Orleans, and while NOLA influence can be found on BWGK, it’s not an overwhelming element.

Some of the album just flat out rocks like only DMB can, such as the frenzied dance tune “Shake Me Like A Monkey,” which is all blustery horns, intense rhythms, somersaulting riffs, and impassioned vocals. “Seven” combines some typical Matthews lust with a shoulder-shrugging syncopation that results in some down-and-dirty funk fun. It’s also easy to hear why, prior to his passing, Moore selected the muscular foundation of “Why I Am” as his favorite groove – there’s not another song on the album that is more unmistakably DMB.

There’s one essential component to the DMB sound that is somewhat lacking here, and that’s the violin work of Boyd Tinsley. I found him to be almost unnoticeable during my several listening sessions, save a couple of obvious solo moments. His contributions mostly serve to add a nearly imperceptible layer of depth to the band’s melodic creations.

Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King is a stellar effort from a band that has quite publicly lost its way, found its way back, and taken stock of their life and gifts along the journey. By focusing on the most important things in their lives – one of which is music – DMB has created something that will restore fans faith in their abilities and appeal to those who haven’t already devoted themselves.

Rating: 9.0 out of 10

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Bonnaroo Preview: Turbine

Since their beginning around 2004, New York City’s Turbine have evolved from a blues-folk duo into an exploratory quartet that is never predictable. Bonnaroo’s Troo Music Lounge will be the secret hotspot of the day on Saturday, with Turbine opening up the beer-laden tent at noon and the aforementioned Russian Circles set later in the evening.

TurbineBonnaroo is just one of several key gigs for the band this summer as they ride the last swells of success from their wonderful 2007 album Reward. According to their website, there’s a new album in the works and they’ll be playing two shows at Bonnaroo, with Saturday’s Troo Music Lounge show confirmed and a second show TBA. They’ll also perform at the always interesting Wakarusa festival, Telluride Bluegrass Festival’s “NightGrass,” and a Phish aftershow party in Knoxville.

Don’t dismiss Turbine as another “jam” act just because they happen to be orbiting Phish for a few days. These seasoned performers bring an anything-goes intensity and unmistakable sound to the stage. Position yourself in front of them for a while and you’ll hear sounds as varied as dark, bluesy rock, crisp vocal harmonies, frenetic guitar work, scientific electronic funk, energetic improvisations, and traditional American music, all performed with a down-and-dirty NYC edge. Adding to their distinct sound is the oft-synthesized harmonica of Ryan Rightmire, who plays guitar while adding all manner of sonic colors via the hooked-up harmonica.

Find out more about Turbine at these links:

Band Website
Sonicbids Press Kit
Turbine YouTube Channel