Three Takeaways From Phish’s Wingsuit Set
Phish's Wingsuit set took everyone by surprise, to say the very least. The announcement that the band would perform new material for the first time since the last new original, "Steam" debuted in 2011, and break the Halloween tradition of donning a musical costume rocked the Phish world. With that brought one of the most anticipated and important sets since Phish returned at Hampton in 2009. Now that the dust has (somewhat) settled, here are some things we learned about Phish in the wake of Wingsuit.
At their core, Phish always had a knack for telling a great story. Whether in a single song or through a show or tour, Phish could weave together a central theme to perfection. The examples throughout the band's thirty years together are essentially endless. With 2009's Joy, Phish returned to music, but not exactly to their storyteller roots. Regardless of your feelings on the quality of the music delivered in Atlantic City, you cannot deny that we saw Phish get on stage and tell a story from start to finish.
Wingsuit is full of songs that almost feel conversational, like the band is setting a scene and developing certain characters throughout. Tunes like "Wombat," "Fuego" and "You Never Know" harken back to some early '90s Phish when the band's quirky side fused with their technical ability, creating that Phish-y aspect everyone gravitated to. All in all, a good sign for the future of Phish and Wingsuit.
Reenergized and Rejuvenated
Take a look at the following quotes from Phish's Halloween Playbill:
Fishman: "None of the Halloween albums that we've done in our entire career so far even remotely approach the excitement level that I have for doing this one."
Page: "The writing process never happened so much as a group."
Page: "It's our 30th year and we want to make a statement that we are a vital, creative force and, in a lot of ways, more so than ever."
Mike: "(Trey's) been good at keeping that as a central theme: we play together well; let's do that in our songwriting."
This is a band that sounds excited to be making new music, and that is a rare trait of a band coming up on its 30th anniversary. And it isn't phony enthusiasm, as in the record company forced them to get in front of a camera and say it. It is as authentic, something Phish preached since day one. Authenticity is as essential to the Phish model as the festivals, the touring and the jamming. Without an honest and forthright presentation, Phish would seem contrived. Wingsuit is their honest representation and offering to the fans and to themselves, you can see it in these quotes and you can hear it in the music. The ear-to-ear smile on Trey and Page's face while they played that night wasn't a hoax, it wasn't forced, it was as real as it gets. Listen to Trey at the end of "You Never Know." He simply states: "Thank you from the bottom of our hearts. I can't say it enough. Thank you. We are very, very grateful." Honest and real, thirty years running.
Embrace the Ballad
It is time to usher in The Era of the Ballad. Phish is showing off their ability to take songs within a traditional verse-chorus-verse structure and put their own spin on them. Whether its through acoustic interpretations or in a standard electric format, the ballad is no longer a welcomed breather after a 24-minute "Bowie." It is now integral in their writing style. The trade-off in that is that the band will continue to trend towards more guitar-centered songs, ultimately opening themselves up to improv that is centered around a guitar player who is laying down some of his best stuff in years. Whether this trend turns out to be a positive or negative thing remains to be seen, but the fact is that the ballad is here to stay.
There is still so much more to find out about Wingsuit. The most obvious of those is that we don't know exactly which songs will make the album, but for right now, we'll deal with what we have. Phish doesn't play again until December 28, so who knows if we see any of these songs again before 2014. For now, there are reasons to feel optimistic about Phish's songwriting future. They are operating as a tight, four-piece now and demonstrate that with songs like "555," "Fuego," "Wombat" and my darkhorse pick for the eventual favorite song on the album--"Devotion to a Dream," which takes off much like "Kill Devil Falls."
Sure, there are head-scratchers (looking at you "Monica" and "Snow") that come with any fairly large batch of new material. Until we see a final product, all there is to do is engage in every Phish fan's favorite pastime--over-analyzing and speculating. That is, of course, until Phish takes the stage at The Garden.