Sunday A.M. Radio: Phish gets spacey with ambient jams

Well, you knew it was only a matter of time before Phish made their way onto a Sunday A.M. Radio post. Unlike some Phish fans, I do listen to other music besides Phish, though, to be fair, with so much material it does get tough, especially when the band is on tour. If you’ve been tuning in to Sunday A.M. Radio you’ve already heard music by Neu!, the Grateful Dead, Ween, Thes One, The KLF, Four Tet, Frank Zappa and Aphex Twin.

2015 has already been a great year for Phish. The band is playing great. Trey Anastasio is on fire after months of sharpening his guitar skills in preparation for his role in the Grateful Dead’s “Fare Thee Well” concerts and Mike Gordon has brought some fresh ideas and songs from his solo tour in June to the group. There’s no shortage of new material either. In just a little over a year Phish has released a new album, played a Halloween show where they created jams based around the 1964 sound effects album Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House (with a few of those songs making into the live rotation) and this tour, they’ve already played a handful brand new songs including “Blaze On,” No Men in No Man’s Land,” “Shade,” and “Mercury.”

This week Phish plays four shows at two great venues within driving distance of Central PA. On August 11 and 12, Phish takes the stage at the Mann Music Center in Philly. Last year I saw them go deep with a 25+ minute version of “Fuego” – the title track from their most recent album. The band hits Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, MD for two-night weekend stand on August 15 and 16. I’ve seen some great performances at this venue too, including an all-time version of “46 Days.”

Critics of Phish say they just noodle around and don’t actually have great songs, but just listen to introspective songs like “Brian and Robert,” “Fast Enough For You,” “The Connection,” “Waiting All Night,” “Yarmouth Road,” “Two Versions of Me,” or “Billy Breathes.” These are great songs. Obviously though, one of the great things about going to a Phish concert is the fact that anything can happen. The band will explore the limits of what a song can be – often diving into ambient space and emerging with a theme that builds and builds to an ecstatic climax or segues unexpectedly into another tune. For me, the best Phish jams contain some element of ambient music.

A great example of Phish taking a jam into ambient space and bringing it back again is this version of “Twist” from the band’s June 14, 2000 performance in Fukuoka, Japan.

Another great moment in ambient Phish is the famous “ambient set” – which took place 17 years ago this week at the Lemonwheel Festival at the Loring Air Force Base in Limestone, ME (the site of three Phish festivals as well as numerous UFO sightings). There’s almost always a special experimental set at every Phish festival. There was the Tower set at IT, the Storage Jam at the Super Ball, the weird disco set at The Great Went, the late night jam that they played on the back of a flatbed truck as it drove through the grounds of the Clifford Ball and others. I wonder what they’ll do this year for the Magnaball in Watkins Glen, NY? My favorite of them all is the ambient set.

The ambient set took place on August 15, 1998 – after a full three sets of music and an encore. Phish took the stage – lit only by candles made by the audience – and announced they would play a set of “Brian Eno-style ambient music.”  Brian Eno, who pretty much single-handedly created the genre of ambient music with records like Music For Airports, Another Green World and experimental projects with Robert Fripp, once said that ambient music “must be as ignorable as it is interesting.” It’s mood music. It can teleport you into the atmosphere or it can just be something that colors the background as you clean your apartment. So put on Phish’s “ambient set” – which features nearly an hour of ambient improvisation – and make your coffee and breakfast or just zone out on the couch and let the music set the mood.

Recently, drummer Jon Fishman commented on Facebook that Phish asked Eno to produce a record but he turned them down. Maybe in honor of the ambient jam at Loring Air Force Base they would’ve collaborated with Eno on Music for Air Force Bases. There’s still hope.

Are you seeing Phish this week? What do you think of the new songs? Any suggestions for next week’s Sunday A.M. Radio?


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Mike Andrelczyk is a features editor for Fly Magazine. He is a graduate of Penn State University and currently lives with his wife Stacey in Strasburg. Interests include tennis, playing bad guitar, poetry (poems have appeared in Modern Haiku, The Inquisitive Eater and other journals) and oneirology – the study of dreams – mostly in the form of afternoon naps. His name appears in the title screen of Major League 2.

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