By Louie Wieseman
Boy, 2016 was a strange year for Phish. After a standout year of touring in 2015 and Trey Anastasio’s (lead guitarist and vocalist) filling in for Jerry Garcia in the Grateful Dead’s Fare Thee Well tour, they capped off the year with one of the best played NYE shows in years. 2016 was a different story for Phish. It was a tour all over the place musically and it may have been due to their latest effort, Big Boat. This album strays into a new direction of music that isn’t quite as normal as what they normally play. That would be intricate and complex composed sections and songs that would be ‘launching pads’ for long jams.
No, Big Boat seems to be missing that typical sound that Phish is known for. The only two songs that seem to fit within that mold would be “Blaze On” and “No Men From No Man’s Land.” Both of those songs would be debuted (along with “Shade,” which ultimately didn’t make the final tracklist) during their tour opener of 2015. Those songs have already ultimately been explored and delved into as jams. We’ve already seen 10+ minute versions of these songs despite their 4 minute track times on this album. In addition, only 7 songs from the album have been played live by Phish, too (unless you count Trey playing ‘Petrichor’ with the Oregon, Seattle, and Los Angeles orchestras).
The album begins with a Who-esque intro on ‘Friends’ before the drummer, Jon Fishman, takes a turn at vocals. This is quite unusual for him to do unless it’s a gag-song like Syd Barrett’s ‘“Bike” or “Love You.” It’s pretty… rough live. Thankfully, vocal producing can happen for the album for I just don’t think this song was a good fit for Fishman. (Ugh, I hate saying negative things about Phish.)
Next is an odd tune with key changes that make me question the structure, but it’s still a fun tune. “Breath and Burning” is the first single off of the album (and recently performed on The Tonight Show!) and features many uses of a horn section. However, it’s not the only song to use horns on the album; “Tide Turns” also takes the horns on a much more laidback feature on the album.
The next few songs are written by solo members of the band that were brought into the collective of the group. “Things People Do” features Page McConnell, the keyboardist, playing a demo of the song recorded off of his iPhone! It was played once over the summer in full bluegrass rendition, but this was a nice little surprise to hear. “Waking Up Dead” is a pure oddity, which describes Mike Gordon, the bassist. The song has odd rhythms, squelching vocals, and nonsense lyrics.
Other songs on the album seem to be in different genres and waaaaay different than typical Phish. “Running Out of Time” brings back the feel of their Billy Breathes era of their new music where everything had a much more mellow feel to it. “I Always Wanted It This Way” features Page singing again with a very emotional cry out through it, possibly citing the theme of the album of growing older and accepting fate. The final normal track (if you can call it that) of Big Boat features a fiery little rocker with a similar theme of “I Always Wanted It This Way,” but this time a little more upbeat. This is a perfect song that has always been played incredibly well during their fall tour opener.
The final song of the album has quite a story behind it. “Petrichor” was composed by Trey Anastasio and played three times in 2014 with three different orchestras (Oregon, Seattle, and L.A.) before being brought to an album. It’s one of their most complex songs played live since the ill-fated “Time Turns Elastic” from Joy and “Guyute” from Story of the Ghost before that. A Phish song featuring orchestral percussion played by the band is something unheard of, but it works! It’s a very interesting song with many sections that are fun to listen to. I am actually writing this review during the show on October 16th where it was played live for the second time under Phish (the first time was the tour opener!) WOW! This song rocks and I can’t wait to hear it live more.
Big Boat is an album that will grow on Phish fans. It’s a more welcoming way to get newer members into Phish. With (as of 10/16) just one song left that needs to be played live, I’m very interested to see where these songs go in terms of playing. Live Phish is ALWAYS better than studio Phish (okay maybe one or two exceptions). This album is all over the place in terms of genre and doesn’t have that cohesive feel that Fuego had, but still has good tracks.