Earlier this summer, Netflix introduced American audiences to the Norwegian television phenomenon of Slow TV, which is essentially a realtime broadcast of activities that vary from cross-country journeys to knitting to burning firewood. Defiant of characters, plot, or really anything that would make a television show interesting in a traditional sense, Slow TV decides instead to simply place a camera down and observe real life as it passes by within a 7-to-11-hour timeframe. The trend certainly has not caught on with mainstream American audiences, but for those curious about what has captured an entire culture’s fascination, it is certainly worth a try. In those lengthy periods of ease and comfort, an innate sense of joy and humanity arises.
A similar experience can be found in enjoying Phish, America’s most popular, though still divisive, jam band. To put it simply, it has seemed for decades you were either a Phish fan or you weren’t, and there was very little chance for that to change. Recently, though, that line has begun to blur. Thanks to podcasts like Analyze Phish and books like Nathan Rabin’s You Don’t Know Me, But You Don’t Like Me, new fans are being made every day, even amongst the likes of those who otherwise would never consider attending a 4-hour rock concert. The band’s oeuvre is daunting, too, especially seeing as almost every live show they’ve ever played is available to stream or download. Even the group’s most casual fans could name a favorite live set for curious new fans. (I for one would say their 2012 Bonnaroo set, since it’s the first Phish show I ever inadvertently attended.) But when met with an immense catalog that oftentimes seems like you had to be there to really get it, there’s a significant chance of quickly losing interest.
Luckily, the band has also released 13 studio albums over their career, and while some may completely write off the idea of listening to Phish in that kind of controlled setting, many of the records provide a convenient gateway for potential fans. For instance, their newest album, Big Boat, is wonderfully accessible thanks to its relatable sense of communal fun, as well as the band’s own self-awareness.
Taking inspiration from Noah’s Ark, Big Boat finds Phish creating a sense of togetherness. Drummer Jon Fishman invites the listener along on opener “Friends” as the titular big boat arrives and takes us to “Breath and Burning”, where frontman Trey Anastasio lackadaisically describes the apocalypse in the same way Jimmy Buffett describes cheeseburgers. This sort of carelessness comes off more as harmless eccentricity, though, as it’s to be expected from a band who’s as well known for their goofiness as they are for their lengthy set times. (See, for instance, the tongue-in-cheek 4:20 runtime on a song called “Blaze On”.) A certain suspension of disbelief is necessary, though, because despite the overt silliness, it is clear that the band are genuinely enjoying themselves as they tackle such heavy subject matter.
And it is no more clear that Phish are having fun than in the music itself. They are a jam band, after all, and while songs get the chance to open up and become new experiences entirely during their live sets, the band tends to pack their studio albums with short, easier to swallow tracks. There is clear jam potential, though, in the celebration that never wants to end in “More”, or the drawling ballad “Miss You”. Tracks like the funkadelic “No Men in No Man’s Land” and inspirational “Blaze On” have already earned their live show stripes, and it especially shows in the former, which carries with it their trademark lighthearted and danceable spirit.
The same can be said for “Petrichor”, the album’s lengthy closer that puts the band’s jam expertise on clear display. Among tones that reflect sunlight as brightly as you might expect directly after a storm, “Petrichor” journeys confidently through melodic ideas as each band member is allowed to shine. Together, they create a landscape in which the world is washed away by sunlight as well as biblical downpour. Despite this, though, the band vows to play on, and seeing as non-Phish salvation is all but beyond hope by this point (as the titular vessel seemingly didn’t come with any lifeboats), we’re left with little choice but to plant ourselves by their side for what might seem like forever and simply enjoy the view.
Essential Tracks: “Friends”, “No Men in No Man’s Land”, and “Petrichor”