Phish.net: a Project of the Mockingbird Foundation


The essential, explains-it-all difference between Phish and the Dead. You're welcome!

Posted 3 years ago by jackl - 108 comments Link: http://phi.sh/b/4e4977b2

One of Phish.net's most prolific reviewers, W H @waxbanks, has written an insightful piece on his blog (blog.waxbanks.net) comparing the music of the Grateful Dead to that of Phish. He sees them as polar opposites with Phish's music being built around order (or structure) and the Dead's being built around disorder.

With his permission, we are re-blogging his piece on the Phish.net site. p.s. If you're a Dead fan, you may well be interested in his recent piece on tribute bands, particularly Furthur, and I found my self shaking my head in agreement with @waxbank's take on Obama taboot. Good stuff!

Without further ado:

"The home state of Phish's improvisatory music is order (or structure). They depart productively from it, and play against it, entering states of tense, nervewracking disorder. But they always want to resolve, to cohere. Their improvisatory structures (like the two chords of the 'Bowie' jam, with their many modal suggestions) are centers of gravity; that's why they can swing wildly away from them and return surefooted, time after time. Their improvisations are famously architectural and coherent, as are Trey Anastasio's unique full-band written arrangements. The flip side of this strength-in-order is that their experiments in purely Free jamming have rarely been wholly successful, though they've gotten much better at it over the last ~30 years. And for a long time they were afraid to be emotionally wild, preferring intellectual experimentation - at some cost to the overall musical vibe."

The home state of the Dead's improvisatory music was disorder. They were able, on unexpectedly rare occasions, to cohere into well-formed orders within their chaotic musics (cf. the 2/18/71 'Beautiful Jam'), but they were most comfortable in freeform musical spaces ('Dark Star,' 'The Other One,' 'Playing in the Band') because they were accustomed to listening to disorder. The flip side of this comfort-in-disorder is that their formal structures, particularly their practices of song-arrangement, were famously shambolic, inconsistent, and rarely ideally-expressed. Indeed, the Dead's strongest period of pure songwriting (the early 70's country-inflected Hunter/Garcia tunes) is marred by a serious lack of spit'n'polish in arrangement and performance.

Two key causes of this difference are the Dead's average lack of chops,[*] and Phish's early emotionally-withdrawn nerdiness - which respectively pushed the Dead toward expansive Free material and pushed Phish toward hermetically-sealed structures and musical comedy.

The arc of each band was in some ways different, though they shared a destination: the Dead relaxed down to their technical level while sharpening their attack on the forms they had mastered (early-70's knife-edge Free play, late-70's crystalline rhythmic pieces, sparkling joyful 80's worldbeats, ragged balladry throughout); Phish veered toward Talking Heads-style minimalism and sonic experimentation in the mid/late-90's to take themselves out of their heads, then embraced their rock heritage and (ironically) the Dead's naked emotionality in their most recent incarnation.

For the longest time it was enough to say that Phish couldn't do what the Dead did, and vice versa; for the first time, that's no longer entirely true. Phish have finally entered a phase where they can generate the kind of emotional intensity that the Dead naturally traded in. It's for another article/essay to deal with the complicated issue of how Phish's stylistic approach works in tension with this emotionality.

Anyhow there it is. Note that we're not talking about the two bands' respective decision-making approaches, the Dead's lack of a clear artistic vision-leader, Phish's totally different musical heritage, the roles of punk/prog/funk, etc. Another time.

* * *

[*] Lack of chops? Yes. Take out Garcia (with his idiosyncrasies), Kreutzmann (master), and Hart (master in a different domain, weird fit in some ways) and you have the following players: Lesh (very technically limited despite strong intuitive musicality), Weir (brilliant innovator despite technical shortcomings), and the various keyboardists, of whom only Hornsby could match Garcia step-for-step.

Comments

safetymeeting Reply
safetymeeting I'd read a book if W H wrote it and look for his little picture whenever I'm scanning reviews/comments.

However, him and I disagree about fall 97. I'm more fond of fall 98, but whatever. Thanks for doing what you do, Wally.

-a fan
Score: 5
deBebbler Reply
deBebbler Wow. Waxbanks should spark some discussion with this one...

The Dead always struck me as traditional songwriters where a large body of their songs had simple chord structures, A/B song structures, and a high level of accessibility for the album versions. While these were often blown to the wayside in concert, the core of the Grateful Dead was Americana music (bluegrass/blues/folk) which they were able to challenge with their live interpretations.

Phish, OTOH, had extremely challenging song structures, often times doing everything possible to keep from having a chorus. Fugues, counterpoint composed sections with little or no lyrics made for a need to work much harder to understand the musical expression in the song. More of how a symphonic piece is appreciated vs an AOR single.

From a live standpoint, Phish always seemed to have more of a Jazz sensablilty than the Dead, focusing more on tension and release than chaos vs order. Having only one or two members dropping LSD at any one time vs the whole band just may have something to do with it as well.
Score: 0
waxbanks Reply
waxbanks @jackl, thanks for posting this - and @safetymeeting, you're too kind. Note that there are some excellent comments on the original post (http://waxbanks.typepad.com/blog/2011/08/the-essential-explains-it-all-difference-between-phish-and-the-dead-youre-welcome.html).

And the title is tongue-in-cheek. :)

@deBebbler said:
From a live standpoint, Phish always seemed to have more of a Jazz sensablilty than the Dead, focusing more on tension and release than chaos vs order. Having only one or two members dropping LSD at any one time vs the whole band just may have something to do with it as well.
For the longest time I'd have agreed 100% about Phish as 'jazzier' - but I now hear the Dead's music as more canonically 'jazzy' in this crucial sense: while a straight-ahead jazz tune might feature a fixed chord progression, it's rare to hear a small jazz ensemble that so strongly favors group coherence, as Phish does, arguably at the expense of individual performers' linear coherence. i.e. The idea of the 'solo statement' doesn't really obtain in Phish's music, as it does in e.g. 99.995% of jazz horn solos. But the Dead, for all their ensemble incoherence, did focus on their players' individual expressivity rather than collective movement.

Phish fly in a flock; the Dead milled about in a crowd. Hence the Dead's tendency to crash into each other, and the miraculous nature of their moments of collective action. We take for granted that Phish will get together every 4 or 8 or 16 bars, even take for granted that they'll spend several bars sweeping up to that climactic downbeat in perfect synchrony. Harder to generate that phenomenon outside Phish's highly-structured, even formalist improvisatory approach.
Score: 4
waxbanks Reply
waxbanks (One way to illustrate the Dead's 'jazzier' approach: compare Billy and Mickey's drumming to Fish's. Fish isn't a jazz drummer (though he could be); he's always laying down mile markers and structural indicators as he goes. At their wooliest, Billy K. couldn't even be counted on to have the same downbeat in mind as the other guys. He was a jazz drummer of a kind. I'm not even sure what Mickey is/was. A nerd, maybe? ;v)
Score: 1
sharininthegroove09 Reply
sharininthegroove09 "[*] Lack of chops? Yes. Take out Garcia (with his idiosyncrasies), Kreutzmann (master), and Hart (master in a different domain, weird fit in some ways) and you have the following players: Lesh (very technically limited despite strong intuitive musicality), Weir (brilliant innovator despite technical shortcomings), and the various keyboardists, of whom only Hornsby could match Garcia step-for-step."

100% disagree with that labeling of Lesh and Weir. To call them technically limited is very provinicial, uninformed, and really, just incorrect.

But the rest of the post I enjoyed. Good read.
Score: 3
waxbanks Reply
waxbanks
100% disagree with that labeling of Lesh and Weir. To call them technically limited is very provinicial, uninformed, and really, just incorrect.
Since I wrote that post, I've relearned that listening is the most important technical skill. So in a sense I agree with you.

But there's no question that Weir and Lesh simply aren't as skilled on their instruments as the other guys in the band. Lesh is like a slow/weak soccer player who positions himself incredibly well, mitigating some of his weakness; Weir is like a goalie who does capoeira instead of watching the game, thereby fucking up opposing players despite not being 'a good soccer player.' Both were essential to the Dead, and I like their playing. But they were n00bs when the Dead started.
Score: 1
owldoug Reply
Interesting breakdown. Musically they are pretty different. Phish is much more technically talented but the Dead are more spiritual and relevant lyrically. Still you have 2 bands that play long songs, play shows with different set lists every night, play different versions of many of the songs each time they play them, play lots of covers often better than the originals, improvise albeit in different ways, and because of this have very devoted fans that overlap quite a bit, and a similar scene. I suspect that many of the phans who are bent out of shape by comparisons, never went to a Dead show.
Score: 1
HarryHerring Reply
HarryHerring I always felt Lesh's playing was extremely untechnical but brillantly intuitive in a ornette coleman sorta way. Worked great for the band but never drove the music like Cactus. The Dead always lacked a solid player on the keys and they always did have trouble performing those beautiful vocal and acoustic arrangements from Workingmans/American Beauty. The main simlarity that always struck me when comparing the two bands was simply their approach to musical experience. For the longest time I arranged the bands in my head as extensions of the jazz world, just with rock instruments. The Dead always felt more free form and Phish more along the lines of Miles Davis' Bitches Brew only with a marvellous sense of humour. Both bands let their tunes germinate, grow and sometimes crash in front of their fans which makes them both a lot braver than many acts and both went through such long reaching transitions both musically and emotionally and sometimes the result was painful for the audience and im sure the bands. I've never been a big fan of anything the Dead did after the around 85' but Phish still commands my attention even after 25 some odd years of playing and it still feels like they have other mountains they can climb. Damn fine piece waxbanks, keep it comin'.
Score: 2

You must be logged in to leave a comment!

Username

Password




Register | Forgot Password

Login Register