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Two key causes of this difference are the Dead's average lack of chops,[*] and Phish's early emotionally-withdrawn nerdiness - which respectively pushed the Dead toward expansive Free material and pushed Phish toward hermetically-sealed structures and musical comedy.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