"Fuego" (Live at Saratoga Performing Arts Center 4 July 2014)
As a matter of principle, I don’t “write” “about” Phish. I have written about my experience of Phish, because it helps me understand myself. But writing about Phish doesn’t help me or anyone else understand Phish because I don’t really know anything about them. When I embraced this principle, of self exploration and sort of phenomenological purview — opposed to a weary/knowing principle that guides a lot of ‘writing on the Internet for money’ and is fueled primarily through Wikipedia, Adderall, and hubris — I became a lot, lot, lot happier and wrote a lot, lot, lot less.
Turns out, it’s been deeply therapeutic not having an automatic opinion on things and/or giving in to the compulsion to formulate an opinion, even an impassioned one. It’s allowed me to focus on listening to other people’s thoughts and trying to have a running discourse with myself about the things I like and value in life.
That’s not to say I don’t dip my oar into the tired waters of criticism. (How much do I want to build onto that image something something from Coleridge something something skimming the surface of the lake whose waters are the mind. Albatross!) I personally find very little value in it, though, and it hasn’t affected my life very much one way or the other. Perhaps I should have always been thoughtful about what I said online. But that’s not me.
This is a new song called “Fuego” from Phish’s latest album, Fuego. This performance is the fourth time they’ve ever played it. It is, basically, one of my favorite songs I’ve ever heard! I feel especially close to this song because it’s the first new Phish song I’ve heard since my conversion experience last year. Since it’s so new — I heard its debut just a day after the people in the stands — it seems OK for me to talk about it.
I created a false binary from listening to Tom Sharpling talk about Phish. On the one side is Miles Davis, from the late 60s to the mid 70s, and on the other side is Phish. It seems like Miles is the good version of whatever Phish is the bad version of. I personally like this song “Fuego” more than just about any Miles Davis from that era, though, and I think it’s probably better in a particular way that matters most to me.
I’ve had a long, long appreciation for Miles Davis’s post-Bitches Brew work since ever since I was in college and my favorite professor introduced me to jazz as an aesthetic concept and lifestyle practice. (His pre-Sketches stuff is so classic as to sound trite, even though I know that’s not exactly the case, I think if you’re younger than about 40 or so you’d have to agree with me. It’s just been out there so long it’s like Wagner or something. You can’t really take it that seriously even though obviously you should.) The stuff on, for instance, Live-Evil is basically peerless for me. The righteous fucking groove of “Sivad” is an inarguably strong position. It is basically the apex of Miles’ electric work for me. One of the problems of this era, and I sort of know this is actually like several mini-eras, but one of the main problems for me is represented on the sprawling Miles at the Fillmore boxset that came out this spring. I’ve been listening to that one a lot, since it comes up fairly high on the Spotify results and it’s supposed to be pretty good.
For me Miles at the Fillmore starts out behind since it lacks electric guitar and Michael Henderson’s electric bass (my two very most favorite aspects of the Live-Evil/Cellar Door stuff). In their place, you get Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea, neither of whom are as visceral (to me) players as John McLaughlin or Henderson. (Arguably, Chick Corea is borderline evil for his involvement in helping Scientology during several dark periods around this era, but that’s not really here or there; it can’t not color my thoughts about him, though, just as Miles’ confrontational bad-assery does.) This Miles stuff is sort of him at his peak with one of his best bands, but to me it’s an awful lot of meandering horn blowing and meandering keyboard textures. The rhythm section is powerful if understated sometimes (DeJohnette’s drumming is typically amazing, though.)
Compare to Phish. They’re obviously working in a lot more conventional song structure than Miles, but it’s not so different. There’s a reason why the two are only semi-arbitrarily set off against each other, here. There’s an open, atmospheric middle section to “Fuego” that invites a lot of texture and interplay. While it’s a lot less virtuosic than “Sanctuary” or “It’s About That Time”, I’d argue it’s a lot more engaging, as well. There are large swaths of the Miles box set where it’s just Dave Holland playing the same few bars of a bass line over and over and Miles just blowing his horn or Chick Corea making weird squiggles. The truly rollicking stuff like “Willie Nelson” and “Directions” suffer from a comparison to “Fuego” because the latter is built to be pop-anthemic. It’s happened to me a few times, but it’s an excessively rare time I find myself humming along to a Miles tune let alone get it stuck in my head. “Fuego” has like three different catchy parts.
Phish is weird. There’s a guy wearing a dress and none of them look like rock stars. Miles was weird too, and had to put up with a lot more bullshit in his lifetime than Phish ever has. (He was also a million times squared cooler than Phish ever will be…) They’re not exactly comparable, but they’re also pretty comparable, I think. And neither exactly suffers for the comparison. I’m as excited to see Phish again as I would be to see Miles in 1970. OK, maybe not quite that excited. But if you’re even close to being on the fence with them, I’d suggest listening to the song above because they’re really good.