Nothing Is Permanently Retired

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At about one minute fifty-five seconds and without any jam, a fairly faithful replication of an album version of a song shouldn’t be a setlist standout. But, by many accounts, the 12/31/09 offering of “Demand” is a notable and curious point in a long setlist. It’s notable not because it was flawlessly performed (although it was inarguably done justice), not because it contained inspired playing (but fun, sure), but rather, because it hasn’t been performed since November 1996, over 13 years ago. Having been shelved for so long – and very likely to be stashed away again for some time – makes the performance special. But why? Why does it matter, why do we enjoy ourselves so much if Phish plays one of their rarer songs rather a well-jammed version of than one of their more common songs?

At heart, I’m a stats geek. Maybe not like Zzyzx, but certainly I’m interested in the stats. I’m incredibly interested in Phish setlist construction, and hope that one day I find myself in a situation where I can interview Trey about it. “Why,” I would ask, “does a song like, say, Camel Walk, only appear every 50-some-odd shows? Is that intentional? Why premiere Glide II only to drop it seemingly forever? Are there ever permanently retired songs, like, perhaps, No Dogs Allowed, Dear Mrs Reagan, and Jennifer Dances? Can we ever expect to see Eliza again?” I would assume that, like most musicians, Phish collectively enjoys playing some songs more than others, but is that reflected in the setlist? If they don’t like a song, why would they play it at all… or write or perform it at all? Maybe it’s purposeful that they “create” rarities? I wonder, do they maybe love playing Harpua, but intentionally not overuse it so that its appearance heralds a special show? Why not just unleash a hose of rarities during a tour knowing it would make fans very happy[1]? Unless these some songs are purposely rarities? Will Alumni Blues ever rejoin the setlist as anything other than a super-rarity?

What about common songs? Is Trey aware that AC/DC Bag has opened no fewer than SIX shows since November 1? Did Phish decide to showcase Kill Devil Falls more times than any other song off of Joy because they feel it’s the best song, or was that just coincidence? Are they purposely playing songs like Llama less frequently, or are they simply not remembering it during on-stage setlist construction? Will Time Turns Elastic get its due, in time, when it is a rarity?

In the end, the whole debate is, at the same time, pointless and essential; it is, one on hand, irrelvent, and on the other, the heart of what makes Phish so interesting. If they played rarities all the time, they wouldn’t be rarities and a large part of the fun of Phish shows might be lost. But we all go to see them play, and even songs of which I’ve personally grown a bit tired, such as Stash, still manage to steal the set from time to time, most notably night one of Festival 8. It’s not so much what they play as much as how they play it. I’ve learned that even Character Zero, once you get past the lyrics, can be just as interesting a jam vehicle as Mike’s, YEM, Jim, or Bowie. And yet, I’m still kind of hoping for a bust-out. Despite that, certain songs – for me, Moma, for example – are a bit of a letdown, because I’d rather hear something else I like better. I suppose if I have to hear a jam, I’d rather that jam stem from a song I’ve yet to hear live than a song I’ve heard 10+ times before.

When I look at the NYE setlist, I think the highlights, musically, were Ghost, Rock and Roll, and Piper, three fairly common songs. I also think Demand was awesome (mostly given the infrequency of its appearance?), and Swept Away into the most uncommonly jammed Steep I’ve ever heard is a high point, largely because it was an especially unique performance. So it’s a mix of both quality jams, song frequency, and performance uniqueness that made this fun. A prior night of the run included Gotta Jibboo > Wilson -> Gotta Jibboo, again, two fairly common songs that provided a notable highlight as well. It’s not just about rarities, that much is certain.

But why should we care about stats, right? What good are stats anyway? All they do, one might argue, is allow you to measure your own satisfaction comparatively, an expressly non-Phishy attitude. What good is seeing Buffalo Bill or Brother if you don’t like those songs as much as, say, Divided Sky or Possum except that one can say they’ve seen a rare song?

I think the conclusion is that it’s a mix of all of that: great jams, cool people, uniqueness of an individual performance, and the fact that the setlist remains an unknown all provide a different dimension of interest, and it’s all of that that can make a Phish concert so fun. It’s not about comparison to others’ shows, but rather, a comparison to my own show history: a re-affirmation of the fact that I can keep seeing the same band without ever tiring of the process. As much as I love the great jam, there’s still a moment in between songs when I’m jumping out of my seat with excitement that the next song could be something crazy.

[1] I realize that there were scores of rarities this tour, but I’m talking a total blow-out, something like “Set 1: Brother, Alumni Blues, Dog Log, Glide, Anarchy, In a Hole, She Caught the Katy, Sparkle[2], Have Mercy, Harpua > Buffalo Bill“.

[2] …Just seeing if you were paying attention.

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