Every band that has to make a living on the road has been impacted by this epidemic. But what if you’re a jam band, where you not only rely upon touring for financial support, but also as your primary creative outlet? Not only can you not make money, but you can’t create your art in the moment, and in the company of tens of thousands of people, your very reason for being.
How do you deal with this? If you’re Phish, one of the most successful jam bands ever, you put out a new studio album.
Last Wednesday, the band hosted a listening party for its 15th studio LP, Sigma Oasis, on their SiriusXM channel. The next day, Sigma Oasis swiftly appeared on every streaming platform. The album had been announced only a few days prior, during the mid-set break for the weekly “Dinner And A Movie” stream of archival concerts that Phish started just last month. The band members revealed that Sigma Oasis had been recorded in November during rehearsals for the band’s 2019 winter tour. They were assisted by producer and engineer Vance Powell, who previously worked with guitarist Trey Anastasio on his solo Ghosts Of The Forest project. Though Powell is most famous for his work on Chris Stapleton’s 2015 smash hit, Traveller.
“When we recorded the album, we didn’t plan to release it this way,” Phish said in a statement. “But today, because of the environment we’re all in, it just feels right. We don’t know the next time that we’re all going to be able to be together. This is an opportunity to have a moment where the Phish community can share something despite being physically separated.”
By debuting Sigma Oasis in its entirety during a free satellite broadcast, Phish turned the album into a “live” communal social-media event for fans, who have similarly gathered in large numbers for the “Dinner And A Movie” broadcasts. That weekly happening already feels like an essential fan tradition that will hopefully continue beyond the epidemic. (The most recent edition, for a show from July 27, 2014, has been viewed nearly 165,000 times since last Tuesday.)
Until recently, this “couch tour” experience — in which fans gather online and collectively watch a live-streamed concert — was most associated with jam bands. But in the past month, the whole world has become a couch tour. No matter what kind of music you’re into — whether it’s Dua Lipa, Jeff Tweedy, Ben Gibbard, Neil Young or scores of other artists — there’s a good chance you have watched a live performance beamed directly into your laptop or iPad in the past few weeks. Many of us are even doing a couch tour to see our own friends and family members, queuing them up on Zoom like heads tuning into a Widespread Panic show on Nugs.net.
I’m curious to see if this sticks when the music business, and the greater world, returns to relative normalcy. I’ve written about how I wish more bands from the indie world would emulate the jam model, since it’s such a better fan experience than most bands offer, fostering a genuine sense of connection among listeners. Though I have my doubts about whether more mainstream artists will want to pursue the couch-tour life as an actual way of conducting a career. I recently spoke with the singer-songwriter Laura Marling, who is releasing an album, Song For Our Daughter, later this week, and she admitted that her weekly Instagram video appearances didn’t come naturally to her, hinting that she would stop once she could tour again.
Even now, as artists from other genres are forced to embrace the couch-tour model, I find myself still drifting toward jam-oriented corners of social media in search of community. Along with Phish’s official weekly viewing party, fans have been holding their own events with sites like watch2gether.com, in which viewers can chat with each other while watching the same video in unison. I hosted one such viewing party last week with my friend Rob Mitchum. Along with hundreds of other Deadheads, we watched an old Grateful Dead show from Halloween 1980. While many people would surely grimace at the prospect of sitting through a three-hour-plus jam-band concert from 40 years ago, I found the idea of briefly exiting 2020 for a 200-minute virtual jam cruise pretty relaxing.
Beyond all of this, however, the prospect of a new Phish LP prompts a familiar question: Should a band that is celebrated as one of the great live acts in rock history even bother with making a studio album?
It’s likely the members of Phish have pondered this very question themselves. Sigma Oasis is their first studio work in four years, coming after 2016’s Bob Ezrin-produced Big Boat, a woefully stiff-sounding misfire that has been treated mostly with scorn by fans. Two years later, Phish changed course with Kasvot Växt, sort-of concept record that’s not really a record. Phish initially teased it before its semi-annual Halloween show, in which the band has traditionally performed a classic album by another artist. For Kasvot Växt, they perpetuated an elaborate hoax about a mythic LP by an obscure (and fake) Scandinavian rock band that Phish then “covered.” While that 2018 Halloween show is the only time Kasvot Växt has been played in sequence, the songs have become staples of the band’s live sets, and (unlike Big Boat) the “album” was enthusiastically embraced by the fanbase.
For Sigma Oasis, which was recorded live and then overdubbed over the course of the intervening months — most audibly by keyboardist Page McConnell, who added layers of vintage synths and pianos to the core tracks — Phish faced the same Catch-22 they’ve long faced when setting out to make new albums. On the one hand, this is band that demands to be captured as a vibrant, live-sounding unit. Imposing too many of the conventional strictures of recorded music on Phish strangles everything that is inventive and exciting about them. (In that respect, Powell — whose work tends to have a retro, “plug-in and play” aesthetic — was an inspired choice over the more obtrusive Ezrin.) On the other hand, what is the point of a “live-sounding” studio album when there are literally hundreds of concerts recordings to hear? Even if you consider the charming Halloween performance of Kasvot Växt to be a Phish album, all of those songs have been performed better in other shows, which means any intrepid Phish fan can assemble their own, better version of the “album.”
This is the fun (and the madness) of following this band. But in the case of Sigma Oasis, which seems to have been warmly greeted by Phish followers, the members of the band somehow found a way to maneuver this seemingly no-win situation. For instance, it’s true that Sigma Oasis captures the live energy of this band more successfully than any Phish album since Billy Breathes, the 1996 effort that stands as their best studio work. The rhythm section of drummer Jon Fishman and bassist Mike Gordon sound especially powerful on this album, with Powell ably capturing the full scope and definition of their interplay and insistent force. And Phish also jams far more than usual on record, with the recent improvisational vehicle “Everything’s Right” unfolding over the course of 12 minutes to a beguiling ambient coda. Two other lengthy numbers, “Steam” and “Thread,” similarly feel like they were lifted out of a live set and inserted into the album with minimal fuss.
But Sigma Oasis ultimately is noteworthy for how it deviates from Phish’s stage work, particularly on the album’s ballads, precisely the sorts of songs that tend to not go over as well live. The album’s centerpiece is “Leaves,” a dramatic piano-driven number with a striking string arrangement that recalls Paul Buckmaster’s work on Elton John and David Bowie albums of the early ’70s. A similar sense of care and attention to detail is discernible in the band’s musicianship, whether it’s the way Anastasio’s languid guitar lines dialogue with McConnell’s grandiose piano licks, or Fishman drives the song home with a series of expertly executed drum rolls.
Live, this kind of song can seem like a momentum killer. Even on record, the relentless positivity of the lyrics can seem trite or corny, given that you can hear them with greater clarity. But at this moment, I find myself feeling more appreciation for platitudes like “everything’s right, so just hold tight” from “Everything’s Right” or “don’t give up hope, keep dreaming” from “A Life Beyond The Dream,” the album’s mushiest (and most affecting) ballad. (However, the line imploring listeners to “take off your masks / fear is an illusion” from the title track seems like an unfortunate instance of bad timing.)
Even on the ballads, what Sigma Oasis gets right is capturing the friendly, intuitive interplay of the musicians, that innate sense of ambient pleasure that derives from witnessing four lifelong friends gather in a room and sharing a moment of joy and creation together. It’s the very sound of human connection, which is something we could all use in our ears right about now, as we all remain stranded on our respective couches.
Sigma Oasis is out now via Phish Inc. Get it here.