Phish: Sigma Oasis. You're Already There!

Album Review by Marc Komito

April 6, 2020

Photo by Rene Huemer

I’ve always been primarily a consumer of live music. As far back as I can remember, even when I listen at home, I more often than not seek out live recordings rather than albums. Sure, there are exceptions just as there are albums that have literally been the soundtrack to my life, but I’m addicted to the energy and the anything goes nature of a live performance. Studio recordings have always lacked the energy that is my drug of choice. That being said, over the last few years I’ve taken a much greater interest in a band’s studio work, listening intently for the message behind the message, the story within the story, and the nuances that sometimes become lost in the euphoria of the moment.

Phish has been a part of my life since the early 90s. I remember Junta, their first album, Lawn Boy, Picture of Nectar, and Rift. I loved these albums, each and every one, and they inspired and excited me to go see the band and I never looked back. That being said, once I tasted the Kool-Aid that is their live performance, I never really listened to any of those albums again, or the later studio albums that would follow, instead seeking out and even collecting countless hours of live shows, both in person and on whatever was the vehicle of the times, from records to tapes to CDs to streaming platforms and, impossibly, back to records again.

Fast forward a quarter of a century, thousands of live concerts and somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty to a hundred thousand hours of music later, I’ve been listening to Phish ever since (not counting a short break and a few unlistenable years in the early 2000s). They’ve been the musical accompaniment to my life since high school, and I have forged a deeper and more meaningful connection with the band in my mid-40s than ever before.

Globally, nationally, and locally, we are in the midst of historically difficult times. I’ll spare you the details as we are all living this together, or apart as it were, but music has become more important and sacred to me now than ever before. During these #quarantimes, when “a week is a month and an hour a day,” while music has provided joy, perspective, and a lens for my feelings, I have relished the response and the positivity of my favorite artists. Trey Anastasio has written and released nine (!) songs since the quarantine started and Phish hosts weekly Dinner and A Movie nights, where fans gather virtually to share recipes and free webcasts of shows past. During the second of these, at “setbreak,” the band excitedly announced (via a webcast Zoom call) the details of a listening party set for the following night, April 1 at 9:00, to debut their newest album, Sigma Oasis.

For the uninitiated, please note that Phish has a well-documented history as pranksters, so the veracity of this announcement was quickly called into question (see also: New Year’s Eve 2019). Given the times, all doubt was quickly laid to rest as Jon Fishman addressed these concerns directly, “...though we may be jokester dufuses, we’re not cruel. We deeply appreciate the situation that we’re all in and we’re grateful as hell that we have the opportunity to bring some lightness or entertainment or whatever the hell you want to call it to the situation.” Thanks, Jon, we’re grateful, too.

Phish would elaborate in a statement released on April 1, “When we recorded the album, we didn’t plan to release it this way. 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.”

So at 9:00 pm or slightly thereafter, as tens of thousands of Phans tuned in via Youtube, Facebook, and Sirius XM’s Phish channel, a picture of Phish outside Trey Anastasio’s snowy Vermont barn covered the screen as the words “Sigma Oasis” came up on the lower left corner of the screen and the band started in on the album’s title track, a song that Phish has played twice live, including its debut in Charleston, SC on 12/8/19. I was fortunate to hear the Trey Anastasio Band debut of the same one month later at the Capitol Theatre on 1/10/20, so it’s a song I was familiar with, as were eight of the other nine tracks on this, Phish’s fourteenth studio album.

Trey, in a track by track album debut on Sirius XM, added “I didn’t foresee that this would have the meaning that it has today. Phish songs, for me, there are certain ones that kind of ride this razor’s edge between literal and poetic or something like that. It’s like I know exactly what I mean when I’m singing it but have a feeling it means something different to someone else. That’s always the high water mark that we are shooting for, when Tom and I write songs together.” Well, holy shit, check these lyrics out…

So take off, take off, take off your mask

The fear's an illusion, so don't even ask

You're finally weightless, so take to the air

Sigma Oasis, you're already there

Trey continued, “The last line of the chorus of “Sigma Oasis” sums up this point — There’s no place to get. There’s nothing to achieve. There’s no place to be. We’re here. Right here, right now is as good as it gets. “You’re already there.” It’s a content state of mind. You’re just completely in the moment. “You’re already there.” You already have everything you need. Sigma Oasis. It aligns with where we are in our career and as friends and musicians. There’s a joy to the playing. We’re not clamoring to make it. Make what? We’re already there! Sigma Oasis.”

I alluded to this earlier, but my spiritual connection to Phish is deeper and more meaningful now than ever before, for a whole litany of reasons. SIgma Oasis, both the song and the album, are exactly what I needed, exactly when I needed them. I think we’re all dancing on the razor’s edge together on this one. And a beautiful song, taboot - the distant vocal effects and the acoustic harmonies make this studio version A+. That goes, in fact, for most of the ensuing tracks. This is an album I’ll go to with regularity over time, choosing the cleanliness and the detailed intricacy of these studio cuts over their live counterparts.

Written down at the Jersey Shore in sessions that saw Trey and Tom write “Sigma Oasis” and “Everything’s Right”, “Leaves” has gorgeous three-part harmonies with Trey, Paige, and Fish as well as a stunning string accompaniment. This tune debuted at the Baker’s Dozen in 2017, was played twice more that summer, and not since. It sure felt new to me as I fully digested what very well may be Phish channeling their inner Pearl Jam and making a political statement through song, albeit with a little more grace and poeticism.

We built a kingdom out of lies

and then we blindly fanned the fires

we warmed our hands with glowing coals

but now they rain down from the skies

Rising volume muffles moans

thoughts conveyed in undertones

We built a kingdom out of lies

“Everything’s Right”, the third track, has been a favorite of mine (and Trey’s) since its debut in the summer of 2017. This song has been played live by Phish 25 times, plus a regular rotation with both TAB and Trey’s solo acoustic shows. I’ve seen it live in every format, and this engaging singalong is always fun, upbeat, and positive. Clocking in at 12:21, this track includes a new vocal arrangement and jams so deep they flirt with Type II, in short a stunning recording of a fan-favorite song. The lyrics have registered with me since day one, but never more so than during the socially distant listening party on Wednesday night when, as the following lyrics played ...

Look into the eyes of everyone you meet

Try not to step on your best friend's feet

The line is in the sand, the flag is planted

The rest of your life don't take it for granted

I received a real time text from my best friend saying, “I’d love to step on your feet right now.” You know who you are...right back at you, my brother! Not to mention, another dance along the razor’s edge as the rest of the lyrics, poetically interpreted, offer a positive spin on the Coronavirus house arrest we’re all under.

I'm in prison without a crime

The sentence stretches on undefined

It's time to get out, I paid my dues

I paid my dues

But, everything's right, so just hold tight

Everything's right, so just hold tight

This world, this world, this crazy world I know

It turns, it turns, and the long night's over and the sun's coming up

“Mercury”: myth, God, element, planet, and Phish 3.0 jam vehicle on 26 occasions since 2015, including the 2018’s NYE gag. Notoriously left off of Big Boat, it finally found its perfect home on Sigma Oasis. Perspective is everything. Everything I hear, see, or experience gets filtered through the lens of my current reality, as is always the case, but even more so when riding a roller coaster of emotions through one of the most turbulent times in world history. It’s hard to listen to anything without filtering it through current circumstances. “That is perspective. And when I have perspective, life is a gift, all of it,” Trey added.

The order in the Chaos

Waits to be perceived

With wings on your feet

your day is longer than your year

The lies they feed to me are as edible as mercury

But the rivers run deep

Your day is longer than your year

The voice that you ignore

might be your future calling

alone we're tossed about

like a bottle in the sea

but together we ascend

and only then escape this gravity

“Shade” has been in the live rotation since 2015. I saw it most recently at Merriweather Post Pavilion early last summer and it resonates with me far more today than it did in the middle of an energetic set. It’s a stunning ballad with gorgeous piano play from Paige and an equally delightful string accompaniment. Said Trey, “I particularly love Paige’s playing on this song. It’s so good that I just stop playing. It’s better when I don’t. I like it so much better with just a piano and a voice.” Thankfully, Trey doesn’t leave his guitar down for too long and offers a vintage solo, clean and pure of tone, perhaps more reminiscent of his sound with Ghosts of the Forest than Phish.

I happened to catch the live debut of “Evening Song” this past December 28, 2019 at MSG and it’s been played one other time since. It’s a slower tune that didn’t match my set-opening energy on the night in question, but fits quite nicely here with its auspiciously current lyrics. I’ll look forward to its development and seeing where it shows up in future setlists.

Approach the night with caution

no longer shall you roam

when darkness stains the eastern sky

be sure that you are home.

“Steam”, a fan favorite and the longest tenured song on the album, has been played live 43 times going all the way back to 2011. This studio version is amongst my favorite tracks on the album, maintaining the high bar set by my most recent live memory as part of the epic “Ruby Waves” > “Steam” > “Tweezer” > “Ruby Waves” which followed the historic 35-minute “Tweezer” on 12/30/19. “Mike Gordon...groove. Love. Jon Fishman...groove. Yes. So glad we finally got to record this,” added Trey. Me, too, Trey. Me, too.

“A Life Beyond the Dream” is arguably one of the best songs ever written by Trey Anastasio. A love song debuted in 2019 with Ghosts of the Forest and included on the official Live release but not the album, its message of love and loss and hope extends far beyond the boundaries of the situation it was written for. Played seven times live by Phish, not including plays with TAB, solo, and with TAB joined by Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks while Susan shared lead vocals at Lock’n. This studio version with a string accompaniment and backup vocals is at least as soul stirring as the Lock’n version, and that’s saying quite a lot. “We’ve all been forced to separate, hopefully temporarily, and it makes me cherish even more so the simple moments of being all together.” Sigh.

Now I'm letting it all roll by

I can see, I can see

A life beyond the dream

I'm watching it all roll by

I can see, I can see

A life beyond the dream

Don't give up hope

Don't give up hope

Keep dreaming

Keep on dreaming

Don't give up hope

Don't give up hope

The ultimate track on the album, “Thread”, has been played only four times since its live debut in 2017. Trey disclosed that “Thread” was written as the second part of a trilogy, its characters continuing the journey set forth in Part One: “Steam” and continuing in Part 3 “Epitaph”, alluded to in Thread’s lyrics, as well. “The lyrics to “Epitaph” have been written and I wrote the music, as well, and we tried it, but the song isn’t ready yet.” I cannot fucking wait for that 1-2-3 punch to descend from on high at some point in the hopefully not too distant future. A modern-day Carini with “as many keyboards as I could possibly put on it,” said Paige, “the parts and passages twist and turn and end up in a dark jam, one of my favorites on the album.”

To tie up the earlier thought about live vs. studio recordings, I simply cannot stop listening to Sigma Oasis. I have no desire to piece together my favorite live versions of each song and make an album collage. This was written, recorded, and produced with deliberate intent and I feel every bit of that. It’s my favorite Phish album since Rift, one of their best, in my opinion. I’m so grateful for this band, their sense of self, and the world around them. Thank you for this masterpiece.

Sigma Oasis…you’re already there.

You’re already there.

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