|Originally Performed By||Phish|
|Historian||Robert Ker (bobbker)|
In rock music, popular longevity is almost like a magic trick. It involves constructing a Jenga tower of music and moments that cumulatively add up to a rich legacy, while not pulling out too many pieces that might cause it to come crashing down. It involves knowing when to take chances and when to stay safe; when to dramatically evolve and when to simply offer the illusion of newness; when to give fans what they want and when to give fans what they need. Fortunately for Phish and those who love the band, these kinds of tricks have been a strength from go, and on Halloween of 2018, they pulled off one of their best tricks yet: they became a fictional band to evolve into a better Phish.
On their previous Halloween concert, two years prior in 2016, the band performed David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars in its entirety. Their performance of that album was highly accomplished, yet overly reverent and not particularly adventurous. However, whether consciously or not, they ultimately took away the best lesson they could have learned from tackling that album. In 1972, a still-floundering David Bowie slid into the skin of the fictional rock star Ziggy Stardust and created the album that would open up new doors for his career and give his creative voice focus and direction. In 2018, Phish would do something similar by becoming Kasvot Växt—a fictional Finnish band from the 1980s—and creating the album í rock, which would slightly alter the trajectory of their later career.
Not that things were going poorly for the band. Musically, they were as potent as they’d been in years, expanding their palette through fresh gadgetry and an array of new jam vehicles, and coming off a year that boasted the triumphant Baker’s Dozen shows at Madison Square Garden. But lyrically, their more recent material proved more divisive. Marked by songs such as “Set Your Soul Free,” “Soul Planet,” and the Big Boat album, their newer songs centered on direct reflections on clarity, optimism, hope, and togetherness. While some fans adored the uplifting nature of these themes, the lyrics were often jarringly literal or overtly new age, alienating those who admired how the band traditionally approached even serious topics through side doors of surrealism, wordplay, and dream logic.
With the invention of Kasvot Växt and “Turtle in the Clouds,” the surrealism was back—indeed, the song’s free-associated lyrics and balance between nonsense and profundity could have sprung from the mind of early Vermont influence Nancy (author of the lyrics to “I Didn’t Know” and “Halley’s Comet”). The darkness that lingers along the margins of some of the band’s best material returned, as well; after a few years of telling fans that the ocean was love, it was bracing to hear Page open a song with lyrics like, “Shadows follow toward me as I wander / Along the shoreline past the people / And I turn and walk away.”
After a cry of “House party,” Fishman takes a verse, singing the lines, “Friends are dancing on the hillside / For the first time in a long time / I want to live another day.” The vocals are passed to Trey, who takes song deeper, tossing out what could be symbolic lyrics with “I see a turtle in the clouds” (turtles have long been considered avatars for tranquility and long life in cultures throughout the world), but couching it with a disclaimer that sounds nearly like being embarrassingly stoned in public: “Did I just say that right out loud?”
Trey then sneaks frankfurters back into Phish lore once more with “hot dog vendor in the dark,” and it returns to Fishman, Mike, and Page, who alternate lines about not trusting one’s own instincts (“Imaginary rule book I keep within my head / Don’t know why I follow all the things it said”) before landing on one of the most delightfully ridiculous lyrics of 3.0: “Some people call me clueless / My last name is Wallob.” An extensive Google search turns up no non-Phish results for the word “Wallob,” nor is it an anagram; the name remains an inside joke among band members. If it means nothing whatsoever, then all the better.Phish ”Turtle In the Clouds” – 10/31/18, Las Vegas, NV. Video by Phish
After a string of songs that were directly from Anastasio’s perspective, the collaborative lyrics of “Turtle in the Clouds” felt refreshingly free from Trey’s ego, or that of any other single member. This carries over into the music, which is unfussy, angular, and rooted in the European synth-pop scene that Kasvot Växt might have come up in. Mike, Fish, and Page do the yeoman’s work, generating a lean, simmering groove based on rudimentary beat-boxing Trey did while walking around the clubs in Nashville and taking note of what rhythms made people move. While Trey plays rhythm and takes a modest solo near the end, it is surely the only Phish original to debut on stage with Trey holding a microphone but not a guitar.
And then there’s the dance routine. Choreographed by longtime collaborator Jon Rua and performed to a synth-funk rhythm concocted by Page and Fishman, the song’s centerpiece dance is intricate on a level that Phish has never attempted. While dance routines have always been a part of the band’s repertoire, they’ve manifested themselves through minor moves, such as the whirling leg-kicks of “Guelah Papyrus” or play-along-from-home goof of “Meatstick.” In the case of “Turtle in the Clouds,” the routine is so convoluted that the complexity is surely part of the joke; it is not uncommon for Trey and Mike to bust each other up while attempting to complete the steps. Grab a partner, grab a guitar, stand a few feet apart, and try it for yourself:
1. Tap your right foot three times in a quarter circle clockwise
2. Tap your left foot three times in a quarter circle counterclockwise
3. Repeat steps 1 and 2
4. With your left planted, tap your right foot around in a semi-circle counterclockwise
5. Take three steps backward, then three steps forward
6. Face front
7. With your right foot planted, tap your left foot around in three-quarters of a circle clockwise
8. Take three steps backward, then three steps forward
9. Face front
10. Kick your legs: left, right, left, right
11. Raise your guitar with each kick: left, right, left, right
12. Stand perfectly straight
13. Don invisible flight goggles
14. Make an X in front of your face with your forearms
15. Lean to your right as if ski jumping in the Olympics
16. Return to an upright position, make an X in front of your face with your forearms
17. Lean to your left as if ski jumping in the Olympics
18. Execute high-fives with your partner: down low with your right hand, up high with your left hand, bump right elbows, bump left elbows.
19. Walk away from one another, then back together
20. Take three sideways strides to your right, then left
21. Turn to your left, take a step to your left, then back, and kick with your left foot
22. Turn to your right, take a step to your right, then back, and kick with your right foot
23. Return to an upright position, jump into a split while turning your head to look at one another
24. Jump into a split while turning your head to look away from one another
25. Jump into a split while looking ahead
26. Jump around to face one another
27. Jump around to face forward
28. Take a few steps forward together
29. Remove the invisible flight goggles
30. Cast the invisible flight goggles into the audience
There’s something incredibly vigorous about men in their 50s introducing new dance routines to their rock band, opening songs with high harmonies, dipping their toes into new genres, and sharing a laugh that conveys how much they still cherish the company of each other and their fans. In its own way, this joie de vivre says that everything’s right more than “Everything’s Right,” and features professional nose-thumbers thumbing their noses at father time. You will even notice how clearly the lines “Friends are dancing on the hillside / For the first time in a long time / I want to live another day” recall the dancing on lawns and dalliance with death of “Down with Disease.”
When Phish debuted “Down with Disease” proper in 1994, death was likely something they understood as still abstract, far in the distance. In the 2010s, death became something more real to them, as they reached the ages when siblings, parents, and friends begin to fall away. The “I want to live another day” line is more cathartic than the defeatism of “I try to find a way but there's nothing I can say to make it stop,” and perhaps with good reason: this song is among the first that Trey and Fishman collaborated on after they finished recording the Ghosts of the Forest album, and within that context, the line feels like a defiant response to that album’s pensive meditation on spirit and flesh, life and death, and how time is both infinite and brief.
After the Halloween debut, “Turtle in the Clouds” resurfaced on 12/29/18 and then regularly through 2019. It has most frequently appeared as a first set opener or somewhere in the opening four songs, but it also opened the second set in Bangor, Maine, on 6/26/19 and appeared in the encore in St. Louis on 6/11/19. Trey debuted his solo acoustic version on 12/03/18 in Mesa, Arizona where he also debuted the acoustic versions of “You Gotta See Momma Every Night” and “Say It To Me S.A.N.T.O.S.” As with all of the Kasvot Växt songs, they may give Trey a few extra measures on his solo, but they have yet to take the song for an extended journey. Given that the choreography of “Turtle in the Clouds” plays such a central role, they may never do so.
One of the other keys to rock-star longevity is the ability to find opportunity in crisis, which is a trait that Kasvot Växt embodies. When Phish’s 2018 festival Curveball was canceled due to contaminated water, the band had to scrap all of the theatrics they had planned—the band hasn’t offered specifics on what that was, but apparently it that involved a sphere and tunnels and filming. They tried to move it indoors, but the producer couldn’t do it. When Trey asked what he could do, he said he could make the stage entirely white. This concept sparked the light bulb above Trey’s head with “white…80s…Finland,” and Kasvot Växt was born.
The conceit of this 80s Finnish band came and went from the actual music they produced, and only barely made it to the second song—the A.M. radio funk of “Stray Dog”—but for one brief moment they were not Phish; they were Kasvot Växt. And Phish would never be the same.Phish ”Turtle In the Clouds” – 12/29/18, New York, NY. Video by LazyLightning55a
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