Breath and Burning

Originally Performed ByPhish
Appears On
VocalsTrey (lead), Page (backing)
Phish Debut2016-06-26
Last Played2022-07-24
Current Gap73
HistorianLance Judd (ThinkSnow)
Last Update2020-06-30


Death is always lurking. The threat of dying dominates many of our most cherished books, films, poems, and songs. The ability to navigate the day while at the same time acknowledging mortality is perhaps the most enduring theme in life. Religion, if that is your bag, soothes the collective consciousness and assures believers that there is a heaven waiting if only one lives a righteous life.

This thing we call life is a fragile, delicate, and ultimately a precarious balancing act. Knowing that the grim reaper is waiting just outside the door can either paralyze and cage you in fear or set you free.

In first-person accounts of virtually all near-death experiences, we hear about a complete life review in the waning seconds. Many of those who have faced death and lived, speak of those key events from their life history “flashing before their eyes.” In fact, some scientists have hypothesized that at the time of death, the brain’s pineal gland produces Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) which may offer the biological and pharmacological explanation for that final flash of light.

Imagine if you will, what specific thoughts would be racing through your mind at the point you realize death is imminent? Would you tremble in fear and pray for forgiveness or would you instead dance and rage in defiance of the inevitable? 

Thanks to historical accounts (as well as Hollywood) we know the ill-fated passengers of the RSS Titanic were regaled until their final moments by the calming and soothing music from the ship’s band, an 8-piece string ensemble. One surviving passenger noted, “Many brave things were done that night, but none were braver than those done by the men playing minute after minute as the ship settled quietly lower and lower in the sea. The music they played served alike as their own immortal requiem and their right to be recalled on the scrolls of undying fame.”

If you only had minutes to live, what song would you choose? 

As the band played on during the final minutes of the Titanic’s voyage, the song choice was the 19th-century hymn “Nearer, My God, to Thee” which retells the Old Testament story of Jacob and the ladder, the ladder leading upwards to heaven, in aspiration. 

Given our current place in time and history, and #PhishBracket notwithstanding, what song would we choose as our last? While we might argue over originals or covers, it is a safe bet that frequent visitors to this site would choose a tune from the Phish, from Vermont. And while there is no online “final death jam” bracket (yet) it’s likely that our choices would be wildly divergent.  When it comes to one’s final pick, reaching a consensus would be a challenge.

Which brings us to the death-wary, but not death-obsessed, “Breath and Burning” by Phish.  Track #2 on 2016’s Big Boat album, the tune made its live debut at Noblesville 06/26/16 – after “Lawn Boy” and before “Saw It Again.”  “Breath and Burning” earned distinction as Big Boat’s “single” and was performed on The Tonight Show Staring Jimmy Fallon on 10/10/16 along with a web-exclusive performance of “Blaze On” – in advance of the band’s 2016 Fall run. Notable, Jam Chart-worthy performances include the second-ever performance on 06/28/16 in Philadelphia with a “Mind Left Body Jam” and the jaw-dropping Strawberry-themed 07/22/17 Baker’s Dozen performance. Check out the version from 12/31/16 with special guests James Casey on saxophone, Natalie Cressman on trombone, Jennifer Hartswick on trumpet, and Andres Forero on percussion. Finally, Trey debuted the acoustic version on 3/11/17 at The Music Hall in Portsmouth, New Hampshire along with the acoustic debuts of “Wingsuit,” “Fee,” “46 Days,” “American Tune,” “Sleeping Monkey,” and “Maze.” 

Trey wrote the song in January 2016 after the band’s first three-night run on the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. In an interview with NPR’s All Songs Considered, Trey noted, “I loved watching the faces of all the people dancing and splashing in the ocean while we played. I kept thinking, ‘This will all end sooner or later, one way or another. So I’m gonna enjoy every last second of it while we’re still here. I’m not gonna wave away the dessert cart on the Titanic. I want to be like that string quintet that kept playing while it sank.”

The final line in the third stanza, serves as the tune’s spiritual and navigational centerpiece when Trey exclaims: “We’re not going gently / We’re gonna rage with Page at the dying of the light, hey!”

Trey’s choice of imagery, words and phrases, especially the “rage” line noted above, directly echo and pay respect to the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas and his 1947 poem “Do not go gentle into that good night.”  

The life-affirming message, distilled from the words of both Thomas and Trey, is you must grab onto life with a ferocious grip. Don’t let go, don’t delay living. Death is inevitable, so what? “Unstoppable, it’s instant heat / And as sinners plead on bended knee / We’ll be dancing here for days.”

The lyrics continue, “The canary died, the healer lied” -- so don’t be a chump, don’t be meek, don’t meet the black nightmare clouds of death with your head bowed in resignation, acceptance, and defeat.  Yes, it’s true, the end is in sight, but what does it matter? Get off your knees! Don’t go gently, there’s no need to plead, there is no ladder to heaven.

“And what does it matter / It’ll be over soon / Our heads on a platter / So let’s spin in the light of the moon / We still got the light of the moon / We’ll dance in the light of the moon, hey!”  

It’s hard to argue with that logic.  

Phish ”Breath and Burning” > “Mind Left Body Jam” – 06/28/16, Philadelphia, PA. Video by LazyLightning55a

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