Zatoichi #12: Zatoichi and the Chess Expert (1965)

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Directed by Kenji Misumi, written by Daisuke Ito.
Cast: Shintaro Katsu (Zatoichi), Mikio Narita (Jumonji, a handsome rogue samurai), Kaneko Iwasaki (Otane, a woman conflicted about Zatoichi), Chizuru Hayashi (Kume, a woman in disguise), Gaku Yamamoto (Sagawa, her sickly brother), and Taro Marui (Roppei, their loyal servant)

Zatoichi and the Chess Expert illustrates the promises and pitfalls of “slow cinema” better than I ever could, even if it’s sometimes not that slow. Me, I’ve always been suspicious of the term. Don’t get me wrong. I can be a fan of long takes, stationary cameras, halting “true-to-life” dialogue, action that aspires to inertia, and mise-en-scene that recalls the white space of a blank page. If I think it’s appropriate for the material and if the director’s got command of the slowness so that it sharpens and clarifies life rather than just his/her technique, then good for them. Yasujiro Ozu, Hong Sang-soo, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Charles Burnett, Claire Denis—those are among my favorite film directors. They reveal details, plots, characterizations, and incidents slowly because, sometimes, you gotta slow things down to sort them down. Prayer, meditation, and yoga exist for good reasons. No one wants to pay $100 for a steak dinner only to wolf it down in 45 seconds flat. We savor things. We let them marinate and simmer, and that process intensifies their pleasures, and makes us remember them more avidly. By forcing us to slow down, the aforementioned filmmakers attune our eyes and ears to cadences that we’d otherwise miss, textures we wouldn’t see or feel, and reveal that it’s those “minor” grace notes that are the keys to their films.

But “slowness” is only one of many appropriate responses to life, only one of a multitude of ways to approach artmaking. A slackened pace and minimalist design don’t, in and of themselves, represent a greater sense of truth or “authenticity.” Sometimes, “slow cinema” masks the deficiencies of the production budget or the filmmakers’ talents.

So, let’s take Zatoichi and the Chest Expert‘s interminable long, static takes as examples: Two men talking over a chess game. A group of people gambling in the deck of a boat. A woman caring for her sick daughter. Each of these scenes could, perhaps usefully, be broken up into a variety of shots—closeups, medium shots, long shots, landscapes, from above and below. Each shot could reveal something new, ratchet up tension, reveal something that was hidden from us in the previous shot, etc. Any film director, best boy, actor, or producer could tell you, though, that there’s a problem with all those shots. Each new shot requires a new camera setup, fresh lighting design, someone to mark the blocking, a script girl to keep the continuity of the scene straight. A scene of two guys chatting could take four hours to shoot, just to accommodate all the camera and lighting setups, not to mention unionized smoke breaks or an actor’s tantrum. If you’re shooting on location, and many Zatoichis are shot largely outdoors, then you have to worry about how the position of clouds, sun, and associated shadows have shifted, too.

If you’re working on a tight production schedule and an even tighter production budget, then suddenly all that shot variance no longer looks so good. Why not do one camera setup, get it all in one take, and move on to the next scene? I think “slow cinema” defenders often treat its practitioners as if the long takes and miniscule set design are purely aesthetic choices that denote “realism,” rather than—as they often are—accommodations designed to promote efficiency.

How efficient? Chess Expert is Kenji Misumi’s second Zatoichi effort in a year, and Daiei Studio’s third Zatoichi movie of 1965. So, ironically, the sheer warp speed of production prompted a cinema that feels slower. There are scenes here that fly by, gripping in their emotional intensity, and there’s an editing sequence—a buildup to a fight that never comes—that’s marvelous precisely because Misumi alternates the shots quickly. There are other scenes that essentially broadcast how cheap the production is—a boat ride that takes up the film’s first third, in which we never see the boat on the sea (because it’s obviously a set); a lush hot springs resort that we never see in landscape view (because it’s obviously a set); fight scenes at night—the better to hide the set construction—with relatively few combatants (by Zatoichi standards), that are over quickly; a boat’s trajectory being shown by following a map rather than, you know, shooting the scene. (Raiders of the Lost Ark would steal that trick a decade later.)

That seesaw of speed vs. slowness creates an interesting tension, one that Misumi isn’t always capable of handling. He favors slow, mathematical precision, and always has with this series. (See: Fight, Zatoichi, Fight and The Tale of Zatoichi.) His compositions are full of right angles…

Zatoichi 12 (18)…straight lines…

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…white space…

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…the cleanliness of numbers…

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…and ground-level, grounded imagery.

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In Chess Expert, he pulls off a magnificent match cut of a samurai slicing a floating strip of paper into two halves (with his eyes closed)…

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…which then cuts (get it?) to the next scene, of a different man holding a similarly sized bit of paper.

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He also channels the clockwork precision of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), which was also a low-budget quickie genre exercise made five years earlier.

Psycho (side-view peephole)

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Misumi is ideal for Daiei’s Zatoichi line, so it’s surprising that so much of the fight choreography is poorly staged—clumsy, too cluttered, spatially confused. The first big fight sequence, in a boss’s office, feels especially inept.

Sometimes, though, the quick, surprising bursts of messiness suit Chess Expert. As with Kazuo Mori, Misumi loves his loopy water imagery. And he loves to linger his slow camera on actors’s faces, and this may be Chess Expert‘s most appealing quality. In the visages of Mikio Narita (the chess-playing samurai of the title) and Kaneko Iwasaki (as Otane, a woman with mixed motives), Misumi finds haunting, lovely faces that I wanted to swim in.

Zatoichi 12 (9)Neither role is villainous, exactly, but neither’s entirely good. Both put Misumi’s long, seductive takes to brilliant use, showing a wide range of expression with gestures that reveal themselves gradually.

Zatoichi 12 (22)Narita plays another variation of Zatoichi‘s dashing, melancholy rival samurais. He’s terrific, giving off a cerebral aura. But there are auras and then there are glows, and it’s the radiance of Iwasaki’s acting that ignites the screen. I think it’s the single best performance I’ve seen so far in this series—there’s been nothing quite like her in Zatoichi. As soon as Otane sees Zatoichi, on that long boat ride, we see a quiver in her eyes and a catch in her throat that indicates—what? We don’t immediately know. But we understand that she’s met Ichi before, even if he doesn’t remember it. Her hesitancy and anxiety startles, because it doesn’t seem to be borne of fear but of rage. But there’s something else to that trembling, too, a latent attraction that Otane may not even realize is there. (Iwasaki somehow transmits this attraction and her character’s unawareness of it simultaneously.) Attraction turns into love, after Zatoichi does a good deed on behalf of Otane’s daughter, and Iwasaki gets us to see the emotional shift, but there’s still anger underneath. Mind you, Iwasaki never screams. She has the character bottle her fury, until she reveals to Zatoichi why she’s so angry with him—I won’t spoil it—but that revelation comes through heartbreak; she’s revealing that she loves him in the very same speech. Vocal inflection, pauses, halting gestures, and resolute eyes—these are the tools Iwasaki uses to convey the warring emotions, usually three or four roiling at once, of a character that’s deeply resilient but who so desperately needs to be held. Beneath all the slow cinema, under the fast production, to the side of a straightforward samurai flick, there’s a tragic love story in Zatoichi and the Chess Expert. And it’s Kaneko Iwasaki—and not Shintaro Katsu—who gives it to us.

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Commonplace (Sunday morning sermon)

A long interview with Frank Schaeffer, author of Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God and Crazy for God, two of my favorite, most tough-minded, and funniest books on the religious life.

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Zatoichi #11: Zatoichi and the Doomed Man (1965)

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Directed by Kazuo Mori, written by Shozaburo Asai.
Cast: Shintaro Katsu (Zatoichi), Koichi Mizuhara (Shimazo Kitase, a man in trouble), Kanbi Fujiyama (Hyakutaro, Shimazo’s wayward son), Eiko Taki (Oyone), Ryuzo Shimada (Boss Senpachi, a weak-willed yakuza), and Kenjiro Ishiyama (Boss Jubei Araiso, a stronger-willed but more base yakuka)

Wait, wait, wait—why’s this movie start with Zatoichi getting whipped? What’s he doing in jail? What’s he being punished for, and why didn’t he just slice and dice his way out of trouble? Why do we go four minutes before we even get to the opening credits? Why, after them, do we find that Zatoichi’s in jail for “illegal” gambling, when gambling seems to be the bread-and-butter of every yakuza-run town in this series? Does director Kazuo Mori hate dice games? Or is he just sick of seeing iterations of the same game in every Zatoichi movie? If so, why set up an even more ridiculous way for Zatoichi to show off his skills, with an archery contest? And what carnie in his right mind would let a blind man have a bow and arrow, no matter how much the dude’s willing to bet? And why am I still amazed that Zatoichi hits target after target, given what I’ve seen in the previous ten movies?

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Why is Mori so obsessed with water? Why carry over all this water imagery from his last Zatoichi outing? Why are lapping waves and crests of water serving as transitional shots for so much of this movie? Does Mori think they’ll make his cuts any less abrupt?

Speaking of abruptness, was this movie way too long, forcing editor Toshio Taniguchi to just start chopping anywhere he could? (Had Taniguchi and Mori just seen Godard’s Breathless?) Why choose to cut from noise to silence so curtly that it breaks the flow of the movie’s sound design? Why set up all these elegant, motionless long takes, only to rob them of their power with these awkward cuts? Why have such a good score but then create a sound design that’s so abrasively mixed that the music gets muddied by everything else? Why take the time to establish tension with slow, nearly silent sequences, and then jolt us with overly loud sounds? Again, seriously, what’s up with all the water?

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Why spend the first seven minutes of this movie showing a man (Koichi Mizuhara) unjustly imprisoned, have that man beg Zatoichi to help free him, have Zatoichi spend the rest of the movie freeing him, and then not even bother to show the man’s release? Why introduce the man’s wife and daughter in a tense long-take scene so late in the movie, and then never bother to show them again? Why have Zatoichi promise to wait for a woman (Eiko Taki), and then immediately jump to him walking away? Why not have him wait, seeing as she’s helped him tremendously and proven herself to be clever and able to keep up with him? Why not have him wait, when she looks like this?

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Since the plot was obviously so convoluted that the crew couldn’t keep up with it (or too simplistic that they couldn’t be bothered), why didn’t they instead make a buddy comedy between Zatoichi and his impostor?

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Why not folllow through that fascinating thread of someone pretending to be the blind swordsman, since the guy playing the impostor (Kanbi Fujiyama) is so damn funny and so dead-on?

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Why is it that it’s only now, eleven movies in, that Daiei Studio realized that Zatoichi was popular enough to inspire parodies?

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Why is this movie so needlessly oblique and open-ended? Why does it raise so many questions—technical and narratively—when it’s at heart such a simple movie? And why, despite all this opacity all my questions, did I end up liking this movie so much?

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Zatoichi #10: Zatoichi’s Revenge (1965)

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Directed by Akira Inoue, written by Minoru Inuzuka.
Cast: Shintaro Katsu (Zatoichi), Norihei Miki (Denroku the Sly Weasel, a dice thrower & accidental samurai), Sachiko Kobayashi (Tsuru, his sweet 12-year-old daughter), Mikiko Tsubouchi (Osayo, a woman in trouble), Sonosuke Sawamara (Boss Tatsugoro, the guy giving her trouble), and Takeshi Kato (Koheita Kadokura, Tatsugoro’s enforcer)

Jesus, how many men has Zatoichi killed by this point? By the end of Zatoichi’s Revenge, he’s mowed down another 50 or so. You would think that, even in an era before telegraphs and telephones, the word would have spread: “If you see a blind masseur, don’t piss him off. If you do, run!” The swordsman’s legend grows with each film, and yet cocky samurai and bosses still try to step to him. There are still people who are surprised to run into him.

But back to the opening question, and its necessary corollary. How can I accept a mass murderer as a good guy, as a man with whom I sympathize and even like? After all, I see James Bond as the colonialist oppressor (or at least accessory) that he is. Arnold Schwartzenegger and Sly Stallone’s personas, as smug killing machine, repulse me. I like John McClane a bit because he’s a schlub but he’s precisely the kind of cop that causes problems in Ferguson, Missouri. (The same’s true of Murtaugh, and I don’t even like him.) The less said about Dirty Harry, the better.

So, action-movie franchises are littered with psychopathic protagonists and anonymous corpses, and all that bugs me. I’ve largely soured on such films, in which death has little weight unless it personally affects the “hero”–who would be seen as deranged in any other context. So, why not Zatoichi?

Part of it’s that word–weight. More often than not, Zatoichi enters the movie on his way to pay his respects to someone who’s died, often by Ichi’s hand. Death, in the Zatoichi series, has a way of radiating. In New Tale of Zatoichi, the “villain” is trying to avenge his brother, whom Ichi killed in the previous movie. In Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold, Ichi lands in trouble precisely because he’s returning to a town where he killed someone; the dead man’s sister wants vengeance. In Fight, Zatoichi, Fight, a woman is accidentally killed–the bandits think they’re killing Ichi–and leaves behind a baby that Ichi must care for. Zato’s cane sword brings only more challengers, more avengers, and more woe. Death echoes. It bounces off others and resonates over the course of, sometimes, several films.

In Zatoichi’s Revenge, death’s consequence is a vengeful heart. Our hero decides to pay a visit to his old massage teacher, only to discover that guy was killed two weeks prior, and his daughter Osayo (Mikiko Tsubouchi) has been sold into prostitution to pay off the old guy’s debts. It turns out that this has been happening to a lot of young women lately. It turns out that practically everyone in the town owes money to either the local magistrate or the yakuza boss under his thumb? Or is it the other way around? The corruption’s so pervasive that it doesn’t matter.

If you know anything about this series, you know Zatoichi’s gonna set things straight. As with the masterful Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold, the masseur acts as a Robin Hood figure. Most Western action-movie franchise figures work on behalf of the Man–cops, homicide detectives, spies, sheriff, soldiers. Even Indiana Jones ultimately does work on behalf of a rich man’s museum or the U.S. government. There are vigilantes in superhero flicks, of course, and rogue cops, but even rogue cops have been steeped in the values of their institutions. Part of why Zatoichi rings true, and maybe why his slaughter bothers me less, is that at least he’s representing the oppressed, the underclasses, the people without political voices or social status. He’s not owned by any one yazuka, feudal lord, magistrate, or overarching government or corporation, and he works for the poor and agonized. He uncovers corruption and, town by town, he destroys the savage feudal system with his cane sword.

The Zatoichi franchise, then, is largely a decade-long indictment of Edo-era Japan and its feudal structures. In Zatoichi’s Revenge, honest government officials are rare and are stamped out cruelly. (One noble tax assessor gets exactly one two-minute scene before he’s cut down.). The movie fits with the rest of the series, in which a good magistrate is as uncommon as four-leaf clovers. Here, we see this in close-up–there are lots of extreme close-ups in this movie–as most of the film takes place in a tight, interior space.

That space is a brothel. If director Akira Inoue wanted to drive home metaphorically how feudalism treats its underlings, well, there you go. Subtlety isn’t the movie’s strong suit–the situations are as miserable as can be, the prostitutes as sullen, the bosses as vicious, and the violence as ugly. Zatoichi’s Revenge is brutally effective, and gushily sentimental.

Thank goodness, then, for its equally broad sense of humor. Katsu gets off good physical humor when he eats way-too-spicy food. Norihei Miki steals the show as a down-on-his-luck dice thrower who, at the end, stumbles his way through a hilarious sword fight. There are bawdy jokes galore.

Does Zatoichi free the prostitutes? Does he return the tax money to the honest workers? Do the corrupt city officials get their comeuppances? Does the whole thing end with Zatoichi slicing through a horde of baddies? Seriously, do we still have to ask such questions at this point?

The larger question, though, remains: Is it worth all this murder? I don’t know but I’ll keep watching.

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Commonplace

“[Thelonious Monk] played each note as though astonished by the previous one, as though every touch of his fingers on the keyboard was correcting an error and this touch in turn became an error to be corrected and so the tune never quite ended up the way it was meant to. Sometimes the song seemed to have turned inside out or to have been constructed entirely from mistakes. His hands were like two racquetball players trying to wrong-foot each other; he was always wrong-fingering himself. But a logic was operating, a logic unique to Monk: if you always played the least expected note a form would emerge, a negative imprint of what was initially anticipated. You always felt that at the heart of the tune was a beautiful melody that had to come out back to front, the wrong way around. Listening to him was like watching someone fidget, you felt uncomfortable until you started doing it, too.

“Sometimes his hands paused and changed direction in midair. Like he was playing chess, picking up a piece, moving it over the board, hesitating and then executing a different move from the one intended—an audacious move, one that seemed to leave his whole defense in ruins while contributing nothing to his attacking strategy. Until you realize that he’d redefined the game: the idea was to force the other person to win—if you won you lost, if you lost you won. This wasn’t whimsical—if you could play like this then the ordinary game became simpler. He’d got bored with playing straight-ahead bebop chess.

“Or you can look at it another way. If Monk had built a bridge he’d have taken away the bits that are considered essential until all that was left were the decorative parts—but somehow he would have made the ornamentation absorb the strength of the supporting spars so it was like everything was built around what wasn’t there. It shouldn’t have held together but it did and the excitement came from the way that it looked like it might collapse at any moment just as Monk’s music always sounded like it might get wrapped up in itself.”

—Geoff Dyer, offering the best description of Thelonious Monk’s style that I’ve ever read, in But Beautiful: A Book about Jazz (1991)

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Zatoichi #9: Adventures of Zatoichi (1964)

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Directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda, written by Shozaburo Asai.
Cast: Shintaro Katsu (Zatoichi), Eiko Taki (Osen, a young woman trying to do good), Jotaro Senba (Shinsuke, Osen’s hotheaded brother), Miwa Takada (Saki, another do-gooder woman, looking for her lost father), Yuzaburo Ii (Giju, an old drunk), Mikijiro Hira (Gounosuke, one in a long line of breathtakingly handsome samurai who challenge Zatoichi), and Kichijiro Ueda (Boss Jinbei, one in a long line of corrupt yakuza)

*NOTE: Thanks to this site for help with the credits. The Criterion package is surprisingly (and consistent) incomplete in this regard, and iMDB was unhelpful.

In Adventures of Zatoichi, it’s Japanese New Year, and that means autumn or early winter. It’s cold out. Leaves fall. Colors change. The natural decay of the season crumbles trees, forests, lawns, and crops. Even the buildings seem affected. People switch their fashions to earth tones, and huddle together for warmth. Plot-wise, Adventures of Zatoichi is almost thoroughly standard—though with more children, less sexiness, and a score that veers from being too Wagnerian to too sappy, and is too intrusive throughout the picture. Visually, though, the movie captures the ambience of my favorite season. As we’re in the throes of my least favorite season, I can look at this film and at least dream of better times.

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3 nights, 6 sets, 900 miles: More notes on seeing Phish live

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It’s time for my annual summer sojourn into Things That May Not Interest You At All, Not Even One Tiny Bit, And Fuck Those Self-Indulgent Hippies from Vermont, Anyway. If that’s your take, this post probably won’t convince you otherwise, and may annoy you even more if I mention that the post constitutes notes for an essay in-progress. (See above photo.) In short: If you care, you care; if not, there’s always the archives (to your right) to consider.

Speaking of archives, if you are interested, here are other posts on Vermont’s finest: “Waiting All Night,” “Waste,” “Notes on seeing Phish for the first time in 13 years,” and Hank wouldn’t ‘a’ done it that way.”

Cities. Beyond Atlanta, which is a sort of homestead for the band, Phish rarely ventures into the Deep South. North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, and even Florida has witnessed its share of concerts, sure, but not Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, or South Carolina. The band seems to be making a concerted effort to rectify that this summer, with a performance at JazzFest in New Orleans in April, and with the three shows I’m attending—August 1-3, 2014—coming to Orange Beach, AL, Birmingham, AL, and Alpharetta, GA, as the final shows of the summer tour, when the band is typically at its well-oiled and ferocious best. From the Orange Beach stage, Page even says as much when he thanks the audience for coming, mentions the band swimming in the gulf earlier today, and that they’ll be back as soon as possible. Just after performing “555,” Trey thanks the appreciative crowd, noting that they’ve “got tears in our eyes” because part of the song—the horn arrangements—were recorded in Muscle Shoals just a few months back. Of course, set 1 of the Orange Beach show includes a Lynyrd Skynyrd cover but it—cockeyed ironist that Phish is—isn’t “Sweet Home Alabama” (Skynyrd’s from Florida, anyway) but the little-played “Ballad of Curtis Loew.”

The weekend’s best region-specific surprise comes a day later, in Birmingham, with Phish’s cover of Talking Heads’s “Cities,” which has been a staple of Phish’s live act since 1997. Now, “Cities” is one of my favorite Heads songs—urgent, fleet-footed, and almost chipper in its sound.

It’s also one of my favorite Phish covers, because Phish reinterprets it—making it relaxed, funky, and slower-moving, all of which draws attention to the strange, seemingly mundane lyrics. Phish remains true to the spirit of “Cities,” as both the original and the live cover are funny and weird and heavily rhythmic, but makes the song its own. Somehow, I had forgotten, until there were 10,000 of us singing it and cheering in unison, that the song’s second verse is entirely about Birmingham. I laughed out loud.

If Phish avoided the South because it wasn’t sure of its fanbase here, it should stop worrying. I ran into ten people from Mississippi (my old stomping grounds) this weekend, and sat/chatted/caught up with a Jackson couple. License plates in the parking lots drew heavily from Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee. The last two shows sold out. I have a feeling they’ll be back.

Page Side / Rage Side. It’s like the Beatles—whichever band member is your favorite says a lot about you, even if you’re not sure what’s being said. Me, I’m with Team Page. Look, I love Trey. Everyone loves Trey. He’s unquestionably one of the most brilliant guitarists working, and an inventive songwriter to boot. Trey’s the bandleader but Page, to my ears, is the quiet center. I think he’s got the best voice in the band, and he—along with drummer Jon Fishman—is never not amazing with his instruments. But there’s a decidedly lack of flash, lack of desire to run things. Maybe I just like quiet centers. As a Relix article put it, “[McConnell’s] emotional vocals, seeming discomfort in his rare words uttered from the stage and slightly awkward interactions with fans, left an image of a thoughtful man who enjoyed listening as much as being heard. His style as a musician could be described the same way: laying down a foundation and filling the gaps, but only selectively stepping to the fore.” That was 2007. These past three nights, Page has seemed more comfortable in the spotlight—full-bodied organ solos on “Heavy Things,” “Maze,” delicate Fender Rhodes work on “Wolfman’s Brother,” piano frenzy during “Suzy Greenberg,” confident lead vocals on “The Ballad of Curtis Loew,” “Halfway to the Moon,” and “Wading in a Velvet Sea.” Page’s always in the mix, and the sound designers have done a better job this time around to make sure he’s not buried behind Trey’s pealing and trebling guitarwork. That must be hard, designing for Page. He plays at least six onstage keyboards—piano, Hammond B-3 organ, clavinet, Fender Rhodes, Moog, and polyphonic synthesizer—all with different tonal registers, sometimes two simultaneously, in big venues with three other musicians with, um, outsized musical personalities. So, kudos to the crew for keeping Page’s various colors, layering effects, and shadows distinct and clear.

You kids, get off my lawn. I’m beginning to feel like the old Phish fogey, shaking my cane and muttering, “back in my day…” During set 1 of Birmingham, the band launches in “Reba,” and a frat boy behind me states confidently to his friend, “This is a new number. We’re hearing a debut.” At first, I think he’s joking but he keeps pontificating loudly, loudly enough to overwhelm my enjoyment of the band. I turn around. “Hey man, how old are you?” “Um, twenty.” “Okay, then this song is actually older than you are. Notice how everyone else is singing along? And how hard that’d be if it were a new song?” He shuts up but I feel bad for sniping. Early that day, checking out of my hotel in Gulf Shores, AL, I’m wearing my new Summer Tour 2014 shirt, and run into a dazed jock in an University of Alabama shirt and shorts. “Man,” he says, “wasn’t that a great show last night?” “Oh sure,” I say, “I mean set 1 was totally standard and unsurprising, and I wish that—” and I stop, because I can see his face falling just a slight nod. I restart: “Had you seen ‘em before?” “No,” and here his eyes gleam, “I mean, they’ve never come close to here, and I always feel like I’m about to try seeing ‘em and this time I just made myself buy the ticket, you know, and I wish I could go to Birmingham now, because oh my god they just kept building momentum and it was so perfectly paced and Jesus Christ I can’t believe how tight they are, how on-point…” And he kept going, folks. My grin got wider and wider. Fuck my cynicism, my been-there-done-thatism. That’s no good for anyone, least of all me. For every grizzled veteran, there’s 50 people for whom this is their first Phish show, their first realization that the band isn’t a bunch of smelly hippies noodling into the ether, their first understanding that the band is different from (and greater than) how they’re portrayed in the media. I tell the kid, “Yeah, great show, wasn’t it?” He smiles, teeth flashing, eyes sheepish, almost embarrassed that a concert made him feel that good. Still, the biggest change I’ve noticed in-between my hiatus—there was a gap in my Phishing from June 2000 to July 2013—is the rise of bro culture on the scene. I’m glad the bachelorette/sorority-girl equivalent hasn’t joined forces with the frat brothers but there’s still too much aggressive Solo-cup holding, casual utterances of “faggot” and “little bitch” and “pussy” for my tastes. People get stoned at Phish shows. I don’t but people do. People get stoned at every concert I’ve ever been to, including Christian rock shows. It happens. Sometimes, it’s annoying but it’s fine. If I have to choose between a laidback pothead and a loudmouth drunk, I’ll take the pothead every time. That guy’s not gonna throw a punch or say, “whassup, my nigga?” to me. A more cheerful sign is the preponderance of couples with their kids. In the Alpharetta bazaar, I ran into a fiftyish black man, decked out in a full Henrietta dress (with matching sneakers! That he made—I know because I asked him), with his teenage son tagging along. The proud, snaggle-toothed father says, “This is my boy’s first show! First!” “You’re gonna have a blast,” I tell the kid, “even if the music’s too weird.”

“Chalkdust” vs. “Chalkdust.” In six sets over three days, Phish repeats only three songs: “Fuego,” “555,” and “Chalkdust Torture.” These repeats, though, showcase one of Phish’s core strengths. The first “Chalkdust” opens the Orange Beach show, and the band plays it straight, as a full-throttle, six-minute rocker with a fiery solo before circling back to the chorus. In Alpharetta, “Chalkdust” opens the second set—typically the more melancholy, ambient, and subtle of the two sets—and fits appropriately into that context, instead becoming slower in tempo and more contemplative, with less soloing and more genuine musical interaction. Here, the song’s less an exhibit of Trey Anastasio’s skills than a conversation between four equal partners, a democracy that gradually votes to segue into “Scents and Subtle Sounds,” a lovely and haunting ballad with intricate harmonies that floors me even as lots of the crowd use it as a bathroom break. I love that songs like “Fuego” and “555,” written in 2013, are played along “Chalkdust Torture,” from two decades prior, that every Phish song is “new” in this sense. Because the band’s never really had the luxury of radio hits, it’s (ironically) had the freedom to think of its entire back catalog as playable, as fresh fodder for the stage. Though songs from Fuego (2014) get lots of play, so do songs from Rift (1993) and The Story of the Ghost (1998), as well as loads of originals that have never appeared on a studio album. It’s all part of the Phish continuum.

Firsts for me. I first fell in love because of the first disc of A Live One, specifically the ending track, “Slave to the Traffic Light.” Finally, at my twelfth show (Orange Beach), I get to hear it live, and it is a beauty that surges slowly from quietude to beautiful noise. Other firsts: “Prince Caspian,” “46 Days,” “Carini,” “Julius,” “Light,” and “Simple.” All of the Fuego songs are new live tracks for me, since I last saw the band in July 2013, before they began playing that material. They play seven out of ten tracks from the new album—they believe in Fuego, and it shows.

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Highlight #1: I bought Fulfillingness’s First Finale because of Phish’s cover of “Boogie On Reggae Woman,” and branched out into Songs in the Key of Life and Talking Book from there. So, I have four white guys from Vermont to thank for my getting into Stevie Wonder. Until set 2 of the Orange Beach show, I had never heard the band perform Wonder’s masterpiece live. We all danced and sang along, and then gaped, slackjawed, as the song somehow segued smoothly into “Run Like An Antelope,” which maintained a bouncier, snappier edge than it usually has for the rest of the song.

Highlight #2: Set 1, Birmingham—the whole damn thing. Whenever folks complain that Phish doesn’t write danceable, hummable, singable songs, I want to play them a tape of this 85-minute set, which is largely filled with a sold-out crowd singing at the top of its collective lungs to a bevy of catchy tunes. From the always-welcome surprise of “Poor Heart” to the singalongs of “Sample in a Jar,” “Cities,” “Sparkle,” and especially “Possum” (Mike’s finest moment, musically and vocally, of the shows I saw), this is a set of skewed, wonderful pop. Everyone’s dancing, high-fiving, hugging, singing along.

Highlight #3: All three second sets were terrific, and it’s difficult to choose a favorite of the three. Orange Beach features an exploratory and beautiful “Down with Disease”—confession: probably my favorite song in the band’s entire repertoire, both as a structured pop song and a vehicle for improvisation—that segues into “Theme from the Bottom,” which is probably my third-favorite. But Birmingham gives us a raging “Carini” that slowly turns into quietude and melancholy droning; there’s “Simple,” with that soaring, cyclical guitar riff that never gets old; and the closing freakout of “You Enjoy Myself,” complete with Trey and Mike doing synchronized trampoline jumps, Trey dancing like a drunken wookie to Mike’s slap bass, and the usual acappella fadeout, this time a droning slur with mouth squiggles and chirps. My nod, though, goes to Alpharetta (8/3/14), because I write “OMG” in my notebook during two songs (“Twist” and “Light”), and write of “Light” that “[this is the] best, most contemplative jam of the 3 shows,” and then cross that line out ten minutes later, during “Harry Hood.” There are no awkward transitions in the set, not even a 30-second lull that was unsurprising or dull, and the song selection was varied and rich.

Highlight #4: Chris Kuroda’s lighting designs turn frequently to a combinations of purple, teal, and a silvery white. I can’t tell you how calming, and how entrancing, this color coordination is. A friend notes to me between sets at Birmingham that she’d seen Phish at Jazzfest but the stage setup wasn’t Kuroda’s. “I mean, it was a good show,” she says, “but it wasn’t a Phish show, exactly. I didn’t realize how much of the drama and the buildup and the release comes from the lighting.” I know what she means.

Highlight #5: The parking lot scene is nuts in Alpharetta. One aisle is essentially a city block of food trucks without the trucks—and without the health inspectors, too, alas. After relatively sedate lots in Alabama, the Oriental bazaar returns with force. A Chicago artist shoots Polaroids for five bucks, and I cave in. I also buy a homemade “Henrietta” shirt, “Henrietta” socks, a delicious chicken wrap with grilled onions and fresh coleslaw, and two bottled microbrews for $7 total—instead of a shitty $9 Bud Light inside the venue. I do not, however, buy or consume any drugs. I don’t get drunk or even tipsy. I enjoy myself, inside and outside the venue.

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