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

phish notes 02

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.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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3 Responses to 3 nights, 6 sets, 900 miles: More notes on seeing Phish live

  1. Garrad Lee says:

    Great write up. Awesome to see you. Shows were much fun.

  2. Thanks, man. It was good to see you and Catherine, too.

  3. brian says:

    A Mike type myself. And in proof of my dedication, back in Summer ‘93 (Club Eastbrook here in GR) I was up near the stage and closely following the bass line. But I was actually watching Page at the time. He noticed, so kept digging in harder and harder into his keys, trying to get me to follow his lead. I didn’t budge– no nice guy here! He eventually shook his head, laughed, and went on in his merry way. Best part? It was during It’s Ice!

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