Notes on seeing Phish for the first time in 13 years

IMG_1253Okay, folks, this is the definition of inside baseball. If you care, you care. If not, there’s always the next post or the archives.

 16 July 2013 (Alpharetta, GA): My 10th show, my girlfriend’s first.

Highlight #1: I’m sure “Cavern” will close set one, and oddly my girlfriend JLN’s jumping up and down and pumping her arms for the first time. “I know this song! I KNOW IT!” she says, which is odd, because it wasn’t a single, it was never a radio hit, this is her first show, and it was released when she was six years old. She doesn’t know why or how she knows it but she’s belting out parts of the chorus. I grin when she says, “I wish there were more of THAT song.” But Phish slides into the light, spring-like “Run Like An Antelope”—um, it doesn’t stay light and spring-like for long, kids—and I say, “ah, I was wrong. This will close the set.”

Highlight #2: My first “Harry Hood,” complete with audience glow-stick war, near the end of the second set. Glow sticks have been thrown sporadically throughout the night but bright clusters erupt during this song. I explain to JLN that this is standard during this song. “So, it’s a ritual,” she says. I’d never thought of it that way. (She also shakes her head in disapproval for the first time during this song, saying “Okay, this is weird.” Pretty good, considering it’s her first show, and it’s almost over.) Indeed, it is a ritual. The song’s got multiple movements, with callouts for audience chanting in unison, and a clearly defined structure that nevertheless allows the band to stretch out prettily during the final third.

Highlight #3: “Ocelot” gets slow and funky in a hurry, turning into a good moment for grinding with your significant other.

Highlight #4: Midway through set #2, JLN asks if they have any sad, melancholy, minor-key stuff. I say yes but apparently the band’s focused on the high energy tonight. That being said, the second set is slower, and with denser layers, tempo shifts, and odd meanderings. “Rock and Roll” and “Tweezer” are strong points in this regard. I had spent the evening warning JLN that the first set tends to be poppier and more accessible while the second set often goes off the rails into more avant-garde territory. (“You might not like it,” I keep saying like an idiot on auto-repeat.) I was right, yes, but also wrong to be worried. She’s dancing less and smiling less, which makes me think she’s getting bored. (I’m not. But, then, this is my tenth show.) But it turns out my girlfriend actually prefers the weirder, more adventurous second set, and says so more than once. “It’s more contemplative,” she says. It’s strange the things I get upset about. And then the band plays “Joy,” a song of guarded hope borne of witnessing pain, and it’s the closest thing to a sad song JLN will get this evening.

Highlight #5: Watching my girlfriend sing along to the encore, a sparkling and note-perfect cover of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” When you’re new to a musical experience, it’s nice to have something you recognize and love, something that tethers you.

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NOTES:

**Mike Gordon’s bass seems buried in the mix, especially during set #1, so the rhythm section’s muddy to me, except during the more beat-driven moments. The individual vocals are surprisingly distinct and clear, especially Page McConnell’s and Trey Anastasio’s, but not during the harmonizing. Trey’s guitar peals and shimmers, and he’s appropriately on fire for most of the evening.

**I heard “Harry Hood,” “Cavern,” and “Pebbles and Marbles” in person for the first time.

**The most-represented album of the night turns out to be 1993’s Rift, with four songs (“Mound,” “Rift,” “Horn,” and “Silent in the Morning”). Huh. Still can’t say I much care for “Mound, which kills the energy of the “Kill Devil Falls” set opener but the segue from “Horn” to “Possum” is strong and surprising.

**Chris Kuroda’s lighting design is still astonishing, graceful, and in sync with the band’s improvisations.

**Despite my small anxiety, I’m far from the oldest person here.

**I count more than ten non-white people (not including me) in the audience of 15,000, including a couple of South Asian couples. That’s better than my last show, in June 2000. (Also in the Atlanta area.) Also, lots of families with small children. Progress!

**I’m officially to the point where pot smoke smells gross instead of invigorating. Three people offer me a bud during set #2; I decline. I no longer feel like I’m missing something by turning it down. Some dude near us is smoking something that smells like Windex and burnt toast; he says “I’m so fucked up” on several occasions but he doesn’t look like he’s enjoying himself. I also don’t drink that night. Progress!

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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6 Responses to Notes on seeing Phish for the first time in 13 years

  1. brian says:

    The list for the second set there looks old school, like one from my Phish days! Which would have been from ’92 to about ’02. I’m open to seeing them again, especially if within 90 miles from where I live, but I stopped going because what they had to offer (for me at least) seemed limited to what took place in the concert arena. Unless I ever felt like getting really wound up in my living room for no particular reason, or go out and drive real effin’ fast ;-)

  2. My show days were 1997-2000, so it’s nice to hear from other Phish geezers. Both Georgia shows LOOK old-school, if considering the setlists, but the playing is decidedly new. We overlapped a bit, in terms of touring, and I have to say that my years coincided with the slow, layered funk and groove jams of the late-1990s. This stuff is still danceable, but the type of beat is more high-energy, closer to a techno or indie-rock rave than a 1970s P-Funk disco. There wasn’t a lot of downtime or melancholy in either show–both were high-voltage. full-throttle all the way, which has pluses and minuses. Alpharetta show #2, which I’m still processing in my notes, might be the best of the 11 shows I’ve been to, torrential rain and all. There was more new stuff, including an astonishing cover of the Apples in Stereo’s “Energy,” in this 2nd show. (I’m hoping “Energy” becomes a cover staple, as with “Rock and Roll” and “Ya Mar.” They really made it their own, and I like the original a ton.) So, Phish is growing, even if this summer’s setlists seem to harken back to the old days.

  3. Brian says:

    I’ll have to listen to a show or two then. Would be interesting to hear how the sound has changed. My first show was in Spring of ’92 and they were still in crash up derby mode, which was crushingly intense when played in small theaters, but when they then moved up to arenas, I figured they thought a more expansive sound was needed. The layered funk styles ended up being a good fit.

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