Tales From a Reluctant Phishhead
OK, I'm lying. The band's flood-relief benefit extravaganza at the Champlain Valley Expo in Essex last night was, in fact, my first time. I know, I know. Having grown up in Vermont during the supposed peak of the band's powers, it's kind of amazing that I never chanced in to a show at some point along the way. What can I say? I've never been much of a fan. And as an aside, most other VT stereotypes have never really fit me, either. I don't ski or snowboard, I don't smoke weed, I've never owned a Subaru and I prefer Gifford's to Ben & Jerry's. But I digress.
As the music editor for Seven Days, I've gone on record on numerous occasions as someone who doesn't care for the the band's music. I've taken generally good humored shots at them in my column. I once begged them to turn the entire city of Burlington into a gigantic festival because we needed the cash influx. In fact, declaring my distaste for seaphood was the first line ("I don't like Phish") of one of my first 7D CD reviews, Page McConnell's 2007 self-titled solo album. And that was before I was even a full-time staffer here at Vermont's Independent Voice. So, yes, Phish and I have a bit of a checkered past. And so it was with some trepidation that I went to last night's festivities.
Well, guess what? It was a lot of fun.
(Before we move on, if I could chat privately with the hardcore Fi-hadist nitwits for a second. Dudes, what follows will be a mostly positive review of my experience at the show last night. However, I'm a music critic. I don't believe anyone, even a sacred sea cow, is above criticism. I'm gonna write a few things you probably won't agree with or like. So let me save you some time and trouble:
- Yes, this is the worst piece of journalism in history. And I am the worst journalist ever.
- You're right, I probably should be/will be/have been fired for this.
- It's true. I am so jealous that your band is bigger than my li'l hipster indie bands. By the way, have you heard the new Vampire Grizzly Beach album? Really skinnies up my jeans.)
Aaaand we're back! So, yeah, Phish. Good times.
We arrived at the fairgrounds a little before 7 p.m., very surprised at the lack of traffic heading to the concert. I think we probably missed the biggest crush. An accidentally veteran move, I guess.
Strolling the fabled parking-lot scene, I was struck by the fact that, well, there really wasn't much of a fabled parking-lot scene. In fact, I was a little insulted to be offered hard drugs only once. I expected more, guys. (And for the record, no, I didn't partake. You don't do drugs, drugs do you, man.)
The queue to get in by the main expo entrance was, predictably, something of a clusterfuck. The nebulous line formed seemingly at random, sucking in stray fans like a black hole picking off wayward stars and planets with sheer gravitational force. I'm pretty sure some people are still waiting to get in.
Fortunately, as we were waiting, security announced there was another entrance on the far side of the stage with no line. The stampede was on, especially when the crowd inside cheered the entrance of Gov. Shumlin, which spurred fans from a gallop to an all-out sprint. Thousands charged from the west gate to the east. I've never seen so many hippies running without police being involved. It was majestic.
Inside the gates, the scene was surprisingly low key. Fans milled about anxiously, waiting for the band to take the stage. When they finally did, the crowd, both inside the arena and outside on the concourse, exploded with palpable glee. It was electric. One young-ish guy near me was practically orgasmic. As the opening strains filled the night air, he dropped to his knees and exclaimed, nearly in tears, "Ohmigod, I loooooove this band!" I found myself envying him, in a weird way. I can't think of anything that would inspire that degree of uncontrollable giddiness within me. It must be kind of nice.
My companions and I made our way to the beer tent for a few songs. It was sparsely populated but offered a decent view of the stage and good sound. The mood here was decidedly mellower, as most folks simply stood bobbing their heads or chatting with friends, with maybe a stray wiggle dancer here and there. It was pleasant, but I came for the spectacle.
I headed to the entrance under the grandstand to make my way into the heart of the lion's den. Jackpot. Thousands upon thousands of fans gyrated in unison. The energy here was undeniable as Phish tore through a number of classics. You couldn't help but groove along, if only for self-preservation. In fact, I believe I may have stumbled upon the origin of the noodle dance. It's the only way to move from point A to point B: to contort your body, almost Matrix-style, in an effort to dodge wayward knees and akimbo elbows. Neccessity is the mother of invention.
But what about the band?
Honestly, the Phab Phour were tight and polished and visibly excited, seeming to draw as much energy from the crowd as the crowd did from the band. Trey Anastasio's lines were often virtuosic. Page's keys rippled and rumbled along while Jon Fishman and Mike Gordon carved out space underneath. Even someone as jam-phobic as myself has to concede they are a technically impressive group. And speaking of jams, they were generally succinct and purposeful. Many jam bands confuse jamming with extended masturbatory soloing. Phish showed impressive restraint and focus, using flights of fancy to augment their songs, rather than letting the songs serve as a template for musical wankery.
My biggest critique would be that, after a while, it all kinda started to sound the same. Though they've penned some memorable tunes, Phish are not great songwriters and seem to rely on the same arranging tricks too often. The result is a blur of bouncy jam fare in which one tune becomes almost indistinguishable from the next. I'm sure aficionados willdisagree and point to subtleties throughout the set that I probably missed. But after a couple of hours, I started feeling as though I'd heard it all before.
But for me, the point of going to the show was less about appreciating Phish's music — I've been trying for almost two decades, folks — than it was simply trying to understand the phenomenon. Last night was probably not representative of the Phish enigma on the whole. Still, it provided a glimpse into why so many people feel so strongly about the band and the experience. Even for a curmudgeony music hack, it was hard not to get caught up in the vibe (I can't believe I just wrote that).
Maybe it was the stunning orange moon above the stage. Maybe it was the crisp fall air. Or the ridiculously cool light show. Or the scads of pretty girls dancing as far as the eye could see. Whatever it was, I left feeling as though I finally understood what the big effing deal is. Am I going to quit my job and go on tour next summer? Doubtful. Will I be scouring eBay for live bootlegs from 1994? Hell, no. Will I stop taking (playful!) jabs at hippies in my column? Are you serious?
But I'll say this. Vermont is lucky to have Phish. And Phish fans, pathetic message-board trolls notwithstanding, are lucky to have something to which they can cling so dearly. I'd estimate the majority of the crowd last night comprised longtime fans who practically grew up with the band. To be able to share those life experiences and memories with a community of likeminded enthusiasts is extremely special. Enjoy it, pholks. I did.