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September 15, 2011

Tales From a Reluctant Phishhead

20110914203639 You know what, dudes? It's pretty wild that my 914th Phish show just happened to fall on September 14. Crazy, right? And practically in in my back yard, no less!

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.  

Dan, this is one of the best reviews I've ever read of yours. You did get it! The technical proficiency of the band is what won me over in the first place. I guess I just really dig complex music.

I also noticed that no one offered me hard drugs in the parking lot, and I got there at 3pm. That's a beautiful thing considering it's a main reason why I stopped going to Phish shows in '99.

Glad you enjoyed the gig. This was Phish at the peak of their performing prowess. I heard many distinct songs with a an underlying thematic connection linking them, but your ears are entitled to their own interpretations.

Fuck this paper and its condescending "writers".

Absolutely loved your tongue-in-cheek disclaimer. Hah! Besides that, you're a great writer.. fun to read.. almost wish I'd made the show now... :)

I don't know where you get the nerve to write such a fair and balanced, non-inflammatory piece such as this. I'm never buying your newspaper again. :P

First off, good review.

Second, thanks for distinguishing Phish fans from the pathetic message board trolls who are just as disgusting to those of us who love the band and aren't complete douchebags as they are to you.

Third, the whole bit trying to prevent a shitstorm shows the continued lack of understanding by the Seven Days staff of why Phish fans were/are upset. We're used to people bashing the band's music and using stupid, misinformed stereotypes about fans.

What we aren't used to is:

Spending two weeks rallying behind a state after it was hit by disaster -> Having our favorite band step up beyond any other famous Vermonter and offer to raise what should over $1 Million (!!) dollars for flood recovery -> Having a local writer poke fun at our appearance in an extremely aggressive (and admittedly by Lauren unfunny) manner AND THEN telling us we haven't done enough.

Can you imagine if an NYC writer made fun of the appearance of Vermont Firefighters who bravely came down to NYC to help us on 9/11 and then said, "hey, thanks for helping us clear ground zero but DO MORE YOU LONGHAIR!"

Would be nice if anyone over there understood at all what caused this waste of energy. Instead, we get Shay Totten telling us we can't take a joke.

Nice piece, Dan. Seemed to all run very smoothly for something put together in about a week. My first show since the Great Went! If anything the band were tighter and more ferocious - sounded great! And bathing in the bliss from the crowd was pretty uplifting, too :)

You have more in common with the band than you know, Dan - when they were still up & comers and hanging out in town, The OP was where I'd often bump into the guys, usually Fishman... The OP, kinda like The Force, it binds us all together... heh.

It was extremely well done, especially on short notice, the boys should play at home more often.

Nice write up. An honest assessment of the scene and the music. Not everyone needs to love Phish or even like them. Not everyone needs to enjoy Phish fans either. But clearly came with a clear, level head and laid it down as it you saw it. Nothing mean spirited, nothing petty, no ax to grind. I liked this review and chalk it up to a pretty accurate assessment of the evening.
Well done.

Dan, You've been trying for almost two decades to appreciate Phish's music and this was your first show? I think I have figured out where you've gone astray. I enjoy your work and humor and think your opinion of their music live is more valuable than your sociological/anthropological observations of Phans.

Did someone REALLY just compare Phish fans that came to Essex to Vermont firefighters that went to help clean up the WTC after 9/11?? Holy shit. Asininity ahoy!


Great stuff. You perfectly encapsulated the reluctant-fan approach. As a once-reluctant-now-attached fan I just want to say how pleased I am that you 'got the vibe'. My feeling is that a Phish show should be a pleasant experience. If that's what you got, then I think you're first Phish experience was a smashing success.

Annnnnnd Dan Bolles passes Lauren Ober in the final lap of the Champlain Valley 400! Kudos, Dan. I always appreciate your honest and genuinely funny writing. You're one of the reasons I read the paper every Wednesday.

Some Random Phish fan

What a boring, long-winded, pointless article. The first 5 paragraphs should have been cut out, they don't say anything.

Thanks for the narrative of your experience... this is not journalism it's a boring story. Jesus this website is bad


Great article Dan. I appreciate your openness to the music.

Has the new Vampire Grizzly Beach album leaked yet? I hear it's their best work since 2004's "I Respect Your Opinion."

Great review. One of the best Phish reviews by a non-Phishead I've ever read (second only to Lefsetz's write up on Hampton '09).

I can't help but defend a little bit. Or at least respond in some way. Like you insist that you had fun, I insist that I truly enjoyed your review. I agree with a LOT of what you said here, both positive and negative. But it's more interesting to point out the stuff I disagree with.

Hippies mis-represent Phisheads. Most of us don't have super long dreads and feel, like, the vibe brah. Most of us are there quietly appreciating the unfolding concerts, reall listening to the music, and geeking out with our friends. We even get nerdy with our Phish stats. We're more like sports fans and than a typical band following. We know when Phish is totally sucking, and we're still die-hards afterwards, just as you would still be a fan of your baseball team if they totally botched a huge game. Most of us hate that smelly dude who bumps into you at the show. And we especially hate the forum trolls. I've seen most of my 70 Phish shows on no drugs at all. Maybe a few beers, maybe a joint, as anyone might do at any rock n roll show - but I have a real job and a real life and that I don't quit to go on tour - I'll do a three night run at MSG, or perhaps a weekend getaway to one of their festivals.

I know you admit that this one show was not indicative of the entire thing, but I need to emphasize that every show is really different. I'm glad you noticed that there's something to get. But I insist, in the least hostile way possible, that you don't actually "get it." I think one problem of Phish's is that they have an enormous barrier-to-entry. You pretty much HAVE to have grown up on their music to really "get it" - because that one song you heard, in our minds, is being compared to at least 100 other performances - we've heard it evolve over distinctly definable eras. When I talk about the transition from early 94 to 96 to Island Tour jam styles (for which there are numbered names and sub-names - genres within the band itself), I feel like a nerd talking about Star Wars epochs, not a drugged out neo dead head.

There's a language you don't hear for a long time. A lot of supposed Phish heads don't hear it either. But the "it all sounds the same" thing is no more true for Phish than it is jazz or trance or any other genre. It's all in the details, and at first glance you simply won't know how to hear that. I totally get where you're coming from - I can see how it "all sounds the same", but I insist that there is a LOT of very amazing things going on under-the-hood that you won't hear until you've dedicated many hours of listening. Key changes, calls and responses, and a synchronous "zone" that's like an athlete just executing perfectly. Or, when they're not on, a lot of bullshit noodling. But a real Phish head knows the difference and doesn't just dance and spin along.

I believed you really went to the show until you wrote "the scads of pretty girls dancing as far as the eye could see."

Excellent writeup!

I constantly try to get my friends who are into music but don't like Phish to come to shows....I've even offered to buy their tickets! They always say that they don't want to come because there's no way they'll enjoy it. My point is that they will, that even if they don't fall in love with the music, as music lovers they should experience what we have with this band. As you stated, it's impossible not to get swept up in the vibe and have a great time.

So what you're really saying is: Yo, Lauren Ober, this is how you write about Phish if you want to continue to be employed by Seven Days, right?

The truth is, many of us have gotten older. If you look at the arrest information from this summer, we just aren't as crazy as we use to be. Also, most of the time when I read music reviews, the writers rely on many of the same conventions, vocabulary and tone. After I read a few reviews it's kind of like I've read it all before. You know what I mean:-)

People need to give Lauren a break. It's not her fault everyone is so freaking sensitive. Buy a box of kleenex and don't read her blog if you don't like it. Jeez

Just so we are clear, hippies went away in the sixties. No one is protesting the current war by spitting on veterans as they arrive home, and lsd was made illegal in 1967. A summer of love would have dramatic effects on our population due to disease, and dreadlocks are sacred to rastafari. People follow many different things because it gives them hope and something to cling it shall be for many years to come.

What Adam said!

Well done, Dan. Thank you.

Thanks for admitting that you're not a good writer and that your employer doesnt care.

As a relatively hard core Phish fan, I thought your review was excellent, funny, entertaining. Thanks for being openminded. Peace.

great write up!

Thanks for the review Dan. It was measured and honest and the conclusions you reach reminded me of those reached by Carrie Brownstein after she embarked on a similar 'open-minded exploration of Phish and their music. If you didn't see that, look here:

Good work, and good luck up there.

Just realized something reading this entertaining review: To the untrained ear, don't all bands sound the same live once you've been listening for a few hours?

Nice write up, very accurate. I have a similar story as last night was my first show (and possibly my last show). I am glad I went, I had a great time! It was great energy, and the Expo is a great venue. Thank you to Phish and all the fans. Vermont is a great place and better because of the band and its fans in Vermont and beyond. Shame on Lauren Ober, she doesn't get it at all.

Regarding, "it all kinda started to sound the same."

That could be said about ANY band (you don't know well) playing a concert full of their songs... from Elvis to The Rolling Stones to Snoop Dogg to Bob Marley, and every musician in between.

This reviewer has a history of making his music reviews about him and this Phish review is another pathetic example of his 'look at me' writing style. It's really the worst kind of sophomoric and self-indulgent rock journalism, and I do not know why 7D has put up with it and subjected us to it for so long. I defy this reviewer to write a column without mentioning the words "I", "me" or "my" -- he cannot do it.

Frank Zappa once said that rock journalism is "people who don't know how to write writing about people who don't know how to play for people who don't know how to read."

Well, Phish knows how to play and 7D readers know how to read ... Dan, when are you going to start doing your part?

Hypocrisy is a disease, and you my friend are fully terminal.

Dan Bolles said nice things about Phish AND their fans? And said fans returned the courtesies? And a commenter outs Phish fans as NOT acid-dropping hippies, but Warhammer-playing dodgeball targets?

Man, this blog post is a total game changer. I don't know what to believe anymore.

Hey Dan,

From a Phish fan for 14 years, well done. Really a great write. And this is from someone (a Vermonter) whom really was rubbed the wrong way by a recent article on the fundraiser by another staff member. From someone who has seen many a Phish shows, I put it into perspective: This was more like a "Phish concert" then a "Phish show". Encourage you to get to a tour show and compare. Could be fun. Kudos.

Apparently hippies can be just as heartless as republicans close. We were so close to a decent review by an outsider. But then he had to go and insert those little indented digs. If it isn't a stereotype about concert goers, it's one about the online fan community. Lumping people into a group, and then attempting to neutralize by preemptively shielding against...ahhh oh no comments. RUUNN!!!

Happy you had a good time. The real reason people get offended (like occasionally myself) is because fans of Phish want to have a conversation about music. You know, talk about chord changes, talk about dissonance, jazz in a rock context, ecstatic musical sequences, and of course rock history and all its wondrous scope, including contemporary indie acts. Because chances are we like a lot of the same things, and differ only on certain groups(like every other normal juxtaposition of people's tastes).

But time after time, we encounter people who are fixated on the scene, on "the experience", and of course, hippies. WHY is this? I've been to countless other music fests, including uber anti-phish Pitchforks. Same basic scene. People drinking, dancing, smoking a little weed here and there. Maybe some differing fashion choices.

We're looking at a band that when all is said and done we're talking about over 2,000 concerts. But no, let's talk about noodling and drum circles.

Nice review! I would refrain from saying "it all sounds the same." Kind of an amateurish observation for a real music writer.

@minivan: But that's the whole thing with Bolles, he's not a "real music writer." Read Bootzilla's comment. I could not agree more. If anything is the "same," it is Bolle's condescending, ego driven approach to music reviews of any "jam" style band. It all started to sound the same? Who couldn't say that about ANY music they were listening to for the first time? I was going to write a "nice job" comment, but for what? Because for once, he didn't devalue Phish's music? Why should he get ANY props for that? His job is to be open minded to ALL music, particularly music that originates or abides locally. Instead, in the one paper worth a read around here, we get a biased writer who has dismissed an entire genre, and ridicules the most famous local band without ever having seen a show before! Dan, I can't believe you outed yourself on that one. Please Seven Days, find an open minded music editor that's actually going to see the bands and do a little research before he writes about them.

nice. Not a Phail. I felt the same way. And then I went again. And again. By show 3, i it all kicked in.
I think a lot of fans can relate to a similar first show experience. Next time bring Lauren.
Make sure she's wearing her mustache and overcoat. Wouldn't want anything to happen to her from a run in with all the drug crazed cracked out hippies.

Totally sick. Dan, you're an amazing writer. And as a recovering Phish addicted UVM alumn, I can agree that it's spot on. (Relax angry Phishers and take a joke).

Keep up the phabulous work (sorry I had to)


I am shocked at the largely positive response to this so-called "review." From a journalistic perspective, I think it is complete garbage. (Josh, three posts up, knows the deal, as well.)

The author is obviously very taken with himself, as he refers to himself at least seventy-two (72!) times in a relatively short article. I count 39 instances of "I", 14 instances of "My", six instances of "I've", five instances of "Me", five instances of "I'm", two instances of "Myself" and one instance of "I'll." (Thanks, Control-F and Google Chrome.)

Dude, I hate to burst your bubble, but no one cares whether you ski, smoke weed or drive a Subaru.

Please do Seven Days readers a favor and find another outlet to publish your self-aggrandizing and smug drivel (Facebook, Twitter, and Yelp come to mind).

I will lay it on the line here: Your columns are a continuing embarrassment to the Vermont music/arts scene. Moreover, Seven Days is too important a publication to the participants in and patrons of that scene for its lead music critic to write like such an utter buffoon.

Very well written. Ms. Ober should take a lesson from you on mixing playful jabs as you correctly call it with a thoughtful report on reality. (btw I appreciate her apology/retraction)

While I don't agree with most of your criticisms of the band, you have the foresight to realize that aficionados of the band will see it a different way. Kudos for keeping an open mind on what this thing called Phish is all about. If you don't like it, you don't like it...nothing wrong with that.

Well done!!!

Thanks Dan for a solid, honest, and relatively objective review. I'm glad you had fun. That, above all, is the point of a Phish show.

Now, while I also found Ms. Ober's post to be in poor taste and I commented as such; the fact that so many of the trolls who took issue with her overuse of the F->PH crutch came from a forum called "PhantasyTour", well, isn't that just a little "Hello Kettle, I'm the Pot..."?

Great to hear you enjoyed it. Did you buy tickets, or make a direct donation instead?

I inadvertently misquoted Frank Zappa in my post at 9:36 PM on September 15th, above, as having said that rock journalism is "people who don't know how to write writing about people who don't know how to play for people who don't know how to read."

The correct quote is: "Most rock journalism is people who can't write interviewing people who can't talk for people who can't read."


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