I Have Been To The Phishy Edge

13 Nov

festival8…and I lived to tell the tale.  As I mentioned last week, Dan A and I headed down to Indio over Halloween to partake in the massive Phish Festival 8, a four-day(!), eight-set extravaganza by the recently reunited jammy dudes from Vermont.  Verily, it was a phishstravaganza, a true phishsplosion.  Over the course of the festival, I was able to sample the full range and depth of the Phish fan experience.

A little background – I had never seen the band live until this festival, though I did on some level consider myself a fan of the band (I’m not sure I do anymore, though, more on why later). I’ve really enjoyed the band’s music since I was in high school, mostly just listening to their studio records in high school, and I own and know probably four of their eight or so studio records.

But I’d never seen them live, and without question, Phish is the kind of band where you’re  not a fan if you merely like the music – you must see them live. This band has superfans who follow it around the country, living in tye-dyed RVs and obsessively documenting their setlists.  Phish fans are without question one of the most easily and quickly mocked cliques in modern music, and I was more than a little intrigued by the prospect of walking among them.

For those of you who have never attended (or would never attend) a Phish show, I thought I’d make a list of outsider’s thoughts and observations.

1. As It Turns Out, I Know Nothing Of Phish

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There was totally a ferris wheel.

I didn’t realize just how out of the loop I would be upon getting there, but dang.  I know four albums’ worth of material, plus more than a few live tracks, cold.  I’ve heard them tons of times, know all the solos, the lyrics, to probably forty tunes.  But in the first three sets of music, I knew almost nothing.  A lot was new material, but most of it was stuff that the whole audience seemed to know, classic material that for whatever reason I was just unaware of.  The later sets dug deeper into the music I know (which must be their oldest stuff, from Junta and Rift and Hoist).

2. Speculation is the Phish Fan’s #1 activity

Most of the people at this festival, needless to say, were pretty hardcore.  And the #1 pastime of the hardcore is speculating about upcoming setlists. All anyone ever talked about during the first two days was “What do you think they’ll play?”  Non-stop discussions of past sets, and patterns laid out therein, recounting of the time they did Esther in 2001, or YEM opened a set in ’98 – it’s almost like baseball cards.  The band seems to know this, and they build the entire experience around giving their fans something to talk about.  The second set on Halloween was a cover of another artist’s entire album, but the album was not revealed until the afternoon of the show, leaving everyone guessing among a handful of band-supplied finalists.  It was all anyone talked about, and a good deal of fun.

The flip side of this, however, is that no one really talks about the set after it’s happened… perhaps that is because most of the people are too high/drunk in the wee hours after a set to really go into detail, but I think that an actual discussion of the music, of the approach and the writing, would have been fun to have with people who have followed the band for a long time.

3. Phish Has Six Members, Not Four

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My iPhone could not capture the awesomeness.

Actually, the band proper has four members, but there are two additional dudes who are an absolutely integral part of the band, and their work is really, really obvious in the live show. Tom Marshall writes all of the band’s lyrics, and is a huge part of the allure of the music.  Nothing’s clear, everything’s a weird story about bizarre characters… at least until recently, where the band (and lead guitarist Trey Anistasio in particular) have taken up the lyric writing reins, to mostly disastrous result.  All of the new songs that I didn’t know were laaaaame, to be honest, with all this “Be Happy!” triumphalism on the choruses and really inside chord progressions.  It all made Marshall’s lyrics on weirder works like Bouncing Round The Room and Maze stand out as really cool.  Which they are.

The other extra band member is Chris Kodura, who does lights. And oh my GOD, does the dude do lights.  Words could not possibly describe the lighting show that took place during the band’s night sets – it was without question the most spectacular light show I’ve ever seen.  The setup of the stage was just brilliant, but the coup de grace was the huge row of palm trees that lined the back of the lot where the stage.  The trees were all lit from the base, and the lights would move and shift with the stage show, crating a ripple of the lights that stretched for a quarter-mile in either direction from the stage.  Like I said, words can’t describe it, but it was epic.

4. Musically, Phish Left Me Cold

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The glory days are long since past.

Sure, from a sociological standpoint, the festival was totally awesome, the lights were beyond cool, and the guys in the band really did an amazing job of putting on an extended, good-vibes festival that truly felt like it was for the fans. But how about the music?  Well, to be quite honest… not really so much.

It’s was clear that musically, the band peaked years ago, and in the four or five years that they were broken up (reuniting just last January), they certainly haven’t gotten tighter.  In fact, they were noticeably loose, blowing endings and screwing up lyrics, and Trey’s voice sounded R-O-U-G-H.

What’s more, since the group has clearly decided to forgo their more complex, tightly-composed, chromatically-tinged earlier writing in favor of lowest common denominator pop guitar-solo rock, the music is really repetitive.  Honestly, if you were to examine the layout of three or four random songs, you would notice that they all go the exact same way:

Song Begins (Audience erupts) ->Verse -> Chorus -> Guitar Solo -> Guitar solo builds to big loud high note and the lights get really bright on that note and the audience goes nuts -> Verse -> Chorus -> End.

And really, by the twenty-first time the lights turned on “Strobe” and blinded us while Trey and the band held a big note together… let’s just say the shine had worn off.

5. The Party Is Over

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Trey's mugshot from his drug arrest a few years back.

This one is the toughest, but was the most apparent: Phish has peaked.  Without question, the band reached its apex quite a few years ago, and from now until forever are doomed to simply repeat their past glory on an endless loop for the rest of their lives.

There was an elegiac tone to the entire festival, everyone trading war stories about awesome stuff that happened years ago, while conspicuously remaining measured and vague when discussing the present or the future. The fans are in their mid-late thirties now, and many have kids.  The huge amount of smoking (both pot and cigarettes) that they’ve done has caught up with them, and the AM hours at our camping area were filled with more hacks than the Two and a Half Men writer’s room.  It was intense.

The band feels it too – not only are they much looser on the material than they used to be, everything has a touch of the “been there, done that.”  I can imagine that it was awesome to attend a festival like this in 1999, when the band was younger and still doing things for the first time.  “Woah, they are all on trampolines!  This is so cool!”  This time around, they also all got on trampolines to play, but it felt more like “Wasn’t that cool when we got on the trampolines?  Look!  We’re doing it again!”

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The stage was nice, and the people were nicer.

6. It’s About Community

All of this makes it sound like I didn’t enjoy myself.  But you see, I totally did. Because it wasn’t about the music, not really, it was about spending a crazy dirty weekend with my amazing friend driving and listening to music and generally being gross and having fun together.  And in that respect, it was amazing.

And I think it’s that way for everyone who comes out, just on a bigger scale. Despite all of the “They’re back, baby!” raging I heard after their final set, everyone at this festival knows, on some level, that the peak has come and gone. And yet they return, and they will return for years and years to come.  Because it’s not about the music, not really. It’s about the community.

Jacob Clifton, the fabulous TWoP recapper I’ve mentioned lots of times before, wrote something once about American Idol that really captured the phenomenon of the Phish Festival Community.  I’m paraphrasing here, but basically, he said that American Idol is not just some trivial thing, a show that is best ignored and marganalized by those who care about “real” art and entertainment.  He suggested that just as we used to gather around the fireplace, or the radio, and talk, we now we gather around the television, and these big shows that we all watch together, and that the things we gather around say more about us than they do about themselves. It’s not the thing that matters, it’s the people who gather around it.

For the tens of thousands of superfans in attendance last weekend, the same is true of Phish – it is not about the music, not really, not anymore.  It’s about the community.  Everyone there seemed to know so many other people, people they hadn’t seen since the last show, the last festival – following a band around may be a tough and nomadic lifestyle, but this is not where people go to see some groovy guitar music.  This is where they go to see their friends, their real family.  That’s a really important distinction, and it’s not lost on me.

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On Monday, as Dan and I drove up the 5 back to San Francisco, I was dirty, exhausted, and completely burned out on guitar solos, but I also had a much clearer picture of Phish, their community, and their particular brand of pot-hackey-sack band-worship than I’d had at the outset.  It was a crazy weekend, and I’m so glad I went.

A particularly memorable moment in the festival happened during the band’s Sunday afternoon acoustic set. It was two days in, the sun was baking, and we were all totally fried. After the second song, Trey got on the mic to urge people to sit down –  “I know you want to stand, but it’s early, and we have a lot of slow songs!”  And so, without much of a second thought, the entire audience just… sat down on the grass.  Like, 20,000 people, in unison.  And dude, considering how loudly my dogs were barking, how sore my entire body was at that point, it was just… so great. Everyone sitting on the grass, relaxing while the music played, finally getting off our feet.

To all who would dismiss the fans and the music out of hand, I will not preach that you should get to know them, or attend a festival, or whatever.  You shouldn’t.  If you don’t think the music or the scene is for you, it most likely isn’t. Hell, it’s not for me, and I like a lot of the band’s material.

But I would urge you not to diminish the fans, or of the music that draws them, simply because they’re an easy target. These people have created an enduring community that they take with them around the country, one that is unfailingly warm, open, and sharing, in which everyone seems to acknowledge a desire for cooperation and peaceful co-existence. It’s truly remarkable, and I was glad to get to be a part of it, if only for a few days.

And yeah, there’s also a TON of pot.

Seriously, it’s everywhere.

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Goodnight, Indio.

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2 Responses to “I Have Been To The Phishy Edge”

  1. Erik November 14, 2009 at 11:22 am #

    Nice review! I’m like you, this year was my first year to actually see phish in concert. But different in the fact that I can’t get enough. I’ve seen them 5 times in 09 and have tix to 2 more in cincy this year. Would love to see them for NYE in Miami too!
    They may have peaked but they are no where near done, I hope!

    http://www.igriza.com

  2. alex November 14, 2009 at 6:42 pm #

    What a great article! It reminds me of what happened to The Grateful Dead.
    I went to a few of their concerts when Gerry was alive.I felt the exact way you did.
    Keep up the good work.

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