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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 1998/12/15
by David Steinberg

In Defense of the Anal Retentive Fans

There seem to be two kind of jamband fans- those who enjoy pouring over setlists, examining stats, timing songs, making complicated systems to predict the exact odds that Widespread Panic will play “Traveling Light” at the next show and then there are those who think the first group are pretty silly. Just recently, someone signed my guestbook with “But the fact that you study Phish is a joke. They aren’t meant to be studied, [they] are trying to be a ray of sunlight on an otherwise cloudy day for us. So stop studying them, spark a phatty, relax and listen to the best music you will ever experience in your life.” A recent thread on rec.music.phish suggested that there should be shows without taping in order to heighten the excitement of the moment. Even I got into the act with my first column. There I was, The Timer, creator of Phish Stats, arguing that people shouldn’t analyze music. In retrospect, I should have expected people to call me on that. Since no one did, I’m going to do it myself. There are valid reasons to study live performances; moreover the study of them can actually increase your enjoyment of the show if done right.

The main reason for keeping set lists, for timing songs, for taping shows, for anything along those lines is pretty obvious. When you’re at a concert, you are presented with a choice- you can either maximize your enjoyment for the show or you can try to maximize your memory of the show later. Taking detailed notes or worrying about the levels on your tapes prevent you from diving into the show. I was once asked on rec.music.phish, “How can you really get into that ‘Tweezer’ when you’re writing notes?” However, the inverse is true too.

Mystical experiences rarely translate well back into the more mundane world. People who experience them have to speak in code. Zen koans, the Tao Te Ching, the symbols on a Tarot card, all of them mean much more than the literal information they convey. Any attempt to convey a pre-rational experience back into the world of rationality is going to lose some meaning in the translation. In the world of live music, I find that the moments that really move me are not later easily recalled. My detailed setlist notes (“Interesting bassline at 32:17”) get replaced with smiley faces and exclamation points. My memory of the jam gets replaced with lines like “Wow that was hot!” My post show commentaries like, “Was Kang teasing something in that riff between ‘Lonesome Fiddle Blues’ and ‘San Jose’?” get replaced with such insightful observations as “Oh My God Oh My God Oh My God!!!”. On at least one occasion (10/16/89- my first “Dark Star”) I actually fainted for a second.

This might seem like a silly question, but when you start looking for tapes, why do you look for the shows that you loved first? Sure, on some level you do so because you think the music was better than that of a bad show, but I also would argue that you do so because the nature of experiencing a life changing show prevents you from remembering it as clearly as an average one. While some of the more intense moments may be etched permanently into your brain- like the image of lightning striking over Denver in the distance, as I saw my first “Slave to the Traffic Light” in 1993- the sheer intensity of those moments make it that much harder to remember them as being part of a greater event.

Now while being an anal retentive fan mainly helps after the show to recall what had happened, there are two advantages to being anal during the show. The first one is simply a focusing device. How many times have you been bored with a song, let your mind drift, and suddenly discover that half a set has passed. I know that I am extremely vulnerable to daydreaming. Sometimes it’s not a bad thing- I’ve had the answer to some programming problems that I was fussing over come to me in a flash during concerts- but in terms of actually enjoying the show, it can get in the way; there is no way to appreciate a song if you’re not listening to it. Keeping a setlist- never mind a detailed one with notes and the beginning and ending times of each song- fights against that. Some part of your mind is forced to pay attention to the music at all times, even if it’s not captivating you at that moment. When the band starts playing music that could raise the dead and make the blind see, you’ll be ready for it. So focusing on details helps you remember the show later, it helps you be ready to get mystical, a-rational, enjoyment from it. In addition though, there is one way that the analytical fan can actually enjoy the show than one who lives more in the moment.

Any jamband is constantly communicating on two levels whenever they play. The first level is obvious to anyone walking in off of the streets. They are playing music which might or might not move you. The second form of communication takes a while to catch on to, that’s the language of the setlist. In my first column I discussed how worrying about repeats hampered one’s ability to actually enjoy a show. While that’s true and a great example of the second level destroying the first, quite frequently, it’s reversed. For example, on June 20, 1992, the Grateful Dead came out of “Space” with a rather mediocre performance of a song. However, since that song was “Casey Jones”, which hadn’t been played in 8 years, I doubt there was anyone there who was not in complete bliss. For a more subtle example, look at this Phish set list:

Set II: The Curtain> Runaway Jim> It’s Ice > Brother, Fluffhead> Antelope > Golgi

Other than the “Brother” in there, there are no weird songs in that list per se, yet I got an enjoyment from that list itself far above and beyond the playing of the music. Why? Nostalgia. Every song on that list had been played at least once at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester. What setlist is that? It’s Set II from the second night of the Clifford Ball (minus the set closing “Slave” which was never played at the Capitol Theatre and performed the role of “bonus song” in the set). For the first time in their career, Phish drew 60,000 + people to an event. In the midst of the insanity, they proved exactly why they managed that feat, playing a list out of 91 or 92, but with each song played far better than any versions from those years would have been. It was a demonstration of just how far they had evolved in so few years; without the setlist and knowledge of Phish’s history, I would have missed it. Maybe it wasn’t intentional, but it caused me to enjoy the show a lot more than I would have otherwise. And it’s enjoyment of the show- either at the show or later, either for the way they are playing or the messages they are sending- that is the whole point of seeing shows. Pure setlist enjoyment moments- such as Phish playing “Terrapin Station” on the 3rd anniversary of Jerry’s death- are rare, but they do exist. Cutting yourself off from that form of pleasure is as silly as dwelling so far in the lists that you can’t appreciate the music.

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_David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1993. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capitol Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html

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