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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2003/07/28
by David Steinberg

How Many Obsessives Does it Take to Fund a Rock Band?

I’m always happy when I can do something stupid in the pursuit of
music. I look at my itinerary ahead of time, imagine explaining it to
my mother, and smile. Of course I actually did have to explain this
one to my mother, because it was coming on the heels of my brother’s
wedding in the outlying suburbs of Philadelphia.
The wedding was on Saturday, July 5. Sunday morning I woke up at 6 AM
Philadelphia time – 3 AM Seattle time – to catch an airport shuttle.
It took about two hours to get to the airport due to an incompetent
driver. I then got on a plane and flew to Sea-Tac. Despite being
home, I didn’t get to stop by my house. I only had enough time to
collect my bag (containing both my wedding suit and my Starman outfit)
from US Air [1] and check it in to Horizon.
I was doing a two step to San Jose. My return flight was direct, but
my outgoing stopped in Boise. I only had a thirty minute layover, so
it was a bit stressful. I ran out of the plane – taking a quick
second to remember the last time I flew into Boise [2] – only to
discover that the San Jose flight was going to use the same plane.
Cancel that panic.
Based on its Silicon Valley roots, you’d think that San Jose
International would be a pretty major airport. Well maybe you
wouldn’t, but I sure did. I was stunned to see a small town airport.
It wasn’t much bigger than Boise, nor more technologically advanced.
Only the sign for the occasional dot com convinced me that I did in
fact land in the right airport.
After picking out my car – based solely on the fact that it had a tape
deck – I headed out of San Jose and started driving. At this point I
had already been traveling for 16 hours and I had to still drive all
the way to Phoenix.
One thing that makes driving on the west coast different from driving
on the east coast is that you never know what you’re going to get out
west. I had no clue that there was a 4000+ foot pass right outside
of LA on I-5. That was a welcome change of pace for my midnight
driving, even if it was the catalyst for my driving problem.
Skirting around LA on I-210, I noticed that my speedometer was moving
around wildly. It was 2 AM, I had been traveling for nearly a day
straight, so I figured that I was so tired that I was driving
completely erratically. I stopped at a very sketchy Motel 6 [3] near
the 5/15 interchange and hoped that a good night’s sleep would make me
drive better.
The good news the next morning was that the speedometer wasn’t
shooting around randomly. The bad news was that it had settled in
between 40 and 50. I knew that that couldn’t possibly be right
because I was passing people in the middle of the desert. What I
didn’t know was how fast I actually was traveling. Seeing a cop
come peeling out behind me with its sirens on, didn’t help.
Fortunately though, it was looking for the car that had just passed
me.
California manages to get away with a lot of quirks on their highways.
While they’re working on rectifying this now, exit numbers have been
an alien philosophy for the state. Even more frustrating, since the
counties had an early mile marking system, the ubiquitous mile markers
present in every other state aren’t there. It wasn’t until I crossed
over into Arizona that they made their appearance. Armed with a trip
odometer, mile markers, and a stopwatch to check my results, I soon
learned that for every mile I traveled, the odometer (and the
speedometer as a result) though I was going .6 [4] miles. As it turns
out, .6 was the perfect amount for it to reset to.
Some Are Mathematicians pop quiz: If your speedometer is
telling you a speed that is 3/5 as fast as your real speed, what
trick can you use to know your actual speed without doing any actual
calculations? Answer later in this column.
Much to the surprise of no one, Phoenix in July turned out to be a tad
on the warm side. After hiding in my hotel room for a couple of
hours, I wandered over to the venue around 5. Much to my surprise the
soundcheck was easily audible to everyone who cared to listen. It was
all new songs. Scents and Subtle Sounds and Turn It Around were happy
numbers that I enjoyed a lot. Spices and Discern were less obvious in
their delights, but I guess they can’t all be written for me.
One amusing thing about seeing a show in the desert in the summer- I
had never before seen a mist tent that had a bone dry floor. The mist
was evaporating long before it even reached our heads, let alone the
concrete.
Thousands of miles had been traveled, incredible heat was being
endured (albeit not in my Starman outfit), all of this was being done
for one thing – being at the tour opener. Would Phish deliver?
Well the Waves and the Dirt in the first set were really nice. The
Wolfman’s had a really good jam. The debut of Scents and Subtle
Sounds was popular; its mixture of Moma Dance [5], Sparks, and Harry
Hood worked quite well, especially in later versions where they
stopped using the actual chords from Sparks. Outside of that though,
it was sloppy. TMWSIY was cringeworthy; what could have been an
incredible moment was reduced to me wishing that it would stop. The
end of Bowie was flawed. The Possum was stopped before the jam could
go anywhere. It had moments, yes, but it fell far short of
incredible.
Before leaving the show, I looked around the half empty venue and
pondered. The greatest strength of jambands is that every show is a
crap shoot. This is also their greatest weakness. When you
see The Who or The Rolling Stones, you know that you’re going to see
most of their greatest hits. You know that you’ll get rocking
versions of songs. You won’t get any surprises or moments of
improvisational beauty, but you’ll get something that you know that
you’ll like at least. As ticket prices creep up higher and higher and
the economy continues to slump, the security of knowing what you will
get for your ticket starts to make more sense. The empty seats of
Phoenix might be the first sign that maybe the jambands route isn’t
the best model for new bands.
For now though it was a jamband that I was seeing. It was off to
Chula Vista. The drive across the southern edges of Arizona and
California is an interesting one. You get to drive on an Arizona
state route for about 50 miles and then through a small town full of
cheesy motel goodness; I wish I had stayed at the flying saucer themed
place. Once you hit I-8, you have sand dunes, exits for Mexicali,
and a mountain pass to entertain you. This time though there was
something new.
Every Interstate that crosses into California has a fruit inspection
checkpoint at the state line. You pull into it, they ask you if you
have any fruit, you say no, and that’s it. It looked like I would
get a break on this trip. The checkpoint was closed. I pulled
around the curve on the ramp with a smile, until I saw the sign.
"Border Patrol Inspection Ahead." The easy inspection was replaced
with an annoying one. I pulled up to the stop sign and had one of my
most amusing exchanges with a Border Patrol agent ever.
Border Patrol Agent: Citizenship?
Me: American
BPA: Where were you born?
Me: Camden, New Jersey
BPA: Where are you coming from?
Me: Phoenix, Arizona [I wanted to make sure he knew WHAT Phoenix I
meant I guess.]
BPA: Where are you going to?
Me: San Diego, California [ditto]
BPA: Are you aware that you’re sparkling?
Me: (looks at arm, notices glitter) It’s leftover from the concert
last night
BPA: Do you have anything illegal on you?
Me: No.
BPA: Do you know that marijuana is illegal in Arizona?
Me: Yes.
BPA: Ok, have a nice day.
I’m really glad that the Border Patrol decided to fill me in on that
little known fun fact. Before that I thought that all drugs were
legal in Arizona, but now it’s all clear.
Up in the mountains, there was a second Border Patrol checkpoint. I
prepared for another wacky exchange, but this time I was just waved
through. There used to be no checkpoints on that road. I don’t know
if this is a post-9/11 reaction or a special treat for the kids on
Phish tour who might have otherwise missed out on the experience of
driving through multiple stops, but I can’t say I’m thrilled about
either explanation. I’m an American citizen driving strictly within
US borders. I don’t feel like I should have to explain to any
government official where I am driving.
After exploring the joys of San Diego [6], I headed over to the venue
early. That wasn’t really the plan mind you, I was just curious as to
where it was. The next thing I knew I was in the lot, so I figured
I’d just stay there. It turned out to be very cool as my ex-Seattle
friends Jeff and Bobbi were parked one row behind me. I got to hang
out with them, ponder the joys of the waterslide park at the back of
the venue, and come up with new ideas for Jambands.com, mainly the
Jambands lot food critic. I think this would provide a much needed
service. Who really does make the best quesadilia on the lot? Are
French Bread pizzas really worth breaking the 1 for 3, 2 for 5 budget
for? All of this could be answered.
"This vendor just sells a kitchen sink quesadilia. Sure it’s great
that they had 10 ingredients in it, but she didn’t spend any time
thinking about what would make a good mix. When it doubt, she just
added another veggie to make it look more impressive. 2.5 stars."
Coors Ampitheatre is a different sort of venue than the average shed.
The pavilion area isn’t just uncovered, it’s huge. I was impressed
that seats were still available at show time, but that was before I
found out that the lawn was tiny. I think I prefer the smaller
pavilions and larger sheds, but it’s always cool to see something
different.
Speaking of different, the group sitting right in front of us was
amusing. It was a mother (wearing a tie dye and obviously the one one
who wanted to go to the show in the first place), father, and pre-teen
son. They just didn’t seem to get it. In the middle of the first
set, the kid actually put on headphones to prevent the music
interfering with his gameboy playing. It was too bad he did that as
he missed a pretty good show. The rust from Phoenix was long over.
There weren’t many lows, and the Down With Disease and Harry Hood were
pretty impressive highs. Phish were back after only one show.
The difference between the touring crowd and the usual concert going
crowd is pretty simple. Most people see many bands in a couple of
venues; the touring population sees a couple bands in many venues.
As a result, we’re more in tune to trends in venue sizes, policies,
and naming. This is why I think my shock at seeing the sign on US
101 giving an exit for, "Shoreline Ampitheatre at Mountain View
Presented By The Chronicle" is proof that they went overboard there.
I’ve been to many venues in this country, but I never have seen a
venue name that was a paragraph. I responded the way that I always
do when presented with the ridiculous. I engaged in my favorite form
of civil disobedience – actively correcting anyone who didn’t use the
entire ridiculous name. Sure it’s not fair to the poor employees who
work there, but maybe if everyone does it, they’ll be forced to
change the name.
First night Shoreline got a lot of praise in the Phish community. I’m
here to say that it was completely justified. Between the shock of
the Yem->Simple opener, the fastest Chalk Dust I have ever heard, the
long long long Bathtub Gin, and yet another amazing 2003 Piper,
there’s nothing to complain about this show at all.
I had no plans for the day off. No plans, that is, until I noticed
that the A’s and Devil Rays were playing a 12:35 game. I hustled to
the stadium just before first pitch. Seeing a game in Oakland is
somewhat frustrating. They wouldn’t let me sit in a nearly completely
empty section just because I bought an upper deck seat… but they
weren’t selling food up in the upper deck so the move probably costs
them money. The announcer is more into the random backstories they
give to the between game entertainment than he is to the baseball
game. Factor in the fact that the Devil Rays stretch the definition
of "major league baseball team" and I’m not sure that I got the
biggest bang for my entertainment dollar. On the other hand, if it
were not for a first inning homerun, Mulder would have had a no hitter
well into the 6th. That would have been something.
If the second show didn’t quite have the energy of the first show, it
still was quite solid. The most amusing part about it was the rather
slow climax to Antelope. I quickly nicknamed it, "Stroll like an
antelope, well under control." I left the venue quite happy with the
run, and headed back home towards my destiny.
Some of you might have noticed that it was rather stupid of me to fly
all the way to San Jose right after the wedding. It would have worked
much better if I had stayed home that day and started in San Diego.
The off day that I didn’t use could have gone towards the Deer Creek
run after all. However, I did have a plan at work. By seeing all of
the southwest run, the first night at the Gorge – the first show in
the Pacific Northwest since 1999 – would have added significance.
This show would be my 200th.
Almost everyone who did this run prefers the second night to the
first. I understand that and that does hold up on the cds, but I
will maintain that 7/12/03 was a darn fine show. It might not be up
there with my 100th7, but I have no complaints about this concert.
There was an incredible sunset during Maze. The sky was overcast and
was a fiery red except for three clouds on the far right of the stage
that were an alien shade of orange. While we all oooed and aaaahed
over that, Phish went all over the place in the jam. I was scared
that they were lost, but fortunately they dropped a bread crumb trail
to find their way through the maze.
While it is true that none of the jams this night matched with the
Seven Below to follow on Sunday, I think it could be argued that
Saturday’s second set might be the best set played at the Gorge. The
Piper was long and energetic. The Tweezer jam was quite interesting
and the segue into Dogs Stole Things at least has novelty on its side.
Ending the set with Ghost and Bowie was almost jam song overkill.
There were four really good jams in that set. Throw in the Maze and
one of the best performances of Water in the Sky, and I think I’m
justified calling my 200th a winner. We’ll see what number 300 looks
like in 2009.
I’m always happy when I can do something stupid in the pursuit of
music. I look at my itinerary ahead of time, imagine explaining it to
my mother, and smile. After the Gorge run I was only going to return
to work for one day. I had a quick flight to Salt Lake City on
Tuesday for one last show. Sure it meant spending a night in the
airport, but maybe – just maybe – it would be worth it.
Salt Lake City is one of the few towns in this country that still have
managed to keep an independent identity. From the billboards on the
highway explaining that there is now a faster way to contact your
church elders to the military recruiting table inside the venue [8],
when you see a show in Salt Lake, you know you’re somewhere
interesting. Of course the rather stunning views visible from the
parking lot didn’t hurt. The views inside the venue weren’t bad, but
I could sit outside the venue looking at the distant mountains all
night.
I assume by now, you’ve heard about this show. Yes it was as good as
the setlist reads, if not better. My head exploded somewhere around
the 25 minute mark of Miister Completely [9], and didn’t recover until
the beginning of Walls of the Cave. The only question about this show
is where to slot it in my favorite shows seen. My kneejerk reaction
was to put it right behind the Tweezerfest. Some reflection the next
day dropped it just outside of my top 10, but I don’t think that’s
accurate either.
All I know is that I was pumped up in a way that I never get. People
who talked to me afterwards were quite amused at how energetic I was.
I was going on and on and on and on about what a great show it was.
All throughout my cab ride back to the airport – and then later when I
tried to get some sleep – I was rushing off of the show. Four guys
shouldn’t really be able to have this power, should they?
While in the airport I thought about the half empty venue and
pondered. The greatest weakness of jambands is that every show is a
crap shoot. This is also their greatest strength. You may know what
to expect from a more mainstream band, you may know that you’ll get
something that you’ll like, but what you’ll never get from them is
the show that you didn’t know you wanted until it happened. The
empty feeling of the lame show does get frustrating, but there is
nothing at all that compares to the rush of the perfect show. I might
enjoy seeing the Stones, but I doubt that they could compel me to
call everyone I knew who might care hours and hours after the show in
order to give another breathless breakdown of the concert. The
empty seats in Phoenix might have been a harbinger but in Utah they
looked like something else. They looked like an aberration.

[1] One thing I vowed on this trip was to never fly US Air again if I
could avoid it. Maybe other airlines will switch to this plan, but
they were the first that I knew of that had the plan where only first
class customers get food. Anyone else has to pay $10 for a meal (that
weren’t even vegetarian). I know that margins are rough right now
but this is incredibly short sighted. Even ignoring that it’s stupid
to make your flights less customer friendly when people aren’t flying
as much, this policy actually makes people angry. An airline meal
probably costs about $2. My plane ticket cost nearly $500. Raise the
price another dollar or two and you break even, no one notices, and it
makes much better public relations.
Of course it also helps if you actually clean your plane between
flights or could figure out how to use a jetway, but those are other
rants.
[2] 9/14/99. People snoozed. People lost. I didn’t. I won.
[3] When I was checking in, I got the pleasure of watching a strung
out woman trying to figure out how to put change in the vending
machine.
[4] Actually .59
[5] Only now the moment never ends.
[6] I went to the beach so I could dip my toes in the Pacific Ocean
and then I drove to the end of I-5 so I could see Mexico at least.
[7] 10/31/94
[8] They were fun to play with as they could take a joke. They
took my silly questions ("So could I get time off from Iraq to go on
tour?" "You’d let me wear my hair like this, right?") in stride.
They had a ridiculous job, but they decided to enjoy it. Good for
them. If only the anti-teen smoking table people were as much fun.
[9] As One Man’s Trash spells it.
Answer to the pop quiz: As it turns out, a kilometer is .62
miles. If I looked at the kilometers per hour reading on my
speedometer, the two factors would cancel each other out, and I’d
have my approximate speed in miles per hour.
David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New
Mexico State University in 1994. 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
He is the stats section editor for
The Phish Companion and is on the board of directors for the Netspace Foundation. You can read more of his thoughts at
http://www.livejournal.com/users/thezzyzx.

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