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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2008/12/22
by David Steinberg


By now you’ve probably heard the rumor that Phish are playing Bonnaroo. You’ve argued back and forth about this with your friends. You’ve even read the Lefsetz letter that explained in great detail exactly why Bob Lefsetz thinks this is a horrible idea:
This is no way to come back, playing it safe. Phishheads dont want to hang with Springsteen fans at some clusterfuck in Tennessee. Yes, Bruce is rumored for Bonnaroo too.
No ones special anymore. No one means anything. A festival is bigger than any act. Which is why the best can go on sale without listing any participants.
A great band is sui generis. It should never open for anyone. Its not part of the scene, it IS the scene.
Phish should do arenas. Then its own festival. Its hard not to believe theyre doing Bonnaroo because of their managers involvement.
You might think this is bullshit. Youll point to the gross. Youll say everyones happy. Ill say this is the kind of thinking that fucked up our business. Its only about money, not about soul. Phish should only think about its fans. Not its managers need to sell out a festival that dropped significantly in attendance last year.
Festivals are the new radio show. Do a few and you cant tour independently, i.e. on your own. You fatten the coffers of the promoter, but you fuck your own career.
My response to this is simple and can be summed up in one sentence. Chill the fuck out.
Playing it safe? How is this playing it safe. Have you been to message boards in the last few days? "Sellout!" is probably one of the nicer things people have said about this. Playing it safe would be doing the same exact things they did before lest they disturb people with different plans.
Since when are there all of these rules about what a band can or cannot do? It’s pretty simple. The band owes us the best concert their talent can give us. We deserve a good faith effort at $50 worth of entertainment for our ticket. An improvisational band will have nights where their risks will fail, but as long as they aren’t going through the motions and have a relatively high success rate, they’re holding up their end of the bargain. Everything else – don’t open for other bands, don’t play festivals – is just your own baggage. Maybe Phish becomes less special for you if they play Bonnaroo but that’s not that band’s fault; that’s yours.
I’m not a huge fan of Bonnaroo. The stages are so far apart that you can’t see all of the music that you want to. If a band is in a tent, you have to show up early if you want to be able to hear them. The weather is either oppressively hot or there are downpours. Moreover, I’m not quite sure that a festival that has a strip club in the parking lot area is really attracting the elements of the music crowd that I feel most comfortable with. [1] I attended once, had a reasonably good time, and then decided that this just wasn’t the event for me. However, Phish playing Bonnaroo is great for at least one reason – everyone knows that if they want to, they can attend at least one (or two depending on how many days they headline) Phish show next year. In the wake of the Hampton fiasco, that’s a great thing to know.
Quick quiz: when was the last time Phish played a festival that was not one of their own? Must have been a long time ago, right? Nope. They played two nights at the Fuji Rock Festival in 1999. That was such a big mistake that the net result was to open the country for a rather good tour in 2000. OK, you say, Japan doesn’t count? Well before then they played Farm Aid in 1998. Yeah, the band sure looks like they’re having a miserable time getting to play "Down By the River" with Neil Young.

Well that’s for charity and so that doesn’t count either? Well what about Glastonbury in 1997? That’s not exactly a small festival. Neither is the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival that was graced by Phish in 1996. Bonnaroo isn’t some weird aberration that would be a massive departure from Phish’s norms. For four years in a row Phish played an outside festival. Rather than destroying the band, this period coincided with the height of Phish’s popularity and centered around their second creative peak. It allowed them to play for audiences that might otherwise be closed to them and gave them a chance to interact with musicians that might have otherwise never heard of them.
I can’t pretend that I know the true motivations of the band. Since I have not yet fully developed my telepathic powers [2], I have no way of knowing if the band is coming back because they miss playing with each other or if this is some way of replenishing their children’s’ college funds. However, I’m not going to assume the worst about their motivations without some actual evidence.
The reaction of erstwhile Phish fans to the actions of the band is starting to remind me of how liberals are reacting to the transition period for Obama. As soon as they do something – no matter how symbolic – that the fan doesn’t like, it’s time to go on a long rant about how the honeymoon is over and they’re showing their true colors. I understand how both Coventry and the eight years of George Bush have not exactly filled us with a large reservoir of confidence, but can we please wait for some actual mistakes before we pronounce failure? Maybe I’m just a cockeyed optimist, but I think the facts that that Obama will be president and Phish will be playing in 2009 are reasons to rejoice. Do we have to describe the glass as one ten thousandth empty because you took a small sip?
[1] Now that I typed that sentence, I’m sure that someone will tell me that there was a strip club set up at Big Cypress or something. I didn’t see it so it didn’t happen.
[2] Any day now. Look out!
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
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

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