In the wake of the quick Greek and Telluride sellouts, west coast Phish fans have a standard conversation. “Did you get tickets? How did you get them? Did you have to make some sort of deal or did you get lucky on Ticketmaster/Ticket Horse?” One of my friends had a tale of woe. While Thursday Greeks were obtained, Fridays were in her cart but a Ticketmaster problem somehow caused them to vanish. She was quite upset about that to the point where a coworker asked her why she was so depressed when she was going to get to see them.
It does seem like an obvious question. I’ve used my ticketing skills – no longer what they used to be now that the Internet did what it always does and turned secret knowledge into easily obtainable information – to help people get Bruce Springsteen tickets and their reaction was shock that they got to see him, not relief that they weren’t shut out. The difference isn’t that one band mixes up their setlists and improvises; Railroad Earth and Jackie Greene do that too and while I love their music, the drive is different. With Phish – and earlier with the Grateful Dead- concerts aren’t just an aspect of the experience. Yes, you can listen to CDs and download the shows, but to be a fan of their music is to see them live. Listening to the music is important – as seeing concerts is important for fans of other bands – but it’s not enough to just listen. You have to make an active effort.
While there are some grey areas, you can tell if a band has an active or passive fandom pretty quickly by going to their message board. Passive fandoms – and despite the negative connotations of the word, they are not a bad thing – would have discussions about the songs. People will discuss the lyrics and argue over which album is better. Active fandoms will still discuss the songs and lyrics, but it would largely be in the context of the live show. It’s not which song is better, but which song works better in the middle of a second set. If your not sure, there’s one simple test. If they know the names and roles of the crew, you have an active fandom.
While musing over this, we drove up to Bellingham to see Jackie Greene. Located about 90 miles north of downtown Seattle, Bellingham is a small town that has a thriving club area due to Western Washington University. Between the Nightlight and The Wild Buffalo, it’s arguable that there are more good clubs to see music there than in Seattle, although the remodeling of the Crocodile makes this less likely.
Despite an annoying rainstorm in the hills between Mt. Vernon and Bellingham, we made good enough time on our drive to catch the opening band. That’s not always good news per se, but Spoonshine were damn sure better than the rain. They’re a high-energy bluegrass/country band – “Americana” is the term that they prefer – who got the crowd moving. Between Creeping Time, Blue Turtle Seduction, and now Spoonshine, I’ve stumbled across a few of these bands in recent years; random opening band discoveries help keep the concert experience exciting.
Despite the best effort of Spoonshine, and some incredible jams off of Jackie Greene on his originals, what stuck with me is the crowd’s reaction to his version of “New Speedway Boogie.” I understand why Greene is getting a little frustrated with people who think of him as a Grateful Dead cover act; he’s written some incredible originals and also played an interesting cover of the Mother Hips’ “Mission in Vain.” However, looking around the room, many of the people were 6 or 7 years old when Jerry died, but they still were incredibly excited to see the material played. Greene is a excellent interpreter of the Dead catalog and it had been a year since I had been in a room with a talented musician spinning the Grateful Dead. It was at that moment that I realized I have been being way too hard on Furthur.
Regardless of whether or not you like the music – I personally like a lot of the instrumentation but hate the vocals – there’s something sad about a band playing 40 year old songs, mostly written by someone who isn’t in the band. As an exercise for musicians, it seems rather depressing, and that’s always infected my view of the project. With the Jackie Greene crowd though, it wasn’t nostalgia, it was tradition. The act of seeing this music performed is important, even if the performances aren’t the best ever. Yes criticism is important, and we shouldn’t let people coast when they’re charging perfectly good money to see them, but sometimes just seeing these songs performed is enough.
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 Capital Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at http://www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html and he’s on the board of directors for The Mockingbird Foundation. He occasionally posts at the Phish.net blog