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Columns > Dean Budnick - From the Editor

Published: 2008/12/18
by Dean Budnick

Phish at Bonnaroo

So people are starting to squawk openly about something that had been making the rounds over the past month or so, news that Phish might well be performing at this year's Bonnaroo (and harking back to the first year of the festival when Widespread Panic headlined two days, Phish may well do so this year).

I have received some emails from folks disappointed about the fact that Phish would be performing at Bonnaroo in 2009 rather than organizing their own event (assuming one precludes the other, which I would assume it does). Beyond that, in the latest edition of the Lefsetz Letter, music industry maven Bob Lefsetz has chimed in. His comments appear below but be sure to visit his blog for the full majesty of Lefsetz...

******"Phish At Bonnaroo" from The Lefsetz Letter******

Would the Stones play Coachella?

Who gives a shit about the Stones. But Phish fans are diehards. Phishheads believe that Phish is God. They trekked to see the band at its own festivals, year after year. Is the band afraid they can’t sell a ticket anymore?

This is no way to come back, playing it safe. Phishheads don’t want to hang with Springsteen fans at some clusterfuck in Tennessee. Yes, Bruce is rumored for Bonnaroo too.

No one’s 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. It’s not part of the scene, it IS the scene.

Phish should do arenas. Then its own festival. It’s hard not to believe they’re doing Bonnaroo because of their manager’s involvement.

You might think this is bullshit. You’ll point to the gross. You’ll say everyone’s happy. I’ll say this is the kind of thinking that fucked up our business. It’s only about money, not about soul. Phish should only think about its fans. Not its manager’s need to sell out a festival that dropped significantly in attendance last year.

Festivals are the new radio show. Do a few and you can’t tour independently, i.e. on your own. You fatten the coffers of the promoter, but you fuck your own career.

Come on. A good song is not good enough. We’re in a business where greatness is important. If you’re not willing to split hairs, if you’re not willing to argue the details of a band’s career, then you’re not a rock and roll fan. Fans worry about the minutiae. It’s only Live Nation, beholden to Wall Street, that does not care about the man on the street.

You might say it’s about the hang. About going to the show and getting fucked up with your brethren. I’ll say it’s about the music.

Maybe a festival is too much about the hang. Which is why Phish should not be playing Bonnaroo. Because it’s the music that entranced its fans, the communal hang came after.

Do you want to mix your Sweet Sixteen with a Bar Mitzvah party? Do you want a vacation where you can bowl, surf and ski? Come on. Have a little self-respect.

Phish’s comeback might fail, but let’s see if they can stand on their own two feet.

Or maybe Phish is the new Jack Johnson. Maybe they’re gonna play EVERY festival this summer.

Utterfuckinghogwash.

**********

Good line about Jack Johnson’s Festival Tour ’08 and in general I agree with his sentiments (as I usually do, Bob is a big booster of grassroots music over hype). However, I think he misses out on one fundamental issue at play here.

Back in 2004, when Phish announced that it would be stepping away, one of the factors that the band members cited was the expansiveness of their organization. Beyond that, the four of them expressed some frustration with their administrative responsibilities, some of which certainly required creativity, but had little, if anything, to do with the creation of music. As the band steps tentatively forward into 2009 (come to think of it, I doubt they’ll be all that tentative once they hit the stage) and looks to build musical momentum, these concerns regarding the business enterprise of Phish remain potential obstacles.

If Phish would return to Northern New England for the next Clifford Ball (or even hosted a Lemonwheel on the Bonnaroo site), these issues would rise to the fore rather quickly. Each of the band’s festivals resonated as they did because of the small decisions that made for a more-compelling whole. The group’s attention to such details helped transform these concerts into vivid all-compassing festival experiences. This is not to say that the group was intimately involved in every minor decision, just that they were consulted on a variety of them (which, incidentally is why Bonnaroo will prove comfortable. In more than one sense Phish spawned Bonnaroo. Aside from the fact that the festival initially drew on the jamband scene that Phish helped to animate, much of the Bonnaroo design team, including Russ Bennett and John Bisbee previously worked on the Phish events).

Listen, I'd love to revisit IT but for Phish to be the Phish that so many folks hope they can be, the group really can't go out there and rely on energy and muscle memory to pull them through. Instead, they'll need to dig in and rehearse. So let's let them command the big stage at Bonnaroo (hey, at least you won't be able to grouse about that festival shunning its roots) because all things being equal, I'd rather have Fish, Mike, Trey and Page focusing on what should be paramount: the music.

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