BRAIN TUBA: Tanked
My direct experience of Phish’s fall tour encompassed the first two shows of their three night run at Madison Square Garden in early December. I had an extraordinarily decent time. My life was not altered, nor my perception of music, but that’s fine. Perhaps these things are too much to ask for a temporary respite in New York before returning to the agreeable bizareness of my mountain abode. I did, however, come away from the week thinking about Phish’s music in a slightly different way, which is actually a pretty keen thing to come away with after being gone so long.
The trip back to Phishland actually began the week previous, while in attendance at a wedding with a strongly rooted Phishhead network. There, in a sparkling beachfront locale halfway between my sweet peaceful yurt and the bustling avenue canyons of home, suddenly, the music was all around me again, blasting over infinity pools and (by my own hand, admittedly) on the dance floor, where it rallied late night millers into a final dance throng. But even more alive than Phish’s music was their sheer presence, both as a familial bond (the New Year’s shows in Miami being the next time many would see each other), and a topic of conversation, especially as the setlists for the band’s post-Thanksgiving shows materialized on laptop screens, and—a few hours after that—from poolside speakers in too-perfect, and now expected, soundboard fidelity. Like it or not, I was back in the tank, all goofed up, and ready to go.
It is good business to play crazy gigs for Phish, as they did in Albany on November 27th and 28th. They sell well when put up on LivePhish.com, and give Phishheads something to talk about, to maybe pump some hype into unsold-out gigs (or reinflate the totally strange secondary markets that have overtaken the Phish lot economy even more in the StubbHub era). At the first show in Albany, they debuted a cover of TV on the Radio’s “The Golden Age,” premiered a random-ass number from 2004’s Undermind(Jon Fishman’s “Tomorrow’s Song”), tacked a compact noise excursion onto the end of “Light,“and dusted off two others for the first time since their return earlier this year. The following evening, they busted out two more (“Cool It Down”! “Vultures!”) but, most significantly, played “Seven Below” and “Ghost” (with a cursory and sloppily executed segue between) for nearly an hour. I picked up a spare ticket for the first night of the Garden from a friend at the wedding, and was listening to the “Seven Below”/“Ghost” jam by the flight home.
It was, and is, for real, a spacious and moody exploration popping with satisfying major key climaxes, weird semi-ambient drifts, quizzical sidetracks, and constant surprise. Everything good about Phish jamming. More, it seemed like a winning formula for a Phish show: significant improv, old favorites (the same set also featured a “You Enjoy Myself” encore), and a surprising engagement with rich back catalogue. The next night, in Portland, they performed “Crimes of the Mind” for the first time without the song’s author, the Dude of Life. ( What?? ) It also came out of “Light,” which they played in three out of four shows that week. Nice to see them getting behind such a jammy tune. At the Garden, I expected the same, or at least some version of that formula. It seemed (and seems) too perfect a combination to ignore. They performed Frank Zappa’s “Peaches en Regalia” for the first time since 1999 ( hellllllllz yeah ), but that was pretty much it for bust-outs. There was jamming in a few isolated doses—a wonderful 15-minute “Light” on December 2nd, a great “Down With Disease” into “Piper” the next night, and, yeah, a sharp “Tweezer”—but nothing on the cohesive level of Albany. Which was disappointing. With that door so obviously open to them, why not pass through it? The rest of the shows were crisp, and only disappointing for their lack of ambition, not for their actual execution, was dramatic and great throughout. Shit, man. “Fluffhead,” y’know? (See also: everything Richard Gehr wrote in This American Phish.)
But that’s how Phish rolled in 2009: flashing with an occasional bit of their old gangsta lean, but also sometimes bobbing in a midtempo sea, up and down in the harmless bounce of the 1990s Grateful Dead.
And then, in Charlottesville, a naked guy ran across the stage , instantly giving the tour closer a Capital Letter musico-geography lacking in most other gigs besides their Rolling Stones-covering Festival 8 and Albany: the Naked Guy Show. “You’ve gotta run like a Naked Guy, out of control,” the band chortled on “Antelope,” finally seeming open to the moment. Which, as was made obvious by Naked Guy, is maybe increasingly hard for Phish to do in their current state, appearing in the middle of corporate arenas with a moat of security guards between band and audience, organized friskdowns, non-general admission ticketing, and the like. It’s just not that easy to get naked and on stage at a Phish show. And there’s kind of something wrong with that, actually. Really fundamentally wrong at a societal level. There is a complete and utter lack of anarchy left anywhere in the system. That guy was actually rocking. So it goes, but it doesn’t have to. Of course, it’s not Phish’s responsibility to subvert, but it might be in their best artistic interest to do so.
Phish aren’t likely to start playing Todd P shows (though they should). They do, probably, need more Naked Guys crashing across the stage. Or Naked Girls. Or Things. Animals. Organized audience chants. Large-scale pranks. If Phish is going to exist in the maw of the American security state, so be it, but perhaps they can hire Improv Everywhere to create some large scale magic and find some worthy (and more clothed) collaborators on the other side of the Fourth Wall? There’s life on both sides, and both are necessary for Phish to be at their best. I’m going back to my yurt. Call me when it’s time.