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Columns > John Zinkand - Improvise

Published: 2003/02/24
by John Zinkand

A Crushed Phish in the Desert

The Phish shows on February 15th and 16th were good. Las Vegas has been the backdrop of many enjoyable excursions for me over the years, both with and without Phish being involved. I do spend less money at the Phish Vegas trips because there just isn’t as much time to spend gambling. If you gamble long enough, you will inevitably lose. That’s the way it works. Only a slim few hit the big payoff on the slot machine or quit when they are a few hundred dollars ahead in craps, blackjack, or roulette. Most keep on gaming until they are down by too much and are forced to quit. I had time to lose a little bit of money, play for a few hours, and get some drinks. It was fun, but brief. I was always rushing around trying to eat, shower, sleep, etc. so I could get to the Phish shows.
Let me give you some of my Phish background so you know where I am coming from. Phish was touring New England and abroad extensively while I went to college at Clark University in Worcester, MA from 1991-1995. I’ve seen close to a hundred shows, but the vast majority of those shows were during the years I attended college. From 1996-2000 Phish was a band I would see once or twice when they came through my area. Besides seeing the band at the Gorge in Washington or at Portland Meadows in Oregon, I flew to Vegas for the 1998 Halloween show and Trey’s birthday weekend in 2000. When I was seeing Phish all the time it was all about Trey ripping and shredding, playing the convoluted songs perfectly, and the bizarre antics and quirky energy they exuded. I preferred the old style of tension/release Trey-centric Phish by leaps and bounds over the slower, funkier, loopier Phish of the late 90’s.
However, over time I have mellowed on my position. Like Phish, I’ve eased up a bit with age. I can understand them not wanting to practice like mutants or be away from their homes for two hundred twenty days per year any more. Unlike when seeing Phish from 1997-2000, when I arrived at the Thomas and Mack on February 15th I checked my yearning for nostalgia and "jamming like the old days" at the door. I was not going to hold these shows up to a hyper-critical microscope to be tweezed and dissected. I attempted to see the band with new eyes, as if I had never seen them play live before. I attempted, but didn’t succeed, of course. It’s impossible not to compare the new to the old. But unlike many of the shows I saw in 98-00, the comparisons I saw in Vegas were pretty similar to the old days.
Well, not that similar, actually. But the energy was there. The band was definitely excited to be playing together in front of a sold out crowd in Las Vegas. No doubt about it. It glared and blazed brightly in their playing. This new Phish is an older, more mature band, though. The antics of the past were nowhere to be found. No trampolines, no crazy stories, no vacuum cleaner solos. That’s not to say these old props won’t show up at select shows on tours from time to time, but they never emerged in Vegas and will seemingly be performed much more sporadically at upcoming shows. The new version of the band also prefers to play songs that are not as difficult and convoluted as the old ones, which I am beginning to accept. They will rehearse and dust off an old nugget from time to time like they did with Reba on the first night of the stand, but these days they seem to stick mostly to the easier stuff written in the mid to late 90’s.
But before the show there’s always that wait in line to get inside, right? Let’s go off on a little tangent while I tell you about my wait. It may be a few paragraphs until I get back to discussing the actual Phish show. Anyway, I rented a car while in Vegas because I was staying downtown in "Old Vegas" at the Plaza Hotel. It would have been much too pricey to cab all the way up and down Las Vegas all weekend. We pulled into the lot on Saturday night and were happy to be able to park without any other additional parking fees. We parked at around 5:15pm and got in the back of the line by 5:30pm. The line was huge. There was only one big line and it stretched out into the parking lot in a massive sea of people. Closer into the venue there was plenty of fencing to funnel the people in the line properly and keep things very orderly. The line was so big, however, that it went well beyond any fencing and way out into the parking lot.
We took our spot at the back of the line and started chatting with folks around us. Everyone seemed super amped, beyond psyched, almost hysterical with anticipation. Well, most people did. Others were mellow or just super drunk. It was quite a chaotic scene. But the overall buzz in the air was pretty darn electric. One could feel the potential energy chomping at the bit to turn the corner and become a thunderous release of kinetic energy. And that was great, no problems there. I love a good old-fashioned super release of energy. Who doesn’t? But one thing that really gets my goat every time is being crushed. It irks me.
As the massive line of people got closer and closer to the fences that cut off the corralled part of the line from the disorderly mob of people in the lot part of the line, things got a little intense for my liking. As late comers turned line cutters decided to try to push in just before the start of the fences and not wait in the back of the line like everyone else, there was a frantic push forward by the masses in an attempt to maintain the ground they had waited so patiently to gain. I was not totally crushed, but I was uncomfortably mashed up against the back of the people I was standing behind and could feel bodies pushing tightly against my back, as well. It never got to the point where breathing was restricted, but I didn’t want it to!
I immediately started yelling, "Ease up everyone! No need to push! We’re all going to the same place! No pushing now! Remember Newton’s law, no two objects can occupy the same space simultaneously, people!" It worked somewhat and people eased off a little bit, but if the mob makes a decision when you are deep inside, there’s really nothing you can do but suck it up.
The reason I am so paranoid about being crushed is due to the Phish show I saw on 11/2/94 in Bangor, ME. I had waited in the thirty three degree rain for many hours to secure my space at the front of the line. However, this was right as Phish was becoming enormously popular in the New England college scene, and soon many late comers felt the need to push in aggressively near the front of the line. In addition to this, the gates were not opened on time. That night people got so pushy that I was literally lifted off the ground by the mass of people and carried a few feet while not being able to inhale breath. People around me screamed very urgently and in agony as they were crushed by the over eager crowd. I saw the power that a mob possesses first hand and it totally freaked me out. By the time I got inside the venue that night, I was shaking a little from the close call. That was the night I realized Phish was getting to be huge.
In Vegas the situation defused itself. The tension was released a few minutes later when the line led around a green trash dumpster and created a little eddy of extra space in the people flow just as we got to the more comfortable and orderly fenced part of the line. Upon returning home from the big Vegas weekend I heard about both the Chicago club suffocations and the fire deaths in the Rhode Island club, which really made me think. Going out is not always a safe proposition and we should all be very careful when we go out to enjoy some musical entertainment. Always take note of where the fire exits are located once inside any venue, bar, or club. If things get too intense for your personal comfort, skip em.
The next night of Vegas, for instance, we asked some friends who had already planned to wait in line from early on to save us some seats. I didn’t want to wait in line all day, but I didn’t want to get there at 5:00pm and risk being crushed again, possibly more severely, either. If our friends had not gotten us seats I was mentally prepared to endure the show from behind the stage or from the dreaded and much maligned two hundred level. I don’t think there’s an epidemic of hazardous conditions at shows that we should all fear, but people should always use common sense. These horrible club tragedies in the news are just the most recent reminder.
Once inside, the shows were good. Very solid and played with an admirable amount of energy. The first set of the first night was probably the best set of the two night stand. The band knew that this was the first time many west coast fans would be witnessing them play since hiatus and the energy was through the roof. The set contained many classics like Llama, It’s Ice, Reba, and Antelope, with the Llama opener being the stand out for it’s blistering power. Reba had obviously been practiced as the band had only a very minor note flub here and there, but nothing close to a train wreck. Wolfman’s Brother was long and funked out while Life on Mars was played succinctly and sung beautifully. 46 Days was by far the most rocking thing they played that set, though, showing how eager the boys are to be playing the new material for us.
The second set that night was a slower, more funked out affair in contrast to the more intense and rocking first set. And that was just fine to everyone in attendance, including myself. Whereas in the 98-00 era I may have complained about the song selection, I tried to just enjoy the music "in the moment" at Vegas and found it to be quite easy. Waves segued into Bug in a rolling psychedelic wash of sound and light. Then things morphed into a nice long, rollicking, jammed out Ghost which eventually led into Free. Free was short, but particularly strong with some of the best bass playing I’ve ever heard from Mike Gordon. Hood and Sample in Jar were icing on the cake.
The next night we settled into the seats our friends had saved for us just as the band kicked things off with David Bowie. I was psyched for the old school song selection, but I though this version lacked a strong direction. Basically, it was kind of boring for me. It was saved by the Catapult that emerged near the end of the jam, however, which was surprising and entertaining. Horn and Guyute were both played very well, all the different sections of both songs were played with no mistakes and plenty of vigor. Trey began the high note slam part of Guyute a second or two early, but that is the only minor criticism I could make. Very solid and powerful versions of both tunes. Round Room was interesting to hear and I liked the lengthy textural jam that evolved from it. While the jam didn’t involve ripping guitar solos or high energy build ups, the band maintained my attention with thoughtful interplay and exploration, unlike the directionless, meandering breakdown of Bowie before the start of Catapult. Next was Golden Lady which had me grinning from ear to ear. I love Stevie Wonder and Innervisions is my favorite Stevie Wonder album. I immediately started a slow, funky, sensual grooving to the familiar chords, but I noticed that most people around me did not seem to recognize the song. Many people probably saw it as a buzz kill, too slow, or too cheesy. For me, it was bliss. They finished up the set with a rockin’ Pebbles and Marbles. This version was much peppier than on the album with the jam becoming frenetic as the band raged with intensity, adding multiple layers to the fierce soundscape. Good stuff!
I did enjoy the final set, although it seemed too brief and I thought the Friday encore was a bit weak. The end of a two-night stand in Vegas should go out with a bang worthy of a La Grange or Highway to Hell, not the schmaltzy sentimentality of Friday. Oh well. The set was pretty solid. A nice big Down With Disease (which started off with some uneven drumming after Trey announced, "Fishman can’t play this song. Fish forgot this song!") led beautifully into the enchanting new song Seven Below. I love the little lead melody guitar line hook in this song and its mellow, psychedelic groove. When it led back into the familiar guitar hook of Down With Disease, the place erupted. Anything But Me provided a tender Trey moment and a quick breather before ratcheting the energy back up with Piper. This was far and away the best Piper I have ever seen and confirms what some friends of mine have said about witnessing sick versions of Piper while in Europe. Those versions must have been something like this one. It thundered on with power and evolved into several different styles and flavors for close to twenty minutes of instrumental music before finally petering out. The Character Zero was a rocking, high-energy affair to end the set. I know some people are sick of this one, but I haven’t been on tour in years. Its annoying repetition was totally lost on me. All I heard was the wailing.
Overall, I had a great weekend. I saw many friends, enjoyed some great music, did some gambling, and just generally partied my face off in the middle of the desert. My enjoyment was tempered with a stark reminder that safety is not a given, however. And while this is not the old Phish I remember from the early 90’s, I am finally past that fact. This new Phish is a great band that has evolved much since the early 90’s. Their new sound is more suited to the style of arena show they currently play and the guys have mellowed with age, as we all do eventually. But the band is obviously psyched to be back and the energy is palpable. While different from the old days or even the not-so-old days, Phish is a band that is anxious to be playing again. I’m glad to see them back doing what they love.

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