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Columns > John Zinkand - Improvise

Published: 2009/08/26
by John Zinkand

Gorge Phish Goodness

I had last seen Phish in 2003 in Vegas. It was the 2.0 version of Phish and while I enjoyed a bust out cover version of Stevie Wonder’s “Golden Lady” at that show, I was vibing something more akin to BB King’s “The Thrill is Gone.” Phish was a band I saw over and over again while in college in the early 90’s in Worcester, MA. I was strategically located to see lots and lots of Phish shows. I crossed over from being primarily a Dead Head in 1991 after my first Phish show at the Somerville Theater in November of that year. The youthful energy, the more complex tunes, the humor, and the impressively skilled and spot-on playing all blew me away and I only casually saw The Dead after that. Phish was now my main course.

All through my college years of 1991-1995 – every spring, summer, winter, and summer – I caught multiple shows on each Phish tour. Those years were magical. I was on my own and in college and I was catching live shows that I knew in my heart would be considered legendary one day. From the secret language to The Dude of Life to the New Year’s runs, I got to see some incredible Phish shows. The songs were mostly played with incredible accuracy, Trey’s stories during Col Forbin and Harpua were always crazy (one that stands out in particular was from Poughkeepsie, NY where Poster actually kills Harpua….but then is so surprised by his victory that he keels over and dies from a heart attack…haha), and the shows were intimate and intense.

Through the years the band deservedly garnered a much bigger following. I saw the first MSG shows and watched them grow into the arena rock band they are today. I attended the first Phish Festival in Plattsburg, NY – The Clifford Ball. And while that was an amazing experience with the art, the people, and the sheer scope of the event, I knew that would be the beginning of the end of my heavy Phish days. Not to mention I had just graduated college and my free time to go on tour would be greatly diminished with the pressures and requirements of making a living in the real world. I had seen The Dead in stadiums and arenas and that was part of the reason I liked Phish so much in the early 90s. They were not yet at that level so it was an up close and personal live music experience whose intensity could not be matched. So I felt this new bigger Phish was more diluted.

But I did not stop seeing the band in 1996, oh no. I moved to Oregon in 1997 and kept seeing Phish sporadically when they came to the west coast. I saw some shows at Shoreline, but mostly saw Phish in the late 90’s and early 2000’s at the Gorge and in Las Vegas. However, I was never really impressed with the shows I saw from 1997 on. It felt like the scene was so much bigger, the lots seemed overrun with molly, and the band was just not hitting it with the same ferocity and accuracy. Improvisations rarely sounded inspired, many of the more complex tunes were shelved, and flubs on the more difficult songs that were still played were numerous and began to be expected. I was not a fan of the “ambient” style of jamming as I felt it was boring and lower energy coming from my early 90’s Phish background. The 3rd set of the Vegas 1998 Halloween show was particularly perplexing for me. It as slow, disjointed, and sounded odd. Not a way to top off a Halloween show in Las Vegas, in my opinion. But some people loved it, so maybe I’m just not open-minded or whatever. But it wasn’t my cup of tea.

When the band announced the hiatus, I was happy for them. I was hoping that all they needed was to rest, recharge, and decide they want to play together with the same vigor and fury of the old days. So when Phish 2.0 came around, I happily booked my flight to Vegas and caught two nights of the new school of Phish. But much to my chagrin, it seemed eerily similar to the later days of Phish 1.0 – uninspired jams that did not unfold into many interesting places, low energy, and flubs aplenty. I hoped it was just the shows I saw and that, in general, they were back and playing better. But when I listed to recordings, I just wasn’t that impressed…still.

And when the band announced the final shows in Coventry, I felt like it was the right decision. It was hard for me to see this band that once had blown me away so fully and completely with intensely played shows and zany antics devolve into a shadow of their former selves. Maybe I had built them up in my mind over the years and had unrealistic expectations, but I don’t think so. While I did not attend Coventry, I did watch the last show at local movie theater. The band’s sloppiness was there…and that was compounded by the muddy slop the fans had to deal with. Friends who made it out called and described the anarchy of the chaotic scene. Watching the final show on the big screen with all of its uninspired playing and mistakes and knowing of the awful mess that was happening there, I walked away disheartened. It was a sad ending to what was once the best live band on the planet.

Time marches on and things change. The period from 2003-2009 was filled with Phish side projects, smaller bands on the scene, and all sorts of personal new discoveries and pathways. Eventually, Trey had his run in with the law and spent his time in rehab in Saratoga. While unfortunate at the time, in hindsight Phish probably would not have returned to the stage had this incident not occurred. After Trey cleaned up, there were quotes from him in the press that made it sound like the possibility of Phish returning was now not so far-fetched. The casual mentions became strong rumors and eventually the return was officially announced. The boys played well-received shows in Hampton, VA and offered up a free download to everyone who wanted it. I was impressed with the tightness and the obvious focus they put on relearning the more complex parts of tunes and playing them accurately. Like most everyone said, the jamming element was not quite there, but they nailed the songs and were playing with more energy than they had in years.

When Phish announced they would be playing at The Gorge I was very excited. From all accounts and the sound of the recordings, the 3.0 version of the band promised to be fresh, new, and punchy! Unfortunately, I am now saddled with the oft maligned and rarely praised “day job” and had already shot my proverbial load of vacation time on an upcoming trip to Barcelona, Spain. So I was doomed to attend only the second night of the two night stand at The Gorge in Quincy, WA. Only I didn’t really care like I would have back in the days of regularly seeing the band. It just doesn’t seem nearly as important anymore. It’s official, I’m getting old. That’s not to say I wasn’t monitoring the first night’s set list as it was being played on Twitter while hoping and praying the band didn’t bust out a “Harpua,” “Col Forbin,” “Spock’s Brain” or some other gem that would bum me out to have missed.

Saturday morning came along, and off we went to the Gorge. The four plus hour drive is fairly long from Portland, but it’s beautiful the entire way so it goes by pretty quickly. We made it to a friend’s rental house on the river located about 25 minutes from the venue and unpacked our bags, grabbed a beer, and hung out with everyone in all of our collective pre-show giddiness and grandeur. I’ve decided that while camping at The Gorge is fun, a rental house or RV with a large group of friends is the way to go. Nothing beats having some creature comforts like a/c, a fridge, and a soft place to lay one’s weary head. The time zipped by and before we knew it we were driving to the show.

We arrived about an hour before the doors were set to open and hung out in line. The sun was shining, there was a gentle breeze blowing, and the temperature was about 80 degrees. Perfect!! In August The Gorge can easily be 104 degrees at that time of day, so we were lucky…and comfortable. After what seemed like a very long wait that ultimately stretched about 20 minutes past the entry time listed on the ticket, we were let in. There’s not a feeling in the world quite like cresting the little hill that drops down into the venue itself. It’s mystical. The huge green field stretches out down to the floor, then the floor area leads up to the stage, and behind the stage is the vast space with the canyon, river, cliffs, and mesas floating back and out into the distant horizon as the sun goes down slowly over some cliffs off to the left. Just beautiful. We found a really nice spot at the very front right side of the lawn with a wonderful view of the stage and beyond. The PA sounded great so we knew that our sound for the band would be loud and strong. Randomly, two different friends both were sitting not more than 15 feet from us. Everyone seemed happy and there was plenty of space. In short, things were just about as picture perfect as could be. Then the band hit the stage.

“Mango Song” to open the show topped perfection. Things were even more perfecter now…if that makes any sense. A young man to our right pulled out an actual round mango fruit and held it to the sky triumphantly as the band played the song. His smile was beaming as he showed us and many other neighbors the ripe mango fruit. We shook our heads happily and agreed that he did have a mango and they were playing “Mango Song”! Phish played the song very well and almost a little more aggressively than in the past, sort of slamming through the changes. Next up was a standard but rocking “Chalkdust Torture” with Trey getting in some hot and rockin’ licks. “Tweezer” provided a funky dance party that got everyone grooving and extended into some fresh and interesting jams. Trey has a louder, more aggressive tone this time around and really asserted himself throughout the “Tweezer” jam, leading the band through different themes. A highlight of the first set for me was the new song “20 Years Later.” I had never heard it before but enjoyed its simple, catchy melody and it’s light melodic jam. It’s Ice was also a pleasant older song to hear and was played very solidly, but never got too carried away. The set ended powerfully with “Wolfman’s Brother,” then “Character Zero” into “Run Like An Antelope” to close the set. Nice!! “Wolfman’s” provided more slinky funk to fuel the festive dance party while “Character Zero” rocked the house down to the core. “Antelope” to close out the set was some powerful-sweet icing on a very tasty first set Phishcake. They nailed all the changes, they jammed tough, and they sounded great. Holy crap, Phish is back!!!!!

And don’t think the hits stopped coming in the 2nd set either, because they didn’t. Phish returned to the stage after set break with a damn near 20 minute long version of The Velvet Underground’s “Rock and Roll.” They stretched and pulled the song into multiple different jams and basically had their way with it. It segued into “Makisupa Policeman” and we knew the second set was going to continue being great. Mike took a very nice solo and then he and Trey actually traded instruments for a bit. How festive! The lyrics were, “Woke up in the morning, just like Bobby Brown, eat a little breakfast….then Lie…..Back…..Down.” “Alaska” followed and while fun and catchy, was nothing epic. A rock-solid version of “The Wedge” was up next which I was very pleased to hear as it has been many moons since I saw them play that one last. While not the Great Divide, The Gorge certainly is a great divide in the surface of the earth. The bouncy feel and sweet harmonies were as enjoyable as ever. Next up was “You Enjoy Myself” and how sweet it was to hear this old staple played so energetically and with some new twists. Mike’s bass solo was far superior to anything I remember him playing from days of yore….very impressive. Trey and Mike jumping up and down in unison on the trampolines was as fun as usual and I was glad they busted them out for my girlfriend’s very first Phish show. Then the vocal jam got downright twisted with clicks and whispers and Trey emphatically screaming, “NO!! NO!!” for a few seconds. A fun version of the new tune “Backwards Down the Number Line” came next, then a shredding “Piper” was followed by the humorous a cappella ditty “Grind” to close the set. Not yet finished, the band came back for a rousing double encore of “Good Times Bad Times” and “Tweezer Reprise” to top the two-night stand off with an exclamation point!

I had been one of those jaded Phish fans who had pretty much written this band off. After so many good years in the early 90’s, the mindless vamping and careless playing of the later years bummed me out badly. But I walked away from this show surprised by the energy and thought poured into the music by the band. This was not a band merely going through the motions to earn a nice paycheck, these guys obviously put forth the effort to practice the songs, relearn all the changes, and open up to one another to listen actively, pay attention, and stretch the jams into new and interesting places. Mike was playing better than I’ve ever heard him play, Trey experimented with different tones and styles of jamming, Page was on fire and his vocals were in great shape, and Fishman was as solid as ever behind the drum kit. All my expectations were exceeded and all the planets aligned to make the entire experience a joy. The weather, the people, the rental house, the scenery, the music….wow. It seems like Phish just may stay together for awhile this time around.

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