How the West Was Won
Peaches En Randalia #56
[Author’s Note: I wrote this piece for our newspaper for Festival 8 in Indio, California, which took place over Halloween weekend in 2009. The paper was helmed by my editor in all things fun and groundbreaking, the Good Doctor, editor of all fine festival on-site newspapers, and, most importantly, my friend and driver of the Team Ever Onwards Winnebago, Dean Budnick. Considering that I tied in elements of Led Zeppelin—my OTHER all-time favorite band—a perpetually weird, scary, mystical, and occultish band (all de rigueur ‘ween elements)—AND last night, the Phab Phour had some fun with certain tracks from the Mighty Blimps first, second and fourth platters (oooohhh…the eerie ‘RUNES’ album), I thought it would be fun to re-run this one as a Peaches column on the day of Phish’s return to Halloween frivolity for only the second time since 1998—an event that was foreshadowed by former road manager, Brad Sands in our site interview that ran five years ago this coming January. It would also be nice if Phish stopped playing it safe, and ventured out to see the rest of the world in 2011. A band once known for its live explorations cannot grow if it continues to face the same peeps, eh?]
All of the great explorers from yesterday’s yellowed historical tomes have heard the call “Go West, Young Man!” And so they did. The journey to Indio began long ago for Phish. To be precise, Vermont’s Finest started their slow progression to conquering America over 20 years ago on their first road trip away from the northeast corridor by playing a few bar gigs in Colorado in the summer of 1988. Essentially playing to very small crowds each night, it nonetheless sparked a flame within the band to continue these adventures away from home, away from the comforts of what they had been. Indeed, to head west.
“Slow progression” was the hallmark phrase for the steady ascent to the live king throne in the early 1990s for Phish, and their considered migration past the Mississippi River would be no different. Nearly three years later, they found themselves on their first West Coast tour. Phish played at the Catalyst in Santa Cruz, California for a modest fee on “Dollar Night.” Later, a long “Phish” chant generated Led Zeppelin’s “Good Times Bad Times” as a second encore at the DNA Lounge in San Francisco. And from such humble beginnings, the band continued to seek out those chanters amongst the wayward travelers.
That “let’s all ride together in a tiny van across country” sense of adventure, that it was the best times, it was the worst of times would prevail as Phish debuted in Berkeley, a Grateful Dead touchstone since the 1960s. The quartet traveled to the Pacific Northwest for three dates in Oregon, and one in Olympia, Washington, the latter garnering a rare “Icculus,” a linchpin from their Gamehendge saga, a mythical tale conjured by frontman Trey Anastasio for his senior thesis study at Vermont’s Goddard College.
Phish must have liked what they saw out west because they returned in the fall of 1991 for a handful of gigs, including a date in Humboldt County, a hallowed spot noted for collegiate fans, beer, and agricultural delights. But the desire for full West conquest really kicked in during 1992. In that turning point year, the band played additional key West
Coast havens from Oregon to Southern California, most notably two dates in Los Angeles, and their debut at the ancient yet sacred Warfield Theatre in San Francisco. The latter date featured Steve McConnell, brother of keyboardist Page McConnell, sitting in a large bathtub on stage as the second set began, and a moment recreated 17 years later as the band’s children occupied the same spot on Father’s Day in a tub at Alpine Valley.
As 1992 progressed in an inimitable fateful Phish way, the band opened for Santana for a series of marquee gigs including large outdoor venues like Shoreline Amphitheatre where a herd of California fans finally saw the band for the first time. And it is that sense of discovery, that sense of “who are these guys?” which followed Phish along the western coast corridor. The mid-90s would bring a major ascension from bars to huge arenas like New York’s Madison Square Garden, but the band’s ability to go from San Francisco’s DNA Lounge to Berkeley’s Greek Theatre in two years may have been more impressive. Remember—this was a band with zero airplay, no videos, and bereft of any hit singles. Indeed, it wasn’t until the fall of 1992, with a re-released Junta, the band’s impressive debut album, that any attention registered with the uninitiated. So, they kicked live ass.
What also helped was the growing feeling that the band would do anything, at any time, with just about any object known to man and woman, if necessary, to spark a match to their shows. Indeed, this sense of fun at any cost included the purchase of massive quantities of a cheap meal as a prop solidifying the playful bond between band and fan. Yes, Phish passed out boxes of macaroni and cheese to their fans at the Warfield in 1994 to heighten drama/frivolity in an engaging percussion workout for the ages. (Hey, did Bono ever try that?) Elsewhere, the band played their full Gamehendge suite of songs—give or take a random bit of the saga—at the Crest Theatre in Sacramento, California in the spring of 1993, further solidifying the notion that one should never skip out-of-the-way Phish gigs. Eventually, the band was hitting large venues like Laguna Seca and Shoreline Amphitheatre as the headliner and, by then, the band was nearing a heady peak.
With more and more fans climbing on to the expanding Phish bandwagon, the quartet finally ascended to the throne of kings—America’s best live band—in the wake of Jerry Garcia’s passing in August 1995, and the inevitable demise of the original Grateful Dead. Debate continues to this day whether or not Phish would have reached that summit anyway, especially in lieu of how well the band was playing from 1993 to 1995. Regardless, Phish stood at the top in late 1995, and looked down upon all the bands that had also attempted to “Go West, Young Man!” Alas, many tried, but none seemed to have the drive, ambition, humor, and unique vision of the beloved geeks from Vermont.
What helped Phish was that fans out west from Oregon to California not only supported them in large venues like the glorious Gorge Amphitheatre in Washington, and the Fabulous Forum in Los Angeles, but they then followed the band back home, losing brain cells in Las Vegas, hitting the sacred monoliths known as Red Rocks, the aforementioned
Alpine, an abandoned airport in New York, and an air force base in Maine, not to mention the pinnacle 1999 New Year’s Eve experience along an alligator alley in Florida.
California, and the West Coast, in general, continued to be a key historical addition to Phishtory, with neighboring Sin City, Vegas, especially the last Halloween gig in 1998, of equal importance during Phish’s evolutionary detour towards its first momentous hiatus. On October 7, 2000, Phish played their final show before their first extended break in 17 years, or 15, depending on whether you think the band’s history began when it included Trey Anastasio, Jon Fishman, Mike Gordon, and Page McConnell commencing in 1985.
The quartet finished their long decade-and-a-half run at California’s Shoreline Amphitheatre, and decamped for two years as a non-existent artistic entity. Indeed, the evening before, on October 6, the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir would sit in with the band commemorating the occasion. Weir’s longtime band mate, bassist Phil Lesh had already blessed the band at the same venue with his appearance with the band in September 1999, even taking to a trampoline during Phish’s famous synchronized routine within “You Enjoy Myself,” their marquee IT-factor song of lore.
Post-hiatus one and two, Phish continued to fill the Gorge and Shoreline amphitheatres while Southern California remained somewhat in the historical shadows, despite its Forum appearances. Until now, of course. Indeed, no band has done more to go out of its way to show fans in any section of their long reach that they can create a unique and life-changing live experience away from their home base on the East Coast. Sure, the loyal heads are often to be found ensconced along the majestic waters of the Atlantic Ocean, but it is elsewhere that Phish has truly solidified its legendary status by always finding a unique, unpredictable way to give fans, new and old, a memorable moment in time.
And so, it is of significant and oh-so-Phish-y importance that the band chose Indio, California as the site honoring their return to the ‘one band, one festival’ stage in 2009. Phish has not played a stand-alone festival by themselves since Coventry—their ill-fated final weekend in 2004 before their second hiatus; although, at the time, one and all thought this was the end of the band. And that is just fine. In many respects, that was the end of the old Phish, forever buried in some muddy field in an obscure section of a sometimes misunderstood and obscure state, Vermont. But Vermont harvested this band, and from that almost sacred state comes a quartet which has found their extended pull over the last two-plus decades reaching all the way out to the Pacific Ocean.
On October 7, 2000, Phish bade farewell, for the first time, to its legions of fans with a bittersweet performance at Northern California’s Shoreline Amphitheatre. On Halloween weekend 2009, it is equally fitting to host a positive ‘welcome back’ event, and how sweet it is that these four talented lads who heard the call, the ancient spell cast into the air of adventure—“Go West, Young Man!”—have also heard the voice stating that it is perfectly sound to hold a festival in their first year back, after a long and brutal five-year hiatus filled with personal and professional redemption, in the culturally symbolic touchstone known as California. After all, what is a band without symbols?