Phishing Down By the River
My dad still remembers the first time he discovered Neil Young. It was 1969 and he was watching the TV program, “Music Scene”. The featured group that night was Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and they performed “Down by the River”. Dad nearly fell out of his chair when Neil and Steven Stills started trading licks. He had never seen guitar players interact like that before. It was rare in those days. Neil instantly became a hero to him. A few years later, my mom and dad met and went on their first date, a CSNY concert in Buffalo.
I recently learned of a tape in existence that features a marathon version of “Down By The River.” The jam is significant because it fuses two very different generations. Although some of the changes aren’t executed perfectly, the energy created makes it very special. The tape is from 1979. I was four years old and was banging away on a tambourine while my dad and his buddy, Tommy, strummed their acoustic guitars. A cheap tape deck recorded the whole thing.
Music has always been very important in my family. Whether it was the Dead, the Beatles or CSNY, my childhood was filled with great tunes and warm vibes. As I grew older, I began searching for my own musical identity. I went through several phases. First, the Beatles were my favorite. Then it was all Bob Marley all the time. Then it was Zepellin. (And yes, I have to admit, for a short time I was even into rap). Then on July 24, 1993, my life was changed forever.
The summer after I graduated high school, my buddy, John Murphy, persuaded me to go to a concert with him. He used that clichŽ line you’ve all heard, “there’s this great band that you’ve gotta check out.” So we headed to Great Woods for what I thought was a Fish Bone concert. As soon as we entered the lots, I was immediately reminded of my childhood. The long hair, the smell of patchouli, the homemade clothing, the health food, it was like being around my parents and their friends back in the day. It was such a pure scene and I felt very welcome being there, even though I was a newcomer. As I was tracking down an errant frisbee, a friendly stranger bent down to pick it. I think he could tell that I was a newbie and as he handed me the frisbee, he paused and looked me straight in the eye. I’ll never forget what he said, “they’re gonna fucking jam tonight man!” Then he handed me the frisbee and walked away. I remember being confused and thinking, “how does he know?” He was right.
The show was one of the most intense experiences of my life. Never before had I seen an entire audience up and dancing for the whole show. During the first set, I wasn’t quite absorbed in the music yet and was more interested in watching all the diverse people groove. I felt like I was in a time warp. It was how I had always imagined what the 60s must have been like. Strangers were actually stopping strangers, not only to shake their hands, but to hug each other. As night fell and the second set started, we moved effortlessly passed the security guards down into the second row. Then it happened. This red-haired guitarist with an eternal grin was doing things I had never thought possible.
I couldn’t believe how incredibly explosive his playing was. He wasn’t just soloing, he was actually spontaneously composing intricate melodies and the band was right there with him. I just stood there with my mouth wide open. I had never experienced anything even remotely close to it. All of the sudden, I was a changed man. I was a born-again. Fifty-four shows later, Phish remains my ultimate favorite. In my warped little world, there’s Phish and then there’s everyone else. I know how ridiculous that sounds, but Phish’s music is just in a different category as far as I’m concerned. I listen to all sorts of different styles of music, but there’s no comparison.
When I learned Phish was playing at Farm Aid this year, I immediately called my parents. Theyve come to really enjoy Phish over the years and have even seen a few shows. My dad loves watching Trey (Anastasio, Phish guitarist) and calls his grin “infectious”. My mom, being the most unselfish and generous person I know, suggested that we fly to Chicago for the show. At first, I thought she was just speaking hypothetically, but she was serious. She said we had to go. She would have loved to join us, but instead, she let us have our male-bonding time. What a mom. The next day, I made all of the reservations and was happy to find that there were still tickets available. That was it. All of the sudden, we were going.
I’ve learned to not have high expectations for concerts. However, as we flew to Chicago, my dad and I couldn’t help but speculate on the possibility of our all-time favorites jamming together. I pointed out how many times Phish had covered “Cinnamon Girl” and “Albuquerque” and how Trey had said in an interview that he had cried three times when he saw a Neil Young concert in Europe. Trey also said that seeing Neil made him re-evaluate what he thought talent was. My dad mentioned all of the times that Neil had been rumored to sit in with bands in the past and never had. I hoped that if the dream jam session were to happen, they’d play “Southern Man.” Of course, my dad hoped they would play his favorite, “Down By the River”.
As soon as we arrived at the New World Music Theatre in Tinley Park, some guy offered to sell us second row seats for face value. Even though we already had tickets, I acted on impulse and forked over the cash. Our seats were in the back of the pavilion and if Trey and Neil were gonna jam together, I wanted to be close enough to see Trey’s grin and Neil’s grimace. I wound up selling our other tickets for half-price, made some kids’ day, and headed into the show. The tickets were legit. We were right up front.
It was a long, cold day. Although the order of performers had been announced and Neil and Phish’s sets were to be last, they kept saying the line-up was subject to change. Obviously, we didn’t want show up and realize we had missed Phish or Neil, so we sat through the entire show. It was a great strategy on the part of Farm Aid to leave the itinerary tentative and keep the seats full. There were certainly a lot of Phish fans who were forced to see Hootie and John “I’m a rock star” Mellencamp. I found that humorous. After several hours, it was finally time for Neil’s set.
This is when things really started to get exciting. As Neil came out on stage I was filled with joy. I was psyched to see him in concert again, but was more excited for my dad, who had never had such good seats for a Neil Young show. As the living legend broke into his first tune, Trey appeared on the side of the stage. He seemed mesmerized watching Neil. It was really powerful. As Neil sang, “old man look at my life, I’m a lot like you”, I couldnt help but make a mental note of the significance of the line. My life had come full circle. Here I was, standing next my dad, the man who had introduced me to so much great music over the years. I could see the excitement in his eyes as he watched his idol. Meanwhile, I was watching Trey, my idol, who was watching my dad’s idol. It was too weird. Neil’s set was short, yet beautiful and then it was time for one final set change of the day.
As the stage crew wheeled out Phish’s gear, the place erupted. It was the first indication that the boys were indeed in the building and were about to blow the roof off. Seeing their familiar set-up slowly move into place sent a wave of energy through the frigid crowd. People had sat in the cold for six or seven hours and now it was finally time to get up and groove. I couldn’t help but think about all the thousands of the fans around the country huddled around their televisions, armed with VCR remotes, party favors and predictions.
The house lights never went down, instead the band just walked out and broke into “Birds of A Feather.” It was no surprise as an opener, but I still flipped out when they started playing. There’s nothing like the adrenaline rush I get from the first few notes of a show, no matter what song it is. The fact that BOAF is on the radio or on “Dawson’s Cheese” doesn’t change the way the song actually sounds. I liked it before it was a hit, why would I stop now? The same is true of “Bouncin”. It took me a while to realize it, but if you stop appreciating a song just because an influx of other people start to enjoy it, then you’re going to Phish shows for the wrong reasons. It was obvious to me that they would play “Farmhouse.” Although it wasn’t their best version, how the hell could I complain? I was wondering if they were going to stretch out a bit more or if it would just be a song-oriented set. Like they always seem to do, Phish answered my doubts. “Moma Dance” came next and it smoked. The funk was deep. Trey was going nuts, head-banging and just tearing it up. I was on cloud nine. I kept looking around to see the reaction of the country music fans, but I think most of them had left. Almost all of the VIP seats were now occupied by Phish fans. Although the security was very strict about people dancing in the aisles, I was happy to see that they basically looked the other way while fans upgraded to better seats.
Next was “Runaway Jim”. I was hoping they would show off one of their older and more complex compositions like “Reba” or “Fluffhead,” but “Jim” was fine with me. It was a fairly standard version with a mediocre jam. As they sang the last chorus, I felt my dad grab my shoulder hard. He’s a pretty mellow guy so it startled me. He was peering through his binoculars into the backstage area with his eyebrows raised and shouted, “I see Neil, and he’s got a guitar on!” I was numb. “Really!?” I asked eagerly.
There are certain events in your life that, even while theyre happening, you just know you’ll always remember them. This was one of them. I was trying to take in as much information as my brain could process: the look on my dad’s face, the reaction of the crowd, the music, the tingling sensation overcoming my body, Trey’s admiration for Neil as he walked out. Everything was happening too fast for me to fully comprehend. This was it, the moment we had always dreamed of. Although the world was watching, it felt as if this was a personal treat for Dad and I. Neil plugged in Trey’s spare guitar (which is not an easy guitar to play) and the feedback started wailing. For a few minutes they just vamped on that big D chord at the end of “Jim”, leaving us all in suspense of what would come next. The tension was building and my ears were straining to discern a recognizable melody amidst the chaos. Then my dad screamed, “They just went to the E-minor!” Was it actually happening? I was still skeptical. Trey went to an A chord and then back to the E minor 7. Oh myÉÉthey were doing “Down By the River!” I couldn’nt quite believe it. As Neil stepped up and sang, “You take my hand, I’ll take your hand,” I hugged my dad. Trey peered out into the first few rows like he often does when he’s searching for approval on a new song from the crowd. I was jumping up and down with my arms raised in triumph. I swear he looked right at me and smiled, (I know, everyone says that).
As the jam ensued, Neil and Trey moved closer together and seemed to be literally feeding off each other’s energy. They looked like they were surfing up there on stage, both crouched at the knees and rocking back and forth. It was definitely a Neil-style jam rather than a Phish jam. There weren’t a whole lot of changes or modulations. Instead, they created an equally uplifting sound by making every note count. It went on for nearly a half-hour and those two chords never got old. At one point Trey just started jumping up and down, shaking his head from side to side like a little kid. It was priceless.
The next day I woke up, back in Boston, around 2 in the after noon. That’s pretty normal for me on a Sunday. I was a bit groggy and had to think long and hard about what had just happened. We had taken an early-morning flight back from Chicago and then I took a nap, right? Did I? I was completely disoriented. Wait, did Neil Young actually jam with Phish last night? It seemed a bit surreal. It hadn’t quite sunk in yet. It still hasn’t.
It was one of the rare instances in my life where my expectations were not only met, but were surpassed. It was a dream come true. We would have been just as happy sitting in the last row and seeing Phish and Neil featured on the same bill, even if they didn’t jam together. To see them play “Down By the River” from ten feet away was sensory-overload. I hope to have children of my own in the future. You can bet I’ll be playing “Contact” or “Talk” for them while they’re still in diapers. Maybe I’ll read them “The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday” as a bedtime story. Perhaps when they’re a little older, I’ll let them listen to “Esther” or “Mango Song”. Eventually, my children will grow up and discover their own musical heroes. My new dream is that someday, when Trey’s old and gray, he’ll come out and jam with the icons of their generation…..
Jeff Waful graduated from Emerson College in Boston with a degree in broadcast journalism. While at Emerson, he hosted an improvisational radio show called “Space Jam” on WERS FM. He is currently working in television and managing a band called Uncle Sammy.