The Phish Report- Spring 2004
I FEEL WINDS
It's getting increasingly difficult to write about Phish. I'm not sure yet if this is a positive or a negative thing, but my guess is that it's neither. I've been writing about Phish for ten years now. I first wrote about the band in a letter addressed to myself, composed on a train on my way home from New Year's Eve 1993 my first show. My opening line? "Fuck!" I knew right then things would never be the same.
That was the first time Phish changed my life, but it wasn't the last. Phish changed it again in 1994. And again in 1995. And again in '96, '97, '98, and without even trying in '99. How one band changed my life repeatedly is eternally mysterious but a certainty nonetheless; the changes were augmented by the places I went, the friends I met, and the times I spent chasing YEM Zen and Antelope dances. But truths that I hit upon, either directly or indirectly through being a Phish kid, influenced and enlightened the way I chose to live my life. And every night I'd bring the dance.
I don't dance so much now, although, of course, I'd like too. Just as I imagine that there is a place inside Trey and Mike and Page and Jon that wishes they could go out on long tours and still make every night a transcendent baptism, a goofball jackpot, a nightly initiation into forces that are magnificently greater than the sum of the universe. I'm sure there's a part of them that'd like to do it all again, and there's a part of me that would like to as well. But offer us the chance to actually do it, and, well, you know…not this month, pal. Life moves on. The moment ends.
For Phish's next moment, they seem to be redefining their role as a touring band.
THE PHISH REPORT
We left off with the last report at the end of Phish's healthiest summer tours in years (2003) and at the conclusion of "IT," their most imaginative festival yet. But Phish during the school year was a much different Phish than the band we saw last summer. The change seems to be the result of an experiment in their approach to touring. Phish always found their groove through experimentation, such as starting from scratch in Europe when US arena tours started to stagnate, or rearranging their stage set-up periodically.
Currently, Phish appears to be grappling with post-hiatus promises on the one hand, and post-hiatus renewal on the other. The result, as expected, falls pleasantly in the space between. For now, Phish has traded in semi-annual tours for bi-monthly runs. Last year's summer tour may have been the last extended outing for awhile, and while they have only performed eleven shows since then, the gaps between shows are getting smaller. Four shows here, four shows there, a few shows here, a batch of shows there. A 20th Anniversary Tour around Thanksgiving, a traditional New Year's Run, and a three-night Sin City stand for Spring Break. The members of Phish are all getting older and they have different desires now than they did 10 years ago. Fortunately, the same can be said for their audience. I don't see as many young kids in the audience as I used to. I see people my age, people who have been seeing Phish for years, people who once spent their summer vacations following them but who now have jobs in the city and can only take so many sick days. Just enough to catch most of the shows.
Of course, embarking on runs instead of tours fucks with the dynamics a little bit. For one thing, repeats are generally out of the equation. Rarities? They're all rare! Increasingly, it's getting harder and harder to determine what songs are in the rotation and which ones are wild cards. In Las Vegas, neither "Chalkdust Torture" nor "Mike's Song" made the cut. The New Year's Run skipped over "Character Zero." The 20th Anniversary Run forgot "Golgi Apparatus." The MIA lists just get longer and longer. Of course, this doesn't really mean anything one way or the other and I bring it up just because, well, it gives me something to talk about.
But one particular curiosity is Phish's reluctance to give their newer songs any sort of priority. Most of the survivors from their post-hiatus cycles are performed no more or less often than old standbys like "Taste" or "Wolfman's Brother." There are a few radically different conclusions you could draw from this and I leave that up to you. It might mean nothing at all, or it might be indicative of a few things. Above analysis, it does seem that on these short runs, Phish prefers to draw equally from their entire catalog (including rarities and one-offs). It does have a desirable effect.
Performing less shows more regularly seems promising. Of course, Phish will have to overcome one major obstacle if they wish to become successful at it. Historically, Phish's greatest performances most frequently occur at the tail end of lengthy tours, or at least after a period of heavy touring. There's an obvious solution but it involves a phrase that post-hiatus Phish tends to not like very much: "band practice."
Three distinct runs with three distinct results.
Phish's "20th Anniversary Run," timed to coincide with their fondness for Thanksgiving shows, was everything you'd expect from a four-show 20th Anniversary celebration. Each night included an entertaining blast from the past, but for the most part Phish honored their history by doing what they've done for 20 years playing Phish shows. Special appearances by the Dude of Life, Tom Marshall, Jeff Holdsworth, and a 30-minute retrospective film provided the nods, and were meaningful without being self-congratulatory. But other than stellar chunks at Albany (12/01), the shows were all, you know, pretty good. At the time they fared much better, in part because going "on Phish tour" for one holiday weekend exacerbates all the fun parts of being a tourhead while minimizing all the harsher realities. And besides, it was a fun run.
The New Year's Run was even more fun. Whoever convinced Phish to play Miami for NYE (ahem, Page) should be given a Cadillac and box of Cuban cigars. Instead of cold huddled masses trying to stay out of a billy-club's way on the steps of MSG, ecstatic Northerners went for afternoon walks on the beach, drank mojitos under palms, and walked to the venue in shorts and t-shirts. And despite the arena's crackdown on assigned seating, the vibe was very much in favor of the audience. Phish obviously shared in the excitement and the run kicked off with the strongest opening-night first set since the hiatus. Throughout the run, Phish was able to maintain a sense of adventure and they took risks and they made jokes and they did all of the other things that are arguably some of Phish's strongest attributes but which only reveal themselves periodically on longer tours. The second half of the run, 12/30 and 12/31, was a double-shot of spectacle that was Phish at their show-stopping best, if not most precise. A sexy second set on 12/30 weaved in and out of Doors material and climaxed with a special guest appearance by George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic. The next night, New Year's Eve, featured a typical and splendid NYE stunt (you know, large random object lowered onto the stage from the rafters, balloon drop at midnight, Auld Lang Syne, etc.). The band was sloppy as hell but it didn't matter. This wasn't a New Year's Run it was a New Year's vacation. (I spent the following week on South Beach with my girlfriend; many others stuck around as well).
Which brings us to Las Vegas. When Phish comes to Sin City, it's as natural as Lou Reed wearing sunglasses and as hot as two rats fucking in a wool sock. The run was dubbed "Three of a Kind" and it may not have been all aces but it came straight from the hearts. An uneven first night still managed to have its share of meaningful moments ("Roggae"), rare favorites ("Buried Alive"), and Vegas-style exhibition (a Jay-Z cover with special guest Jennifer Hartswick).
Round Two was Phish Classic complete with a Henrietta gag ("Love You" with an electronic dress solo), sick jam ("Twist") and perhaps the single most beautiful "Harry Hood" in years. Anybody who doubts that Phish is still capable of performing solid start-to-finish shows clearly hasn't heard 4/16/04. As a side-note, recently in the company of friends, I made lighthearted fun of the fact that Fishman's dress didn't exactly live up to the hype. "All it did was make scratching noises," I protested. At which time it was pointed out to me that I was, after all, talking about an article of clothing. "What more do you want FROM A DRESS?" Fair enough.
Like many other shows from this year, Round Three was notable on paper and entertaining in person if not exactly thrilling on disc. It sure was a barrel of freewheeling kicks at the time. The band willfully traded in precision for spontaneity, and that's a choice I'll take almost every time. Although, you know, there was once a time when it didn't need to be a choice, a time when choosing one did not exclude the other.
Those were the life-changing days but these are the life-affirming days. Maybe in a post-9/11, post-hiatus, post-adolescent world that's what we need right now more than anything. I had fun in Vegas and I can't imagine that anyone did not. You would've had to try awfully hard not to enjoy yourself in Miami. And even trudging through a New England snowstorm between Albany and Boston had a thoroughly pleasant and entirely Phishy vibe to it. It's been another great year to be a Phish fan.
Life is good. Try not to be so serious all the time.
As for the band, I imagine (and hear through secondhand reports) that they still are changing people's lives, and I find this heartwarming. But they've already changed mine, time and again, and I'm right where I need to be right now. At least, internally. I wouldn't have gotten here had it not been for Phish, and while my journey is far, far, far, far from complete, Phish's music serves now as reminders instead of discoveries. It appears as though that's where they're at too right now, which is good, because it means they can still be my favorite band and I can still see almost every show in a given year and I no longer have to give up my life in order to do that. And I look forward to the day when Phish changes my life…again.
As my one friend observed correctly, "Only suckas miss Coney Island."