A Fan’s Take: I Feel The Feeling I Forgot
While driving down the LIE into New York City for the 7th Annual Jammy Awards, a forgotten feeling swept over me. The same feeling I used to get when Phish would play their Holiday Run at Madison Square Garden. The best way to describe it is to compare it to that magical feeling I used to get as a child on Christmas morning when I still believed in Santa Claus and excitedly ran down the stairs to open my present. Phish would replace that magical feeling during the holiday season as I grew up and faced the realities of adulthood. To feel that way for a moment again was amazing even though I literally had to remind myself that I wasn’t going to see a Phish show.
When we arrived inside The Wamu Theatre at Madison Square Garden, Warren Haynes was already onstage backed by a Supergroup, which included Grace Potter, Joe Russo, Booker T. and Will Lee. To end their tight set Warren played a blistering guitar solo during a funked out “Take Me To The River.” That was one of the musical highlights of the evening.
Then the Executive Producers Dean Budnick, editor of jambands.com and author of The Phishing Manual, followed by Peter Shapiro, producer of The Green Apple Music Festival and former owner of The Wetlands, made their introductory remarks. Dressed to the nines, as usual, Dean, spoke about The First Annual Jammys, which took place on June 22nd 2000 at Irving Plaza in New York City. Phish’s marathon Big Cypress NYE Set was voted winner for Live Set of the Year that night. But since Phish was playing a show at Amsouth Amphitheatre, in Antioch, TN filled with many special guests from Nashville, Mike Gordon sent an acceptance speech via email on the band’s behalf. At the 7th Annual Jammys things would be different. “Tonight we’re bringing it full circle,” exclaimed Dean. The audience cheered and applauded hoping all the members of Phish were in the building and ready to jam as Dean walked off stage. Peter Shapiro then stepped up to the podium. He appropriately thanked the sponsors, explained that what The Jammys were really about was live music and then we were on our way. The awards were being given out and the special collaborations that the Jammys have become legendary for included some of the scenes hottest acts. However, the tension grew. Where was Phish?
Finally, a bit later, Page McConnell appears from backstage to accept the award for Download of the Year. To the crowd’s delight Jon Fishman later helps present the Mimi Fishman Memorial Award. A short while after that, Page walks out again to sit behind a grand piano on the riser, stage right. Sporting all black, Page looks out into the crowd and there’s an indescribable unspoken connection in the air. Four other musicians walk onstage to join the Chairman of the Boards: James Carter on Baritone Saxophone, Nicholas Payton on Trumpet, Christian McBride on Bass and Roy Haynes on Drums. And so some of the world’s most respected Jazz musicians joined Page for “Magilla” a song penned by Page and released on Phish’s fifth studio album, 1992’s Picture of Nectar. They finish “Magilla” and Page switches over to the Hammond B3 for the familiar opening to another original composition “Cars, Trucks, and Buses” off of the 1996 album Billy Breathes. Both songs feature great soloing as everyone gives the changes a go. The audience was so happy to see Page playing. Most of them smiled and danced as if they were at a Phish show. However, this sounded nothing like Phish, but rather something you’d hear coming out of one of New York City’s jazz clubs like the Blue Note, Birdland or the Village Vanguard. Studying Jazz in middle school and writing his senior study on “The Art of Improvisation” Page has always been a jazz musician, who was influenced by Jazz greats like Bill Evans. His father, Dr. Jack McConnell lived in New Orleans, was a huge fan of Dixieland and passed on the rich musical traditions of New Orleans to his son. Now that Page is almost 45 years old he looks very comfortable sharing his skills as a bona-fide jazz pianist. His father would be very proud.
After Leo’s jazz set, Lee Crumpton, of the Homegrown Music Network receives The Grahmmy Jammy, The Grateful Dead receive The Archival Album of the Year and Galactic rocks the crowd with the help of Doug E. Fresh. Then surprise guest, Joan Osborne struts out onstage to join the Fab Faux for “Come Together.” As Joan sings the heady verses a short guy in a white T-Shirt stands by the right of the stage, next to my friends and I. It’s Fishman! He’s standing there with his hands folded, under the video screen, like a chameleon blending into the crowd. They finish a fantastic rendition of this Lennon favorite and start “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” I’m staring at the floor noticing it needs sweeping while enjoying Harrison’s lyrics. The Fab Faux is starting another verse when suddenly a roar comes from the crowd on the floor. They are screaming throwing their hands in the air when Trey Anastasio comes walking across the stage to plug in his signature Languedoc guitar. I turn my head to see Fishman whose eyes brightly light up above his smile. Fishman’s reaction to the crowd’s joy is sincere and uncontainable. I feel very lucky to catch a glimpse of this rare moment when Jon is another spectator watching Trey perform.
Trey begins the solo by hitting a gut-wrenching classic Jimi-esque octave bend. The two strings vibrate notes around each other and wobble before locking in unison. The energy and sound that comes from Trey’s amp normally intangible is almost visible as huge curved waves floating into the air passing over and directly into the bleacher style incline of packed seats. Everyone is at their feet now. He’s bending note after note building up intensity over Harrison’s I-Ching inspired chord progression. The notes are solid and sustained. They’re these long whole notes that are balanced with a melodic phrase of eights and then back into whole notes and quarters. Until he’s way down the fret board bending the strings and playing rapid 16ths over the high pitched bent notes. In all the years that Trey has been playing the song with Phish I, myself, never heard him perform a version so precise and genius in its simplicity and intensity. It is incredible! I cannot emphasize the sheer magnitude of energy that was exchanged during this solo. It seemed to pick you up off the ground and spin you around. Trey has only made one other public appearance on stage in over a year and looked hungry for that level of personal interaction with his fans. The fans are hungry too and they are going wild jumping up and down, failing arms, screaming at the top of their lungs throughout the entire 7 minutes.
The Fab Faux now augmented by the Phish front man plays “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey.” Another song off of The Beatles’s White Album, which Phish played on October 31, 1994 as their Halloween musical costume. Trey joins in on the vocals and chorus before blasting into a jam. In this jam, Trey is playing a lot more notes and slurs. “Monkey” is more up-tempo and rockin’ then the slower “Guitar.” Trey really gets into it and like the lyrics say “come on is such a joy.” As he digs deeper and deeper into his guitar solo the higher the audience flies in ecstasy. He’s really going for it, pulling all the stops. There are loads upon loads of classic signature Anastasio riffs, and melodic variations that are exclusive to his technique.
Trey & The Fab Faux return backstage and the 2 large screens on either side of the stage light up. The Jammy’s Phish Lifetime Achievement Award is in big letters across the screens with the audio from “You Enjoy Myself.” The “YEM” starts at the build up and as they drop into the classic 2 chord “YEM” funk over the loudspeakers a special photo montage begins, the words “Wash Uffizi, Drive Me to Firenze” appear. The slide show is full of smiling faces and live shots of the band members and audiences. Seeing those pictures made me remember that special forgotten feeling of the unity and oneness we all felt when we were there during those special moments. No matter who you were, and what your past was there was a certain existential experience that took place at Phish concerts. We celebrated life, celebrated being alive and together on earth in that present moment. It was beautiful, free and harmonious. That’s the way Phish made you feel. The Photographer, Danny Clinch, spoke about this unique experience. How four guys could bring 100,000 people together like one big family and showed a handful of special photos he took. They included the final bow at Coventry, the band huddled together singing accapella in front of the massive crowd at Great Went, and two backstage photos of the band practicing with Jay-Z and Kid Rock. All four members of Phish walk over as Danny hands them their Taylor guitar headstock awards.
Mike, Jon, and Page spoke briefly thanking the fans before giving Trey the mic. “There’s something that’s been on my mind for the last five years,” said the pale red haired guitarist, “I’ve always wanted toconvey to some degree what all this meant to me and the other guys too. We would talk and it always felt like we were part of something that was so much bigger then the four of us.” Trey repeatedly held his hands to his heart and said, “It’s an honor. I feel such gratitude and it’s an honor to have been there watching everybody dance and watching the whole thingso thank you so much for letting us be part of your experience.” He then took out a short list of the names of the many important people who played a role in making Phish a success. Beginning with, their manager, John Paluska concluding with Trey’s mentor Ernie Stires who recently passed away.
Trey said thank you one more time and the band walked around the drum risers. Page led the group, Fishman was telling Trey something that had him in stitches laughing and Gordo held the back. To see the four of them together on stage like that reaffirmed all our hopes and dreams. The members of Phish have a strong brotherhood, a deep friendship, and a solidarity, which translates professionally in their improvisational jams and seems to translate personally off stage as well. Unlike many bands that lose members and break up the junta that was formed during the latter years of the 1980’s in Vermont is alive and dare I say stronger then ever. The reason these guys stopped playing wasn’t because they disliked each other and couldn’t stand being trapped in the same tour bus anymore. They stopped playing shows because they genuinely cared about the music, the fans, and the well being of their bandmates as real friends would. This friendship remains a central theme that runs from the bottom to the top.
The Headcount All-Stars capped off the evening with a Phish tribute set. The Jamband Supergroup featured the Disco Biscuits’ Marc Brownstein on bass and Jon Gutwillig on guitar, Jake Cinninger (Umphrey’s McGee) on guitar, Kyle Hollingsworth (String Cheese Incident) on keys and Sir Joe Russo from G.R.A.B. and the Benevento/Russo Duo back on the drum kit. Commencing with the open E dudunt dudunt’s of “Wilson,” the band then performed “Run Like an Antelope,” and “2001.” To close the set the Disco Biscuits’ keyboardist, Aron Magner joined the bunch for “Maze.” The band really jammed out the Keys of C Major and Minor for an extended “2001.”
Mike Gordon was leaning back against the railing for this number. As I went dancing by I asked him what he thought of the Phish Tribute. Previously bed ridden, sleeping diagonal and coming off a cold he gave me a big smile and said, “Pretty Cool!” The Headcount Allstars rocked out “Wilson,” conquered “Antelope,” jammed out “2001,” and managed to get out of the “Maze” with the help of Magner on the organ. Over 10 years ago when The Biscuits first started playing bars and parties in Philadelphia, before they found their own sound, “Antelope” and “Maze,” were in their repertoire. The normally loose and jovial Marc Brownstein seemed tense and nervous. A huge Phish fan, Brownie used to be spotted watching Gordo, his favorite bass player play these songs. The roles were reversed now and Marc was visibly more serious and professional. His respect for the music could be heard in his playing and seen in the way he carried himself.
Then the once in a lifetime event was over. The house lights turned on and a live version of Phish performing The Rolling Stones “Lovin Cup” played over the PA. Most of us sang along and kept dancing until they turned it off and kicked us out.
Later that evening we were driving home back on the LIE talking about The Jammys. Although Phish didn’t reunite, the words of Dean’s and Trey’s speeches echoed in the back of my brain. “Tonight we’re bringing it full circle,” said Dean and there was something bigger that happened with Phish, Trey tried to explain. It took a while for the magnitude and significance of what happened to sink in. Phish was a cultural phenomenon, more then just four musicians jamming. The Jammys did come full circle after 7 years. The co-creators of the event Dean Budnick and Peter Shapiro were Phish fans like myself. Both of them experienced what it was like being part of something bigger then yourself through Phish’s music, which once graced the halls of the Wetlands. During the past 7 years they’ve succeeded in keeping that spirit alive. That magical feeling many of us, including myself, would have forgotten.