Featured Column: Vacation Tour
One advantage to the grand breakup is that we got a chance to do something different with our vacation time. Instead of endless touring, we went on actual vacations like the rest of the world does… ok fine, usually with some sort of musical excuse. With the West Coast unfriendly first leg – it’s not just the lack of Western shows; it’s the lack of multiple venues I liked in a row – making travel decisions difficult, we decided to try something different. Let’s use Phish as a vacation inspiration, spending 3 days in Virginia Beach with the Portsmouth show as an anchor for our trip.
Perhaps fitting with a real vacation, this trip was filled with disasters and near disasters. We were well on the way to the airport when Mel discovered that she left her credit card at home. Fortunately that was rectified in time for us to get on our red eye. After a fun little flight in from Dulles where we were on the tarmac longer than we were in the air, we landed in Norfolk with time to kill. Mel – a former resident of the area – decided to give me the tour. So we walked out to the beach underneath the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel.
It was a pretty cool view. We hung out there for a while and walked back along the Bay on our way to lunch when the tide came in. You don’t really think of the Chesapeake as having waves but one rolled in and soaked me… including the pocket with my phone. It turns out that iPhones really don’t like salt water. It never did work quite right again and by that night would have to be replaced.
Our first attempt at lunch reminded me why I don’t live in the south. The restaurant had a vegetarian section on the menu, but it gave this disclaimer: “May contain chicken stock and lard.” Someone doesn’t quite understand the word “vegetarian.” I suppose I should be glad that they knew enough to put in the disclaimer.
OK, so the trip started off rough, but it was a vacation. Chilling at the beach on a warm day is not the worst thing to do, especially in the wake of Seattle’s non-summer. Like a cliché in a personals ad, we took some long walks on the beach. The second walk – on the day of the show – was far more interesting. Coming back towards our hotel, we saw an entire school of dolphins swimming a couple hundred yards off shore. Mel lived in Virginia Beach for years and never saw dolphins. I’ve been there twice (Hampton 2009 being the other occasion) and both times I managed to see them. If I could choose my superpower, I don’t think it would be Summon Dolphins to Virginia Beach, but we have to play the cards we’re dealt.
The Hampton Roads region has one distinctive characteristic. Surrounded by bays and rivers – not to mention the giant ocean to the east – there are chokepoints everywhere. You can’t just take side roads when the main route is backed up unless you have an amphibious car. This leads to huge traffic jams out of proportion to the size of the population. As a result we got to Portsmouth much later than planned, so instead of having tons of time at the Beir Garden, we were rushed. And since this is the most popular place for Phishheads to eat in the area, we waited and waited and waited for our food. The show was GA so we needed to get in to stake out a good spot, but we were waiting and waiting.
Finally, a half hour after we ordered, it arrived. And in keeping with the disaster theme of the trip, I wasn’t the only one eating my food. Two bites in, I noticed a spider crawling on my food, fortunately on the other side of my meal. In defense of the Garden, the new improved waitress quickly took my food away and found something else for me to eat, but this vacation was rapidly becoming the type that has phrases like, “Let us never speak of it again,” associated with it. Fortunately, if there’s one thing tour teaches, it’s how to roll with the punches, speeding the process where a bad time becomes a good story. It only took a few minutes to start making Boris the Spider jokes.
nTelus Pavilion is the most adorable little venue ever. Take a normal summer shed and shrink it in the dryer and you’d end up with this. With an incredibly tiny lawn and a “hurricane proof roof” (a claim proven false by Hurricane Isabel in 2003), this venue has a very distinct look.
You can see how small the lawn is here.
The TV truck is where the stage is and the radio tower is beyond the end of the venue.
Before the show started, a fan walked by with a giant “Tube” sign and led the crowd in multiple chants. The chant resurfaced when Phish came on stage. Trey then announced that they would play it because Phish is, “the all request band.” That was the start of the joke that would last throughout the tour. After a fiery “Kill Devil Falls” – and I really do need it explained why this dance sensation isn’t much more popular than it is – we got the first real peak of the night, a rare 3rd song “Slave to the Traffic Light.”
“Slave” is usually placed so that the peak would be the highlight of the show. The weird location might have inspired the band to play a stunning version. Trey played delicate riffs around Mike’s jaw dropping bass. There was a delicate power here that you don’t often get from Phish. It required a light touch to keep it going, as the slightest flub would destroy the whole mood. If the high fiving at the end of the song was any indication, the needle was indeed threaded.
Phish fans remember the summer 1998 tour fondly. Nicknamed, “The Jukebox Tour,” a random cover or two would pop up every night never to be seen again. 2010 is bringing the idea back. Portsmouth’s contribution was the Tom Waits number, “Cold Water,” set from the perspective of an itinerant who is aging quickly and has to deal with the police but still wouldn’t live any other way. I imagine more than one current or former tour kid could relate to that.
We moved quickly from the novel to the sublime as the following “Bathtub Gin” hit an incredible apex. This was the highlight of the show, everyone firing on all cylinders with a punchy, “Bomp-BOMP” emphasizing each pass through. This is the kind of jam that gets people to jump up and down and pump their fists and act like their team has just won the World Cup.
Like quite a few shows on the first half of this tour, the second set couldn’t maintain the momentum from the first. One song does stand out, the debut – and, as of this writing, only – performance of “Idea.” This new Mike Gordon song starts out with the happiest Trey riff since “Down With Disease,” goes through a melodic verse and chorus section that sounds very Green Sparrow -esque, before ending up in a funk jam to close. This new generation of Mike songs can be rough at first (see “Shack, Sugar”) but when the band gets all of the pieces together, they are some of the best songs Phish have. 2011 better look out!
While the second set might not have been the best ever, the show ended extremely strongly with a fiery “First Tube.” In addition to the usual jumps that this song inspires, Trey did his Jedi posing of holding up his guitar over his head and acting like he was controlling the pitch with his mind instead of the foot pedal. The fun ending closed out the show nicely. This one won’t be in anyone’s all time favorite list, but there were some great moments. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been worthy of being the only part of the trip, but as a highlight of a vacation, it would serve just fine.
I’ve been getting into a lot of debates lately about Phish and jams. Is Phish jamming enough? What happened to the dark psychedelic jams of 2.0? Why do so many jams seem to be cut off when they’re getting dark or scary? This show reminded me of why I’m not one of the people constantly asking that.
I agree with Nick Hornby. I’m 41 now. I’ve had two friends die in the last six months and it was almost three. The economy is in the crapper. There’s an oil spill that is still gushing uncontrollably. I don’t want Phish to scare me or explore dark territory as the world is doing that for me. Right now what’s catching my ears is the beauty of Mike’s playing in “Slave,” the energy of the peak of “Bathtub Gin,” the happy riff at the beginning of “Idea,” the exuberance and silliness of “First Tube.” The band has the right idea. In these times, we need a different Phish, one that can be a beacon of light in a world of night. Fortunately they seem to be up to the challenge.
David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capital Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html and he’s on the board of directors for The Mockingbird Foundation. He occasionally posts at the Phish.net blog