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Published: 2001/11/08
by Todd Justus

Oysterhead, Aragon Ballroom, Chicago, IL – 11/2

In my years of seeing shows and following live music in general, few things
have excited me more than the concept of Oysterhead. The mere prospect alone
helped me through the initial frustrations concerning The Hiatus, and as
copies of last year’s New Orleans show made the rounds I found myself
gearing up for the ‘Head like I did for Phish tours. Extensive planning was
involved. A mailorder blitz was coordinated and executed with family and
friends. My touring spirit was alive and well again.

But a funny thing happened on the way to The Aragon.

First, the album was released. The sounds and textures were compelling, but
I was disappointed in the end product. The arrangements seemed almost choppy
and I couldn’t get into a flow with The Grand Pecking Order. Then, the
actual tour started…one-set shows with very little diversity in song
selection. I began to grow concerned. After a few days, I stopped following
the setlists, even though initial reviews were positive. After a week or so,
it was no longer important to see more than one show so I sold off my
tickets to every one except for Chicago. My former hometown, I decided,
would be where I squared off with Oysterhead. In the confines of The Aragon
Ballroom, I would spend a make-or-break evening with Trey, Les and Stewart.
My expectations were non-existent, which usually allows me to take in a show
unbiased and with attentive ears.

The excitement level rose considerably upon arrival at The Aragon. The
familiar faces – and more importantly the familiar vibe – were present and
in full effect. I was ready to be blown out of the building and sent
tumbling down the streets of the Northside like some kind of post-hippie
tumbleweed. This was my first show at The Aragon, and I was instantly
visually impressed. The room seems to be in a bit of disrepair, but the
towers and turrets of the balconies leave a great impression. While the
aesthetics are top-notch, however, The Aragon is not the most comfortable
place to see a show – no seating on the floor and only a number of scattered
chairs in the balcony areas. The air was stale and hot and the floor was
packed back to the soundboard, making it difficult to find a good vantage
point. But this was Oysterhead, I thought, and somehow it all seemed
appropriate.

When the show started, I was locked in. My first impression was that Trey
was playing very well. His solos were sharp and he was rocking out in a
fashion that led me to believe he was thumbing his nose at the Phish fans
that had criticized the quality and crispness of his playing during recent
tours. Les seemed a little distant. I didn’t detect the sheer exuberance he
seemed to emanate at Frog Brigade shows. His playing, to me anyway, didn’t
stand out often during the show. Stewart caught my attention early in the
set and kept it for much of the evening. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a
drummer play as hard as Stewart does. With every beat he seemed to be
attempting to rupture the skins on his kit. Very entertaining.

As the show stretched on, though, I found myself in and out of the groove.
They would hook me for five or 10 minutes, but then I would catch myself
looking around the room…watching the inner-workings of the soundboard,
checking my watch…my attention just wasn’t captured. Little Faces was a
highlight, but I didn’t really catch the wave again until the Mr. Oysterhead
closer. Owner of the World did its best to save the evening in the encore,
but it was too little too late.

Eventually, I reached two conclusions. The Aragon, while a great-looking
venue, didn’t seem to lend itself well to Oysterhead. I started wondering if
the show would’ve been different at The Riv or The Vic, more intimate rooms
where the band could’ve connected with the audience more effortlessly. A
second and more binding conclusion was that the trio was hampered by their
material. While Trey and Les (and Stewart to a certain degree) are prolific
songwriters on their own, their collaboration didn’t yield great songs. They
lacked the beauty and intricacies of the better Phish tunes and the raw
power of Primus or the Frog Brigade. Moreover, the songs didn’t serve as
adequate vehicles to showcase the talents of each bandmember.

Given the strengths of the Frog Brigade and summer Trey Band shows, Oysterhead suffered by
comparison. And I don’t think I was the only one that felt that way. It seemed
that the people wandering out of The Aragon were more interested in where to
go next instead of re-hashing the show, an uncommon mindset in a post-Phish
show mob. Everyone seemed happy to be at a show – any show – where Trey was
playing, but the general reception seemed to be lukewarm. And as I read
glowing review after glowing review, I have to ask myself if we are indeed
this desperate for a Phish-related fix. Where is the (sometimes overly)
critical ear and lofty standard we held the band to in its prime?

Maybe it was an off-night for the band, maybe it was an off-night for me
personally. Like my favorite eatery in the Chicagoland area, Oysterhead just
didn’t deliver. I only hope that Trey and Les will eventually feel the same
way and get back into the groups where I enjoy them most.

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