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Published: 2002/09/23
by Jesse Jarnow

The Phix, BB King’s, NYC- 9/22

NYC ROLL-TOP: Don't Forget To Understand Exactly What You Put On The

When I came up out of the subway, I was hit by a wall of lights, all
flashing and rotating and spinning and cycling. At the center of the frame
was the marquee for B.B. King's Blues Bar and Grille: a touristy club for
touristy musicians in the touristy end of town. Neither a grimy dive nor an
elegant theater, the place seems perfectly cut out for the new New York, the
new Times Square — which is to say, Las Vegas. With the shutdown of its
porn stores, Times Square has become more and more like Vegas with each
passing year. (And, to its credit, Vegas itself has become more and more
like New York itself.) At any rate, the lights flashed, the horns honked,
and the people stared at it all.

Through the entryway gift shop and down the wide, spiraling stairs, one came
out into a large open room that felt a bit like a speakeasy. A long bar
lined the back, while a rectangular pit spread sat at the foot of the
well-dressed stage. A large lighting rig filled the back of the platform,
which was also festooned with a smoke machine, that gasped like a hi-hat at
musically inappropriate times over the course of the night. It looks like a
very big stage in a very small room.

Indeed, that's usually the vibe that shows at B.B. King's seem designed to
promote. The lights and the smoke machines and the two video monitors
flanking the stage make one feel privileged to be seeing musicians on a
stage this small. The impact of any special set design, or even the idea of
a stage itself, is to create the illusion that there is something magical
happening to the musicians onstage that clearly isn't happening to the
audience. For the amount of moving parts on the B.B.'s stage, everything
feels a bit out of proportion, and the musicians end up coming off a bit
like pneumatic automatons — appropriate for Times Square, and most
certainly appropriate for the Phix, the Phish cover band that appeared on
Sunday the 22nd.

The marquee read "Phish Tribute", which must've seemed a bit like a "Puppet
Show and Spinal Tap" billing to opening act Brothers Past. At any rate, the
Pennsylvania quartet turned in a decent warm-up set, sounding closer to
professional than I've heard them so far. With keyboardist Tom McKee finally
at a decent place in the mix, and the often shrill attack of guitarist Tom
Hamilton buffered a little bit by the room, the band has rarely
sounded closer to the textural ideal that seem to be shooting for.
Their songs still tended towards squealy finishes, but their jams remained
nicely layered. They played with the Phix's stage set-up — which is to say,
they played with Phish's old-school stage set-up: keyboards on stage right,
drums on stage left.

It is rare to find rock music that can be quantified. The Phix qualify.
There is a right and wrong with their music — which is Phish's music, give
or take a few layers of meaning. One could watch them and really evaluate
objectively if they were doing it, y'know, right. The moments before
they took the stage were oddly uncomfortable, and I found myself realizing
just how much of Phish's music is wrapped up – justified, somehow – by their
own particular mythology and history. To remove those factors from the
performance would on, one level, leave only the music behind. But it would
also leave a gaping hole to really see how Phish's music worked.

"The first great Beatle innovation was familiarity with the names of every
member of an entire (four-man) group," Richard Meltzer wrote in the
Aesthetics of Rock. Something similar might be said for Phish, who let
their collective charisma organically develop each band member into some
sort of archetype: the leader, the mysterious weird one, the silent one, the
wily greasy prankster (for starters). With this charisma conveniently
removed, the logic that led to many of Phish's decisions also disappears.
Buh-bye surreal comedic sensibility, hullo bare skeleton of an empty ritual.

Yeah, so, like they opened with "Down With Disease", and soon meaningless
arcana was passing my lips, talking to an old show-going buddy whose similar
sense of morbidity brought him to B.B.'s. "'Trey' didn't do the pick swipes
in between the verses on 'Disease'! 'Mike' isn't playing with a pick! They
didn't do the 'Landlady' dance" So it goes, and so it went. And, after a
while, it felt dirty.

Actually, that's a lie. It felt dirty very quickly.

For starters, they played everything too fast (which, I suppose, is keeping
in line with the idea that they're paying tribute to Phish's club days). But
it wasn't just that they played the songs too fast, it's that they just
played the songs, period. People off the street weren't expected to
appreciate the Phix objectively. Audience members were expected to not just
have Phish as a reference point, but to have Phish and their history as
reference points.

The question of a Phish cover band is an interesting one, especially since
Phish's more interesting material is pretty damn challenging to play. To
their credit, The Phix played it with great aplomb, even confidence. "Trey"
did well, fucking up far less than the actual Trey did for the last several
years of Phish's career on songs like "Lizards", "You Enjoy Myself", "Rift",
"Stash", and others. Still, the delivery felt rather lifeless. For every
note he got right, he'd screw something up like the big, long sustained
emotional note at the peak of "You Enjoy Myself" (where "Trey" instead
played one medium-length note, followed by a bunch of squealy bends).

That out of the way, as a friend is fond of saying: if you're good enough to
cover "You Enjoy Myself", you shouldn't be covering "You Enjoy
Myself", you should be writing your own shit. Word. By refusing to
introduce their own material, Phix's shtick is one of pure sentimentality.
And maybe it's fun. I've never tried necrophilia either. I mean, I guess I
did have some amount of fun watching The Phix. It was hard not to. It was
perverse and guilty, though. I still can't really believe I went.

They covered some of Phish's covers, too — Norman Blake's "Ginseng
Sullivan", Ween's "Roses Are Free" (actually sticking closer to the Ween
arrangement than Phish), and the Stones' "Loving Cup". "Ginseng Sullivan"
sounded considerably off, and – as hideously suburban as Phish sometimes are – it quickly became obvious just how much bluegrass they really did absorb.
It might be said that that was the case for everything The Phix played: they
got the tree just fine, they were just completely clueless when it came to
the ornamentation.

When "Page" began the intro to "Loving Cup", I bailed. What with the size of
the places Phish used to play, it was never convenient to actually make a
point and split as soon as "Loving Cup" started. They'd be halfway through
the song by the time I got to the door. The Phix served to solve that
problem easily. I was on the street before they hit the first chorus.

Jesse Jarnow is the last one he
thought she'd be Trey.

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