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Published: 2004/06/27
by Jesse Jarnow

Phish, Alpine Valley Music Theater , East Troy , WI-6/25


The hood of Loretta

East Troy, Wisconsin

The moon is hanging low and wide and buttery over the beer bottle strewn parking field and portable high-beamed light towers and the heads are shooting off fireworks again. Cars are locked in a seemingly terminal tangle, pointing every which way. To make matters worse, the authorities at the Alpine Valley Music Theater, in their infinite wisdom, quite thoroughly cracked down on vendors before tonight's show, meaning that there is no food to sustain those Phishheads stuck here for the next several hours. Until I purchased a $5 slice of burned pizza from seemingly the only food vendor, I was downright starving. It was from his second-to-last pie, and – in between snorts of a perfume sample ripped from a men's magazine – he worried that his car might be on fire. Certainly the half-singed roll of paper towels might be used as evidence to support this idea.

I don't think this is what I signed up for.

I mean, maybe it is. The pizza was tasty. And the challenge of finding food in this context is fun. But certainly it's not what was on my mind when I went to my first Phish show, and I surely didn't think of it when I listened to my first Phish album. Somewhere, they became the soundtrack to this kind of experience. But, somewhere in the center – beneath all the hoopla of Phish's traveling circus, beyond anybody who ever took acid (or didn't take acid) and saw God during "You Enjoy Myself" and throws around supernatural expressions to describe Phish's musicianship – are four guys playing music. That's how Phish started. Realistically, literally, that's all they've ever been. They've done it well, and they've done gracefully. They've done it horribly, and they've done it sloppily. But, no matter what, that's what they are. That's what I signed up for: to see a really good band play music.

On a given night of this first leg of Phish's final summer tour, they have consistently been just that: a band. That's all they've tried to do — no obvious pyrotechnics or pranks or anything of the sort. Tonight, the first night of a two-night stand at Alpine Valley – a bizarrely popular (albeit very pretty) middle-of-nowhere enormo-amphitheater with a 45-degree lawn – the band turned in the 7th show of their tour. It's just far enough in for the band to start taking themselves for granted again, and there was a casualness to their playing that suggested business as usual. And since Phish hasn't traditionally reacted well to high-pressure situations, that's all the better. The first set was a mixed bag — a couple of crisply played favorites ("Julius," "AC/DC Bag"), a couple of rarities (a deeply butchered "Glide," the first post-Hiatus rendition of Ween's "Roses Are Free"), and the requisite hot jam or two ("David Bowie," "Wolfman's Brother"). As a whole, though, it didn't quite make it.

The second set – which was satisfying – began with a long exploration on "Seven Below," drummer Jon Fishman and bassist Mike Gordon establishing a low, rolling groove while guitarist Trey Anastasio turned out sheets of noise (a favorite tactic this tour). Incrementally, Anastasio took control and carried the song to a high-energy plateau. And, for once, Anastasio absolutely nailed the two most challenging compositions of the set — the delicate "I am Hydrogen" (nestled between a dissonant "Mike’s Song" in which he once again forgot the tune’s peak, and a "Weekapaug Groove" which found keyboardist Page McConnell leading the band to an ecstatic peak), and the anthemic "You Enjoy Myself." The latter especially, which has been giving the band trouble lately, was a triumph. They got it, and they got it good. Just after the ritual presentation of the trampolines and just before the band dipped down before the big peak, Anastasio and Fishman hit on a positively confident groove that simply made the tune. They not only got it right, but they found nooks within it to explore.

As the jam got going, Anastasio signaled to his bandmates, and they plunged headlong into Deodoto's funk arrangement of "Also Sprach Zarathustra." The short version folded back into "You Enjoy Myself"'s vocal jam. With Fishman playing drums through the first several waves of melodies, the vocals retained an almost hip-hop feel, a playful swing undergridding the nonsense syllables.

For now, things seem normal. at least for those planning on continuing onwards with the tour when it resumes. But, of course "normal" is a highly relative term. Who knows what the August shows will bring? For now, it's just a pleasure soaking up a Phish show at the bottom of a lush hill a hundred miles north of Chicago, watching the sunset and appreciating the totality of the experience as Phish plays (even a horribly forgotten) "Glide," or pulling out of a parking lot traffic jam at one in the morning, debating the merits of a late night shortcut on badly marked county roads, and passing a blissfully grinning dude sitting on a trash barrel by the exit holding a sign scrawled in black marker on the bottom of a cardboard box reading "Don't forget to vote stoner" and wondering (with his lack of comma) if he means for us to vote in general or to vote specifically for the stoner party line. And who knows about that either? Maybe that's not what I signed up for, but I'll take it.

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