Phish, Alpine Valley Music Theater , East Troy , WI-6/26
FROM THE TOURING DESK: Landscape with Phish
Yes, it was worth it. If Phish is a boat going out to sea, then I'm still on it. The waves don't seem any bigger, and Valhalla doesn't seem any closer. Whee. It's hard to know where and how the word "nostalgia" fits into the current scheme of Phish anymore. The announcement that the band is breaking up has triggered a shitstorm of emotion from just about everybody. The vibe of the bootleg shirts in the lot has been varied, from sentimental "Pharewell Boys" fare to resigned inside jokiness like "Mike Says 'No'" (referring to people's champion bassist Mike Gordon's refusal to play "Fluffhead" last year for lack of rehearsal, and his opposition to the band's demise) to flat out meanness like "Brain Dead and Made of Money, No Phuture At All" (replete with a crude line drawing of guitarist Trey Anastasio). It's clear, at any rate, that people were intent on soaking it all in with some amount of self-reflection, and some amount of end-of-the-world abandon.
Listening, though, was not nostalgic. The band willed it not to be, both out of sheer musicality, and because people were too busy trying to appreciate everything. "Even the 'Character Zero' set closer felt right," a friend said after their second show at Wisconsin's Alpine Valley Music Theater. "It was like an old friend."
For the final night of the first leg of the tour, the band came out with guns blazing. The brief debut of Mike Gordon's "Access Me" had the band figuring out the best way to translate Undermind producer Tchad Blake’s electronics-heavy arrangement (an engaging new challenge that hopefully they’ll take up once more before the end). Another wonderful "Scents and Subtle Sounds" followed, the band reveling in its powerful Who-like dramatics (a new show-stopper, finally, if they want it to be) before settling into the song’s "Harry Hood"-like jam, a shimmering soundtrack for a summer evening. "Stash" (the last?) saw Anastasio noodling with dark little melodies that teetered on the edge of bursting into major scales. The rest of the set dealt primarily with Phish pop, those old reliable that make people scream real loudly. There’s no reason why Phish shouldn’t play them. The musicians smiled warmly during the long pause in "Divided Sky," savoring the rush of energy, the chant in "Wilson," and the big throb of "Character Zero."
The second set, though, had Phish back in the trenches, trying out jams and seeing where the songs might take them. Opening with a grooving version of Stevie Wonder's "Boogie on Reggae Woman," the band wandered aimlessly for a bit before settling into "Ghost," which had Anastasio leading the band into a long, bright jam. "Free" was bass-heavy and dark, Gordon laying the distortion on thick and heavy. The highlight of the night was the second "Piper" of the tour, which had the band charging into a full-on breakneck jam full of stop-time dissonance and enticing melodies. Drummer Jon Fishman led the jam, keeping the groove going while only rarely stating the rhythm itself. Instead, he played endless variations around the mutating pulse – like Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche on that band's classic "I am Trying to Break Your Heart" – subtly building tension while maintaining the song's tumbling pace. I'll miss that guy.
The parking lot was chaotic after the show, and there seemed to be no one vibe to people's thoughts. People once again dealt with the logistics – finding food, navigating the horrible clusterfuck of the parking situation (my car, Loretta, was locked in about five cars deep on each side) – and there was little time for any deep internal meandering. But that's sort of how Phish tour is: a huge snarl of traffic and maps and places to crash and the like that all kind of explodes with release the moment the band walks on stage. But the wonderful thing is, that's not the only release. They – moments of tranquility and moments of transcendence – come (go figure) in the strangest of places that sometimes have nothing to do with the music: grinning madly while gunning your engine and challenging your neighbor to a road race even though you're both ridiculously stuck in traffic or lying half-awake on a rooftop sunlounge overlooking Lake Michigan and downtown Chicago after sleeping on an old friend's floor. But even there, the music prevails: the thing that got you into that situation in the first place, and the thing that taught that such situations are possible. Anything is possible. Whee.