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Published: 2004/08/12
by Jesse Jarnow

Phish, Tweeter Center, Mansfield, MA- 8/10

FROM THE TOURING DESK: Nonsense Has A Welcome Ring

The hour is nigh for Phishheads – as of this afternoon, four shows to go (four!) – and we’re looking for clues that the band’s craggily facade will finally melt away and reveal (as band friend Richard Wright described in the early Phish classic "Halley’s Comet") the central theme to this everlasting spoof. And – strangely enough – the band might actually be doing just that. At last night’s show, the first of two at the former Great Woods, Trey Anastasio did something that he hasn’t done, well, maybe ever: he let people entirely in on a joke.

Phish's lyrics (especially those of Tom Marshall, who is prone to teasingly introducing character names without explaining who they are) create an unexplained mythology that, to fans, is an enticing entry point. On one hand, it might just be nonsense. But, on the other hand, if you live with nonsense (or anything at all) for 20 years, it eventually acquires significance (perhaps even more so than something that tries to soak itself with meaning). Midway through the band's second set, following a to-the-letter reading of the band's "Mike's Song" / "I am Hydrogen" / "Weekapaug Groove" suite, Trey Anastasio explained, with total earnestness, the origin of the latter tune's lyrics: the band was returning from a beach party in Weekapaug, Rhode Island (one of their first road gigs) and began to make up new lyrics for a song that came on the radio. "So now you know," Anastasio said. So we did.

Paul Is Dead-style, the clues are potentially everywhere. To close the overwhelmingly mellow first set (highlighted by a lazily pretty "AC/DC Bag" and a kinda aimless "Wolfman's Brother"), the band played 1998's "Birds of a Feather," a characteristic rager birthed whole from the band's fascination with the Talking Heads' Remain in Light. As soon as the band hit the jam segment, they immediately pulled up the reigns and veered abruptly into a languidly precise improvisation, all quiet and pretty atop a bed of Mike Gordon’s picked bass. The jam stretched and stretched, sagging for a while in the middle, with Anastasio unsuccessfully trying to up the tempo with quick chordal bursts. When he gave up, the music (like the Deer Creek version of "Nothing") became completely relaxed, and built to a wonderful climax before petering out. (Someone should remind the band that they used to have a musical signal – the main riff from The Beatles’ "Get Back" – to escape situations like that, and the set-opening "AC/DC Bag" and Hampton "Chalkdust," and…)

Anyway: clues. Yes, yes. I got an email this morning from a dude who swore that – during "Birds" – the band was returning to a listening exercise (called "Including Your Own 'Hey'") that they once frequently did in rehearsal (though never tried on stage). Who knows? Maybe they were. Up on the lawn, I couldn't quite tell (though did notice drummer Jon Fishman speaking into his microphone at times via the monitors). Hey, it's possible, and maybe even likely. Either way, it was Phish at their most compelling, which is to say playing without a net (which is to say playing stretches of boring music in search of a few mesmerizing moments).

There wasn't all too much questing in the second set, save for a psychedelic "A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing" (also graced with Anastasio's explanation of its origins), which glided with watery determination into a jittery "Piper." The rest of the set – comprised of a novelty number ("Makisupa Policeman"), a pair of ballads (the depressing "Friday" and the creepily sweet "Dog Faced Boy"), and a helping of old-school fan favorites ("Mike's Groove," "Harry Hood," "Possum") – was textbook. Everything came off as it was supposed to, and fans went home with a not-quite-classic-but-certainly-memorable Phish show on their minds.

Was something revealed? Maybe. That's the promise now, that something will be, that something will happen between now and The End that snaps Phish’s history into perspective, and makes sense of fans’ gumption in dealing with the logistical clusterfuck of long drives that Phish’s final run poses. Most seem to be skipping at least one gig in order to get to Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom in one piece for the tour-closing Coventry finalLikewise, most are convinced that the one show they are skipping will surely be The One (My own skipped show is tonight, where they will surely play Gamehendge.)

Extra tickets for shows abound in the parking lots, but they seem to be carrying various values besides their face price. Most seem to be holding out for extra Coventry tickets, or tomorrow's show in Camden (whose relative stock seems to have skyrocketed, despite being one of the last shows to sell out). Several folks reported, for example, that two extra tickets to Monday's performance in Hampton, Virginia could not yield even one ticket for Camden. The patented Phish Perpetual Motion Myth Machine is running on overdrive this week, firing up the Tent City economy for weird ticket lessons, rumors of guests, late night shenanigans at Coventry, and all manners of rampant speculation.

In some ways, it is no different than any other run of shows in Phish's career, except the band has offered a strikingly real keynote to wondering: they are breaking up. As Bob Dylan sang, "the game is the same, it’s just up on another level." Hey, maybe something is up…

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