Thursday, August 23, 2012

Some thoughts on Phish and last night's show at Starlight

Why it's hard to be objective about the Phish show at Starlight.

Posted By on Thu, Aug 23, 2012 at 4:09 PM

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Sometime in eighth grade, I bought Rift through one of those buy-twelve-CDs-for-the-price-of-one mail-order clubs, probably Columbia House. This would have been 1995 or 1996. I selected it primarily because I had seen it in an older cousin’s CD collection and — I am trying to be honest here — I was intrigued by the way the band spelled its name: Phish. Rift is a jigsaw puzzle of an album, folk tones colliding with some strange, mystical version of funk that I’d never heard before. It is also a concept album, I think, and although I don’t really know what the concept is, as I listened to it I could sense that there was some obscure message, or some kind of mystery, buried within it.

It did not, in other words, sound like Spacehog or Collective Soul or any of the other alt-rock bands whose albums I was buying through Columbia House. A couple weeks later I convinced my mother to drive me out to a Best Buy, where I purchased Hoist. Hoist was even better! “Julius” — those wild horns! That outro solo on “Down with Disease”! These guys were amazing, and nobody I knew had ever even heard of them! My secret! I was a Phish fan.

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The next year I went off to high school and learned that Phish was not quite a secret. And that people who were into Phish dressed a certain way, acted a certain way. It sounds quaint and naïve and hardly even believable today, but at the time I wasn’t aware that being a Phish fan was not just about liking the music and having a bunch of Phish albums. Albums? No, man, it’s all about the live shows. And smoking weed, too. What? OK. Where do I sign up?

I dove in. You know how some people get really into Tolkien lore? They study maps of Middle Earth and discuss minor characters from The Silmarillion and become experts on a world that doesn’t really exist? There is a bit of that to being a Phish fan. The statistical minutiae: teases and set lists and how many shows it’s been since the band played “Strange Design” or whatever. And I found myself attracted to the subculture. It was cool and edgy and different from my sheltered, happy, suburban life. For a time I wore a hemp necklace. I had a bumper sticker referencing a Phish song (“Slave to the Traffic Light”). Grew my hair out. You know the deal. Parallel to this, I was also listening to Radiohead and classic rock and going to friends’ punk shows, even though I thought every punk song sounded exactly the same. (The punks thought the same thing about Phish. Neither, it turns out, is entirely wrong.) But Phish defined me in ways other bands didn't. They were a part of my identity.

I was too young, and later too broke, and still later too sensible, to ever follow the band on tour, which right away outs me as not a True Fan. I’ve seen probably eight shows, a laughable number to serious Phish fans. But I know enough. I was at Sandstone in 1998 for what everybody on the Internet seemed to agree was one of the best shows of that tour. They opened with the Rolling Stones’ “Emotional Rescue.” I wormed my way up close to the stage. They closed with “Camel Walk” and “The Squirming Coil,” and I am not exaggerating even a little bit when I say it was the absolute sickest thing I’d ever seen in my life. I would have walked off a fucking cliff after that show if Phish asked me to.

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Add it up, and I was pretty huge into Phish for roughly seven years. For two of those years, Phish was not making records or playing shows. When I was 21, I started listening to my college radio station, and soon everything changed. Without really noticing, I stopped thinking about Phish. I began to notice that a lot of the smart, culturally savvy people I met didn’t think Phish was an amazing band at all. Many of them thought Phish was a boring, indulgent jam-band — the label “jam-band” sounded increasingly pejorative, I had begun to notice — and an excuse for braindead hippies to take a bunch of drugs. Were they right? Maybe they were right. Maybe those ten-minute solos were kind of stupid. But I was too close to have any real perspective on the matter. The upshot was that over time I came to feel ashamed that I had been such an enthusiastic Phish fan for all those years.

Nowadays, I write about music for a living, and that calls for a certain kind of objectivity. One of the fun parts about that is reassessing bands you used to like, seeing if their songs hold up. Were Stone Temple Pilots actually any good? (A few songs were OK, the rest are terrible.) What about the Doors, who I adored for a year in high school? (Unlistenable.) But with bands you loved, bands like Phish, it’s tougher stuff. Evaluating Phish critically feels like a betrayal — of the band, of the fans, of my younger self.

I mention all this because Phish was in Kansas City last night, at Starlight Theatre, and I was there to cover it. And I’m finding myself, as is so often the case, in the position of trying to communicate one world to another world, and neither world being very interested in the other. There’s a bunch of people out there that are really into the Phish scene who already think I’m an elitist snob for shading in all this autobiographical context when I should just be writing about how mind-blowing the show was. And there’s a bunch of people out there who cannot comprehend why I’ve written all these words about a shitty hippie band like Phish. I’m never thrilled about finding myself in the middle, but I’m starting to get used to it, and anyway it’s usually the correct place to be, and so away we go. I'll try to keep the review brief as an olive branch to those who slogged through my little monologue there.

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I had a photopass, which meant for the first fifteen minutes of the show I was closer to the stage than anybody. They opened with “Chalkdust Torture,” an uptempo rocker that’s one of their more accessible songs. (It was one of the songs they played on Saturday Night Live years back.) Mike was wearing suspenders and smirking, as he does. When they hit the jam on “Chalkdust,” I got an amazing up-close view of Trey doing that thing where he stares into the middle distance and rocks his head while his fingers go haywire on the guitar. It’s like he’s accessing some other dimension. He never, ever looks at that guitar.

Probably the highlight of the night from a setlist perspective was “Skin It Back,” a Little Feat cover that, according to the unbelievably thorough phish.net, the band has only played three times since 1988. Mike sang. They kicked me out of the pit halfway through.

Also in the first set, Page sang a cover of Lynyrd Skynryd’s “The Ballad of Curtis Loew.” It’s always a treat when Page takes the mic. There was a crazy-long version of “Stash,” and they closed with “Run Like An Antelope.” Nothing in the first set was transcendent, but it wasn’t terrible, either. I should probably note at this point that I did not take any drugs at this show.

I connected more with the second set. They ran through a lot of the classics, opening with “Tweezer,” plus “Mike’s Song,” “Weekapaug Groove,” “Harry Hood,” and “Suzy Greenberg.” (There is a line in “Suzy” that goes She better first get checked by a neurologist, and during the song, Fishman — silent and hidden behind his drum kit the entire evening — piped up a couple times to make a joke about Todd Akin being a neurologist. I didn’t really understand what he meant, but it’s always nice to hear from Fishman, the soul of the group.)

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A bright spot was “If I Could,” from Hoist. I had forgotten how much I like that song, one of Phish's prettiest. No Alison Krauss on vocals, unfortunately. Most everything on Hoist holds up from where I’m sitting. “Backwards Down the Number Line” is a new song, from 2009’s Joy, and I was moderately surprised to find that its breezy melody won me over. For the encore, they did “Loving Cup,” a Rolling Stones song I weirdly still think of as a Phish song. (What can I say? I knew Phish before I knew Exile on Main Street.)

And just as I knew that them playing “Mike’s Song” meant there’d be a “Weekapaug Groove” on the way — I still remember some things! — I knew that the last song of the evening would be “Tweezer Reprise.” And so it was. The lights went into blinding, rapid-fire mode, flashing black and white across the amphitheater, and the band built the song up into a beautiful, raging mess. Won’t you step into the freezer? Trey sang. Won’t you step into the freezer? There was real fire there, real fury, real joy. It was the first time all night I felt those old Phish feelings. I wished I'd felt more of them. But it’s nice to know they’re still there.

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First Set: Chalk Dust Torture, Skin It Back, Moma Dance, Rift, Bathtub Gin, Stash, The Ballad of Curtis Loew, Kill Devil Falls, Funky Bitch, Run Like an Antelope

Second Set: Tweezer, Piper, Mike's Song, Bouncing Around the Room > Backwards Down the Number Line > Heavy Things, If I Could > Weekapaug Groove, Harry Hood > Suzy Greenberg

Encore: Loving Cup > Tweezer Reprise

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