My First Phish Show 1994-10-08

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today…

I backed into my first Phish show well after becoming a fan. I’m fairly certain that I was turned on to the group in High School though it was my first year of college where I began to absorb much of their music. Junta played constantly in our dorms and, as I grew my Grateful Dead tape collection, I began adding a few Phish tapes. But that was the early 90’s and I was still very much focused on seeing as much Grateful Dead as possible. This attitude and my slim wallet kept me away from Phish shows until 1994.

In March of ’94, I had purchased a ticket to my first Phish show the next month at the local college (George Mason University) basketball arena, the Patriot Center. But I soon learned that The Band (at least those who remained in the line-up) would be playing Washington D.C.’s Lincoln Theater that same week. Concerned about having another shot at seeing Levon and co., I sold my Phish ticket to a buddy and bought a ticket to see The Band. No regrets.

Truer Words...

Truer Words…

Flash forward to Autumn. Freshly enrolled in the local community college, making new friends, many of who were Grateful Dead and Phish fans, and Phish was slated to return to the Patriot Center. One of my new friends, Chris, offered me one of his extra tickets and plans were set. I was finally going to see this group.

George Mason is a sprawling suburban university that matches the character of Northern Virginia quite well. Attractive, yet deliberate, green spaces are surrounded by too much pavement and cars are everywhere. We arrived early and, counter to my experiences at Dead shows, there wasn’t much of a scene. A few people were making grilled cheese for themselves, and maybe one guy was selling shirts but, for the most part, folks kept to themselves. I can only assume that the campus housing was a different scene altogether. We picked out a spot with some grass and relaxed in the lovely Autumn afternoon before heading in to the show.

Patriot Center is a round-ish basketball venue. It has no upper deck but reserved seating all the way around and, for this show, on the floor. As we entered, a fan handed me a purple flyer that read, “Phish Is A Really Cool Band.” Indeed.Our seats were on Page’s side, ahead of the board, a few rows above the floor. pretty much perfect. Unless you compare to those of my friend Modi whom we saw bouncing to the PA music all the way up to the front of the floor.

We were pumped.

We were ready.

The lights went down. Continue reading

JamBand Music – A Difficult Label

Jamband music is often pegged as self-indulgent, drug addled, guitar noodling but that’s not entirely fair.

It’s true that among the bands embraced by Jamband fandom, drugs do crop up both on stage and off. And guitar noodling, seemingly aimless streams of notes in search of purchase, certainly does happen. But to call the jams ‘aimless’ is a disservice to the players. A band like Phish doesn’t simply launch into jams unprepared.

In the late 80’s and early 90’s Phish could arguably have been one of the more well-rehearsed bands on the road. And it wasn’t just songs being worked over in the rehearsal space; they developed exercises to train themselves to listen better and to improvise as a unit. These extended practices carried over to the stage and, come the mid-90’s, Phish began transforming 5 minute songs into half-hour explorations. By the late 90’s, entire sets might be devoted to seamless jams between only a handful of songs.

Casual listeners seem to become fatigued by this sort of jamming, preferring to be entertained by a new song every few minutes. One cannot argue matters of taste. (One can but it’s a rather tedious and pointless exercise that can really kill a dinner party.) But the fact that Phish can also play a set of short songs, as can The Grateful Dead, cannot overcome the bias has, unfortunately, been installed. Those groups ‘jam onstage’ therefore they lose some perceived value to a broad segment of potential audience.

And so, this past weekend, as I enjoyed a relaxing moment of coffee and a record, I realized that it should be noted that most bands jam and many do it onstage. Why should a select few carry a stigma when a broad cross-section of musical groups take to the stage or even the studio and stretch their songs to the limits?

Herein, I shall begin compiling examples of these performances in a list that I’ll call: Those Other Jams.

Phish – Wingsuit

2013-10-31 Phishbill "Wingsuit"

2013-10-31 Phishbill

On Halloween, Phish eschewed the traditional “Costume Set” wherein the band covers a classic album and, instead, took the bold move of debuting 12 new songs that, they announced, would likely comprise the bulk of their yet-to-be-recorded new album. While writing and rehearsals for the album had taken place over the last year, none of these tunes had been played for a Phish audience. The band hoped that the live experience would add to their understanding of each of these songs as they go into the studio to record with legendary producer, Bob Ezrin, in the first week of November.

“Wingsuit” starts with thin vocals and a refrain that feels tentative, but warms a bit with a strong guitar solo. The lyrics are not ambiguous and sound very much of the 3.0 era, honest and direct about life and how to live it. I suspect that this will grow significantly in the studio into a great piece of audio work. It was followed by “Feugo” which kicks off with a strong instrumental sequence followed by a chanted verse and big, sing-songy, wordless chorus. This song turned around a lot of people who were unsure after the set began with “Wingsuit”. The various segments of “Feugo” illustrate a lot of what Phish does in this era: quick changes, high tempo riffing, and a healthy dose of darkness.

“The Line” pushes the darkness aside and explores fear and facing challenges from a positive perspective. This could be Phish’s pop masterpiece, honestly. The backing vocals are gorgeous, the melody is strong and simple and the message clear as a bell. This is exactly the sort of song Phish fans love to hate but it’s really a great pop song and I can’t help but like it.

“Monica” is an unstoppably catchy earworm with call-and-response vocals that will bounce around in your head for an hour after you hear it. Fortunately, it completely lacks in awfulness. They performed it in a stripped down setup with Trey on acoustic, Mike on an upright bass, Fishman on a stripped down kit, and Page on a simplified keyboard setup. “Waiting All Night” has a bit more of the call-and-response but this time in the electrified, full setup with Trey’s solos gliding beautifully across the mix. It’s a simple song but pretty and a definite keeper with lots of potential.

Continue reading

Phish in Hampton 2013

Hampton by Andrea Nusinov @andreanusinov Buy Prints

Hampton by Andrea Nusinov @andreanusinov
Buy Prints

I walked away from Phish after a show at Merriweather Post Pavilion in 2010. I wasn’t disgusted or offended by their playing or whatever faults I might have perceived in the band, I just wasn’t having as much fun. So I stopped attending shows and listened to fewer and fewer of their current recordings. Then, over this past Summer, something changed. The band was exuding the playfulness that I wanted once again. Maybe it was me; maybe not. But it’s not just about jamming or silly gags onstage, it’s about energy. While the band has clearly been enjoying themselves all along, they had stopped transmitting on my frequency. This past Summer, that changed.

Then they announced a run of shows at the Coliseum in Hampton, Virginia and I knew it was time.

Coming about a week after the 19th anniversary of my very first Phish show, these would be my first shows in more than two years when the band returned to . The venue has been a part of my musical life since the early 90s and part of my life’s scenery as far back as I can remember due to growing up in region. It was good to be back to both the band and the room.
(Click here if you want to skip to the summary. I’ll eventually forgive you.)

Night One (Friday, October 18, 2013):

A lovely day for a drive through Virginia and soon enough we’re checked into the hotel and on the lot in Hampton. We met a few friends and went in early enough to grab a great spot, on the rail, just behind Page. From here could see everything that he did, most of what Fish did and every bit of Trey’s turning and geeking out on Page’s solos. The latter happened frequently throughout the evening.

“Wolfman’s Brother” opened strong and got right down to rockin’ and “Runaway Jim” hinted at the band’s eagerness to jam when they stretched it slightly before the first big peak. “Mound” was a particular treat because I’ve somehow managed to not see it since the Summer of ’95. “Chalk Dust Torture” followed, bringing back the rock, and Page gave us a breather with his rather personal sounding ballad, “Army Of One”. The band picked things right back up a bluegrass number, “Nelly Kane”, and then dove into “Stash”. Continue reading

Moving On

(Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Leave Phish Behind)

When asked about my favorite music, people who know me are likely to identify two groups: The Grateful Dead and Phish. They’d be half right. Not that anyone should feel remiss for the mistake; my kids would probably offer the same response. The truth is that I have fallen out of love with Phish.

In the 90’s my musical world exploded into full life with The Grateful Dead. A few years later, I saw my first Phish show. Those two became the largest contacts on my radar and so life went for quite some time. Yes, I listened to tons of other stuff. I worked in a record store and amassed a hefty collection of music ranging from Louis Armstrong to ZZ Top. But Phish and The Grateful Dead continued to pull me back and dominate my listening and concert attentions.

The Grateful Dead ended and still I’d play their albums and live shows endlessly. Phish remained on the road and I saw them as often as life would allow and still I wanted to see them even more frequently. I collected tapes (remember tapes?) and CDs of their shows and they too stayed near the top of my playlists even during their hiatus and after their eventual ‘break-up’.

Phish used to jam. As a serious fan, I loved most of their material, including that which does not incorporate jamming, but it was the jamming and wild unpredictability that held my attention with Phish. When Phish came back in 2009, I was as excited as any fan (this blog is my testimony) and I went to the Hampton reunion shows and many more that year. The shows were fun. I had an amazing time reconnecting with old friends and sharing the shows with newer friends as well. But the music was not the highlight.

Last year, I found that listening to new Phish had become a chore. What had been a pleasurable obsession became an annoyance and, at times, I felt guilt about that annoyance. Guilt? Here was one of my so-called favorite bands, returned from rock & roll oblivion, and I couldn’t really enjoy what they were doing. Was it me? Had I changed that much? Had they? Continue reading