Fall/ Winter 2009 Tour
There’s a real difference between armchair analysis and actually being a part of the crowd, and when Dan and I saw Phish at MSG the other night, the experience differed, as you can probably imagine, rather tremendously from listening to a bunch of MP3s on Nugs.net.
I hadn’t seen a Phish show since Astrid and I went our during our last year of school – practically another life: this was back before the Providence Civic Center was re-christened Dunkin’ Donuts Center – so I was a bit out of step and a couple things struck me right away.
First of all, the music is front and center – for hours. Without a cluttered desktop full of stuff to do, Outlook’s auto-receive scheduled for every 3 minutes and, of course, coworkers, there are relatively few distractions (though there are definitely a few distractions) and the takeaway isn’t in the details (obviously you can’t scrub back to that amazing moment at 12:39), but the entirety of the experience.
Ebb and flow, tension and release, lighting effects and glow-in-the dark-bracelet-throw-cues; the whole thing kind of melds together, laying bare the structure nearly every song adheres to and the band’s truly unique sound-vision. Absolutely no other rock act so successfully fuses what is essentially contemporary jazz, good old fashioned crooning, traditional rock blues, tone-based alien landscapes, overly ambitious college-level compositions and unadulterated white, duct-taped-brimmed embroidered collegiate cap funk. After a couple of hours the distinct aural experience becomes more than familiar.
‘Precocious’ may seem like an unusual descriptor for someone who’s a well established virtuoso, but the personality of the playing, which I can best sum up as kind of a nerdily frustrated musical theory major (they’re just not teaching what I want to learn, dude) who happens to be super into showing off (which I guess probably isn’t all that unique a character combo), makes for alternately sublime and confounding music.
The continual escalation, the nearly infinite ratcheting up of every song, results in one ‘Can you believe I’m even playing this?!’ moment after another. This can go one of two ways: it can blister and ultimately kind of numb, like the incredibly intense David Bowie that closed the second set, or it can truly wow, like the breathtakingly necessarily over-complicated Fluff’s Travels, which was just absolutely stunning to behold as the band navigated its way through what felt like dozens of sound-scapes drawn in cartoony broad-strokes, literally turning on a dime several times a minute.
Lyrical content is… what it is. Tom Marshall‘s a pretty unique surrealist with a weird sense of humor and an even weirder sense of wordplay and the part of my brain that translates songs into movies (more accurately, cartoons – Phish songs tend to skew animated) always envisions characters that resemble Dave Sim’s Cerebus acting out Marshall’s always unusual, but generally very specific, scenarios – particularly when we heard Stash Thursday night.
Of course, the primary difference between hearing a show like this at work on headphones and seeing it live is that there are other people there – tons of them!
People are into it, and a lot of them have been into it for a long, long time. What really earned this band its fan base is the fact that these shows promote a rare form of authorized inhibition – and everyone (everyone) in the room is on board (this is verified in the shaky camera phone footage below/after the jump). People who would not (the most cynical might even argue, should not) dance anywhere else, at any time, go absolutely wild… it’s pretty far out and it’s Phish’s hard earned but long standing ability to provoke this behavior on such a scale that leads to tickets to shows like this selling out in a matter of minutes: catharsis like none of us have known since the ’90s is in high demand.
One thing that really blew my mind at the R Kelly show last month was the level of audience interaction: I was not familiar with the phenomenon of women singing along to an entire set of songs (dudes shouting out the first chorus before kind of awkwardly quieting down tends to be, in my experience, SOP). But when nearly every song in your repertoire has gained a kind of anthemic quality, and everyone in the audience has known the words for over a decade, crowd sing-alongs are seriously intense.
Seeing Phish live also prompts some big time questions about the nature of long term artistic integrity-based success and audience give and take. Are you a party band, do you need to do things to make the audience happy, or do you please yourself and just hope the fans will go along with it? How do you write when so much of your best loved work is comprised of the kind of overly intricate quick changes that characterize pretentious youthful exuberance? Are you still in that mind-space, or is it kind of a grind to play Punch You in the Eye? There’s a lot to think about…
Getting out of the Garden was no joke, the escalators were insane so we squeezed into the emergence stairwell but our escape was slowed by numerous pools of emergency vomit. As the cold, fresh(ish) air of 33rd Street hit us, we took in the most unusual sight of the evening: everybody was doing nitrous. It was crazy, hundreds of people lined the street, yellow balloons (3 for $20) tethered to their wrists; the dudes with the tanks simply could not fill the need fast enough… I’ve lived here for a pretty long time, but I’ve never walked out onto a midtown street to find literally everyone huffing. Priceless.