30 September 2009

The Thick End of the Wedge: Happy Birthday, Trey!

"I'm naturally pretty spaced-out to begin with. I don't require dope to put that good old-fashioned wedge in my head -- I was born with one."
-- Bob Weir, Conversations With the Dead, David Gans, Citadel Press, 1991)

Today's post is in honor of The Carrot Top of what I like to call my "Four-Headed Boyfriend." I endearingly call him "Treycifer" when I refer to him much of the time...Ernest (is it really Giuseppe, or just Joseph?) "Trey" Anastasio III was born 45 years ago today. Broken bits of the mold smashed after his birth still threaten international spacecraft in Earth's orbit to this day. Allow me to present some of my fave pix and quotes, and humorous anecdotes, in homage to Cap'n Happy-Hands.

Trey is the guitarist and "front man" of the band, Phish. I never know how to feel about that descriptor, since both Trey and Mike play in the same part of the stage, and both step forward in turns. Sometimes, Mike's hair puts him way further out front (and up, even) than Trey, but for some reason, that seems not to matter. I guess orange is brighter than gunmetal grey, and Trey smiles a lot more. That, and he's a raging, showboat ham. (Did I say that? ;-)

Trey began playing drums at a very early age. Seen here, he practices for all the future "Hold Your Head Up" madness to come. HYHU is a ridiculous arena rock outburst / quasi-cover of English hair-rockers, Argent, and normally precedes and follows many a Fishman-fronted spectacle in a blast of manic, comic frenzy, with Treycifer getting to demonstrate his acumen on the skins. Speakin' of which, I've highlighted here the HYHU from 5/17/94, which, lest you forget this coming Spring, was Page's 31st Birthday Show...

Trey is probably the most outspoken member of the band. In fact, sometimes it seems like he can't shut up, second only maybe to Fishman, who has been Trey's chum since college days. They definitely feed off of each other's energy. They once lay naked in a bamboo hut in some tropical paradise and talked about music for days on end. I have no further information on this event, other than Trey alleges they were naked "because it was really hot." (staring)

I have met Trey. He's a great guy. A quintessential geek, from what I could detect, he runs about 45 degrees warmer than the average human being, but this might have been because he was wearing a flannel shirt at the beginning of May. His eyes are very bright, pale blue, and his often kind, aimless, benevolent gaze felt like it was quietly tearing through all my possible bullshit pretenses, and carried just as much potential mind-shredding evil and mischief, as a thousand blazing moons.

He's about 5' 8" tall, his hair really is that red, his voice is really that buttery and cheerful, and his laugh really does that loud, honking, throat-sucking geeky gasping-hose Revenge of the Nerds thing. It's probably one of my favorite things about him, since I sometimes laugh the same way. One of my life goals is to make Trey laugh so hard he snorts; I know it must have happened once, and will someday happen again.

He's a dude. On any given day, to me, he's The Dude (man), but on most, with time, he's just become A Dude (man), a super-admirable one at that. Hearing about his arrest, and watching his subsequent recovery unfold has honestly been a profound joy. Now that he's firing on all cylinders, and back on the road with, in my humble opinion, the band that best suits him (other than maybe the NY Phil, ha ha), he spends much of his time again being adulated as "One of The Best Fucking Guitarists, Ever (man)," or myriad other outlandish correlations. For one example, I think Trey's got Jerry [Garcia] beat by miles, but that's just me. No hate: I'm actually beginning to really dig the Dead, as I learn more about them, to keep my relation to Phish fresh in comparison and/or contrast to the band they are so often paralleled with, for better or worse.

Either way, walking around being called shit like that isn't great for one's ego, but, despite whatever his failings are as a human being, I think Trey handles it better than most. He's a string-strummer, a knob-twiddler, dad, a husband, likely a cousin, not sure if he's an uncle, but he probably once made a pretty rad brother. In the sense that energy is neither created nor destroyed, he still is a great brother. I'd have loved to have Trey as a brother. I guess in some ways, he sort of is. My brother from another mother.

I also met Trey's dad. I ended up backstage at Madison Square Garden on 12/28/98, via the machinations of my buddy, Richard Gehr (with whom I am now gladly and gratefully re-united, along with good ol' Jesse). Trey's dad is an executive for Educational Testing Service, the über-examination superpower responsible for making me look dumb for life, in the form of the SAT and GRE standardized tests. I (hilariously) was scheduled to take the latter graduate school qualification exam the
very morning after the moment I stood backstage, stupidly shaking the elder Ernest's hand, and telling him that fact. "Slackjaw!" he may have thought, but I'm pretty hard on myself. So, I threw back a couple more glasses of free Burgundy and went back out to rage to the Carini > Wolfman's, etc. that fueled Set II...

If you want to read a steady stream of strange and ridiculous things Trey has said onstage with Phish over the years, follow this dude on Twitter. @trey_talks gives me my daily dose of Trey, when, to live without it would surely mean scurvy, memory lapses, or unforeseen toenail loss.

In addition, today is also the 1-year birthday of one of Phish's more appreciated and gleeful tunes, "Backwards Down The Number Line." One year ago today, Trey's old buddy and lyrical collaborator, Tom Marshall, emailed him a poem, which eventually turned into a a sweet, nostalgic, folksy twirl debuted as the Set II opener at 3/6/09, Phish's first reunion show at Hampton Coliseum. Since then, the tune got mutated into a 20-minute jamfest, as the Set II opener of Phish's last Summer 2009 Reunion Tour show, 8/16/09 in Saratoga, NY. Who says true love doesn't last?

Finally, I'll close with some of my favorite Trey quotes:

"You know, there's this core of music floating around the universe, and then there's, like, a bunch of bullshit all around it, because music is such a powerful thing. So, there's an incredible amount of bullshit all around it. "
Addicted To Noise magazine, 6/7/95 

"People don't really listen that much. Just listen. You want to learn how to play guitar? Sit in a room and listen, and write down twenty things that you hear and then try to play them. You have to get your own blocks out of the way to access that. All the fears and brick walls that you've put up through your whole life. 'Oh I'm not good at this,' or 'I'm just supposed to play this riff,' or 'This is what I was told is good.' You've got to drop all that somehow. It takes time."
-- Some interview read by Anthony DeCurtis before Trey's 2007 talk at 92nd St Y, NYC

"I got into this because making music in the basement with my friends became an addiction. I need to play music; it's my ultimate release. You can't imagine the feelings I have onstage. It's a very self-centered experience, in a certain way, but it's like a dream to me. When I walk off stage, my feet feel six feet off the ground. Then somebody says something like, 'The bus is leaving in fifteen minutes,' and I'm back to earth again, and I can't wait until the next night."
The Phish Book, p. 122, Phish & Richard Gehr, Random House, 1999

So, here's a poke in the ribs, Trey. Happy Birthday. Take a spa day. You deserve it.

[pix courtesy of, respectively, RollingStone.com (Trey @ 19 years old, senior year at Taft School in CT); The Phish Book (Trey as a wee lad, at Bearsville Studios, NY, on the ice in Pee Wee hockey w/ Big Ernie & rockin' thousands of peoples' ever-lovin' worlds); Dave Vann; The Morrison Hotel Gallery; and Mike-Gordon.com, where Mike refers to Trey as one of his heroes. Aww!)

27 September 2009

And If You Wait Until Tomorrow...
6/2/09 Jones Beach

I'm being transmuted by approaching a retrospective of Phish Summer Tour 2009, and the first three shows at Jones Beach. It’s a downside of stubbornness, or, rather, dedication. One seminal band, on tour again after five years apart, trials endured, three shows, thick with anticipation for myself and others…it’s a fleshy return of Phish in true touring form. And for whatever reason, I'm subjecting myself to a crash course in total immersion. Weeks ago, at the start, I surmised this is all shit that would be going through my head anyway, a snowglobe of impressions, as I would've challenged myself to listen to all Summer '09 shows anyway. But actually sitting down to get it down "on paper" is proving another task altogether.

It reminds me of Page's hilarious, simply foreboding Biblical response to a couple of
Schvice letters back in the day, to phans offering themselves in heady existential endeavors (one offering to be a Phish roadie/lackey, and another challenging herself to dig through Earth's core to the other side):

"You'd be molten," he replies.

"Tsuq" is the Hebrew word for it, "to be molten." צוּק indeed.

Where to start? And, more importantly (for me), where to

Rendered useless by anxiety last week, I sought counsel from my friend Jill, who's a web content producer.

"I'm overcomplicating the shit outta my subject matter," I griped. "I'm being dragged left and right by my theses, and I'm so tired I can't write anything!"

All she said was, "Keep it short, and have a niche focus."

“WHAT?” I thought. “Have you no *idea* the *niche-ness* of my endeavor?" I thought. I've challenged myself to tackle 28 shows in as many days, after not writing well nigh anything outside my personal journals for years, with only a slender rein on my tiring, freeform prose poetics, exhausting even to -- or most of all -- me! "Keep it short" is not in my vocabulary, try as I might to condense my writing, and curtail my zeal for storytelling.

But something happened while whining to Jill. I realized what I really need is a container into which I can pour my impressions, one loose enough to allow movement, but rigid enough to enforce some structure. After all, it's my blog and I can blow it up if I want to. I need something like an ice tray that forms different shapes: hearts, stars, crescents, etc. It's still an ice tray, making solid shapes from liquid, but the shapes are more than just cubes.

I already have one framework, of sorts. I recalled this blog's subtitle: "Carol Wade's School of Phish." Besides being an ancient allusion (school of fish, get it, haw haw), I nabbed it from a Facebook message with a phriend of mine, about the East Coast end-of-tour shows in August 2009. He called one of his emails "School of Phish." When I read that, I flipped the hell out. I imagined a seminar of phans at Cooper Union or something, sitting around in a small lecture hall, with some dude leading a discussion of phiner aspects of Phish music, phandom, Phishistory, and things of that (ph)nature.

I nearly wept with excitement, because since Phish's reunion, that's just the sort of thing I've wanted to dive into, like butter. I’ve hauled out my Pharmer's, my "Phish Book," drooling in anticipation of Parke Puterbaugh's upcoming "Phish: The Biography," fired up ZZYZX’s PhishStats and Phish.net, and dove phace-phirst into an ocean of live Phish both old and fresh-fried. I wanted to elaborate at depth from the bottom of my heart about my understanding of Phish, as a student, scholar, sociologist, and most of all, a person, just another phan among phans.

Unfortunately, his email wasn't about anything like that, just more deliberation on whether we were gonna try for Merriweather or SPAC or not. It ended up turning out to be "or not," a travesty that'll be discussed forwards down the number line.

"I thought you were saying there was some kind of Phish talk or lecture coming up!" I huffed.

"Nah, I was just trying to be creative in my subject line," he wrote. Grr! But it was too late...a seed was planted.

So, here I am, standing on the cliffside, and learning how to leap. This time's gonna be different, because I was sent a plan from the heart of inspiration, and desperation. I'm going to approach the three-night run (and probably the first few shows after that, experimentally) with what I’m going to call a "sycculus."


Yes, a "sycculus."

"What the hell is a 'sycculus'?" you inquire.

As a stratagem, the "sycculus" is like a syllabus, borne of a different stuff. The Great and Knowledgeable Icculus, Sky God, wise…knower of all things...authored a book with so much knowingness about air and earth, moon and stars, heart and feet, head and ass, that humankind can barely comprehend it. A book so massive in its educational content, Harvard and M.I.T. each gave their copies away to Leaders of Atlantis, who now, themselves, puzzle over the tomes (which they keep dry using an elaborate system of silica gel and hydraulics).

THE BOOK, it is said by Icculus himself (which matters because HE WROTE THE FUCKING BOOK, MAN), will utterly alter you forever. Women weep and men beat their breasts upon reading it; children dream and laugh with abandon when their weeping parents read it to them as they fall sleep. And if you, too, come closer, your knowitude will explode...

"...a tree of knowledge in your soul will grow
The Helping Friendly Book will plant the seed..."
-- "Colonel Forbin's Ascent," The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday
, Trey Anastasio's senior undergraduate thesis, Goddard College, 1987

The Helping Friendly Book is THE BOOK of which I speak. For, like its author, The Great and Knowledgable Icculus (at least in occasional moments), "I know why you've come here, and I'll help you with your quest to gain the knowledge that you lack." The ironic truth is: I don't have much more knowledge about Phish than any of you do, even if you've never heard a note of their music. They have been new every time I’ve listened to them. Even when I was disgusted (or horrified in captivation) by their unfamiliar new forays, it was only because I didn't know anything to start, was hit with something I had never heard, and immediately formed a mind-shuttering, self-protective opinion. Even if I show up at the door with a raincoat on and nothin' on underneath, I might not dig the outcome. But I know now that, if I’m committed to reading THE BOOK, I’m a student, and upset expectations are all part of the process.

I'm just another Bozo on the Bus, wacky on the Groove Juice. I have a desire to learn, do, be, create and experience, in a manner I've heard THE BOOK encourage. As I practice this, I learn things, not only about Phish, but about myself, and our humongous world. When I READ THE BOOK, it's not always like being at the library...THE BOOK lives and grows in me the more I read it. The Great and Knowledgeable Icculus highlights it in bright yellow in my subconscious as I sleep, and during daytime, I READ THE BOOK whenever I decide to take a leap off my own mental cliffside, placing myself at shifting angles to what I see around me. I READ THE BOOK by pushing my own buttons, showing up, stretching myself.

For a while, my heart got closed inside THE BOOK as I forced it closed by necessity, squarshed like a rose petal, which over time became flat and dry. I needed to be preserved while THE BOOK taught special lessons in its dark interior. THE BOOK teaches lessons even when it is closed.

However, like an old colorized movie shown upside-down and in reverse, THE BOOK has begun to reopen. I am reading it again with untold abandon. New chapters are being revealed. And a succulent, fragrant red rose petal dodders in the gentle breeze from the window in the wall, on the ivory linen tablecloth from where it fell, in the crease in between the pages of THE BOOK.

Wow. By the way, similarity of the term "sycculus" to the perennial, infinitely creepy, distinctively East Coast phan expulsion, "SICK!!!" is not lost on me. I know that word is there. Worse, I
know even I sometimes say it, and worst, when Phish is seriously tremendous. It's so gross. But what can I say? When in Rome, sometimes the Romans puke on you, and the stink remains. To call Phish music "sick," even at its most dark, wry, amoral, aggressively impish and self-indulgent, has always seemed a sad waste. Their music heals me, in all its guises, even now, having railed against it, been flogged, and coughed up on the beach to soak in the refrain. Their songs have traveled with me to the edge of Sanity, back around, and outside into the Wormhole.

So, it's "sort of" an accident, but yes, the “sycculus,” besides being a delightfully inspired portmanteau sent to me from Icculus to use a syllabus, there's a wispy, begrudging homage to the malignant word so many phans use to describe Phish’s sweet, soul medicine.

Right, then. What shall this sycculus be? Of what is it formed, what is expected, what shall it draw forth from the lode of Phish heaving in my grey matter…?

I'm not going to tell you! READ THE FUCKING BOOK!!!

Or at least, show up here occasionally, and know that, by reading a little of this blog here and there, you’re reading me reading THE BOOK. Reading me reading THE BOOK is like a bit of THE BOOK you can read everyday. And, as you read my writing, which is written while I READ THE BOOK, lo...THE BOOK is written in you!

THE SETLIST: 06/02/2009 Nikon at Jones Beach Theater - Wantagh, NY

Set 1: Runaway Jim, Foam, Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan, Timber (Jerry), Cities, Driver, Reba, Possum, Farmhouse, If I Could

Set 2: Mike's Song > Simple > Wolfman's Brother -> Weekapaug Groove, When the Circus Comes, Kill Devil Falls, Harry Hood, Loving Cup

E: Suzy Greenberg

Phish's Jones Beach 2009 reunion shows hold special significance for me -- yes, even "specialer" than many other Phish shows I’ve seen. It was within that amphitheater, misty, cupped concrete hand of beachside Fate, that I witnessed my phirst Phish show. The much insanely blabbered-about 7/23/93 has been mused upon a lot by me, but not remembered so much, in fact; I was bombed out of my ever-loving 19 year-old gourd! So bombed was I, in fact (on a characteristic salad of "recreational chemicals"), that I couldn't remember how to get home after the show. My phriends, Nile and Phil, drove me around for over an hour trying to get me to my parents' home, which was about 20 minutes away.

Either way, I knew what I’d heard was the same music I heard that first night trickling from a portable boom-box in a dorm room in February 1993, sounding like a robotic koala playing an electrified calliope. This time, though, I felt it in my dancing flesh, elements, those affecting, ephemeral Jones Beach echoes, and other human witnesses abuzz and ablaze all about me. I knew then that there was someplace I wanted to be a lot, that a lot was something I wanted to hear and see, with cars, people, smells, community, and finally, waiting before the stage, then hurtled into high gear. I wanted to feel like a twisted and tingling, numb, nubile, groove-stricken, wonderstruck newbie…

...or as much as humanly possible. Or inhumanly possible. And I succeeded for some years, in my own flimsy right. Now’s my second chance.

I’ll remind you that I didn’t even plan on going to the 6/2/09 show. When the tour opener was 6/4/09, I bought tix for that, then they popped on Phenway and 6/2 much to my dismay. By that night, likelihood of getting rid of my outrageously expensive tickets at a price near what I’d (overzealously but unwisely) purchased them was slim to none. So, I decided one ticket would be sacrificed in trade for last-minute attendance to the show on which I held a grudge.

6/2/09 upholds a tradition of starting off a multi-night run kinda low, tosses a hail-mary to night two, which runs to the line with night three riding high, as opposed to those that start high and end low (such as this year's Red Rocks run, IMHO), or thems that start high, plateau out, and end sort of "meeggh"...or any permutation of those. I’ve yet to survey a run that’s an all-points standout – Hampton 2009 is now doubtlessly a historical example, despite its rusty bits – but I'll get to that at some other time. I anticipate in the (probably distant) future undertaking a "qualitative arc analysis" of the following:

4/13, 14 and 15, 1994 – Beacon Theater, New York, NY, or the weird, 1995 Late Summer "Hydra-Tour" (the “mini tour with many heads”): 6/28 & 29 – Jones Beach, 6/30 & 7/1 – Great Woods, and 7/02 & 3 – Sugarbush. Yes, that’s six shows in a row. Definitely a major nexus of energy-kindling.

However, in repeated careful listening, what I thought was an okay show, with a questionable, laconic disaster of a first set, is actually a mellow, well-tuned stretch back into the idea of tour, with two debuts and a couple of seriously choice bustouts. My overactive, often hyper/hypocritical inner phan mentality missed the deeper psychological significance that perhaps Phish was accustoming themselves to being a live band again, awakening to the fact that (holy shit) they’re
doing it, and they might as well take their sweet-ass time doing it.

By Set II, which I originally thought, and still think, was a smokin’ keeper, stride is caught. The show is punctuated by audience bawling forth lyrics to the songs, a joyous chorus of open arms.

Back to the 6/2/09 opener...a “Runaway Jim” opener is a guaranteed cooker, setting up as it does a (albeit jangly) mechanical convector, which looks a little like this:

With passage of deceptively limping 4/4 time, Mike feeds a steady ascending/descending low-end stream like a thick elastic rope, upon which Trey is hooked, with lateral swings and bouncing dangles. Fish acts as streambed, steady on with solid hi-hat, cymbals and Civil War-style snare. Page circulates repetitive patterns in keys close to, and almost predictive of, the guitars, throwing off an occasional spare flourish. This "Jim" casually sizzles, a deliberate roadside tramp that stops for a drink in the stream, then starts truckin' uphill with that walking stick, ending in a conservatively volatile reintroduction to the sunny mountaintop.

“Foam” was my introduction to the lot. I took the LIRR on a shoestring, then jumped into a shared taxi to tear up the Meadowbrook with a drunk lady and her boyfriend, two kids from L.I., the nonplussed Indian cab driver, and me. Then, I leapt in a VIP shuttle van (since Drunk Guy knew the promoter, lucky that), and shot through the lot along with Tim from Boulder, who had me beat with his phirst Phish by about two months, May 1993, somewhere in California. It would be my first lot trade, tight-ass custy that I am. Shit! I'm finally a
real Phishhead! I just didn't have the courage to trust the Lot Economy, but now I just don’t care – I’m not that smart, it's all bigger than me, and it’ll work out. I’ve wondered a lot lately how much courage it must take just to be Phish! Intimidating, inspiring, humbling...

As heard from a bucket of Latin jazz Lego blocks, the sliding-square puzzle of that night’s "Foam" issued from the amphitheater, as I came upon its castle-like form, rising from the tan beachside. Memories roared forth. Whatever corporate hand-changing goes on behind the scenes (Hilfiger, Nikon, whatever), from Lollapalooza to Vans Warped Tour, Steely Dan to Duran Duran, Jones Beach Amphitheater is forever fused onto my music-mad, Long Island Girl heart. But Phish…I heard Page’s piano and Fish’s mellow cymbals echoing off the walls of the tall bowl of the amphitheater, ripples of light seen above from underwater. Mike’s deep undertones bore Trey’s quizzical lilting with curt but casual choppiness. It was indistinct, but my ecstatically spinning brain labored to reassemble the swirl and come up with a guess at the song.

Tim from Boulder and I charged the gates and split, he off to Will Call, and I peeling off into the lot, hollering to him, “Yeah, I think we got a ‘Foam’ goin’ here! Have a good show! Wooo!”

Remember you this: I hadn’t planned on attending the show, being poor, ticketless and seething with resentment that it was added in the first place. The ticket situation was dodgy at best, and, at worst, alarming. No one sought extras; a sketchy scene of brown, surly heads yelled and shuffled through beer vessel detritus, boiling by the concrete bunker-like bathrooms. I knew my best shot would be to simply give my expensive ticket away to whoever was left that had one for that night to trade. Spotting the nearest obligatory mustachioed, narcky-looking scalper, wearing Nike trainers, Levis and a Dead t-shirt, I offered him my 6/4 extra, and he peeled a ticket for that night off huge stack of that night’s tickets he held in his hand like a deck of fours of hearts. He thanked me, haplessly.

If you’re looking to launch a vibe, following up a “Jim” opener with “Foam” is a good choice. Finally free from the bondage of logistics, I bolted with glee towards the nearest elevator to the nosebleed area, and was reminded of a nostalgic totem, the 8/28/93 “Foam.” It was the end of Phish’s pioneering 1993 Summer Tour, that which also contained my first show at Jones Beach. At the storied Greek Theater in Berkeley, CA, “Foam” 8/28/93 – “The Falling Well Foam” as I like to call it – was damn zippy; a cheerfully circumspect, sophisticated Page solo, tilts Trey into a brief series of high, telegraphic pecking notes, Fish shaking the saucepan beneath, until the guitar begins to fade, then…nothing, but the cheering crowd for about thirty seconds. Peeking up from the silence, Trey chirps out a few high notes, as if soloing in his head. The crowd cheers, then Trey goes under again. Kinda getting it, some of the audience goes “Ehhhh!” as one by one, led by Trey, the band begins to rise up out of the well, and within a couple minutes, Trey takes a brief, tiny, chatty solo into a crescendo of searing, faux-anxious playfulness, shredding into a frenzied centrifugal churn, spinning to the edge of sanity, squashed, and slid down the spiral staircase into the “Foam” outro.

Trey, grinning, thanks the audience, impressed at the ingenuity and sync between himself and his friends, and the audience, which was steadily growing, accommodated by increasingly larger venues first tackled on that ’93 Summer Tour. 8/23/93 “Foam” is a great early indicator of Phish’s ability to pull the stage into the crowd, even at a growing distance. They still work to maintain that intimacy.

In comparison, the 6/2/09 “Foam” is imperfectly perfect, much more leisurely – not sure if it’s not from lack of fleetness of fingers, but maybe as one matures, there’s less of a need to rush…? Fish gets in some stirring cowbell in the intro, Page’s solo is lush and welcoming, almost inviting his pals into the fray. Trey’s solo is luscious, haunting, upward-arcing, buoyed up again by a tumult of Fish snare rolls, tom juggling and Mike’s deep, talky murmur.

Post-“Foam” as the crowd yowls, and into the wordless howl, Page sweeps the piano keys in a merry ascending trill, and, staring into the fray, Trey simply says..."Hey!" and giggles. The audience responds, thousands of old friends glad to see him, too. He introduces, and wastes no time wailing into, the debut of the bluesy lament, “Stealing Time from the Faulty Plan.”

“Timber (Jerry)” returns us to the concept of the "bustout," a seeming inevitability from a band that has 250+ tunes. It was the dramatic backdrop to my ascent, thundering along through the concrete as I got into an elevator with a cute, shaggy-bearded blonde dude holding a green plastic inflatable alien. He held it, but didn't seem to know why he had it. Typical as it would seem for a Phish show, it spoke to my internal Phish “life narrative,” that Phish are indeed a bunch of intergalactic émigrés, just popping by earth to have an adventuresome experience inside the skins of four male humanoids. Those aliens can’t help themselves; they’re so advanced. And, of course, they end up being musicians, music being the most powerful force in the universe.

Either way, “Timber” was a muscular bustout, its seventh appearance in a decade, telling the tale of the ornery, disobedient, butt-kickin’, hard-workin’ ass named Jerry, putting the first set further on a roll.

And with one of the band’s ancient Talking Heads covers, way predating the
Remain in Light era, “Cities” laid down another hallmark of 6/2/09, following "Timber" for a Double Bustout! “Cities” welcomed me through a high cement corridor into the humid night air, the warm blush of Kuroda’s whirling strobes, and the music, a throb in my chest pounding just so, orienting me to where I was, again, thank goodness…I sang, danced, spun, high-fived other dancing stranger. Also, within minutes upon walking up to my humble perch several rows back from the precipice of the theater, I ran smack into an ultra-chill, quietly reclining Evan Leon, old-school Phish buddy, erstwhile taper, and Disco Biscuits historian turned Super-Dad. Can't throw a rock without hitting a portrait of my past at these shows. Good to see him, and, later, Bill "Ill Grill" Stites, another old-school pal (and fellow once-upon-a-time "pinch hitter") who was elsewhere in the venue, wryly soaking up the vibe, as is his wont.

This might be a good time to drop in a "just because" link to very recently-uploaded David Byrne interview with Phish, recorded in 1998 for the public television music series,
Sessions at West 54th (many thanks to Tyler Penn for his efforts here). I find it ironic that I, post-punk-new-waver that I am, began drifting away from Phish just shortly after the Halloween Remain in Light era. I even founded a Talking Heads-esque band with a boyfriend at the time, who fancied himself an ersatz David Byrne, and adored Talking Heads. I have hatched an emotional theorem about this 1997-1998 phenomenon, which is deeply connected to both my fear of intimacy, and my rather practical understanding at the time that, hell or high water, I was latched to Phish in a karmic bond. Things were clicking so hardcore that I was subconsciously afraid Phish would become everything, and I simply couldn’t deal with longing after a group of grown-ass married men. Of course, in my utter genius, I soon began to trail a whole bunch of unmarried, emotionally unavailable dudes, but that’s a story for the counseling couch.

“Cities” contained moments of slow-motion tango the band likes to call "hooking up,” and which punctuated the first set, but set against a laid-back, deceptive somnambulism. Listening now, the band keyed down into a subconscious place, and searched around with their hands, finding the sinews of their connection. This searching, along with the uncharacteristic boon of a one-day rest gap in a three-night run (presumably taken for Mike’s 44th birthday on 6/3/09), I think contributed to the proud beauty of 6/4/09 and delightfully reassuring old-school liveliness of 6/5/09.

Cooling down the funky Page wah-fest with “Driver,” perennial dorm-room favorite, “Reba,” caused an eruption in the audience, and yielded the second best jam of the show (see "Harry Hood" below).

There’s a unique, wistful feeling in me for "Reba." It warmed me as I walked along the frozen white wasteland of Oswego NY, thinking about life in faraway Vermont, which proved not that far, as I’d eventually see four times: first with Phish at Sugarbush, the on tour with David Gans and The Merry Danksters in 1997, in November '99 at Red Square with the New Deal, and earlier this year for my first big ski adventure at Stowe.

“Reba” is a perfect candy-like re-immersion in early 1.0 Phish. Who in the world likes this kind of music? That rhetorical question reminds me of asking a random dude during Gorge II's splintering, eclectic 8/8/09 "Rock & Roll" jam, "So,
how is this rock 'n' roll, exactly?" “Reba” was my Red Badge of Courage in college. As a phan of Phish, anyone who'd confront or inquire would be exposed to “Reba” like a psionic ray, mostly for my own egotistical benefit, in listening to, and watching my victims them helplessly witness that which begins like a mellow country hoe-down then crashed by Chick Correa, Thelonius Monk, Isadora Duncan, a bunch of German mimes, leprechauns, billy goats that won't stop trying to eat everything, and that ballerina from the Degas painting. At the point of crash, it becomes a mutated hoedown. They all work it out amongst themselves, in an astounding apex that brings the harmonious miracle to a triumphant...stop. The whole troupe marches out of the barn whistling, leaving a comic disaster of upraised dust and blinking hoedown attendees.

Brainiacs, geeks, social introverts, scientists, UFO aficionados, the chronically arrogant, hallucinogenic mushroom eaters, sportsmen, soft-spoken musicians, small women in bright natural fabrics, tall women in cutoff jeans, very short guys whose growth was stunted from smoking pot, very tall, plain-looking high-school valedictorians, bespectacled oddballs, more-bored-and-smarter-than-thou skate kids (who are actually pretty dumb), space cadets, those hoping to look smart by association, post-punk-prog-rockers, and the criminally insane, may listen to "Reba," and hear sacred harmony being struck within their minds. Even borne of false desires, by exposure, one is transformed against one's will into someone who has heard “Reba” – course of their lives altered, scarred (maybe scared), but, often, transmuted in places one didn't know one had.

At this point, the band could’ve closed out a mangler of a first set, following up “Reba” by quietly crawling into an accelerating hayride of a “Possum.” Like I said, “they could’ve” closed out the set, but turned the tourniquet by rolling out two guaranteed energy-muting numbers, “Farmhouse” and “If I Could,” to cap the set. I debated a bit about this in
“Intermezzo,” posted here after Trey’s Carnegie night, how mellower Marshall/Anastasio tunes might find excellent staging in the symphonic context, especially “If I Could,” which left not a dry eye in Carnegie Hall.

(As an aside, weirdly, the song “Waste,” which appeared the next night on 6/4/09, does not, in my opinion, have this set-dampening effect. Maybe it’s the swelling, pleading bridge, or (more likely) the helipad outro built for escalating band fusion, via Trey's spinning solo, and a classic, less cloying, arena-ballad propulsion.)

But typically, unless meticulously engineered into sets as sonic scenery, sweat-coolers or strategic mood-setters, some of Phish’s slower tunes can stick a big finger into a carefully-spun web of a setlist. These two songs, sweet and couple-hugging as they may be, long had me fooled into thinking 6/2 was a low-energy "practice show," prep for the next two expected smokin' night. I’ll give them the benefit of adding the songs for tenderness and posterity (who really knows why they choose certain songs?), but they might have served better elsewhere over the three-night run, from a macro perspective.

Either way, onwards, I always stood by Set II of 6/2 as takeaway of the show, which shut down the first set entirely from the jump with a manic, ambitious barn-burner of a segue, “Mike’s Song > Simple > Wolfman’s Brother > Weekapaug Groove.” This "Über Mike's Groove" had to have been Mike’s birthday present to himself, which ended up being a sure gift to us. The closest stab at anything like it was the 8/16/97 Set II opener from The Great Went, “Wolfman’s > Simple > My Soul.” For completeness, historical relevance, and this multi-song event, 6/2/09 is one to have on hand. The commitment to the exercise sounded deeply appreciated by all present.

After that, the rest of 6/2 is gravy. “When the Circus Comes to Town” reminds us what we’re in for over the next month, and “Kill Devil Falls” makes its debut…you can read more on my thoughts about “KDF” here, probably some other day when you’ve got a couple spare hours.

The show closes out on a cosmic plane, a 17-minute "Harry Hood” of sublime space-discovery, with Trey, Mike and Page blurring in and out of focus, rising and falling in a dance of delicately measured equanimity. Unlike some of the more persistent, driving “Hood”s of the past, this takes the basic D/A/G platform, pulls it like a sweater thread, lets it unravel (especially lifted into the air by a mind-bending, late-song galactic synth uprising by Page), into a mound that turns to stardust and just blows off into the ocean.

While the skin on the arms still tingles from the post-“Hood” orbital re-entry they throw a sandy beach blanket over the whole mess with a raging “Loving Cup” closer. The encore? Another sonic deceiver, our ages-old, never-ending refrain, "Suzy Greenberg." In another post, with another "Suzy," I will put forth the discussion of "Suzy" as the ultimate Page vehicle, never to be shunned again, lest one surely be molten. I encourage you, instead, to check out as many "Suzy"s as you can, to get solidified by The Chairman's mighty thunder. So subdued, he's easy to miss, open your ears and know that HE is the neurologist of which they speak, and you are his subject.
Awaken your lethargic synapses!

I swear, after this 6/2 Jones Beach show, I will definitely tone down my weighty “historical significance” angle and just talk about the shows, and any other incipient cross-referential nonsense I may come up with. These First-of-Tour show encapsulations are so girthy because I believe they deserve my true, feeling analysis, especially since I was there, and they mark the first few shows of what turns out to be a reunion tour saga worthy of examination.

Comments are absolutely appreciated…gimme some feedback here, people.
You know what? I didn't start this for "you," and I'm not doing it for "you," either! How could I forget? I'm just camping out here in my little corner of the "blo(w)go(at)sphere" -- the less I care, the better. "Been you to have any *spite* mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmaaaaaannnn?" (Trey, 6/5/09 "Antelope")

26 September 2009

Breathing Through a Slice

FYI...I haven't fallen off. I may have fallen in, but it remains to be determined. I'm limbering up for my Summer Tour endeavor, have been deliberating the best strategy while raking over the Jones Beach shows. I think I'm onto something, but I haven't summoned this level of creative discipline in some time. My "real" job (i.e. my "Jobby-Job" in the words of the immortal Snoop Dogg) is also demanding an assload of my time as well, to complicate matters.

But I'm still here, sawing at the timber. More to come...

[pic by Jesse Jarnow, 9/26/09, Berlin]

16 September 2009

Phenway II: First Inning Stretch

Prologue: Hopefully this post will serve as future reference, for the multitude of methods I'll be using to "go over" (re-experience, recount, review, whatever) Phish shows. They are full-on, stratified, multisensory artifacts that, until now, I’ve been too intimidated (and energetically unable) to shove under my mental microscope. However, right now, it’s something I feel excited to attempt, and as I do it, I’m reminded of 1960s astronaut training films, the gums of trainees flapping as they are spun mercilessly through the human centrifuge…in the best possible sense.

As a band, through their music, and apparent experience of their interaction (at least as relayed through popular media), they activate vibrations in my past, present, and future. They even occasionally reference sensations of existence beyond conventional description (e.g. the dream state).

As an historical framework for the concert-related section of this Phenway
overview, I'll be using Rolling Stone #1075 (April 2009). The sweet smell of Hampton was fresh, and RS matter-of-factly floated the Phish reunion onto public consciousness.

Sometimes, my experience of Phish is as pedestrian as anything else. Having placed my whole "jam band" experience on a high shelf over a half-decade, I'm being royally konked out by their re-emergence, and am finding myself in a previously unachievable position of exploration, expression and re-immersion. Further, as recently as this weekend (rounding a familiar corner in Tribeca that stirred some memory of walking to Wetlands, mid-1990s), I'm coming to understand with a rush of surprise and almost sheepish astonishment, that my entire involvement in with "jam bands" began, and ended, with Phish! I mean, really!

Wavering like the blush of honeymoon night, I've found criticism and exhaustion mounting, charms fading in and out. This, I think, is healthy for me, since I can gravitate towards unwavering fanaticism. I mentioned in my first post that Phish is something like one of the longest healthy relationships I've been in, this supposition largely because of aforesaid varying modes of experience. Along with comfort (both positive and negative) borne of an ever-expanding, willing familiarity, layers of subterfuge and illusory pretense eventually fall away. I'm becoming better acquainted with the art of detachment, which allows me to avail myself of hearty gulps of aural air, and afford myself some psychic perspective.

The core theme: myself, acted upon by an agent of interplay, between four closely interwoven, multitalented dudes. Kinda voyeuristic, bordering on apeshit, it can sometimes be downright bizarre for an emotional gully like myself, plaguing me like a contagion, or an un-scratchable itch. Sans Kafka-esque imagery, though, and infinitely distilled, it's a very basic relationship, like that of waves to the shoreline. Speaking from my own locus, as granules of the beach, I submit to being eroded and reshaped; like ocean water, I can't help but return and return, to break down the shoreline, to carry it with me. Together, we are a beach.

A "Sample in a Jar" opener, circa 1997, would have made me want to hurl eggs at the stage. When
Hoist came out, I felt angry and betrayed by Phish, for making music that (to me) sounded pappy and slap-happy, lacking furtive, rangy, oxidized edges of their pre-1994 work. My mind, too, didn't seem to be able to grow into Billy Breathes, and only partially with The Story of the Ghost (1998, saved somewhat, I thought, by its smoky-smooth moments of smolder). I remarked to someone recently that, ironically, though initially despised, Hoist-era Phish has grown on me with time, planted like sleeping monkey-seeds now freely sprouting. I have warmed more readily to recent collections, like Farmhouse (2000), and even Undermind-era (2004) Phish, despite their complications.

"Without you now I wander soaking
Secretly afraid
'Cause in your grasp the fears don't last
(And some of them have stayed)..."

-- "Sample In a Jar"

Phenway (yes, folks, Phish at Fenway Park) began like a favorite shirt you throw on upon coming home from a long trip, with your loved ones again close by. I wore the same luscious purple Indian cotton blouse to Phenway, Jones Beach II, Shoreline and Gorge II [2009 Summer shows], so the analogy applies specifically as well. Inaudible at the show, but detected on the SBD recording, there begins immediately a demonic tease-fest that would go on throughout the night, as the band pawed their way over the menacing girth of their ouvre.

After "Sample" came what I call The Pause. Until reading RS #1075, I was convinced (by hearsay and supposition alike) that setlists were being spontaneously realized in Phish 3.0. But article, Fishman says Trey was up at 5AM for weeks working & reworking the Hampton '09 setlists. I can clearly hear a whisper of a "Tela" tease right before the opener, which I'm glad I didn't hear while I was at the ballpark, as I'd have bum-rushed the stage with glee. Alas, I wait on for "Tela 2009"...given the later summer appearance of "Harpua" and "Icculus," I trust the wait mightn't go on long…

[Ugh, sorry about the rip, Page!!! Of all places... :-( ]

In "The Moma Dance," a years-long moment ends...life w/ Phish begins again ("Morning is over, a new slouch is on," says Trey moments later, in the debut of slinky, vampy "Ocelot," which (to ME) sounds like is a symbolic gloss on the end of isolation and sketchiness, in favor of taking a chance at lightening one's load.). I'm on the road again; "Moma" was a cathartic, pneumatic exercise I could feel in my stomach...my bones bending their hinges in slow, fuzzy sync, neck working in groove equations linked to Fishman's thirst-quenching, Brownian tones. And in the wake of another passing storm that boiled above...

After a rude triumvirate of teases ("Stash," "It's Ice," then "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," which immediately sent me totally thirsting for a couple o' organ charges from Page, but no luck...), they finally settled on "Stash,” which always feels to me like the instructions for a secretive scavenger hunt, full of cryptic calculations and shamanic yawps.

A (probably? see "Gin" later) obligatory "Bouncing Around the Room" yielded the Glowstick War, familiar, chaotic, somewhat magical, followed by a kind of comic shove in "Poor Heart." The vocals in this show are, at times, bordering on howls; it literally seems the band is exorcising (exercising?) their long-dormant sinews connecting them in song.

"Limb by Limb" is a sure standout, and bodes well for the quality of the tune in subsequent shows. It’s a strong, fleshy song with lots of possibility. This show’s bracing predecessor, the Hampton "Limb," solidified it as an operatic ace-in-the-hole, guaranteed for an interesting swing between both playful coziness and grandiosity. While the Hampton "Limb" is heavy with fresh, darkly dramatic drapery, the Phenway "Limb" is bright, insistent and celebratory, and shakes out some more "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" teasery. For that moment, the band's reformation was a launchpad, rather than a mighty egg-crack like Hampton.

Ah! Next up to bat, “Wading in the Velvet Sea”! I’ve added some “transliterations” below:

"I took a moment from my day [or several thousand]
Wrapped it up in things you say [Yeah, you, and you, and you, AND YOU…and you, too]
Mailed it off to your address [the_intarwebz@phish.com]
You'll get it pretty soon unless [my head explodes, or my boss comes walking over, or…]

The packaging begins to break [see statement about my head, above; cf., also, XML]
And all the points I tried to make [All? Try any…]
Are tossed with thoughts into a bin [or an ISO, .exe, .dmg, MSI, .zip, or .tar, or…]
Time leaks out, my life leaks in...

You wont find moments in a box
And someone else will set your clocks
I took a moment from my day,
Wrapped it up in things you say,
And mailed it off to you."

That pretty much sums up what I'm doing here. I'll probably keep coming back to it, in case the meanings are unclear…

It's REALLY nice I've been privileged to witness two of the 29 ever performances of "Destiny Unbound": the only two played since reunion, and two of the three played in the 21st century. It must be karma. Giving a quick listen to the second ever "Destiny" (9/22/90
) I'm encouraged by the resurgence, and am aware that the tune is a secret, compact goldmine of Page stretch, Trey swerve and Fish blossoms. Mike's lyrics are his twang contribution (the basslines mostly subdued), and the rest of the road a playground. Tasty.

The same could be said for the Tweezer that topped off Set II...I actually wasn't in the stands for its beginning. Via replay, we plod around with Page, pounding a mournful minor-key march while the others plunk and shuffle, until, around 7:52, the drippy jam suddenly opens up like a breeze-filled turf tarp. It travels into a twinkly, atmospheric trickle, until Trey whispers from where the breezy "Tweezer" jam landed on an A-note platform, into the C-note that ever-so-gently…ROCKETS US INTO "LIGHT"!!

I'm chagrined that, with all the other debuts I got to see that night, missed this one, now another of my new favorites. I can still hear skin crumpling, that of dense, dark and twisty Phish 1- and 2.0 phans. I ran into one named Rain, a self-professed "Masshole" (who was wearing a shirt that read, "Masshole"), while I was missing “Light.” I'd just finished running into another portrait of my past, in the form of Andy Bernstein, now the Executive Noggin behind Headcount.org, but, in context, an old-skoolio Phish phan extraordinaire. He wrote the fucking book
, man. Or one of them, at least.

[And yes, Andy's hug-buddy is indeed the one and only Lockhart Steele, another original co-editor of the Pharmer's...]

"Where have you BEEN? We miss you!" he said.

"Really? Aww!" I drooled. But then I wondered, controversially, "Really! Who?"

There is space in my consciousness for a song like "Light." Call it trust, or devil-may-care...sycophantism it's not, and I'm trying to manage the magical thinking (though with such spectral guitar floss, evangelical keyboards and Fish splash, one can scarcely help catching even a wisp of magic from "Light").

Rain was on a ramp to my section, bristling at beer-laden passers-by to pour their foamy excess into his empty cup, and occasionally jeering at them, "You're just gonna spill it anyway!" Behind him, he'd collected two cups worth of swill, and was working on a third.

"Meeggh, I just can't get with what's happening with them these days," Rain sneered. "It's all too 'albumy'." Cue more screeching at beer-buyers. While patiently (and with great amusement) talking to and listening to Rain the Masshole, I danced idly up and down the section ramp, working against, then being carried by, gravity.

In my (extensive) notes for this show, I originally wrote "Pedestrian Gin" to describe "Bathtub Gin" that follows "Light." But yesterday, my headphone prong popped out of its port in just such a way to de-equalize the mix of the 5/31/09 SBD, and cause Trey and Mike to drop almost inaudibly out of the mix. This fortuitous event left a phantom mix of 60% Page, and 20% Fish! Stunned, before attempting to readjust, I paused to take advantage. Carefully keeping the proper insertion at bay, I bore witness to a whole lotta "Holy Shit!" happening beneath a thinly veiled, allegedly "Pedestrian Gin."

While something Phish may play one night sounds superficially "pedestrian," I must often remind myself I'm dealing with four high-powered brains with arms, who can basically go in any direction they want, especially having gotten some rest, and are now back for the long haul (at least according to Trey in Time Out New York, 9/10/09).

A playback anomaly on my iPhone revealed a universe of usually muted contributions. When one can only hear the coagulated whole of the band, in a metrical milieu that, perhaps, isn't quite in sync that evening, or where 4 of 4 genii are stomping all over each other (or excelling, rather) to the point that totality becomes nullified? Is that pedestrian, or circumstantial? If a slice is not germane to the pie, do we not cut another?

From a fortuitously alternate angle, a "pedestrian Gin" turns out to be a Pagefest in disguise: broad bombastic clown-Tango meets a slow, swingin' microjam on Ramsey Lewis's "The 'In' Crowd," dotted with flecks of his customary, cheeky sorta Creole paprika. All this is pounded out with wordlessly fixated focus on the good old PIANO, sans much sonically-altered ado. Now if that's a "pedestrian Gin," I'm probably oversensitive to spirits (but that's another story).

When I heard the hi-hat intro to “David Bowie” issuing from inside the stadium, I stared at Rain, smiling, nodding, protesting a little occasionally, gesturing into the surly, frustrated swarm that begins “Bowie.” He continued whingeing about his perception of the band's growing deadness. “Then, why are you here?” I challenged.

Rain balked, and howled at a big, six-foot-something brushy-haired footballer guy, who bristled at Rain when he got up the dude’s snout about his overfull brew. Whatever happened to, “You get out of it what you put into it?” (or even, “I’ll never get out of it unless I get into it” a-la Zappa’s “Dinah Moe Humm”?)

I continued doing a little jig up and down the concrete ramp, just loving life, being in the mix down at the Phreak Show, rubbing shoulders with the hoi polloi, living The Grand Experiment. Trey says a few days later at Jones Beach, “We are here for your pleasure!” It's funny, in his merry, fizzy chuckle, and interesting, when thought of as music as service in the extreme (whether facetious or not). I got pissed a few days later while tweeting about people’s gripes towards the 8/11/09 Chicago show (which, according to popular opininon, lacked the luster of the previous weeks’ monumentality).

I'm gonna sit out descriptions of "Down With Disease" and "Character Zero," Page’s sumptuous return to the smooth, mid-set cover (this time an old favorite, Lynryd Skynryd’s “The Ballad of Curtis Loew”). As a result of spiraling into minutiae, I'll even have to skip the hilarious nonsense chorale of this show's "You Enjoy Myself" (where Fishman repeats the prescient incantation, "George...George...George...George..."). I divert not because the song versions aren't great, but I know for a fact there are more incendiary versions of both tunes down the line. Earlier in the set, "Chalk Dust," served the similar purpose of "emotional compass" -- like, "Oh my cripes, I'm at a Phish show! It's 2009, I'm X years old, and it's an effin' Phish show! Woo-to-the-freakin-hoo!" Also, I really, REALLY need to JUST…POST…THIS…POST!!!

This dissertation been months in the making. Please pardon the tendentiousness. I hope, that like Phenway itself, it will serve (even in its helpless incompleteness) as a psychic gallstone, passed into history, to make way for more ambulatory activities in (and inspired by) ensuing shows. I'll really try to be more brief...this has been immensely challenging, though worthwhile. Atypical in its significance, Phenway, like the '09 Hamptons, is not just another show; it marks the true beginning of Phish 3.0, a rebirth that some disdain, and others champion, of such quasi-mythic proportions, the music is only of sizable (not complete) salience. Socioculturally, Rolling Stone announcing,

"Phish Reunite Hippie Nation" is of import for the 21st century. While super-ironic in a bunch of ways, Phish is the closest thing the 21st century has to what the late 20th century had to offer, in terms of improvisational artistry, potential longevity, constant (monthly? weekly? nightly?) evolution, unpredictability and fresh perspective.

There's a weird limberness to the first 7 shows; they're not always freaking epic, anAdd Videod sometimes kind of messy, but loose, and yet tight...everyone's totally onboard, listening, learning again. Trey mentions it in RS, an initial anxiousness that eventually vanished, after whose departure he "felt empty in a beautiful way." That nascent, sometimes featureless-seeming quality of the inaugural shows (and, arguably, the new album, Joy) persisted through the end of the Jones Beach run, but began to shift around 6/6/09 Mansfield, MA, and betrayed a buckle at Camden, the show that sounds (in my opinion, aurally) like a precipice of marriage; bride & groom are poised on the cusp, tense, aroused, sensual, dark, free, easy and loving, but crested with silent fear that trembles on the brow. The soul cries, from existential depths…”NOW WHAT???”

Mike speaks in RS #1075 about how near-possessed touring for a decade galvanized in Phish a powerfully abiding commitment to the entity they together comprised. It got away (perhaps before, during and after Coventry in 2004), "...a commitment where we were in it for the long haul, sticking it out no matter what our issues and differences were." You can hear this process coming to fruition as "TOUR" spins slowly like a planetary accomplishment, fuller and rosier above the horizon, by Noblesville, IL, weeks later on 6/19/09. Funny how joy can be mined from sorrow. Less popularly, though, the reverse can also be true. "The chemistry and music flow in a great loving way,” said Mike. “But that commitment has to be rebuilt."

Good character is like a rubber ball. Thrown down hard – it bounces right back. Good reputation is like a crystal ball. Thrown for gain - shattered and cracked.
-- A.L. Linall (American editor…one of those pithy, auto-generated Phish.net quotes)

13 September 2009


[First, a disclaimer: Yes, I saw the Mike Gordon show on Tuesday 9/8/09. Yes, I thought it was alright, and definitely interesting, with the standouts being the "Andelman's Yard" encore, Desmond Dekker "Music Like Dirt" cover, and sit-in with Benevento-Russo. However, in the words of my buddy, Jesse Jarnow, with whom I attended the show, it was only when the latter joined the stage that it "became real music." Which is perhaps not the kindest or subtlest way to put it, but JJ has never been one to mince words. That said, it was a good show, and I'm glad I went. But tonight's morsel, dare I say with the risk of seeming a little bit biased, was a rather momentous event...]

Before I march forth with Part II of my Phenway recollection, I must say that on Saturday, September 12, 2009, Trey Anastasio distinguished himself among modern-day American musicians by performing with the New York Philharmonic symphony orchestra, in the Isaac Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall. All of the works were songs that are regularly performed with his band, and many were co-written with Tom Marshall, his common compositional collaborator. The concert was a fundraiser for the Kristine Anastasio Manning Memorial Fund (on the behalf of Trey's sister and only sibling, who passed away on April 29, 2009). It was not Trey's symphonic debut, but was his first in New York City, with one of the oldest preeminent symphonies in the world.

In celebration of Joy, I managed to find a very long, silky and sequined silver ball dress, depicted here, with the Red Sox umbrella I found at Phenway:

On the way to the show on the R train, I sat down across from this kid, raptly attending to a chip of a compositional manuscript, which I spied to include works of Beethoven. Peering with musical geekdom cranked to eleven-and-a-half, this kid was totally into it, head craned at 90-degrees, hands gesticulating in manic savant immersion. Gee, can you guess who I was immediately reminded of? These things don't happen in my world by accident...

Later, after the show, I overheard an older gentleman walking down the street after the show. Definitely not your average phan, he wore the prototypical tweed jacket and wild white hair of a season ticket-holder to every classical society in NYC. Nor was he huffing nitrous from a multicolored balloon. He exhorted nasally, "It just sounded like an assortment of themes mixed together."

I agree with him. At points, it was a challenge to remove my longtime Phish-loving listener from between my ears, clear the space, and really hear what was happening, without the distraction of sheer thrill, happiness for Trey, emotional empathy for the cause, or the simple awe of being surrounded by the pomp-soaked historicity of Carnegie Hall. Having played violin for 10 years as a youth, I was exposed to a wide variety of classical music, which I enjoyed (and continue to enjoy) immensely. This predilection was among the chief attractors to Phish in my early phandom...at the time, I was entering appreciation of a whole new set of artists who were different from the standard breed I grew up with, the Mozarts, Mendelssohns, Chopins, and especially the original pioneer patron of the symphony orchestra, Beethoven. Personally, I have never been a raging fan of Beethoven, thinking his works more towards the tendencious and overdramatic. But he was Beethoven, kind of a dramatic guy. So I forgive him...

Anyway, like I said, I agree with the Old Culture Codger, in that the content of the Trey concert performance was not a high-minded, comprehensive recital of the magnum opus of an old master. The compositions sounded, in their local and global arrangement, less the expression of idiosyncratic style of one particular virtuoso composer. The musical form the songs took in their orchestral context suggested pastiche, rather than cohesion.

However, these main critiques having been dispatched, I can go on to say that Trey's absorption of the modern American classical music heritage is ironclad, vigorous, freshly experimental and, at times, devilishly hilarious. Perched on the edge of my velvet seat on the Center Balcony, with a pretty good view of the stage (though from some height), I grasped my chin, pouted, played with the buttons on my sweater, conducted with my index finger, and inhaled deeply, as if to imbibe the vibrations. I stared, almost cross-eyed, into space, the lines between Phish playing in my head blurring in a truly mystifying manner, with the string filaments, horn punctuation, and timpani booms, rising in layers like fragrant wood smoke from the stage.

What I was hearing was a kind of New American Pastoral music, or maybe more an East Coast Pastoral, or (quite certainly) a post-Grateful Dead, post-rock, pre-millennial, New-New England Pastoral. Sure, it sounded like a lot of the orchestral bits thrown into rock songs for dramatic effect. But this was no rock music. There was Trey's plaintive, amplified but tastefully muted classical guitar flourishes. His acoustic guitar turns were quite sublime, to punctuate the orchestrations best described, to my mind, as dewdrops trembling off a car hood, as it speeds down a country road, while its stereo plays Aaron Copeland and Charles Ives.

It was everything I imagined resonating under the surface of the band's dense, rhythmic, amplified arrangements. Phish brings the boogie to the bourgeoise, but last night, the bourgeoise got to boogie. More than that, though, some likely unwitting (possibly high-minded) spectators got to be reminded, probably for the millionth time (lest they forget) that rock musicians are legitimate musicians, influenced and informed by the canons and conventions of so-called "important music," that the legions of (albeit occasionally very alarmingly debauched) fans are there for a reason.

["The modern-day composer refuses to die." -- Trey follows in the footsteps of Zappa (played Carnegie 10/11-12/71) who quoted Edgard Varèse (Ionisation Carnegie debut 3/6/33), who emulated Igor Stravinsky (Rites of Spring Carnegie debut 1/31/24)...whose portrait is on the wall of Carnegie Hall, left.]

Trey said in an interview (a rather amusing one, at that) in the 9/10/09 issue of Time Out New York, that his aim would be to continue these kinds of endeavors, presumably doing his part in building out the rock tradition to naturally and routinely include a classical branch, as norm rather than exception. "So my dream is to take this thing on the road, like a Phish kind of thing where you do two nights in two different towns and play different material." From the look of the crowd, not to throw stones, many could probably do with a few more nights at the opera in their musical appreciation schedule.

"Pebbles and Marbles," made immediate sense to me in a symphonic context, with its sweeping transitions, lyric allegories and conclusive culminations. The rhetorical refrain lends to a pensive curlicue of strings. "If I Could" was incredible backed by harp, especially, which trickled out its sweet cascade of an ending rain from a bough, a perfect counterpoint to Trey's sniffle-worthy solo. This is a level of emotion that cannot be captured at a Phish show. These tender, nuanced songs worked incredibly well in a symphony concert scenario, because their psychological delicacies are often lost on a primarily rock 'n' roll crowd, that tends to see them as opportunities to make a pilgrimage to the nearest arena restroom. "Brian and Robert" is another such song performed beautifully, and transformed from its often difficult, ultra-quiet and sensitive placement in rollicking Phish setlists.

The "Guyute Orchestral" was really exciting. "Guyute" is a song that I've been hearing as composed for symphonies since hearing it the first time. Page McConnell's bright, powerful piano accompaniment usually gives the song its classical dignity (along with Mike Gordon's facile bass lines). The meat of "Guyute" was interestingly ensconced in a fanciful, piquant arrangement of the intro to "My Friend, My Friend," which faked out the audience. That fakeout, and the whirling turns of pastoral and gypsy bohemian themes I was starting to catch signaled to me I'd really have to start letting go of my expectations, and paying attention, because seriously interesting stuff was happening.

Trey also remarked in the TONY interview that his intention isn't likely going to please the Phish phan showing up to hear a classical rehash of their favorites: "...my dream was to have a repertoire of performable pieces with an orchestra that really worked and to have the music be challenging—not like a pops concert." So Trey's not taking "Phish Pops" on tour, here. The embrace of a full complement of strings, percussion and horns elevated "Guyute," the tune about the ugly pig, impressive enough on its own, to diamond-encrusted swan status in very short order.

Now here's the part where I run the risk of seeming pretty controversial. I had the privilege of witnessing the first Phish-4 version of "Time Turns Elastic," performed at the 5/31/09 Fenway Park Summer Reunion Tour opener (which you'll read more about in my next post). And I do mean privilege...I was practically jumping out of my pants with excitement to be subjected to a new, very, very long and mightily orchestrated Phish tune. I'd heard that it was Trey's new ambitious orchestral work, but for whatever reason (maybe because I heard it played with Phish the first time?), I had little desire to hear it played with an orchestra!

It's odd, I know. "Time Turns Elastic" has been the central axle of Trey's recent involvement with symphony orchestras, and here I am blithering about how I simply like it better with Phish. It's not just knee-jerk...I was surprised (and...I'll say it...a little horrified) by the odd variation in theme, and the strange modal choices, which began right after the first vocal section (around and about the "I'm a submarine, submarine..." part). In the Phish version, there's a spare flutter of declining guitar notes, a slight dramatic pause, then a distinctly Weather Report-y transition, which manages to be intrepid and exploratory, yet surreal enough to crack the imagination into accepting the visual theme.

What happened in the Phil last night at that moment was a weird, jangled explosion of Western-tinged, percussive gallop that took me off guard and became the harbinger of the eventual entirety of my experience. I just didn't dig it. I'm really sorry, Trey. I know I'm likely in the minority -- many of the detractors of "Time Turns Elastic" are probably tuning into YouTube videos of the Carnegie Hall performance, and exhaling breathy "Oh!"s and "I see!"s, getting a taste of the work in its original context. And here I am, an avid lover of the bold, progged-out, rock-operatic exuberance of the Phish version of Trey's current magnum opus. I'm SORRY! What can I do?! Some of the moods don't match the narrative, is all.

Thank goodness, the real, ultimate highlight of the night came in the performance of my favorite Phish tune (which, ha ha, just so happens to be among their most frequently performed), "You Enjoy Myself." Another song sweetly smoothed into a recital music mold, I was weepy-eyed and tickled yet again, practically falling out of my chair with anticipation as the crescendo climbed into orgasmic denouement, into an incomprehensibly giddy, fancy-tribal shakedown groove, accented by wild, bold, slithery horns, and replete with deftly executed rhythm egg and some intensely raging cowbell. All this hoopla was reeled into a muted outro, Trey's voice never before sounding more buttery, penetrating or affecting as belted into the creamy cavern of Carnegie Hall. It was the YEM vocal jam taken to a close, personal foray into the lone voice as vehicle for the spirit.

It was here that I grasped what I did not expect, but what makes sense as the after-story (as it always does): with Trey (and them Phish boys in general), it's the journey, not the destination that makes all the difference. I'm convinced after last night that if Trey continues to take this sort of show on the road, he will surely, doubtlessly and effortlessly catapult himself into the respectable firmament of American classical masters. We can all try burning our candles at both ends -- it may not be Trey's destiny, ultimately, as he's already pretty damn well-respected as a musician; his work may well gather flesh and girth via new growth with Tom Marshall and Phish.

However, this voyage may yield fatter fruit; as a rabid Frank Zappa fan, I can attest firsthand that Trey's music is already as compelling as FZ's, in his own way. Vastly (and I can't stress that enough) more approachable, and emotionally digestible as a spring wind, or the sting of a salty ocean wake, Trey's composed orchestral music will not only make a handy stretch over which a new generation can wax elastic on some of Phish's more extensive origins, but an expanse over which to forage into their own inner worlds of musical taste, even ambition.

The dude from whom I obtained my ticket was the new father of a three week-old son, whose responsibilities precluded his attendance at Trey's big night (about which he was decidedly bummed, despite his auspicious new dad-ness). His 23 year-old (!!!) friend, Matt, ended up being a fine "date." Sweater and khaki-clad, a baseball cap politely removed during the concert, communicative, tasteful and well-bred, we shared in common some classical music training, and spoke during the break about his recent return to the piano (the instrument of his youth). I told him that I'd sold my soul for rock 'n' roll in 11th Grade, purchasing a bass guitar to abandon my violin...although I absolutely still own the latter instrument. In ending up with this kid as my companion, the future of advanced cultural refinement wasn't altogether rendered hopeless by some of the more tasteless social degradation of the evening.

My persnickitude aside, the concert will be etched onto my consciousness for at least another lifetime. Trey's hair, frequency and inner joy matched the concert hall, and he really glowed. "At Goddard, I studied orchestration and form with Ernie Stires, who must have told me a million times that freely improvised music was utter shit," said Trey Anastasio, speaking of his late college mentor, and his earlier work with the elongated free-jazz improvisations in his Surrender to the Air project in 1996 (quoted from The Phish Book, by Phish and Richard Gehr, Random House, 1998.). Wherever Ernie Stires's life energy was last night, perhaps intermingling up in the celestial spheres with Kristy Manning's, it glimmered last night, as Trey made new symphonic overtures of an unheard kind.

[Photo courtesy of Ernie Anastasio from The Phish Book; Trey Anastasio performing in a Princeton Day school production of Gilbert & Sullivan's Ruddigore in 1978.]

This post is dedicated to the memory of Kristine Anastasio Manning. May she rest in peace.