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)


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