05 January 2010

The Last Splash: New Year's Run 2009, Part I - A Whole Lotta Dub

Miami! Weirdness, shock, awe and upheaval all coalesced into a voyage to the low Lower 48. I was scooped by random, perfectly-matched Craigslist Phishheads from MA in Northernmost Manhattan, at 12:30PM Sunday, 12/27/09. On the GW Bridge, we chanted the mantra: “Follow the lines going South!” Riding shotgun, I played iPhone Indiana Jones, bushwacking zany detours through maddening traffic from NYC to Arlington. Onward, into late night, though, it was smooth sailing; three gas stops and one gas FAIL around Jacksonville (thankfully right into Triple-A’s lovin' arms), we made it to my crash pad at Chez Haps North of Miami, at 11AM Monday.

[iPhone GPS screenshot taken while checking my status cruising through GA, listening to the high-octane Red Rocks '09 Jibboo. I gotta.]

I was exhausted, on fumes of a 9-hour heavy rotation between Charleston and Jacksonville, on our 24-hour drive. It’s jet fuel I'd gladly sip from a Swarovski flute, again and again.

Miami 2009 possessed an almost overwhelming tenor of huge import, and “Eff it!” catharsis. Commitments, travel and excitement building to Night 1 were considerable, so claims of crowd energy being weak make some sense. The band seemed to express an unspoken, satisfied closure to everything leading to the four pivotal nights. It was emotional road rescue for Phishheads, ending a quite literally epic decade that hearkened to the beginning of Hiatus on 10/7/00, 2003’s Phish 2.0 iteration (and their last NYE stand in Miami, smooched with a touch of P-Funk), and the inevitable travesty of Phish 2.5 in 2004. It is the period at the end of a ten year sentence of growth, graduations, relationships, breakups, marriages, divorces, moves, additions, changes, losses, piety and sin, debauchery, and sobriety. 

It is the cherry atop the first dollop of Phish 3.0. Phish is the baleen of 20th century musical consciousness, now siphoning the water of their 21st century existential experience. Whatever I, or anyone else, had to say about This Year in Phishtory -- good, bad, indifferent, obnoxious, incoherent, together, we've seen it all -- in no small estimation, it’s been a f***ing triumph. No other band swept a decade, redefining improvised rock 'n' roll, sparking a movement, achieving record-setting numbers of shows played and audiences beckoned, and wrapping the previous decade with another Floridian gala, record-shattering, century-closing Big Cypress Festival.

[Gone Phishin'! "Woods 'n Water" magazine of Perry, FL, in some gas station near Jacksonville.] 

The run-up to Miami ’09 was strange. Since the reunion, I’ve chosen to dedicate a lot of mental and emotional energy to Phish. I wonder constantly if being this involved can be “casual.” Thus, I spend equal amounts of time trying to not think about Phish. They’re quite a compelling operation, and there’s no other time it becomes more obvious than when TOUR rolls around.

[That hair-raising first approach to the venue.]

I talk a lot about V-T00R, the act of “following” Phish, without leaving one’s house, state, or otherwise comfy zone. But TOUR is different. TOUR is the Gauntlet, a pitched battle against time, space, speed, stillness, light, dark, fuel, emptiness, trust, doubt, sanity and insanity. It scared the hell outta me for a long time. Looking back, the fear was a healthy one. But now, I’m fortified, protected, and equipped…Before I left NYC, for a minute I realized I was going to see Phish again, but had no clue whatsoever where I was going. 12/31/09 was my 18th show this year, and now, having made the trip to Florida, I’ve seen Phish in all four corners of the Lower 48. That’s…something.

I went off during setbreak to someone about the analogy of tour to ancient mystical rituals of shamans and nomadic tribes...

“This age of computers and fast cars and ideas of 'success' – houses, money, jobs, mortgages, etc. – doesn’t have room for ancient rituals and routines of worship and devotion from thousands of years ago,” I ranted.

“Back in the day, nomadic devotees would suit up on yaks or asses, and wander incomprehensible miles in pilgrimage, hiking over frozen mountains to oracles, or seeking teachings of renowned masters. Mystic Knowledge didn’t come without effort, and the faithful sought it. But this age wants fashionable spirituality delivered fast with everything else.” My captive audience writhed...

“Yeah, they’re not gods or anything. Wise elders, maybe…or, uhh…channels! They’re channels, vessels, conduits of something bigger. When they hit it, they’re conduits. They catch it, the Big Holy Force or whatever…” I made a manic gesture of a vertical descending from above, and a horizontal shooting forward from my chest at a right angle… “pours out of them, into us!”

[The vessels' vessel. CK5's pre-show lightcheck, American Airlines Arena, 12/28/09.]

I deigned to board a vehicle with two unknown individuals for a day of driving, stayed a night in the backseat of a car, then three more days in a house without hot water, sacrificed two shows for two nights behind a table as a (blessed) sober person at a Phish show, to help others who wanted to do the same...or, to simply give candy to strangers. It was the best week of my life. I do feel closer to The Elders, the Big Holy Force, and whatever, as made manifest by Phish. And if you think about it, Phish are not gods, but seekers themselves; we all just get to bear witness to the Force acting (quite beautifully) upon and through them. If that’s crazy, here’s my freshly dry-cleaned straight-jacket: slap it on me, pack me on my yak, and let me ride.

[Woo-hoo, fun in the sun!] 

It was difficult to post to the blog during the week. Before Christmas, I had a spiritual experience that encouraged me to live my love for Phish from a neutral place I’m calling the No Space, where subjective perception of thought, feeling and desire, all vanish within the experience of Sharing in the Groove. It sounds cliché, but it was life-altering. So, living and writing about that shizzle, in that way, is difficult!

What's more, it's hard to write about it on an iPhone, or standing behind a table for two nights, bolting in and out the venue, dancing, returning, sleeping, showering, meeting and greeting, talking eating and recovering, all nearly to the point of tears. How to pin it all down, when sand is shifting, “Zzzzz”s escaping, batteries dying, water not freezing but not warm either, and every note, as it happens, a process of electromagnetism sparking axons, until the house lights dim…?


Monday, 12/28/2009 
American Airlines Arena, Miami, FL

Set I: Sample in a Jar, NICU > My Soul, Roggae, Undermind, Bouncing Around the Room, Poor Heart, Stash, I Didn't Know, Beauty of a Broken Heart, Possum

Set II: Mike's Song > Light -> I Am Hydrogen > Weekapaug Groove, Alaska, Backwards Down the Number Line, Makisupa Policeman > Harry Hood > Contact > Character Zero

E: First Tube

["A slipper, a sand dollar, day at the shore..."]

My stomach flipped when with the stage-and-scene-setting chimes of "Sample in a Jar" rang out, then bounced from hard rock, charging right into the rousing ska embrace of "NICU"…if I spent all my time really describing the sensuous contours of my Phish experience as my ultra-sensitive faculties perceive them, I’d miss them!

Re-listening to 12/28/09, the band’s care in greatly enhancing the show with subtle sonic nuances is impressive. Trey's impassioned howls in "My Soul” are not mere additions; they’re grown into the song. Having a "good-enough" grasp on a song's emotional context (i.e. Phish 1.0), and having truly lived it (i.e. Phish 3.0), can be heard in Phish's current take on "My Soul." It’s a gospel testimonial proudly shouted from the past into the present, and the result is real, in-the-moment fervor.

Other minute additions highlight the narrative poetry of the show (say, a little tremulous bass vibrato in dreamy "Roggae"). In contrast to the Charlottesville Fall Tour closer, Miami 1 was a seeming statement that, at least for the moment, Phish is settling into exploration and navigation of their history, with concentration and authenticity. Having run a marathon in 2009, from primal soup to progressive nuts, it was the great flail across the finish line. Laughing, panting and firing on all cylinders, they carried serious, humorous, simple, complex, rhythmic, atonal, and everything in-between, down the lines going South. And the barely-audible sounds of wheels, clattering rails, jets, and camel walks elevated, as loyal hoards spirited towards the Nexus of Power.

Miami 1 was the first poetic peak of the run, followed by the lyrical high-point of Miami 3 on 12/30/09. It was a verbose show, many of Phish’s best present and past tunes exhibiting harmonic grace. Not to be ignored alongside juicy jams and raucous riffing, "Unrelenting, understroked, undeterred yet unprovoked…" (from “Undermind,” the title track of the 2004 album) remind me why it's a rare entity that can make my synapses throb while my backbone slips, not to mention move me 12,000 miles in a year, border to border, coast to coast, keeping me drooling and counting fingers and toes till the days and nights bring the next lights-down. 

In mid-"Stash" jam, I'm jolted: this isn't skillful but occasionally dizzying Grateful Dead, nor is it a "weaksauce" jamband, to quote my slightly antagonistic friend Jeff's harsh assessment of Phish, after the recent MSG 2 show (my pick for MSG best-of-run). Drums are immediate and forceful, and bass lines fleet, blustery gusts. Rhythmic thrust alone packs collective power beyond most improv rock, saying nothing of verse, melody, and charismatic personality.

Speaking of which, hot pursuit and curdling fleas aside, a particularly punchy "I Didn't Know" follows, embedded in which is the portentous "Final Vacuum Solo of the Aughts," prompting @mudgebug on Twitter to post, "ok, this is where it gets weird. having to explain to my non #phish friends why the drummer is playing the vacuum"…

High drama was in full effect all week, as Phish locked into their most intimate, straight-faced, self-lampooning tomfoolery. As Fishman unleashed airy, near-mournful ceremonial whispering, the vac-jam intro nonsense was framed by a few notes of side-splitting, pokerfaced, straight 4/4 jazz bass and piano, eventually leading to the customary breakdown, where the wheezing became more upbeat, even festive. However, when the other three attempted to launch back into the final verse, Fishman plowed onward with his tragicomic hissing, irrepressibly holding court, until guttural squonks boomed into otherworldly, Tibetan long horn depths. Contrast this:

...with this:


See my point? (No? Keep coming back.) I've pretty much seen and heard it all from bands that jam -- electrified to ambient, ethereal to energetic -- but the vac-jam is why few bands have come anywhere close to Phish. They started it all, they still do it the best, and, for me, they're the only ones left tugging the strings after almost 20 years. For better (soul exhilaration), or worse (nervous breakdowns), my personal dedication is stronger than ever.

I waited until now to bring it up, but asking for two vacation days to head down to Miami was the tipping-point of affairs with my ex-boss, and had much to do with my eventual termination. I'd taken two days off for Festival 8 (not to mention a sick day to allow my desert-scorched skin to heal). The days were mine for the taking by policy, but since nothing I did seemed to be good enough for my boss anyway, I felt awkward about the request: both entitled, and idiotic.

Settling for the 30th and 31st was a huge stretch for me. But I'd take it, to participate however possible in a life of renewed creative, musical and poetic journeys, while grasping at a tether of “normality.” However, some roads almost seem to know when to end, and, itself a poetic twist of fate, the axe hit my neck as I screeched out the door to the first night of Phish's return to Madison Square Garden on 12/2/09. I didn't have to compromise, for MSG, or for Miami. I was free, and home, at last.

Miami 1 Set II might heretofore be known as "Mikeami Nice" -- Cactus goulash, feast for the air, plucky, chattery slaps gorging even the Gordo faithful right from the "Mike's Song" opening, into a sweet (i.e. delightful) segue into "Light." What seemed more evident over the next 20 minutes was that Phish was in town to rip their old selves to shreds by practically turning themselves inside out with heedless abandon, bells ringing in brazen sync, coming into the "Weekapaug Groove" jam, and bursting forth freshness, outright yelling lyrics of the seductive "Weekapaug" refrain with brash exuberance.

[Purple passion.]

"Alaska" followed, and, to briefly assume a dreaded year-end-list vibe, the tale of Aleutian romance is among my Top 3 favorite new Phish tunes, with its cool, snappy vamp and hilariously droll lyrics. To court controversy (why not?), the blatantly omitted opus, "Time Turns Elastic," is my favorite new Phish tune. SO THERE! Sure…I'll be first to agree maybe Phish hasn't (and maybe never will) find room for TTE’s epic tale of temporal transformation, among their live show rotation, without eliciting wretched sighs of agitation from the audience. But, I’ll budge not, ‘nuff said! (FYI: the 3rd is “Twenty Years Later,” with “Gone” from Party Time a runner up…it made a perfect “Tela” chaser a couple nights later.)

The fresh poppy rock of "Backwards Down the Number Line" unveils the high-par sound quality of AA Arena, as well as the pretty incredible Live Phish mix. Mike's tone in Miami is appealing to the pick-plucking bassist in me; warmth blended with bite puts him further up in the mix, for all you Trey-oglers out there (you know who you are). "Silent but lively" is my motto for Cactus in the Miami ’09 run. His face may be inscrutable, but in a forest of Phish, bass is groundwater gurgling below the earth, while drums are the woodpecker, and guitar and keys the sunlight and trees, respectively.

On the wings of a robust morning, Trey and Page joyously call out to their friends in "BDTNL," and we are soon called to lively up ourselves for an irie afternoon with the "Makisupa Policeman". Entranced in the moment, it seems, by love for, and virtuosity of, his compadres, Trey sends up his low end-brethren, kicking into high-gear a full-on Gordo-smorgasbord: "Woke up this morning, did just what I like…spent a whole two minutes listenin' to nobody but Mike!"

[Mikey catch a fire; blurry but necessary. ]

Fishman hits four snare salutes and Mike digs in for a solo, first surveying surface texture and establishing footing with characteristically calm neutrality. Phish is dressed in suits of fine japery; a "no-ham alert" warning is heard... "Two minutes!" That's when Mike’s half-steps get higher, and more mischief is introduced. Trey further big-ups his brethren with a chant, "Mike! Mike! Mike!" that sends the whole arena toppling into a Mikeysupa Lovefest.

Well-appreciated in his own right as Phish front-of-stage co-pwner [sic], it is delicious hearing thousands of phans old and new in swelling vocal celebration of recently-crowned "Prince" (cf. the bass domination in "Meat" from 11/29/09 Cumberland County Civic Center, ME). With melodic accents, the chant becomes mellifluous, and the crowd loudly follows suit. Self-effacement begins to tinge the well-sussed Caribbean roots the Prince lays down with wry humility, then trills of gratitude and abashment. Finally, there’s just silence, as Mike lets the voices chanting his name become him in the jam.

With a deep breath exhaled into what could be palpably suppressed hilarity, they drop back into "Makisupa." Phish work best together when they decline to take themselves at all seriously, except as a toughly-united corps of constantly transmogrifying musicians. The post-bass jam is a deep, clearwater dub-dive. Colorful creatures float by, curiously eyeballing four odd-looking gents swimming past, pulsating with muted mutant delay-laden sounds and alternating lyrics -- "Policeman, Kingston, house, Kingston,” and naturally, eventually, "Policeman came to Mike's House…" The audience stands ashore, skanking, shouting, and gasping in waves of glee.

Not to belabor the point, but clocking in at a not-at-all-conservative 8:49, this is probably one of the most tonally expert dub versions of "Makisupa Policeman" in recent memory. Relaxation, innovation, synchronization and jubilation all unrolled in equal measure, serious riddim is cast out and reeled in, trailing clumps of hooked and wriggling phans with every pull and change of phase. Crisp piano, wah'd-out clav, a synth "elevation" (as I like to call 'em, cf. mid-"Time Turns Elastic"), guitar trickles, buzz, and some wild delay-looped seagull-type calls, spacious hollowness in toms, loose snare and rim shots, the odd well-placed cymbal clang, and, of course, bass sliding from straight-ahead tone, to enveloped karate chops and gurgling buzz…

The version finally flattens out for  a minute into a drone, and when another tom-roll readies us for more hypnotics, a fakeout is expertly executed, and the band drops without notice into "Harry Hood." I was flummoxed. Coming out of a mind-altering dub into the malevolent reggae trudge of "Hood" was jarring, but so refreshing in that “Oh no they didn’t!” way.

Perhaps addled by their own indulgence, they reel around in the intro with effects, but by the song's title chant, composure is restored from a glut of psychedelic tumbling. Fresh perspectives abound with an even cursory listen to Set II of 12/28/09. When Phish allow themselves to go deep into individual or collective "happy places," especially in a genre-specific way (i.e. "Makisupa” dub), upon reemerging into semi-orderliness, the "wildness" of their "eclectic” stylings suddenly make sense.

Up for air from irie fathoms, "Hood" post-intro traipses into eardrums; rhapsodic, upbeat pastoral Americana evolved to Allmans Brothers' "Ramblin' Man", lightly schmeared with Carib-jazz, and perhaps the slightest whisper of Afro-Beat. The real genius of it all is that (at least in my imagining) the deliberation involved in mashing it together is probably tantamount to taking a nap and dreaming. Harassed by a jarring funk-metal-opera groan, then serenaded by sweet harmony, the listener is punted softly into a mellower-than-average “Hood” jam that becomes absolutely aeronautic.

Beautifully and busily intertwined, prehensile strumming between bass and guitar, swaying, entrancing interplay of undulating rhythm, it drifts after takeoff, then rises above the clouds, twinkling in clear space with prismatic sunlight fading to the horizon. Then, it winds and blossoms in all directions, like lights from the city in a foreign land descending from above in a night-time landing, the startle of wheels on Tarmac a hot, gratifying, fluttery crescendo.

At the end of “Hood” they go deep again, and shape-shift into an alien landscape, wheat-strewn plains morph to Martian slopes; synth and bass sustain, mechanically modulated guitar ricochets, endless clutter of drum rolls…oh my! But we actually roll around the bend of another chapter with “Contact,” old-school fave comprised of lazy cha-cha turned bendy funk; mutant maudlin vaudeville piano turned wacked-out synth-laser clav, and tandem band-audience arm-waving homage to automobiles…

["Yes they am..." Pic by Dave Vann.] 

"Contact" is followed by a loud, set-wrapping arena-rock incantation to oneself about life lessons in visiting some dude named "Mulcahy" (“Character Zero”), and capped with the “first” of two Phish songs featuring the word "Tube" – this one a broad, wordless, persecutory and practically thermonuclear edition of the disco-prog fugue.

Working the sober-phreak table during the show, dipping back and forth into the arena over the night, I felt the pre-pre-party crowd start to simmer, and indeed, things ended on a high note. Pummeled even by a truncated show experience (and more likely the still-punishing aftereffects of the endless drive…after all, we’d only crashed ashore that morning), an asymmetrical arena coughed us all out into a sea of wandering phreaks, smoking makeshift hearths, hissing tanks, bursting balloons, “Jerry Rolls,” hempy collars, homemade stickers, perplexing, riotously celebratory t-shirts, and a slowly fattening moon over Miami...

[Mike de Lune...Phish video on the giganto-screen outside of American Airlines Arena.]


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