My Thoughts on Phish as 2011 Closes

The following ramble goes on for far too long.  It’s been building inside me all week.  I’m sorry to burden you to even read it.  You don’t have to.  But I’d love to hear if any of you have the same inner conflict I do.

So, this has been an interesting year for me, Phish-wise.  I saw more shows in 2011 than I have since 1998, at just 10.   With the 1/1 Simple and the 12/31 Ghost that is appreciated just the right amount as teasers, I thought the band had proven that they were capable of the highest peaks again. In the moment, when you’re there, you don’t need context. Those jams stood on their own and proved that Phish was capable of monster moments that leave even the most jaded happy.

After they came out blazing at Bethel, I thought they could do no wrong.  But the next few shows were “meh” comparatively.  Now, I’m a fluffer.  I want every show to be spectacular.  I want to find the good in each show.  And usually, if I’m in attendance, I find 3-4 songs that really make me happy.  Holmdel 2 felt like a letdown, for the most part.  With few highlights, even the flop of the previous night had some juice with After Midnight and Drowned (I think it was Drowned).  Meanwhile, Phish went on to drop DTE and Riverbend, which were pure fire.  When I next joined them in Alpharetta, there were highlights, sure, but mostly forgettable in the long run.  The moment amazing moment in Alpharetta was the interesting Mound, interesting mostly because it was “half Mound”, and then “other half Mound.”  The other memorable moment was the almost-genius segue of Carini >| Sand.  Thankfully, Charlotte felt like a rebirth with the awesome BDTNL > Ghost > R&R, which felt like the best and most satisfying candy, and the fun of Icculus.  Raleigh had Peaches and the Been Caught Stealing bustout (even if it was mostly painful).   Portsmouth had the amazing Harpua, Brother opener, my top 2 wishlist songs, and featured an amazing Slave, a top notch Sand, and a few other gems.  Superball had a ton of highlights.

Then came leg 2, and for the most part, I was let down.  A few highlights, but the Tahoe Light that everyone raved about left me perplexed.  Sure, there were moments, like the blue-ball of the the Tahoe Jim.  But mostly, I was feeling like Trey was ripcording regularly.  Somewhere along the way, I realized that after Portsmouth, something happened: I stopped chasing songs and started chasing the right jams.  I’ve made this argument before but this time, I really meant it.  And while Phish often delivered these moments of joy, in between was a lot of the same stuff.

After Dick’s, where Phish played a Tweezer that probably is top 3 – if not THE – jam of the year for me, I was primed for Essex.  I thought it would be the best Phish experience ever.  Small venue, in Vermont.

The Essex experience was awesome: I hung with cool people, had a ton of laughs and a great time, and saw my favorite band.  But even though there were great moments at the show – Carini, Julius(!), Slave, Wolfman’s – the fact is, it was the first time I realized that being there made no appreciable difference, music-wise.  And that rotten spirit carried with me.

Had I been at 12/28 or 12/29, I would have been happy enough.  I would’ve gotten one new song each night, which would’ve made me happy.  But overall, on the webcast, I was just disappointed.  And someone on the list said it right: I no longer need to be at every show.  Phish just isn’t a band putting on “can’t miss it!” moments every night.

Meanwhile, I’ve had this love affair with another band that shall not be named.  They’re great, but the reason I’ve fallen for them is also because they’re making me feel what Phish once was: they practice until they’re so sharp you can’t even tell when composition ends and improv begins.  Their setlists are crazy – they finish a song in the middle of the second set from the beginning of the first set.  Their antics are amusing.  They bust out random covers frequently and have a huge 800+ song catalog.  They change the style of their songs.  They embrace technology. Sound familiar?

I’ve realized that it’s really mostly Trey that has soured me.  He’s let me down.  I listen to all four musicians, but Trey was the guy who led the band.  Trey’s screaming tone made me want to burn every cent I had following them through Europe in 1998, and guess what? It felt like a good idea, even afterwards!

Meanwhile, Mike’s band is so ridiculously hot right now, they can pretty much do no wrong by me.  Fishman is so talented it makes me vomit.  Page fills out music like Zerbo fills out a pair of sweat pants after a sushi binge – every millimeter is occupied.  But Trey just can’t, or maybe won’t, get on point.

So I went to Atlanta to see Trey on 11/11.  I flew up and stayed at a hotel.  The trip cost me maybe $500.  So to see Trey do a mostly average show with literally ZERO moments that stand out a month and a half later, especially juxtaposed with my 1999 experience that was also small club, the one that put me on blood pressure meds from the world-rocking of First Tube, the song that literally become my online identity via, was just a spit in the face.  I left the Trey show thinking “Holy shit, Jen Hartswick and Chainsaw can play some damned horn!”

MSG wraps up a year with ONE new original (Can that be right? Just Steam?) Trey used to lock himself in a barn and write 50 genius songs to Tom’s words.  Now, we get a band that gets up and can’t play their new material (Sugar Shack? Notsomuch), ignores their recent material (Did you know Phish released an album called Undermind? And another called Round Room! It happened, check Wikipedia!), and rushes through most of their core stuff (CDT, Piper, Cavern, Golgi, YEM…all played about 3 times too fast).   There are about 6 songs I like to think are great platforms in 2011 (Gin, Tweezer, Wolfman’s, Stash, Ghost, Rock and Roll), and very few that are truly revolutionary.  And then they release the gorgeous Hampton 97 and all I can think it “WTF happened?! Look what they used to do!

The problem for me is that while Phish can still deliver the highest peaks, they do so mostly infrequently.  So I’ve opted, lately, to go for more admittedly lower peaks, as other band is delivering nightly.  Give me as much shit as you want, but I did used to believe that every Phish show was unmissable.  I wished I could’ve gone nightly.  Now? Couch Tour is pretty okay most of the time.  Raras is right: 2011 had a LOT of highlights.  But the highlight reel from the 40-odd shows they played this year doesn’t inspire me like the highlight reel of ages past. I’m content to hear most of it the next day. I’ll still spend a lot of money with LP. But I don’t know that I’ll travel to VT one afternoon and rush home and be at work the next day after lunch. Maybe I’m just getting old – possible, sure – but maybe I’m just getting clearer.  I can’t even find it in me to fluff these shows, they are measurably worse when compared to Phish shows of another era.

MSG night 1’s Cities moved me.  It made me SO happy.  And then it just… evaporated.  And sure enough, I never felt that high again through night 2.  I didn’t even stream night 3, I opted for a different stream that made me smile several times.

Now, I’m sorry to carry on like this, really, but my love level for Phish is in the shitter right now.  They’re still, of course, my favorite band, and I still think every Phish is still about an 8/5-9 on the “general concert quality scale”, but I really think Trey is checked out.  I accept that he has things that are more important. I get that being sober and having a family are his priority, and agree with it.  I also get that he seems to be enjoying his performances, as are MANY MANY other people.  But I live in FL.  Every show I see is a massive financial commitment.  And, for me, the need to rush out and spend a grand to see Phish once or twice has dwindled to almost 0.  I’ll see them next year, I know this for sure, but I already KNOW I’m going to Chicago at least once.   I’m not lying when I say I’d be more excited to see Barika, which is a side project OF a side project right now.

Someone say something to change my mind.  Tell me I’m being unreasonable.  Someone tell me that I’m crazy.  Because I want to be wrong.

8 Replies to “My Thoughts on Phish as 2011 Closes”

  1. I think you hit the nail on the head. I my 34 years of life, 19 of which have been spent listening and traveling to see Phish, I think I am going to take it easy. When they come near me, I’ll go. I will dance, smile and enjoy the energy of the music. I will find those moments that I hold so dear (48 days N4 is one) and I will be content with what I get. When i lowered my expectations and i was lucky enough to hit a Chicago rager or a Denver blast, i am thankful.

  2. I agree with you for the most part. I’m lucky living in New England that I have a lot of shows that are within a 3-4 hour drive of my house. It doesn’t cost me $500 in travel expenses to see Phish. I don’t look at going to Phish shows as just going for the band. I can’t. While that shouldn’t be how it is, while it should be more about the music, I go for the community, for the friends. I have made a ton of friends through Phish. I go to shows to see them. That’s probably 50% of the reason I go. It used to be less. I used to go mainly for the music with the community being just a bonus. If it ever gets to the point where I’m going for the community and the music being a bonus, I’ll probably stop. I haven’t hit that point yet (again, because I don’t have to fly to get to too many shows). Maybe I’ll hit that point next year. Maybe Phish will surprise us all next year and actually be rehearsed. If Mike’s band can be so fucking hot right now, why can’t Phish? Trey is arguably a better guitarist than Scott… at least he has that ability. He used to be able to lead the band, guide jams, and bring them to appropriate endings. Now I almost wish he wasn’t the lead guy and just played in the jam allowing Page or Mike to lead the jams. Page wins the clear MVP for the MSG run. He played some amazing music during those 4 days. If he or Mike led the jams, I think we’d see a very different Phish… a much better Phish. And maybe we will…

  3. Adam, this is almost identical to how I felt after 2009 and most of summer 2010. (I posted a thread title “Phish 2010” after the Amherst shows that goes deep into this).

    Phish is so many things to so many different people. That’s why I never get upset when people bag on shows, runs or tours. Get upset with what the “scene” has become. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is how they make me feel. I can honsetly say that Phish, as a band, is an intricle part of my soul and being. The music fullfils me in a way no one has ever, or maybe ever could.

    I think this summer was a huge step in the “right” direction musically. I felt that in 2009, they were trying to get back what they were before the break up. And it just isn’t. Thery’re older, wiser and life takes many different turns that can effect every aspect of our lives. Sobriety may have a really profound impact on how we all enjoy the music now. The guys included. For so many years they could just go up there, on whatever they were on, and just shred and wander musically, moving from space to space until they found what they were after. Many times, I could find myself bored, or wondering where they were going (musically). There has been some talk on .net about loose and tight. I fell they are tighter now then they have been since ’92, before they really started to explore the reaches of deep improvastional music. The music now, when they’re on, moves. Seemless and with little distruption. Focused is the best way I could descibe it. That has to be a direct result of sobriety. Also, when a jam comes to an abrubt end, or as some would say “ripcorded”, I chalk that up to the music more then anything. I can’t hold Trey soley responsible for any of this. He’s my guy, so maybe I’m blinded by hero worship (and that’s really ok with me). He’s the band leader. Always has been. Always will be. I’ll follow him into battle anytime, anywhere.

    Like you, I saw more shows this summer then anytime in my 16 year career. ’98 I saw 8. This year, 18. I can attribute most of those shows to the wonderful friends I met through .net. As having a crew made it possible to travel 3000 miles to the Gorge. Or fly to Chicago and drive to Colorado. Bethel never would have happend if it wasn’t for Annie. And honsetly, I couldn’t have asked for a better year to do all these shows. We’re all growing, maturing and changing. Every year, month, day, moment that passes, we’re different people. It’s the moments we embrace that dicate if we can keep perspective or not. And the moments inside a room with all my friends, new and old, the sounds, the feelings are what have kept me grounded this year. And that’s really what it’s all about.

    I’m not trying to act like just being there is the key. Because it’s not. The hours spent listening to recordings FAR outweighs the hours spent inside a room. It’s a matter of perspective, or at least for me it is. And yes, I love and adore the music more then anything else in my life. I can also critque a show with the best of them. But ultimately, it’s how the boys make you FEEL. If it’s a “poorly” placed Wading, or a roof shattering 46 Days, they fill my heart and gut with all that is right in the universe. When I listen to past shows, I can put myself in the room and feel that feeling. Even when I’m on a crowded bus with Shrek rubbing up against my ass. And that’s my point. I had expectations like everyone else this run, and to be honest, they weren’t fully met. But I can still sit here and tell you I had one of the best weeks of my life last week.

    Loving Phish is a lot like a marriage. You’re gonna have ups and downs, but in the end, you have to remember why you fell in love with them. Was it a first date Reba? A ’97 Ghost wild sex marathon? Or was it a long time friend like YEM that you just eventually ended up marrying because you realize it will never get better then that? Whatever your reason is, keep it in perspective. We are so lucky to have these guys in your lives. Someday, soon, they will step away for good, and all we will have are memories, the friends made and our recordings.

  4. Well, your honest with yourself and that is all that matters! I still think they are the greatest band in the world and like you said can find good in every show. I can also find flaws in every show. It is when you start to focus more on the flaws that you need to reassess why you like a band. Do you still want to see them or do you need a break? I love the new years run! I had never made it to one before, although it was not the best music they ever played, it was a sort of “holy grail” thing I have been chasing.

    I think Phish needs to rejuvenate with some smaller, unannounced shows (Europe would be nice!), and a new album!

  5. I’m glad it’s not just me. I was at Blossom this summer and that is, so they say, one of the better shows of 2011!?! That Blossom jam had something going, the Hood medoly was nice, and I liked the 5 mintue Rocket in My Pocket. But it just seemed like Phish used to do so much more to me. It was not a 3 hour concert with a couple sweet spots. I love this band because they used to havr me on the edge of my seat from the minute I walk in until I left drenched in sweat.

    I did 2 shows in ’11. I am so cool with it.

  6. Wonderful read Adam.

    I also agree that the Dick’s Tweezer is JOTR. My buddy Alex has best described it as an organism for your ears.

    For those reading if you haven’t heard it in awhile go back and give it a listen. I’m going to right now.

  7. First off.. also a web developer \m/ Second, congrats on your latest released project which I shall not name.. ya did good! Third, since bear creek was just a few days ago and you’re in FL, I’m sure we crossed paths just recently. Last but not least, your band that will not be named has consumed 30 nights of my life this year. It took me 7 years of knowing this band before it hit me.. going from 4 shows in 6 years to 30 in 12 months. I’ve never seen Phish. Having gotten into jam bands during their first hiatus, I started out seeing Panic and Cheese. I never had the desire to GITV when Phish came back, or even bother to see them in my own hometown; skipping local shows simply because I didn’t think it was worth the ticket. I hold a lot of SBDs from 94 and 97 with as much esteem as I do the Dead’s seminal 72 but I know the 70+ dollar ticket for recent shows doesn’t offer that kind of musicianship. I guess it all came down to not seeing Jerry. If I could live without seeing him live, then I can live without seeing Trey live. And I would rather have my love for Phish remain as it is today then have it be soiled by my only live experience with them being a 95 Dead show. Do I believe I’m getting 72 Dead or 97 Phish from my current musical obsession? No, but I’m always smiling, amazed and thirsty for more. And who could deny that pull?

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