Last weekend Phish brought their musical bag of tricks to Great Woods for two sold-out shows. The band has been on the road since the beginning of April, just after the release of its most recent album Hoist. With Hoist, the band made a conscious attempt to explore the studio as a mode of creativity. Unlike their previous albums, the material for Hoist had never been played before an audience--the idea being that the songs would grow to maturity in the studio instead of onstage.
After two months of touring in support of the album, however, the band began to lost it focus and its passion. In recent interview, Anastasio said that they often found themselves playing their new songs because they were on the new album, and not because they felt inspired to play them. It got so bad, Anastasio said, that at a show in San Francisco in late May, he was so frustrated that during one song, he wanted to smash his guitar to pieces (certainly a horrid thought to Paul Languedoc, the band's sound engineer who built the guitar by hand).
Luckily, the band had a week of after Memorial Day During which they retired to their hometown of Burlington, Vermont. After the break, the revitalized band showed a renewed commitment to the art of playing music that mattered to them and not to anyone else. Old songs that hadn't been played in years began to show up in their set lists (ok trivia buffs, here they are: "NICU," "Gumbo," "Tube," "Funky Bitch," "Frankenstein," "Letter to Jimmy page" and two weeks before the Great Woods run, "Gamehenge"). At the same time, songs from Hoist were beginning to find a home in the live setting and were no longer a chore to perform. At last the band was back on track.
Last Friday's show was clear evidence that the band is once again on the up. They wasted no time getting started, opening the first night's show with a ripping "Llama" which featured an exhilarating solo by guitarist Trey Anastasio. The band slowly broke the jam down into the cacophonous sirens and vacuum cleaner sounds of N2O." As the noise subsided, Anastasio began to narrate the story of Colonel Forbin, the protagonist of the "Gamehenge" saga that continued throughout the first set.
Written by Anastasio for his undergraduate thesis, the individual songs have always been part of the 10 years old band's working repertoire, but have only been performed together as a narrated whole four times before Friday night (for you trivia buffs, those performances were 3/12/88, 10/13/91, 3/22/93 and For old fans and new, it proved to be an exciting night.
The story began with the retired Army Colonel falling asleep under the nitrous oxide he is given at a visit to the dentist. He then dreams a rather Tolkein/C.S. Lewis-esque adventure that takes place in the land of "Gamehenge." Explaining the storyline between each song, Anastasio led the band through "The Lizards," "Tela," "Wilson," AC/DC Bag," "Colonel Forbin's Ascent," "The Famous Mockingbird," "The Sloth," "McGrupp and the Watchful Horsemasters" and the set, with an invigorating performance of "Divided Sky," a compositional masterpiece centered around the ritual chant of the natives of Gamehenge.
The first time I saw Phish, they played in the dining hall of my boarding school four years ago. There were probably two or three hundred people there and they blew mind. I'd never even heard of them before that night. Over the next few years I saw them at the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square, and at other venues of comparable size, so the idea of seeing them headline two weekend nights at Great Woods seemed, in a selfish way, to be some-what of an invasion of privacy. When you find a relatively unknown band that you really like, it's kind of a bummer when everybody else starts to like them too.
But real question is what do you do when they come to town playing a 12,000 seat venue instead of a 1,200 seat venue? I figured that if what I really like about them is what I really like about them is what they do with their music and the intensity ands energy that they generate at their live shows, then I'd shell out the Ticketmaster-inflated $24 for a ticket and go. And what did I get? Many a moment of music-induced goose-bumps and a stiff neck from heavy grooving (note that Anastasio's head is blurred in the photo--he was grooving too.)
Like the first set, Phish opened their second set at full tempo with the title track from their 1993 release Rift. (which, like the pieces from the Game-henge saga, fit into a greater conceptual whole). "Sample in a Jar," from their most recent release Hoist, provided one the most compelling jams of the night, refuting the often-heard claims that the band has sold out to the record industry.
After "Sample," the band slid into the Lawn Boy staple, "Reba." After some fun and games with silly lyrics, the song features an intricately composed section followed by a section of open improvisation over a strong bass groove. Like the solo to "Sample," this section provides a space for a "high moment," something that Anastasio claims is the purpose of their live shows. These improvisational sections give the musicians the freedom top explore new ideas and take the song in new directions. Creating on the spot is intimidating, but when the risk is taken and the music that is an intensely uplifting experience. The following lyrics epitomize the group's philosophy of improvisation. "Set the gearshift for the high gear of your soul/You've got to run like an antelope/out of control." Despite their haphazard silliness, what makes Phish work is that they go for the soul.
How fitting it is then that soulful exploration at the end of "Reba" was followed by the Hebrew prayer "Yarushalim Shel Zahav" that appears on Hoist. "It's Ice" followed with some interesting improvisational work by keyboardist Page McConnel. "Stash" brought the bank back to the more creative group improvization that is its greatest strength. Gradually straying farther and farther from the melodic ideas of the song, the band explored uncharted territory, but worked together, building suspense with carefully placed dissonance and atonality that left room for an energetic and exciting climax.
The group then reached back to its first album Junta, for "You enjoy Myself," the chorus to which is the often debate subject among "phans." ("What's Uffitze? Drive me to Firenze" or "Wash you Feets-e, drive me to Firenze" --the band won't say). Friday's version was a gem with "Frankenstein" sandwiched into the jam section. As the final section of the piece ended, (ana capella vocal improvisation), Anastasio cut into the bluesy, shuffle riff of "Julius," only the third pieces of the night from Hoist. The album version is one of Phish's best pieces of studio material, featuring The Tower of Power Horns, and Rose Stone (formerly of the funk great, Sly and the Family Stone). Without the horns, the song seems to lose some of its texture and color, but the live setting allows the jam at the end of the song to flourish into a true rocker. Anastasio seized the opportunity and delivered a blistering but passionate solo. Closing out the second set with the crowd-pleaser "Golgi Apparatus," a tune Anastasio wrote in eight grade, Phish had the throngs of prep school kids singing along to the chorus "I saw you with a ticket stub in your hand."
The group answered the cheers and lighters of the packed house with an encore of "Nellie Cane," a bluegrass number sung by bassist Mike Gordon, and Picture of Nectar, "Cavern."
Driving into the parking lot, you might have guessed that you were at a Grateful Dead show were it not for the noticeably younger crowd. It's all too easy to slip into the cynical attitude that sneers "Who are all these drunk and stoned idiots and why are they ruining my band?" The fact of the matter is that at the smaller shows of yesteryear the idiot-factor was probably the same--proportionally there were probably just as many, but now it's 50% of 12,000 instead of 50% of 1,200. Furthermore, these shows are such as baseball games: some people are caught up in the penant races and details like batting averages while others are sitting in the bleachers taking in the sun and a few dozen beers. It doesn't really matter why they're having fun; what's important is that they are.
For those interested in a road trip this weekend, Phish is playing tonight at the Jones Beach Amphitheatre in Wan taugh, Long Island and will conclude their three-and-a-half month tour Saturday night at the Sugarbush Summer Stage at Sugarbush North in Fayston, Vermont.
Also, if you're on the Internet and curious about Phish, you can:
Surf rec.music.phish (a high-volume discussion group)
Send email to "firstname.lastname@example.org" with word subscribe in the body of the message (this will send you the phishnet's discussions in bunches--warning: high volume)
Send email to "email@example.com" with the word subscribe in the body of the message (this list sends only information such as set lists and tour dates)
In the first song of the Gamehenge saga, Colonel Forbin learns of the natives of the mythical land, "The Lizards." He then meets the beautiful "Tela" who tells him about the revolution as they ride to the rebel base camp. Upon their arrival, the Colonel watches the rebel leader Errand Wolf's fit of rage over the evil doings of the tyrranical king "Wilson" who has stolen the Helping Friendly Book. For thousands of years it had enabled the Lizard people to live in peace and harmony with the land, but by stealing the book, Wilson has enslaved the people of Gamehenge. The story then turns to wilson's accountant who has been cough embezzling funds for the revolution. His execution is performed in the public square by "The AC/DC Bag." This disastrous turn of events inspires "Colonel Forbin's Ascent" up the mountain to seek the advice of Icculus, the god of the Lizard people and author of the "Helping Friendly Book." As he climbs, rocks begin to fall all around him, taking the shape of the face of Icculus, who calls upon the "Famous Mockingbird" to fly to the castle and steal back the book for the Lizard people. Icculus delivers a warning, however, that "all knowledge seeming innocent and pure becomes a deadly weapon in the hands of avarice and greed." When Errand Wolf gets the book, he goes into the ghetto of the town to find "The Sloth," the only creature mean enough to kill Wilson. The story then moves to the outskirts of town where a shepherd tells the final chapter of the story. After killing Wilson, the knowledge offered by the book, as Icculus had warned, is corrupted, so the rebel leader Errand Wolf simply becomes the next king Wilson.