Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Most Important Phish Concert

One thing that I've noticed during my time on Twitter, is that Phish fans tend to be highly opinionated about a plethora of things. This is generally a good thing and can lead to a high degree of information sharing. Personally, I've found out about new music, new movies, and new ideas that I would have never found due to people's spirited defense of their ideas. "What's your favorite album?" I have my choices but I'm always interested to see what other people say to this because if someone is passionate about their selection then they can make me feel that and, if I haven't heard it before, I'm likely going to be obtaining it that very moment.  Sometimes this can lead to feelings getting hurt when there are disagreements but in general, if people have open minds, there's no reason that this can't be an enlightening interaction.
In my mind, there is an important delineation between "favorite" and "best". And while that makes intrinsic sense, I think that this is something that can be frequently lost when interacting on things that both parties are knowledgeable on. With all of the rankings that people are justifiably putting out now on 2013's concerts. Do you go with your favorites or the best when putting together your ranking? Personally, my pick of favorite concert from 2013 is probably Hampton from 10/20/13 but the best concert overall was 12/29/13.  They don't always have to align.  To me, the entirety of the fun second set of Hampton N3 make it more enjoyable for me to listen to even if nothing in it hits quite the high points of 12/29 and DWD>Carini. 
But there's another aspect to rankings and debates that's usually not addressed.  Importance. When looking at importance, quality or fun or favoritism aren't the most relevant qualities (although they can be relevant), it's more of a historical relevance that can make it important. Something that's a game changer. Something that's never been seen before. Something that is memorable beyond the inherent qualities. This adds a new dimension. When looking at this aspect, the most important show of 2013 has to be Halloween.  Regardless of your thoughts on whether Wingsuit was the right decision, the Halloween concert essentially directed the creative vision of the rest of the year leading up to the No Cover New Years Eve run.
To draw another analogy, take a look at movies. In my opinion, the best overall movie is the Godfather. Top to bottom that movie has it all.  Unbelievable acting, directing, score, cinematography. Everything is perfect in it. And it is an amazing movie. But it's not in my list of favorites.  My favorites are Magnolia, 12 Angry Men, and Glengarry Glen Ross. I enjoy movies that are dialog heavy and carry a lot of melodrama.  So best and favorite don't always align. But in terms of importance?  And how that relates to historical impact? There really can be not many answers other than Citizen Kane, right? That movie was so ahead of its time in terms of the actual movie making process that everything that comes after it uses its gains. And things that seem cliche in current day were invented during that movie . At it's core, it's up to each individual person. In general, there should be less change in the important album but there is always some wiggle room.

So while everyone has their list of favorite or best shows, which show is the most important in Phish's history? A show with a large amount of debuts? 1996 Halloween? Beginning of Europe 97? NYE 02? An unexpected choice (but ultimately defensible) is Coventry.

Now what's interesting here is that when looking at the intersect between best, favorite, and important there is usually a large overlap. But with Coventry, you'd be pretty hard pressed to find someone that thinks that's the best or their favorite Phish concert. But Coventry represents something to the band, and to the fans, that was a once in a lifetime experience. That can't be downplayed enough.
2.0 Phish was a strange time for Phish fans.  Those from the pre 2000 days (especially those from 98 and before) were treated to a completely different band. Less melodic jams present and more grooves laid down.  The oxyjams were there in full effect but it wasn't the same. The moments of full scale band led improvisation were rarer. Trey was no longer the driving influence in the band due to what seemed to be a drug abuse issue and possibly a lack of interest. When the break-up was announced many chose to not make the trip to Coventry, Vermont to say goodbye. The music was too off and the scene was too negative.  One thing I couldn't really understand was the people who had seen hundreds of shows who decided to not go. Even if the band wasn't what they used to be how do you not go and say farewell? Either way, lots of people made the decision not to, or couldn't, go.
To me, however, it was too big of a deal to not go. Bands don't typically break up amicably. And even though it was apparent that there was some dissension on stage, the break-up was at least presented with an amicable slant. This was the bands choice to break-up. Whether this is completely true or not remains to be seen but a band of Phish's caliber and stature voluntarily calling it quits was strange to me.  No one had died. No physical trauma. No growing apart. Just a final show. In my eyes, there was no question; I had to go to say my condolences as something that I loved had decided to move on. If this was really the last hurrah for this band I needed to see it.  In and of itself, the break-up show would be important in it's own regard but it was somehow larger than that.
I'm not sure what everyone was expecting when they finally got through those gates or decided to abandon their cars on the side of the road. Was it Gamehendge? Acoustic Sets? Horns? Or just a well played Phish show? Whatever it was we were expecting, I don't think that we got it. Which isn't to say that there weren't highlights. AC/DC Bag -> 46 Days is good. The Drowned Jam is better.  I love the version of Curtain With that's played after they restart the post-lyrics segment. The highest point, to me, is probably the Steam Jam in Split Open and Melt. Really, a lot of the "jam" segments are good throughout the weekend but the composed sections continued the 2004 trend of just missing on all grounds. Most sections that the band has played as rote versions for 15-20 years sounded like it was Trey's first time on the guitar.  Almost like the band had to try to rush through those parts to finish them off for good. Because at that time, they were the last time played and it's easiest to just rip the band aid off sometimes than to prolong the pain.
It's Night 2, Set 2 that really sticks with me to the day. And even when re-listening recently to this the emotions and feelings come back strong and quick. A one of a kind (and quasi-finished!) DWD segues into Wading in the Velvet Sea. 

And the band just breaks down. Finally, the emotions overtake the band and Page can't continue. Then Trey joins in to help him sing his part (and really it's amazing that Trey knew those words). What follows can only be described as Glide. A song usually for and about the fans. And it is the hardest thing to listen to. From start to finish it's just not played correctly. The last two songs of the set, Melt and Ghost have some of the worst composed sections played by Phish but the jams are phenomenal. The set is truly a dichotomy of the best and the worst together in one.
Curtain With was not what I expected or wanted for an encore. I was personally expecting the long awaited Fluffhead bust-out. When it started, all I could think was this is it. It's over. This is a long song. This is the last song. And when Trey had to restart the jam segment to put it into the right key I didn't really know how to feel. I felt this was not my favorite band going out with a bang but with something lower than a whimper. This was a whisper. A fleeting moment that was going to pass and then be over and not thought of again. The jam was beautiful but as it faded out Phish was over. I kept thinking back to that second set throughout the night (and for the next bit of time). It was sticking with me in a way that other sets from better shows never did. It was that Wading. Seeing the entire band breaking down and crying was something I was unprepared for. This was my band and to see them at that emotional apex (or nadir) was hard. But that emotion was important. Emotion meant something to the band. If the band came out and played a normal concert, and didn't become emotionally invested that would have shown disinterest. The fact that there was such an outpouring of emotion meant there were still feelings that remained. The fact that there were feelings meant there was a reason to fix things. It meant that the band would get back together. It's conceivable that if Phish had played a flawless Gamehendge during that set and the weekend went off without a hitch that there would have been no reason to get back together. That emotional breakdown was the single most important message of the entire weekend. It meant that there would be another day of Phish eventually.  

There's no debate that Phish played an amazing year of music in 2013. And in some ways, I'm jealous of those fans that came in only in 3.0. First, they're likely younger than me which is nice but second they have had such a positive progression over the years. Each year that they've been a fan has been better than the last. This was not the case with 2.0.  The 2.0 years, and 2004 specifically, are usually not listened to for fun nor have the best versions of various songs. In fact, on the Helping Friendly Podcast today, RJ was talking about how he hasn't listened to 2004 shows in years. And I get that. It's not always easy to listen to and it's not always good. But the seeds of 3.0 were planted in 2004. And Coventry in particular was really the linchpin of the entire year. It was a culmination of the entire year’s worth of failings and the summation of the emotional highs and lows that surrounded the break-up. It was important to be there for both the band and the fans.  It was what allowed 3.0 to happen in the way that it has and it was what provides the reference point for discussing the low points. For anyone who was present in 2004, a ripcorded Tweezer into Number Line can't be that bad really, right? A missed cue in a song or a flubbed lyric can't matter that much in the grand scheme of things. How can a Show of Life encore on 12/31/13 ruin an amazing NYE run and truly spoil the mood? The band is still healthy and together and writing great new music and they'll get it right next time. That's what's important. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Weight of It All

2014 marks the tenth anniversary of what is commonly considered Phish's lowest time as a band.  2004: the year the band "broke up". 2004: the oxy-year. 2004: the year the scene turned. I've recently been listening back through the entirety of 2004 though because there are a multitude of reasons why even if it's not always the best and difficult to wade through some of the time it's still a very important part of both Phish history and its fandom. 

My personal interactions with 2004 tell a story of duality.  I went to four shows in 2004, the SPAC run and Coventry. The two SPAC shows are generally considered to be the high point of 04 and Coventry as the low.  As a 20 year old college student living on the east coast, when 2004 started I realized I wouldn't be able to make it out to Vegas but knew I'd be able to hit up some summer shows.  I became a Phish fan in late 2000 just after the hiatus so 2003/2004 were where I cut my teeth in concerts.  To say I was crushed when I read the reviews in real time of the Vegas shows would be an understatement.  I couldn't understand why the band (and especially Trey) seemed so off.  2003, to me, was a revelation.  The year of my first Phish concert. My freshman year of college. Everything seemed so easy and clear.  And my favorite band was back on the road.  

When Trey announced on Phish.com that the band would be breaking up after their 2004 summer tour, I remember being more confused than anything else. It didn't make sense to come back and then immediately stop again with a new album on the way.  I don't think anyone when it was announced knew just how self-harming Trey had became. I would love for one day there to be an unfiltered interview with the band on 2004 since there seems to be palpable tension in a lot of those shows and with time, reflection can allow for truthfulness to come out. 

To me, it's a bit discouraging that fans sometimes brush all of 2004 aside as a Phish year.  Although it's hard to listen to at times there are still some wonderful highlights and "best of" versions.  When looking back at contemporary reviews of the year, many people seemed to be angry with the way the band was playing and vowed to never see them again after poor showings at concerts and noting how the scene had changed. Just coming into the fandom though, I knew that I, and my friends and other 2.0 kids like me, needed to see everything that I could from that era.  We didn't have memories of NYE at MSG or 97 Cow Funk or Big Cypress.  2004 was really all we had. So trogging up to Coventry was never a question and I gladly waited for 20 hours on I91 because it was that important and necessary.  Everything was still so new to me that this was the only way that I knew how to say goodbye. So although I understand why some people elected not to make that journey or turned around, that's why it never made sense to me. 

Was Coventry the best concert experience ever?  No, of course not. In the moment was I happy with everything played (and the way it was played)?  Not really. But listening back were there moments of awesome improvisation and musicality? Yes! In addition to Wading, which was probably the most honest display of emotion I've seen on stage, Drowned, Bag, Melt, Reba, and Piper are all highly recommended versions.  And while it's not played perfectly (and stopped at one point) Curtain (With) was the pitch perfect encore. Please me have no regrets. 

When the last chords of The Curtain (With) finished up the encore at Coventry I turned to my group of friends I was with and didn't say anything.  None of us did.  What was there to say really?  We thought at that point that was the last song Phish, as a band, would play together.  How do you eulogize a band? How do you end something that was such a big part of our, albeit, young lives at that point?  And that never really started?  So we went back to our campsite, packed up camp, and left that night.  I think that eventually there was some idle chit chat about the weekend, the mud, the band, the crowd but it all was lost in the wind. Something that we all loved had died: painfully and loudly. And it was done.

Looking back on 2013, I think it was the best year of 3.0 by far. The band is currently playing on a level that hasn't been seen since 1998 to me and, as a breath of fresh air, each band member is playing and leading jams.  So the newer fans than me, those that came in between 2004 and now are experiencing a heyday. Each year of 2013 has been better than the previous so it would be easy to discount all of 2.0 as a blip on the radar, an anomaly that can be easily overlooked. I think that doesn't tell the whole story though. A) The highlights in 2004, while being more few and far between, are there.  In every show, there is at least something worth hearing (which'll be coming up soon) And B) I think by going through the trials and tribulations of the year and breaking up, it allowed the band to be in a healthier position when re-forming in 2009. And for the fans, the adage "the sugar never tasted as sweet" comes to mind.  Without the low points, the highs don't seem quite as high.  

But here's the most important thing about 2004. It happened. And although it might not have been always played with technical precision or without perfect jams, it was an integral part of the band.  It's clear, looking back, that the band needed time away. For solo projects. To get clean. To make positive changes. So that when the decision was made in 2009 to get back together it would be the Phish we all fell in love with originally. In that regard, 2004 really wasn't so much a stumbling block as it was a building block.  It's all part of the progression that leads us to today.