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.