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.