She Hate Me checks in with a very awesome review of Phish. Enjoy!
Ahhh, Phish in 2009. I love seeing people’s knowing smiles and head shakes when their name pops up. Everyone has a story about Phish, good or bad, even if you never saw a show. It’s safe to say that most music fans aged 25 – 40 years old fall into one of the following categories:
1) “I am taking a week off of work, buying 2 boxes of glow sticks and driving up to the Wappinger’s Falls Big Day Out Fest to see them play from 8pm to 5am. It’s gonna be amaaaaaazing…”
2) “I’ve seen them 30 times and will likely see them 30 more times, as long as I can get home in time to get up for work the next day.”
3) “Those clowns are still around? I didn’t know the market for jaaam bands playing Cartoon Network sing-a-longs was still so strong.”
4) “You have an extra ticket to Phish? Seriously? I’d like to go, but I am seeing John Mayer in New Haven tonight instead.”
5) “I haven’t seen them since 1995, when someone from college dragged me to a show, but I like to drink brews and rock, so wouldn’t mind getting some perspective on what they are up to these days.”
In short, you either loved them or hated them and much of that opinion had to do with the circus that surrounded them – the dirty hippies selling $5 Sierras on Shakedown Street, the Trustafarians following them around while on a semester break from Hobart College, or the college kids looking for a cannabis-friendly scene to identify with.
Strangely, I never loved nor hated these guys and I still don’t, which is why I was happy to sit on the roof of Jones Beach amphitheatre for the new and improved, sober version of Phish, Mach 2. (Side note: Jones Beach’s music venue gets a bit of an undeserved bum rap. Sitting up top as the sun is setting over the ocean, the bay and inlets all in full view, on a June night, is pretty unbeatable. The main missing ingredient? No alcohol allowed inside. I’m not sure how I didn’t follow my own “How to: Smuggle Whiskey”, but I digress.)
What has kept me from loving Phish for all these years is the lyrics, or more specifically, the horrendousness of the lyrics. I know the lyrics in a Phish song are basically just meant to accompany the music and I know some people might say that “Salt Peanuts” isn’t the most mind-bending lyrical masterpiece ever written either. By focusing on the lyrics I am not missing the “point” of a Phish song. I am saying that the lyrics are generally so bad that it is hard to even listen to a recording of many of their songs.
That said, the fact that they have endured this long and been this successful as a live rock band is a testament to how good the actual MUSIC they play is. As with The Grateful Dead, you can’t judge Phish on anything but their live show. Anything else is just a neutered version of what they are all about. And in the live setting Phish is just a really good rock band. What I realized the other night that I don’t think I got in the mid 90s is that Phish is a ROCK BAND that jams out their songs, not the other way around. For me this is a big distinction, because I don’t remember this being the case when I saw them on the Aquarium Tour in 1994. (The other time I saw them was Halloween 1995 in Chicago, when they covered Quadrophenia, which pretty much freakin’ destroyed the Rosemont Horizon).
Strangely, I see Phish as something very similar to Pearl Jam at this point. I know that's a weird comparison, but both of their live shows are basically just very good club rock that is too rocking to NOT be arena rock. Hearing “Reba” is not really the same as hearing Pearl Jam play “Alive” but it does give you the same sense of nostalgia – like, “I remember listening this song on that tape that was stuck in my 1991 Toyota Corolla hatchback”. Or, “I hate that I can’t even walk down the hall of my dorm without hearing that fucking song”. It’s funny to say this, but “Reba” and “Alive” are basically from the same time and place and yet these two bands were on completely opposite ends of the spectrum in 1991. And while I never got caught up in neither the Pearl Jam frat boy scene nor the hippy dippy Phish hysteria of the early 90s, I grew to like and enjoy both of these bands as time went by and my perceptions of the bands and their respective fan bases became more…how you say…tolerable to me.
Everything gets a tag attached to it, but at their core, Pearl Jam and Phish are classic rock bands with modern tweaks. And so both of these groups, after 20 years of constant touring, have kind of met in the middle. Pearl Jam is much more of a “jam band” than anyone would ever have thought, both with the way their fans follow their tours and sing every word to their songs and with the way they stretch out the tunes live. Phish will always be tagged as a “jam band” and it’s easy to dismiss them and their merry crew of Trustafarians, but that would ignore their place as a damn good live rock band.
The show at Jones Beach was excellent, with truly great moments. Any fan of rock n roll will have a hard time denying the awesomeness of Trey’s overuse of the sustain pedal, bending out the solos and hitting his absurd peaks and shredding through the great lights that accompany their jams. I had seen them twice before and there were always parts of the show that, well, put me to sleep. Not last night. I don’t follow this band very much at all, and I know there has been all sorts of drama and crack addictions and stuff, but the break-up seems to have given them some perspective on their sound. It's now just this really tight rock show, all for the better. My advice: buy a Nitrous balloon, gets some whiskey in your head, and see these guys one last time before you settle in to a constructive summer of Hold Steady and Yeah Yeah Yeahs shows.
Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan*
Cities (Talking Heads)
If I Could
When the Circus Comes (Los Lobos)
Kill Devil Falls*
Loving Cup (Rolling Stones)
** - w/ Whistling