Monday, August 7, 2017

What’s the Deal with Phish, For Those Who Aren’t Fans (But Love Hamilton)

You may have heard that the jam-rock band Phish just wrapped up a 13-night stand at Madison Square Garden—a run the band has dubbed the “Baker’s Dozen.”  The Garden has been pretty full every night, and as word spread of how hot the band’s playing has been the final few shows have sold out.  With the end of this run, Phish will be in the top handful of bands in terms of the total number of shows at “the world’s most famous arena” (at 52)—keeping company like Elton John, The Grateful Dead, Billy Joel, and the Boss.

When I’ve told friends, work colleagues, and all manner of non-“phans” about the 13 shows; that I’ve come up twice from DC to see a total of four; and that I know a few people doing all dozen (+1); most people react with a bit of bemused curiosity.  Why would anyone go see the same band so many times?  What is it with this weird band and the subculture of people who follow them around?  Didn’t this whole hippie thing die out with Jerry Garcia 20 years ago?

Well, here is my attempt to explain, for the benignly curious.

Each show is completely unique.  For starters, it’s important to point out that Phish will not repeat a single song over its entire 13-night MSG run; so each show will be entirely different than all the others.  They can pull this off because of an extensive catalogue of songs, their willingness to mix in covers (more on this below), and the fact that they at times extend a single song to 25 or 30 minutes—so even with two sets and a good 2.5 hours of music they are not playing as many tunes as another band might in just an hour and a quarter.

From this perspective, seeing Phish 4, 5, or 13 times at MSG is less like going to see Hamilton several times in a row; and more like if Lin Manuel Miranda set up shop at a Broadway theatre for 13 nights and produced an entirely new play each night—mixing together songs you love from his various plays and throwing in some new stuff you’d never expect from him.  If you’re a Miranda fan, you might not be satisfied by going to one show—you might try to get to as many of those as you could.

You’re part of something, not just observing.  Most rock shows—even great ones—are heavily produced.  The Stones or U2 will play a pre-determined list of songs in largely the same way they did the night before and the audience is there to witness.  Sure, there might be a sing-along at some (usually predictable) point; but there’s not that much actual interaction between band and fan.

Not so at a Phish show.  Because the music is intensely improvisational and the band usually doesn’t know what they’ll play before they get on stage, the audience is not behind the metaphorical “third wall” witnessing something preplanned.  Rather the band and the audience are part of a collective experience everyone is helping to shape.  The epitome of this was something from the 1990s called “Big Ball Jam” where the band threw a large inflatable ball out into the audience and based their playing on how the fans manipulate the ball—throwing it around quickly, holding it for a pause, etc.  This is happening in more subtle ways throughout each of their shows—musicians feeding off the energy of the crowd and vice versa.  This is one reason nobody sits down at a Phish show—it just wouldn’t work if the band was playing to a group of politely seated, golf-clapping aficionados.  They’re hosting a party and you’re a valued guest.  Nobody can throw a great party on their own—even the best hosts need their guests to get into it, let their hair down and join the fun.

In this way, the Hamilton example above isn’t quite right.  It’s actually more like if Lin Manuel Miranda was producing 13 different shows and needed you and your friends to help him pull it all together—he’ll actually choose different songs and put a different accent on each riff depending on the vibe in the room.  It’s a pretty fun thing to be part of.

The music builds to euphoric crescendos throughout the night.  Phish specializes in a particular type of somewhat orchestral style—both in their composed music and their extemporaneous playing.  Several times throughout the evening, Trey, Page, Mike, and Fish will take the audience on a journey that builds from a base that can be at times even quiet and contemplative steadily forward through 10 to 15 or even 20 minutes towards a euphoric peak where the whole building is jumping around, screaming, throwing light sticks and generally losing their minds in the best possible way.  This is all helped along by Chris Kuroda who runs the lights and is often referred to as “the fifth member of Phish” because of how he needs to be seamlessly in tune with the musicians to help create the holistic experience that tends towards euphoria.

A friend told me she heard the Phish scene described as a “secular mega-church” and these crescendo jams are our speaking-in-tongues moments.  It can be cathartic and healing.  The same friend told me how her stresses at work melted away as the band took her on this journey at Saturday night’s show.  I’ve long thought that one reason Americans are more church-going than residents of other countries is that we don’t have any other place in our culture (like soccer games, pubs) for singing together, which I think is a primal human need.

The vibe is fun, creative, and communal—not snobby.  Each member of Phish is a virtuoso at his instrument, and fans are known to endlessly dissect the music in the chat rooms, etc.  Like in any subculture, some Phish fans can get competitive about how many shows they’ve seen or passionate about exactly which era of the band’s history or version of their favorite song is the pinnacle.  But, most people are just happy to be there and the band doesn’t take itself too seriously, and this comes through clearly at the shows. 

One example from this MSG run sums it up nicely.  As noted, the band dubbed the 13 shows the “Baker’s Dozen” (buy 12 tickets and get your 13th free); each show has been themed around a donut flavor and featured songs related to that flavor.  Saturday, 8/5’s theme was “Boston Cream,” so everyone was expecting them to cover songs by Boston and Cream.  What they did was play a “More Than a Feeling” / “Longtime” medley squeezed into the middle of a hard-rocking “Sunshine of Your Love,” ultimately melding the songs together into a fun, creative jam.  Afterwards lead singer and guitarist Trey Anastasio quipped “we put together this whole thing just so we could do that.” 

For Halloween, the band puts on a “musical costume” and covers an entire essential album by a great band (I got to see the Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main Street” in 2009).  For New Years, they often pull elaborate stunts or pranks.  The drummer occasionally plays a vacuum cleaner as a musical instrument on stage.  One song routinely features Trey and Mike jumping up and down on trampolines.  This is not a band that gets too precious.

Out in the audience the snobs who would judge you for being a newbie are few and far between.  The general atmosphere is generous and communal.  People talk to their neighbors (not during the show, please); find out where they’re from, share beer, water, and…other stuff; and a seating section often feels like a party of new friends-for-a-night.  When it’s all over people wish their new friends well and hope to cross paths again at another show.

There is an important caveat to this: a Phish show is an overwhelmingly white scene.  For people of color and white folks who care a lot about racial equity it’s quite a bit more complicated than what I’m describing above.  Phish fans are generally a pretty progressive, chill group of white people but that of course doesn’t mean there aren’t blind spots, white privilege (open consumption of drugs without consequence, anyone), and everything else that comes along with a culture where whiteness is a monolithic default around which anyone else needs to navigate.  I don’t think this whiteness has particularly sinister origins—the band consists of four white members from Vermont, one of the whitest states in the nation, so it’s not surprising they would build a primarily white fan base.  But it is complete enough that it builds upon itself such that people of color may not feel comfortable at the shows.  The Phish / jam band community would do well to put some serious thought into how to make our beloved scene (which can feel like a tribe in some good ways) a more welcoming space for people of all backgrounds and types.

There are also a hell of a lot more dudes than women—it’s one of the few places where you’ll see the men’s bathroom lines snaking much longer than the women’s (a bit of poetic justice).  As far as I can tell the sexism / misogyny that tends to come along with that is fairly well in check but I’d be interested in what my women Phish fan friends think of that and as I’m writing this I’m realizing I’ve never had the decency to ask—I should get on that.

They go all out for their fans.  The care and creativity put into the Baker’s Dozen (complete with a free theme-night donut upon entry) is exemplary of the general attitude Phish has towards its fan base.  Every two-to-three years they’ll stage a multi-day festival (one of the few bands who can pull that off with no other acts on the bill) where this comes out in full force.  In addition to three straight nights of great music there will be art instillations, rides (a big Ferris wheel at a recent festival) daytime and “secret” late-night sets, and (critically) aggressively clean port-a-potties.  The fans are coming for the music, not the extras—so they could pocket plenty more cash if they went barebones; but it appears they genuinely care about their fans’ experiences and want everyone to have as much fun as possible.  Bassist Mike Gordon is even known for riding around festivals in a golf cart and saying hi.

The music, the music, the music.  Last, and MOST (not least), Phish is a great rock-and-roll band that has been together for nearly 35 years, filled with members who are brilliant individually and deeply connecting to each other, and is playing at or near the peak of their game.  What they are doing musically right now is certainly special and possibly historic.  Jam bands might not be your thing, but if you’re a music fan generally this is something at least worth checking out.

When you add it all together you get an experience that is unique, collective, and euphoric.  It’s hard to appreciate what’s going down “in the room where it happens” unless you’re actually there.  So, next time Phish comes to your town, consider giving one show a try.  It might not be your thing, but I’ll bet when you leave you’ll at least understand why other people are so into it.  And, you never know…one show just might turn into 13. 

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