My Thoughts on Phish as 2011 Closes

The following ramble goes on for far too long.  It’s been building inside me all week.  I’m sorry to burden you to even read it.  You don’t have to.  But I’d love to hear if any of you have the same inner conflict I do.

So, this has been an interesting year for me, Phish-wise.  I saw more shows in 2011 than I have since 1998, at just 10.   With the 1/1 Simple and the 12/31 Ghost that is appreciated just the right amount as teasers, I thought the band had proven that they were capable of the highest peaks again. In the moment, when you’re there, you don’t need context. Those jams stood on their own and proved that Phish was capable of monster moments that leave even the most jaded happy.

After they came out blazing at Bethel, I thought they could do no wrong.  But the next few shows were “meh” comparatively.  Now, I’m a fluffer.  I want every show to be spectacular.  I want to find the good in each show.  And usually, if I’m in attendance, I find 3-4 songs that really make me happy.  Holmdel 2 felt like a letdown, for the most part.  With few highlights, even the flop of the previous night had some juice with After Midnight and Drowned (I think it was Drowned).  Meanwhile, Phish went on to drop DTE and Riverbend, which were pure fire.  When I next joined them in Alpharetta, there were highlights, sure, but mostly forgettable in the long run.  The moment amazing moment in Alpharetta was the interesting Mound, interesting mostly because it was “half Mound”, and then “other half Mound.”  The other memorable moment was the almost-genius segue of Carini >| Sand.  Thankfully, Charlotte felt like a rebirth with the awesome BDTNL > Ghost > R&R, which felt like the best and most satisfying candy, and the fun of Icculus.  Raleigh had Peaches and the Been Caught Stealing bustout (even if it was mostly painful).   Portsmouth had the amazing Harpua, Brother opener, my top 2 wishlist songs, and featured an amazing Slave, a top notch Sand, and a few other gems.  Superball had a ton of highlights.

Then came leg 2, and for the most part, I was let down.  A few highlights, but the Tahoe Light that everyone raved about left me perplexed.  Sure, there were moments, like the blue-ball of the the Tahoe Jim.  But mostly, I was feeling like Trey was ripcording regularly.  Somewhere along the way, I realized that after Portsmouth, something happened: I stopped chasing songs and started chasing the right jams.  I’ve made this argument before but this time, I really meant it.  And while Phish often delivered these moments of joy, in between was a lot of the same stuff.

After Dick’s, where Phish played a Tweezer that probably is top 3 – if not THE – jam of the year for me, I was primed for Essex.  I thought it would be the best Phish experience ever.  Small venue, in Vermont.

The Essex experience was awesome: I hung with cool people, had a ton of laughs and a great time, and saw my favorite band.  But even though there were great moments at the show – Carini, Julius(!), Slave, Wolfman’s – the fact is, it was the first time I realized that being there made no appreciable difference, music-wise.  And that rotten spirit carried with me.

Had I been at 12/28 or 12/29, I would have been happy enough.  I would’ve gotten one new song each night, which would’ve made me happy.  But overall, on the webcast, I was just disappointed.  And someone on the list said it right: I no longer need to be at every show.  Phish just isn’t a band putting on “can’t miss it!” moments every night.

Meanwhile, I’ve had this love affair with another band that shall not be named.  They’re great, but the reason I’ve fallen for them is also because they’re making me feel what Phish once was: they practice until they’re so sharp you can’t even tell when composition ends and improv begins.  Their setlists are crazy – they finish a song in the middle of the second set from the beginning of the first set.  Their antics are amusing.  They bust out random covers frequently and have a huge 800+ song catalog.  They change the style of their songs.  They embrace technology. Sound familiar?

I’ve realized that it’s really mostly Trey that has soured me.  He’s let me down.  I listen to all four musicians, but Trey was the guy who led the band.  Trey’s screaming tone made me want to burn every cent I had following them through Europe in 1998, and guess what? It felt like a good idea, even afterwards!

Meanwhile, Mike’s band is so ridiculously hot right now, they can pretty much do no wrong by me.  Fishman is so talented it makes me vomit.  Page fills out music like Zerbo fills out a pair of sweat pants after a sushi binge – every millimeter is occupied.  But Trey just can’t, or maybe won’t, get on point.

So I went to Atlanta to see Trey on 11/11.  I flew up and stayed at a hotel.  The trip cost me maybe $500.  So to see Trey do a mostly average show with literally ZERO moments that stand out a month and a half later, especially juxtaposed with my 1999 experience that was also small club, the one that put me on blood pressure meds from the world-rocking of First Tube, the song that literally become my online identity via, was just a spit in the face.  I left the Trey show thinking “Holy shit, Jen Hartswick and Chainsaw can play some damned horn!”

MSG wraps up a year with ONE new original (Can that be right? Just Steam?) Trey used to lock himself in a barn and write 50 genius songs to Tom’s words.  Now, we get a band that gets up and can’t play their new material (Sugar Shack? Notsomuch), ignores their recent material (Did you know Phish released an album called Undermind? And another called Round Room! It happened, check Wikipedia!), and rushes through most of their core stuff (CDT, Piper, Cavern, Golgi, YEM…all played about 3 times too fast).   There are about 6 songs I like to think are great platforms in 2011 (Gin, Tweezer, Wolfman’s, Stash, Ghost, Rock and Roll), and very few that are truly revolutionary.  And then they release the gorgeous Hampton 97 and all I can think it “WTF happened?! Look what they used to do!

The problem for me is that while Phish can still deliver the highest peaks, they do so mostly infrequently.  So I’ve opted, lately, to go for more admittedly lower peaks, as other band is delivering nightly.  Give me as much shit as you want, but I did used to believe that every Phish show was unmissable.  I wished I could’ve gone nightly.  Now? Couch Tour is pretty okay most of the time.  Raras is right: 2011 had a LOT of highlights.  But the highlight reel from the 40-odd shows they played this year doesn’t inspire me like the highlight reel of ages past. I’m content to hear most of it the next day. I’ll still spend a lot of money with LP. But I don’t know that I’ll travel to VT one afternoon and rush home and be at work the next day after lunch. Maybe I’m just getting old – possible, sure – but maybe I’m just getting clearer.  I can’t even find it in me to fluff these shows, they are measurably worse when compared to Phish shows of another era.

MSG night 1’s Cities moved me.  It made me SO happy.  And then it just… evaporated.  And sure enough, I never felt that high again through night 2.  I didn’t even stream night 3, I opted for a different stream that made me smile several times.

Now, I’m sorry to carry on like this, really, but my love level for Phish is in the shitter right now.  They’re still, of course, my favorite band, and I still think every Phish is still about an 8/5-9 on the “general concert quality scale”, but I really think Trey is checked out.  I accept that he has things that are more important. I get that being sober and having a family are his priority, and agree with it.  I also get that he seems to be enjoying his performances, as are MANY MANY other people.  But I live in FL.  Every show I see is a massive financial commitment.  And, for me, the need to rush out and spend a grand to see Phish once or twice has dwindled to almost 0.  I’ll see them next year, I know this for sure, but I already KNOW I’m going to Chicago at least once.   I’m not lying when I say I’d be more excited to see Barika, which is a side project OF a side project right now.

Someone say something to change my mind.  Tell me I’m being unreasonable.  Someone tell me that I’m crazy.  Because I want to be wrong.