Call it a midlife crisis, call it a case of good luck and logistics rewarding me after difficulty getting tickets in 2015, call it a bit of rejoicing in my 53rd year: I went to five consecutively scheduled Phish shows, in six nights, spending time in four states with three different concert crews in two time zones. I’m visibly exhausted, but mentally elated. I’ve learned my limits (2-3 shows per summer with at least a day off in between, ideally a day without work or travel).
Chicago: A raucous start to the Wrigley shows, with a blistering Chalkdust Torture and a super funky 2001, and a second night in the second city that included a near-perfect Fluffhead and a Piper->Steam jam that covered every modal, tonal and mental staff space available. Toss in a trip to the Chicago Music Exchange, some insanely good BBQ and Italian beef (on top of a sausage, should have been a Meatstick hint) and a ride on the “L” and it was a wonderful way to enjoy a dad-and-lad weekend with my favorite bass player (who also happens to be my recent college graduate son).
Deer Creek/Noblesville: Leaving Chicago at dawn was a hint; the venue is far from downtown; I just couldn’t get the right combination of food, water and rest to make it all click. But got to catch up with an old friend, shared a lot of stories, literally parked next to my cousin whom I’d been chasing all through the Windy City, and saw another impressive show.
Travel Day: I think I worked on Monday but I’m not sure what I did. By Tuesday morning I was repacked and en route to Philadelphia after a solid day of work.
Philadelphia: Shows at the Mann have become something of a summer centerpiece — the same crew pre-gaming, the trip into Philly that is full of anticipation, knowing that the band usually has family members in attendance and always seems to put in an extra effort. This year only raised the bar, with a “Crosseyed and Painless” that knocked my tie-dyed socks off, some new songs, and finally, after six years of chasing, wishing, listening and discussion, a “Meatstick” that was fun, goofy, funky and worthy of being played in a city that boasts of its pork stores and meat sticks.
So why, why, do I grind my knees for 4-5 hours at a show, walk up some insanely tortuous hills, smile when some happily dancing phans bounce off of me, give up sleep, proper hydration and perhaps a bit of hearing above 10 kHz? I think I get the same happy, I’m-glad-to-see-this-gang, sincerely aligned feeling that I used to get at Princeton Reunions; the summer is here and Phish is on tour and for a few hours, nothing else matters. It’s the set list, some jam explorations, some blistering solos, and the tension and release that continues not just intra-song, but through two sets of live music that get twelve to forty thousand people singing, dancing and cheering along for the ride.
Some more thoughts on my summer tour of the tour:
The musicians in Phish truly enjoy working with each other. If we all loved our co-workers, trusted them, and got wonderful, surprising and creative output from them each and every day, the DJIA would be at 30,000.
Those thirty seconds between the house lights cutting out and the first notes of a set opening song embrace and entangle the excitement and mystery of a first date, a surprise party, and seeing an old friend after an absence. You know the dynamic range of possibilities, but the approach and sound and fury are all there to get you by surprise.
After five shows and well over 100 songs, I only heard four songs repeated. Was rewarded with a few songs I had been “chasing,” collecting them the way numismatists look to fill that open circle in the album (Meatstick, Steam, and a Fishman vacuum solo). In any other concert, a drummer in a dress modulating the sucking sound of a vacuum into a microphone would border on the absurd; with Phish it’s just another silly counterbalance to the intensity of the well-craft composed pieces.
After the statue-still pause in “Divided Sky” (Wrigley night 2), I may have shed a tear. I’m in the middle of a musical adventure, in a new city (for me), standing in the upper deck of a storied baseball stadium looking out over a sea of people 20,000 leagues and stories deep, and one of my favorite bands is frolicking – no other word – through a lullaby inspired composed section before tearing off into an inspired bit of soloing. Being there, with my musically inclined (and talented) son, soaking in the summer night and sounds and fragrances (of all types), just hits you in the sentimental bone. “Divided Sky” has been on my “favorite song” ascent for years now. Add to that the fact that Ben and I have heard “Harry Hood” in a majority of our shows together, and it’s becoming a bonding experience — Philly has King of Prussia, Boston has the Hood milk jug in the Fort Point Channel.
I was thinking that the only song I wanted to hear (but didn’t) was “Cities” (more than made up for by the “Crosseyed and Painless” 2nd set Mann 2 opener), after some prompting from Ben I realized I would have also liked a “Ghost” and “David Bowie.” That said, I was so enamored of what I did hear, and how I heard it, that to wish for anything more would be gluttony at the musical buffet.
The mark of an insanely good show is that moment when you think you’ve hit a peak, and then the band pivots into something unexpected but even more wonderful. The mildly bluegrass “Oh Kee Pah” segues to “Suzy Greenburg” and then Fishman and Page are trading fours like jazz musicians in the solo section. “Slave to the Traffic Light” soars and meanders to a major and majorly good conclusion, only to give way to the opening arpeggios of “You Enjoy Myself.” (Mann 1) A near perfect “Fluffhead” comes out of a darkly complex “Tweezer”; the set concludes (you think) with “Harry Hood” but then eases into “Tweeprise.” (Wrigley 2).
All told, it was a great week with great friends, old and new, and a set of shows I will listen to in the depth of winter when I miss the smell of grilled meats, greasy french fries, and spilled beer.