Contagious euphoria consumes fans at Phish
By TIM BODONY
Scene Music Critic
Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio has to wonder how things got this far. Night after night, he presides over an ocean of bobbing heads and flailing limbs, his face displaying a combination of elation and intensity. The band that began by playing "Proud Mary" at a University of Vermont ROTC dance 17 years ago now boasts a cult following that packs arenas and amphitheatres across the country. And they did it by providing listeners with an overall musical experience, not just two hours of loud rock and roll, but an entire subculture based on the pursuit of good grooves and good times.
One has to question whether the "Phish culture" sometimes overshadows the music itself, but nevertheless Phish still receive critical acclaim for their artistic talents. Rolling Stone goes as far as labeling them "the most important band of the `90s."
With all the sideshows and distractions that accompany them, Phish took the stage last weekend at the Allstate Arena in suburban Chicago, and over the course of two nights demonstrated an exceptional ability to leave the traps of rock and roll behind in an effort to create music that defies boundaries and yet maintains a good-humored sense of purpose.
Day One — Friday, September 19, 2000
For many fans, the day got off to an inauspicious beginning thanks to the Rosemont Police Department, which was deployed throughout the parking lots with military-style ferocity. Their campaign of terror brought the normally uninhibited lot scene to a virtual standstill in some areas as spilled beer mixed with rain to drown many fans' spirits.
All attention then rightfully turned to Phish, who filled their first set with uninspired versions of some of their best songs.
The band was spinning its wheels at the starting line with a very sterile version of "Down With Disease," then moving quickly and unimaginatively through classics like "Wilson" and "Slave to the Traffic Light." They redeemed themselves with solid versions of "Bathtub Gin" and the epic "You Enjoy Myself," which features trampoline-aided choreography and stunning light work by technician Chris Kuroda.
But overall, the band seemed tentative and failed to establish a good flow between songs. But things would only get better from here.
It would seem that Trey, self-critical as he is, delivered a Knute Rockne-style speech during the set break, because he and his bandmates came out with much greater focus and intensity.
Keyboardist Page McConnell employed some tasteful Moog work to drive the funk-driven "Tube" and "Ghost," while Trey filled "Reba" with his characteristically smooth and expressive solo work.
A cover of the beautiful and contemplative Los Lobos tune "When the Circus Comes" slowed the pace down before the band served up a heaping helping of "Meatstick," which was accompanied by a dance resembling a prehistoric equivalent to the Macarena. Trey jokingly explained to the audience that on their recent tour of Japan, Phish were surprised to find that the dance had already taken the country by storm. So as tribute to the Meatstick-crazed Japanese youths, drummer Jon Fishman and Page McConnell recited the chorus in Japanese as Trey and bassist Mike Gordon put down their instruments and led the crowd in the dance. The crowd ate it up, and so did the band, as Trey continued to weave the "Meatstick" melody in between the opening bars of "Run Like an Antelope."
After a nod to Hendrix with "Axis: Bold As Love," Phish closed the book on a great second half to a show that suffered from a lackluster beginning. Most notably, the "Meatstick"-"Antelope" combination was a true display of what Phish can be: imaginative, funny and unpredictable.
Day Two — Saturday, September 23, 2000
With the second show of a two-night stand come renewed hopes and expectations. Phish fans are notorious for treating songs like presents on a Christmas wishlist: if Santa didn't bring a "Mike's Song" or a "Harpua" tonight, then maybe he will bring one next time. Like kids on Christmas morning, fans hurried into the Allstate Arena again on Saturday night to see what special treats awaited them. And jolly old Saint Phish did not disappoint.
The surprises began with Phish's first attempt at the Crazy Horse song "Come On Baby, Let's Go Downtown," a steady rocking tune that primed the crowd for the things to come. They shifted from rock to funk with the head-bobbing "The Moma Dance," and then back to rock again with one of the greatest arena tunes of all time — Edgar Winter's "Frankenstein."
Phish is certainly not the archetypal arena rock band with walls of amplifiers and tight pants, so their performance of this tune is almost comical. But as a brief diversion, it works. They maintained the high energy level by closing out the set with three older favorites, capped off by superb version of "Stash" accompanied by a glowstick war. This song has to be considered the Phish trademark, based on its enigmatic lyrics and dramatic composition, which steadily builds a mood of tension leading up to a point of release when Trey's guitar pierces the air with screaming high notes.
The second set picked up where the first let off, with a high-energy "Birds of a Feather" followed by "Tweezer." Unlike their summer show at Alpine Valley, when Trey completely redefined the tune with some amazingly liquid and melodic solo work, this rendition stayed fairly close to the recorded version. The highlight of the set was undoubtedly "Scent of a Mule," which began in normal fashion as an upbeat bluegrass song, and then completely changed directions as Mike and Trey kicked their way into "The Tarentella," transforming the Allstate Arena into a giant Italian wedding reception. But before too many Godfather quotes could be uttered, Mike led the band back into "Scent of a Mule."
After a soaring "Fast Enough for You" and a "Piper" that dissolved into an ambient jam, Phish rocked the set to a close with "Character Zero."
For the encore, Ralphie got his Red Ryder BB gun in the form of the wistful anthem "Sleeping Monkey." Just when the song could have ended, the spotlight fell on Jon Fishman, who delivered two choruses on his own before the band joined in for a few more. Hands were joined and tears were shed. It truly was a fitting end to a weekend filled with unexpected twists and turns.
Over the course of two nights and four sets of music, Phish played only two songs off of their new album, Farmhouse. This fact speaks volumes about the band's unique position in the music world today. Phish does not tour to support an album - they record albums to take a break from touring. Without having to worry about "playing the hits," Phish has the freedom to do anything at any time. And freed from the weight of predictability, fans tirelessly return to Phish in search of new highs, new revelations, or just a good time in the presence of like-minded people. The euphoria is so contagious that even if musical wishes went unfulfilled, everyone leaves the arena feeling content, and thinking ahead to the next time the circus comes to town.
All Scene Stories for Tuesday, September 26, 2000