Speak Into My Good Eye

Live Review: An Educated, Non-Phan Encapsulation Of Phish’s PNC Bank Arts Center Jam Fest

bnuse July 15, 2013 Live, Reviews 4 Comments


On Wednesday, July 10th I saw my first Phish show at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel. When I told my friends and family members who are not fans of the band that I was going to see or had seen Phish, the majority of the responses I received were questions not about the band or the music, but about drugs.

“What kinda drugs did you do?” and “How high did you get?” were two of the most common. The most frequent, by far, was most interestingly and at the crux of this essay, “Did you need to get high to enjoy it?”

This question goes much deeper than the surface level. First, it reveals the prejudice of the asker towards the band and their fans. To be fair, all music comes with preconceptions (i.e. classical is boring, jazz is snobby, pop is prefab trash, etc.), but few are as damning and dismissive as the idea that you have to be significantly impaired, or significantly stupid, to enjoy jam music in general, or Phish in particular. Second, it recognizes that Phish shows are more than just concerts.

To be fair, all concerts are more than musical performances (i.e. the fashion show at the annual Met Gala, the tribalism at punk rock and metal shows, etc.), but few are as celebrated and celebratory as going “Phishing”. The enjoinder “have a good show” is an admission of awareness of this fact. Most audiences (with jazz enthusiasts being the most notable exception) tend to regard the reception of a performance as a passive act on their part (“You do the work, Mr/Ms Musician”), but Phish fans deviate from this idea putting an extraordinary amount of time, money, and effort into what can accurately be called their passion (phassion?).

Audiences at Phish shows can be categorized thusly:

1: Those who are actually there for the music.
2: Those who are there for the drugs/party.
3: Those who are there for both.
4: Onlookers.

To answer smug teetotalers we can safely say, “no, not everyone needs to be high to enjoy Phish’s music,” and during the first set I was among them. The entire set, with the exception of their awful attempt at a slow delta blues song (mainly the fault of lead guitarist Trey Anastasio’s complete ignorance of the style), was very well done. They seemed determined to upset preconceptions: keeping the songs energetic, the jams concise and with clear directionality, and the vocal parts well-within their workaday ranges. The last song of the first set, “Suzy Greenberg,” was the best of the night, with one of the better sing-along choruses I’ve ever heard. My expectations were very high for the second set.

The first song of the second set, an elongated take on Talking Heads’ “Crosseyed & Painless”, was OK, but the second one was a wreck. Other concertgoers have suggested that the band got high or drunk in between sets, and this wouldn’t surprise me. The clichéd joke among musicians who partake in forbidden substances is that the stuff only makes you sound better to yourself. I know this to be largely true. While I do not know exactly what Phish did in between sets to ruin their creative and critical faculties, I at least hope it was the good stuff.

Trey’s once competent vocals suddenly made Ringo Starr sound like Pavarotti. The once pithy improvised parts became sloppy, long, and boring. No, I don’t have a problem with long compositions (my favorite opera, Wagner’s Gotterdammerung, is about six hours long, and I’ve seen it three times). Several of this set’s songs were abruptly aborted, cut off once the energy totally ran out. Some were simply out of sync. Jon Fishman fell between an 8th note and a 16th note behind the beat more than a few times. To get a little more theoretical, at some points in the jams the band seemed to actively disagree on the most fundamental questions of structure and phrasing, with Trey being the most vociferous and defiant. He kept holding off and actively refusing cadences even though the harmonic structure seemed to demand them, and the rest of the band seemed to want them. His solos were particularly uninspired, and I intentionally use that word. He committed the worst possible sin an improviser can commit: falling back on crutches and stock phrases, and seeming lost while trying to come up with anything original. His solos could be diagrammed like this:


At some point in his soloing Trey stumbled upon the famous I-#IV-V motif from Leonard Bernstein’s “Maria”, but he played the second part of the phrase incorrectly every time. He inserted it randomly into other songs and solos where it made no musical sense, but functioned as some sort of patronizing inside joke with the crowd. Phish also proved the wisdom of an unspoken rule of rock n roll: don’t cover the mighty Zeppelin. Phish did their best to do their often employed cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Good Times Bad Times”, and, in fairness, it was an admirable attempt, with well-met response by the crowd. But there was something distinctly lacking in their rendition. From my years of intensive musicological training, I believe I can say with some certainty that the missing component was “balls”.

It wasn’t just the band who seemed to be going through the motions during the second set – the crowd seemed distinctly not into it. During the first set the majority of crowd rocked and/or rolled, but during the second set they shuffled around, more interested in each other and in exploring astral rather than musical planes. Perhaps fatigue had set in. Anyone who has recently spent time in New Jersey knows how unbearably humid and taxing the weather has been. Undoubtedly some of the fans had been tailgating and pregaming all day, so their exhaustion is understandable. Still, it was quite uninspiring, and lent credence to the idea that at least a large number of them were present for extra-musical experiences.

When the band announced their last number around 11:00 the crowd was revitalized, and the encore was the casus belli of the largest glowstick war of the evening. The two-song encore ended around 11:30, and then came the most trying part of the night: trying to leave. My friend Chelsea mused that even stoned hippies drive like assholes when trying to get out of the Arts Center. Also, the amount of trash and pollutants that hippies thoughtlessly leave behind is outright astounding.

A concertgoer whose spirits were raised by spirits told me that “bullshit never sounds better than when it’s believed by friends.” This is probably the secret to Phish’s success. Very few bands can boast fanbases more loyal, enthusiastic, and as willing to do homework as Phish’s, and none are probably as skilled at or dedicated to proselytizing. They are not aggressive, unbearable witnesses, but kindly, warm, inviting monks who invite you to join the community and attain the happiness and enlightenment that graces their informal collectives.

Contrary to the stupid stereotype, Phish fans are not (all) dimwitted twits. In fact, the most dedicated Phish fan I know just received his degree in aerospace engineering. Many of them are quite charming, and eager to share stories and substances. When they tell you to have a good show, they stand ready to assist. A Phish show is a party to which all are invited (though non-white people, by and large, don’t take them up on the invitation). For the non-diehard (die-easy?), a Phish show is like a costume party. There are the wooks who actually do dress and act and smell like this in everyday life, but most attendees are otherwise clean, well-behaved, productive people who take the opportunity to dress and behave like the no-good-sum-bitch hippies who now exist only in memory and on film or paper. It is a chance to play flower child for an evening while getting to be a respectable adult the following morning.

The most important question, and one I was also asked, is: is a Phish show worth it for someone who isn’t a fan? My ticket cost me $51, and at that price I cannot recommend much, except Macallan whisky. Other people at the show complained that the crowd seemed dead. I, ever the hard worker, turned down many generous offers to have my consciousness enhanced, not that I think I would have necessarily enjoyed the music itself much more. I’ve found that the idea that drugs will make you enjoy what you normally wouldn’t to be not entirely true. At best they will make great music even greater and bad music more tolerable, if only because they cripple critical capacities.

If you can find your tickets for less and friends to go with, a Phish show should be enjoyable. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel ripped off, but I’d also be lying if I said that it I wouldn’t give it another shot under more recreational, cheaper circumstances.

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  1. Dave July 16, 2013 at 6:53 am

    This isn’t a terrible article written from an outsiders perspective, but several of your assumptions are just false. To wit, one of them: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OVvqD8EAJBw. Trey’s been sober for like 6 years and there are no drugs or alcohol backstage at Phish shows since they returned from their breakup in 2009.

    Also, the band did not fall apart in the 2nd set. Second sets are structured differently at Phish shows, with more open ended playing and different types of songs. Sometimes this can be jarring to the uninitiated. Check out some reviews from those who have experience in this context at phishthoughts.com and onlinephishtour.com

  2. Zachary Adam Cohen July 18, 2013 at 4:37 am

    ur a giant schmuck

  3. Phrank July 19, 2013 at 1:12 am

    I agree with the two fellows who commented before me. Its obvious this was your first show. Next time, stay home.

  4. Zound July 29, 2013 at 3:18 pm

    This is poorly constructed criticism – you are attempting to apply criteria from other musical forms (classical, blues) to a form you know very little about without making any significant effort to explore this genre on it’s own terms. Your bias against the scene is completely transparent and really it just serves to undermine your flimsy assertions about the music. Clearly your ears need some training as well.

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