Where my brain goes when I get impatient for Phish tourdates

Thu Mar 07 2013

Been listening to a lot of Phish lately.

Also geeking out on Phish quite a bit, which for me involves spending way too much time on phish.net and poring through setlists and reviews and such.  It sucks, because there are much more productive ways I ought to be spending my time.  But I just went for like six months without listening to Phish at all, and that’s a long-ass time for me, so I’m stuck in the unhealthy process of feeding a starved obsession.  I’m sure I’ll be all caught up soon.  Maybe if they’d announce dates, it would help.

Anyway, looking at the “jamming charts” on phish.net, you come across these pathetic entries by insecure 2.0 apologists/revisionists who feel the need to state things like “All 2.0 Deniers need to hear this and beg forgiveness for their profound ignorance”, sometimes in all capital letters; gee, NOW I’M CONVINCED.  But of course, they prompt me to go back yet again and listen to some of my favorite ’03-’04 moments.  This endeavor simultaneously reminds me of two things: 1) that there were indeed great moments, and 2) that I feel ill listening to them.

But it also gets my brain onto the done-to-death topic of where the current state of Phish is at.  A certain segment of the community, the segment I’m most in tune with, a segment whose membership quotient I have no estimate of, maintains that Phish 3.0 doesn’t jam enough.  I have to admit I feel somewhat responsible for this (not in reality, but stay with me for a minute).  The biggest problem I had with 2.0 was the pathetic singing and playing of the composed sections of songs, particularly by Trey.  The guy’s well-documented drug addiction (among other things? I obviously can’t know.) caused him to be either unable to play his guitar properly or too apathetic to care enough about his own songs to sing or play them correctly.  I was and still am extremely relieved that they called it quits in ’04 because no Phish at all was a better option than that.  Coventry was fucking awful, and any counter-argument denotes an inability to competently discuss music.

So when Phish returned and, over the course of 2009, found its fins again, I was overjoyed, because the boys were singing in tune, and singing all the words, and playing their songs as if they were in fact professional musicians.  These songs mean an awful fucking lot to me, and the way they butchered them in the post-hiatus era was insulting.

Playing the songs well is not enough, though.  Maybe it’s the nature of Phish fandom, but I’m totally not satisfied.  I can’t help myself: I have been listening to mostly mid-90s Phish lately, and I’ve returned again to the fact that that was a totally different band.  And yeah, evolution is the most important component of blah blah blah, and no, I wouldn’t want them to attempt to recapture blah blah blah.  It’s inevitable that these middle-aged men can’t play their instruments with the same passion and technical skill that they could when they were hungry twentysomethings; I get that.  Except Mike, whose bass playing is at least as good now as it has ever been.  But the crux of the biscuit here is this: Did I get into Phish because they were REALLY GOOD AT PLAYING THEIR INSTRUMENTS?  Not really.

I got into Phish because they royally fucked with my head.  That’s what I want them to do more than anything.  And they’re not doing it lately.

Phish 3.0 is ten times better on a musical proficiency scale than 2.0, there’s no denying that.  The usual one jam per show that actually features full-band exploration is generally ten times more interesting and dynamic than the average 2.0 jam.  The only problem is that in the mid-90s we had precision AND rampant creativity.  I am selfish.  I want everything at once.

I fear that by concentrating so hard on getting things right, playing as many different songs as possible and playing them well, the band doesn’t have enough energy (not to mention enough time committed to rehearsal, what with all the !#?->$% solo projects and, presumably, family time) to focus on improv, on pushing boundaries.  They also don’t have the motivation.  They’re rich.  They’re having fun.  That’s a major improvement from nine years ago, when Phish was a job.  But in the 90s, Phish was a mission.  That’s what’s missing.

That mission: to fuck with people.  Back then, Trey’s vision for Phish was…yes, to blow people’s minds with astounding music, but also, to create a situation wherein a random person walking in off the street to his or her first Phish show would walk out again going, what the fuck was going on in there just now?  Trey’s vision, like almost all rock stars but especially the older ones, now seems to be to incite adoration.  I walk out of Phish shows now going that rocked or that was fun as hell or I’m impressed or even I feel spiritually healed, which are all very good feelings, but I can get those at lots of other shows (just got all four of those from Tame Impala, now that I think about it).  In the 90s, even after I was a fan and basically knew what was going on, there were frequent moments where I would go what the fuck just happened?  And besides maybe Mr. Bungle/Secret Chiefs and Primus once or twice, no other bands could ever do that.

Phish is hugely popular.  Phish sells out four nights at Madison Square Garden in minutes.  All Phish needs to do is begin or end a song, any song at all, or just play a high note on an instrument, and a majority of its audience cheers and claps emphatically.  Phish used to have to work for that.

Still, in 2004, I felt--and still feel--that if that was it, all my friends who missed 1.0 missed Phish.  And it’s a monstrous joy to me not to feel that way any more.  See, I miss the tons of jams, but after revisiting a bunch of 2.0, despite some brilliant moments, my initial assessment of the era still stands: In general, the playing is bad, and the jams are relatively directionless and devoid of peaks.  Lots more jamming, but precious few triumphs on musical merits.  Visceral passion and lucid intent were exceedingly rare exceptions to the rule of listlessness and laziness; the avenues of exploration were overall similar and simplistic in structure.  My favorite jams from 3.0 destroy almost all my favorites from 2.0.  When it comes down to it, I will take the occasional great jam and otherwise well-played tunes over the sloppy crap and copious meandering bullshit jams 100 shows out of 100. 

But in the end, none of it compares to the mid-90s.  I swear I am fine with it, and that in the end it could be a matter of taste that puts 1994 on a pedestal much higher than 2012, and that it’s not impossible to imagine that 2013 could come close to the heights of the halcyon days on a more consistent basis, if they fucking rehearse and play a lot of shows.  All I can say is I’d feel more fine with it all if Phish would just attempt to take an “Antelope” off the beaten path, like way off, or a “Mike’s” or a “Stash” or a “Reba” or a “Tube” or a “Bowie”; it’s no exaggeration to say that every version of these songs from 1994-1997 is better than every version from 2009-2012.  Or get crazy with “Tweezer” more than a couple times a year, or just once get really crazy with “Tweezer”.  I’m sick of things getting a little crazy.  It might boil down entirely to Trey; he’s still sometimes astoundingly good at a couple of his signature styles, but he once had a much richer and more varied arsenal to pull ideas from.  If I could stop listening to 1.0 Phish, I would enjoy this era so much more.  But that would be stupid.  I can’t do that.

It must be hard to be that talented and popular and famous and not be satisfied with yourself; I can’t even imagine.  Hell, in the moment at a show, even I’m satisfied; at this point it’s a musical and spiritual connection so ingrained in me I will never not like it.  I love Phish.  I just sometimes get the feeling that the lead singer and guitarist of Phish isn’t as into Phish as I am.  I don’t get that feeling with any of the other bands I love.  Every year there are more positive, hopeful signs, but honestly, I listened to Deer Creek '09 the other day, and while in terms of pure musicality it's abysmal compared to 2012, it's more blatantly adventurous than most shows from last year; that's sort of not a good sign.  Right now I’m just impatient, right?  I do this every year, and then I walk out of the next show renewed and optimistic and bursting with enthusiasm.  I know.  And I’m still excited to arrive at that truth when it gets here.
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