Number Three

Sat Dec 22 2018

Phish | Rosemont | 26-28 October

This entry was supposed to be about Curveball. Instead, Curveball ranks as the worst concert experience of my entire life. It’s not just the wasted time and money and anticipation; it’s the music that would’ve existed but now never will. This is something that non-Phishheads will never understand; if U2 or Radiohead or any other band cancels a show or even a festival, big fucking deal; they’ll play all those same songs they would’ve played some other time. A Phish festival—particularly following the precedent set by Magnaball in 2015—is going to birth music as well as a powerful collective energy experience that will be unlike any other. And there’s no way to make up for what failed to occur.

Those of us who were already there when the festival got cancelled felt as bad for the organizers and artists as we did for ourselves, I think. At first I felt awful for the band as well, but they got over it in no time. Phish Inc. moved quickly, offering us first dibs at buying merch from the event that didn’t happen, and the opportunity to watch people on TV do what we wished we could be doing—for free! Within a couple days, Mike was back to posting goofy photos on twitter, and smug fans who had tickets for Dick’s were declaring those shows an opportunity for redemption—for themselves?—and begging for a special extra set.

In hindsight, that could’ve actually been cool, for those who were there, maybe even for people webcasting. At least bonus music would now exist. Instead, Phish played three very average 3.0 Denver shows, with a handful of cool moments and a ton of their generic soaring happyjams. Not a peep even acknowledging that they remembered Curveball, and no trace of the dark, experimental playing that had crept into the music throughout the summer. But whatever; maybe the point they were making was “don’t give it another thought; Curveball wouldn’t have been that great anyway”.

I had already stopped giving it much thought, honestly, but they wasted little time before the announcement of the return of Phish’s all-inclusive Mexico getaway concerts for February 2019, which normally I shrug off, but it felt like a slap in the face this time, not necessarily to me, but the fact is…

Let me lay out for you what Phish is: an addiction. Sadly, after all these years, there’s no other band that comes anywhere near providing the quality high that Phish sells. And they’re barely even trying any more. But the scarcity of the product has inflated demand; more and more people are getting hooked, and Phish produces less and less. When most of us first tried Phish, it was plentiful; multiple times a year, there it was, right in our back yard. This past summer, for the first time since the ‘80s, Phish came nowhere near us. As a consequence, there were people banking all their vacation time and budget on this single trip, only to be denied that only chance at a fix. All they got was a quick note on the internet “written by the band” about how sorry Phish were and how they understood the sacrifices that were made.

And oh by the way, to our wealthier fans: Come party with us in Mexico! Enn Bee Dee!

Every time they do this, fans bitch, and other fans go “quit whining ya big babies”, and that’s because, while the vast majority of fans would call themselves liberal or leftist or whatever, that key component of empathy is usually absent in people who can afford to do without it. Hey, screw you, don’t hate me just because I’ve succeeded at capitalism! And like I said, normally I roll my eyes at all of it, but this year it served to spotlight the lack of empathy coming from the members of Phish themselves. Yes yes, I agree, they don’t owe us anything. They can play however many shows they want; at least it’s more than Radiohead! It comes back to the same thing: They don’t owe us anything, but to knowingly create this massive demand for your product, and then simply to not deliver it, or to make it increasingly available only to your well-to-do fans, is, well, not very nice.

Here’s the one area where I do like to trumpet U2 (sorry!), because they’ve created probably the greatest concert demand over the past three decades of any band on Earth, and how do they respond? By playing a ton of shows all over the world every time they tour. You know what else they do? They have a fan club, which is largely a silly, outdated concept, but for the paltry sum of forty bucks per year, I get the opportunity to purchase whatever seats I want for whatever show I want, every tour.


Christ, even Radiohead has a fan club. It’s nowhere near the sort of guarantee you get with U2 (and it’s free), but at least you have a shot. What Phish has is the biggest load of bullshit of any band in existence. It was a fantastic system back when their fanbase was much smaller and corrupt ticket vendors and scalpers didn’t have quite such a stranglehold on the industry. And maybe that’s part of the deal: Phish are so well insulated from the business side of the operation that they have no idea how popular they are. Almost a decade into this reunion, it’s all only possible because they’ve washed their hands entirely of pragmatic concerns of their fans. Here, put your name into this “lottery” with thousands of bots and brokers and fans, and we will never, ever grant you what you request. Okay, I admit, in the course of these ten years and close to fifty requests, there was one time that I “won” a purchase of a good ticket to one low-demand show. For high-demand shows, which most are today, I’ve never been granted a single ticket.

Take New Year’s Eve at Madison Square Garden, for example. It’s become a running unfunny joke; the glorious opportunity to shell out close to a grand for a pair of tickets to each night of the run is on par with a miracle. Year after year, “We regret to inform you that you did not get the Phish tickets that you requested.” Imagine being in a position where you do that to the majority of your fans year after year and don’t even care. And following that failure, it’s good old Ticketmaster the following Friday, which everyone knows is a wide-open scam factory. But who cares? Your rich fans will find a way to get in, and as for the rest, here’s the world’s smallest violin.

Yes, I gave the lottery a shot this year, again, and my favorite part of the rejection email was this little note at the bottom: “A limited number of travel packages (which include hotel and tickets) are currently on sale at www.whatever”. Allow me to translate that part for ya: “Since you were not one of the first dozen or so people to receive this email, even if you are cool with dropping three grand on one of these packages, too bad; the good seats are sold out already.” Cha-ching!

As you can see, the state of Phish is that they’ve disappeared up the asshole of their own incomparability. A nice problem to have! Have you read words like these before? Good, I’ll keep barfing them up until something changes, but nothing will, because whatever power we might have in attempting to effect change has been unavoidably compromised by the aforementioned addiction. What’s worse, if Trey’s entourage fends off every possible fan complaint before it reaches his ears, or if he catches wind but throws his hands up in the air? It doesn’t matter; he can’t even be bothered to practice his own songs, or DISCUSS THE BAND’S SHOWS WITH THE BAND. Phish is more a set of exclusionary rules than an agent of free will these days; within the strict parameters they’ve set for themselves regarding how they can function, they’ve eliminated the possibility of reaching anywhere close to their full potential, because they are really good as they are, and that’s good enough.

Which brings us to what I will just call Rosemont. The mere mention of that word takes me back to eighteen years ago, a weekend that will live in infamy in my memory forever, because two of my best friends went to those shows but I was too broke to join them; I think the shows were sold out, but I don’t really remember. Instead I stayed with another of my best friends who lived nearby and proceeded to get belligerently drunk both nights to the point that said friend and I didn’t speak for I don’t know how long afterwards. Yeah, we eventually patched things up, and I eventually learned to stop drinking so much; Bee Eff Dee, right? Except at the time, an indefinite hiatus loomed; Phish 1.0 would only play ten more shows after those Rosemont ones, and little did we know, but the band would never be the same again.

Things are different now. I mean, in reality I’m way more broke now than I was then; it’s just that I’ve agreed to let a cartel of banks own me in exchange for things like education and a place to live, and “credit”. As such, when I was as usual denied the opportunity to purchase the tickets I requested for these Rosemont shows, I saw that note at the bottom of the rejection email, which informed me that travel packages would go onsale tomorrow. Imagine that, giving everyone a fair shot at them! Well, naturally; these shows were still far from sold out, but hallelujah, we secured our coveted GA floor tickets for all three nights, plus lodging.

What I’m getting at is that I’m one of the privileged assholes now. No, I’m not wealthy in any American sense of the word, but if it were that important to me, I could fly to Mexico for a Phish vacation, or cough up the dough for scalped MSG NYE tickets. But fuck that. What a bunch of shit that only people like me (and “up”) can afford Phish’s premium products. This is not what this fucking band should be about. In my head I was gonna do the festival, Rosemont, and NYE this year; in the end, I felt kinda guilty even doing these three shows after blowing so much money and vacation time on jack squat in August. The beauty of Phish used to be that any wook might show up on any given Tuesday, make enough cash selling grilled cheese to get in, and wind up seeing an all-time jam. Nowadays, either you live close to where the members of Phish live, or you drop at least a month’s rent to catch a predictable marquee run.

And fuck it all, it’s always worth it. When I said Phish is an addiction, I didn’t mean it was bad for you.

It’s just that as privileged as I am, I apparently haven’t been successful enough yet to lose my empathy. I honestly feel for the kids who would like to experience a summer of road trips and lot vending for epic jams but weren’t born in time, who wanna see New Year’s Eve Phish but it’s utterly out of reach unless they win the lottery. I mean, imagine having tens of millions of dollars in the bank; you capitalize yourself right out of any chance at empathy, I bet. I can remember the early ‘90s, when Trey was all about precision playing and messing with people’s minds, and then the late ‘90s, when it was “I couldn’t fuckin’ care less if we missed a change, or a number of changes. It doesn’t have anything to do with it for me. It’s all about energy.” And then you have 2018, when Trey’s all about “everything’s right so just hold tight” and “we’re gonna rage with Page at the dying of the light”. Or perhaps most telling, regarding politics: “I really couldn’t give a fuck.” I can’t fathom the profound lack of human empathy required to say something like that. Even the most mild-mannered people I’ve ever known give a fuck these days.

We weren’t thinking about Curveball or Mexico or politics when we walked onto the Rosemont lots on Friday evening. We got in line about an hour before the show started, and we were in that line for about an hour and a half. Clearly someone did not give a fuck; this was the first time in my life I’d ever missed the beginning of a Phish show. But again, once inside, to the strains of Reba, all was forgiven. After all these years, it’s so easy to slip into the flow. And even having missed the beginning of the narrative of the show, the journey didn’t feel incomplete; sure, we missed out on the opportunity to sing “Oh Wilson, some day I’ll kill you ‘til you die” in the opener, but we made up for it in the encore singing “I must inquire, Wilson: CAN YOU STILL HAVE FUN?”

That Reba we walked in on was a pure delight. Who needs Martian Monster or Axilla anyway? When they went into Mercury my spirits weren’t even dampened; let’s just see what happens, I said. Legitimate first-set jams, folks, are a big part of what made this tour the best 3.0 tour yet, and here was a beaut, spilling out into fucking Moonage Daydream, ooooooh yeaaaah. By setbreak it was my turn to grab beers, but I balked, watching the glut of humanity mobbing the concessions and bathrooms. Okay, if they open the second set with Fuego, I’ll run then, I said. If it’s Tweezer, forget it. Whoops. I didn’t even catch a Tweezer in 2017, so last year basically didn’t even happen for me. But they’d just played it on Sunday; what are the odds?

Forty minutes or so later, I went and got beers, after a Tweezer>Golden Age combo that had satiated my every need for this weekend. Well except for that earth-shaking Tweeprise that ended the show of course. Front to back, even having missed the very front, it was one of my favorite Phish shows I’ve ever attended.

Saturday was an unavoidable letdown, but it only took ten minutes to get into the venue (WHYYY), so that was nice, and the first set’s Vultures>Roses Are Free combo built into one of the most stunning band-crowd climactic experiences I have ever felt. That final peak of Roses was a complete overload of sound and energy. And don’t let’s forget that the best jam of the weekend occurred in Saturday’s second set: No Men In No Man’s Land took us all so far out into space that I’ll wager nobody remembered what song we were in by the time its viscous funk-reggae stew slinked into Steam. That’s where the trouble began, though; squeezing both Steam and Fuego into a second set is just plain annoying, and unfortunately, there was no heroic improv left in them after No Men. Not that it really matters after an epic like that; it was the type of sorcery we sometimes forget they’re still capable of in the modern era.

There were a lot of expectations to overcome on Sunday, generally considered a guaranteed church service in 3.0. Remember when I was ripping on Phish’s get-out-the-vote anthem Everything’s Right five minutes ago? Yeah, they opened with that. Not only are the lyrics downright insulting, there’s nothing resembling a decent melody to be found, and the riff it’s built on is so unimaginative and dull it’s almost impossible to tell what Trey’s even playing when he starts it up. Once we got through the vomitous song proper, I steeled myself against the cynicism that was rising in me. Maybe there are fans out there who need this sort of candyland psychiatry to get through the night sometimes. And me, I can dance myself out of almost anything. So off we went. Then a fantastic rendition of Mike’s beloved Destiny Unbound. Cynicism drained out of me right up until the opening strains of Petrichor. God dammit, they abandoned Time Turns Elastic years ago, yet Trey persists in forcing this godawful 17-minute prog-lite turd into our ears. It was a barely-tolerable New Year’s stunt one time. I sincerely I hope I caught the very last performance of this song.

In real time, though, I didn’t even let it get me down. After all, we’d just grooved through a Tube complete with I’m A Man jam, and we were about to cruise into setbreak via I Always Wanted It This Way—yes, a Page song. Page, as in the only member of Phish consistently contributing good songs in the 3.0 era, songs like Home and Beauty Of A Broken Heart and especially Most Events Aren’t Planned (yeah it’s an old song but it’s a new Phish song and it blows away almost everything Trey has written this decade). I was really hoping to hear this last tune this weekend; they could’ve squeezed in two if they’d just skipped fucking Petrichor but this was my first IAWITW and I loved it. It was one of those sets that’s half junk and half earning forgiveness for even wanting to play the junk.

Set II was that whole church thing I was talking about. For the fourth consecutive year, Phish began their last set of their Chicago and/or Alpine Valley run with Carini. I wouldn’t have it any other way, personally. During this song, a naked dude in the section next to us got escorted out by the authorities. I wonder if someone strips naked during every performance of Carini. Then they played No Quarter, a song that Zeppelin used to stretch to a half hour or more but Phish never really jams—until tonight! Ahaaa, I had been hoping this would happen ever since they first played it. Eventually segueing like butter into Cities, well, it just had to happen, what can I say. A giddy Gotta Jibboo dance party, and then Twist, the third Farmhouse tune of the night. Wow did this song go sideways quick, sinking into the sort of thick, intuitive interplay between the four guys onstage that is the reason I got onboard back in the ‘90s. I could’ve swum in that for an hour, but in a rush of emotion, I heard an ascending melody coming from the guitar, and in a sudden swoop, it was What’s The Use?! I don’t have any appropriate words right now for why this wordless song is so important to me. You could probably poke around in old things I’ve written and piece together part of the puzzle but the rest is buried way inside me I imagine. The cool thing was how Trey teased the second section and they still managed to slip fairly smoothly into the beginning of the song. The other cool thing was that it really felt like a coda to the Roses from last night; the melodies are similar, except WTU steps back downward after the highest note, the overall mood yearning rather than triumphant. Sometimes they toss this song off like some trinket in a first set and I get convinced that it means nothing to them. Tonight suggested otherwise, but what do I know. Afterwards, they went back into Twist, fine, and then played this ballad called Shade that normally I can’t stand, but I was really missing my wife at this moment and, well, I connected with the dumb song, thereby undermining any credibility I’ve ever enjoyed as a music critic.

Time was running out and I had a creeping suspicion I wasn’t gonna get that Split Open And Melt I really, really wanted. Never in my wildest dreams would I have guessed they’d do Plasma at this juncture. I wouldn’t say it’s one of my favorite songs, but when it could so easily have been a couple of rote 3.0 self-help anthems, I’ll take an ebullient jam any day. I always crave the darkness in Phish; that’s what hooked me back in the day, but I was more than fine with reveling in the pure joy and gratitude we were all feeling as this grand weekend wound to a close. And then Character Zero got kinda evil. And for the encore, I figured Shine A Light or Show Of Life; instead it was Fluffhead!! Again, see inside the deep recesses of my psyche somewhere for more information.

Remember a few years ago when every first set was almost identical, when they’d throw an extra minute of generic wanking into a Wolfman’s Brother or end it with a cookie-cutter happyrock Bathtub Gin and we’d be all excited about it? They’d play Possum and Backwards Down The Number Line every other show, and if we got one fifteen-minute jam to start the second set we’d consider it a gift? Who knows why Phish needed to make their way through those tours to get to here, but it was worth it. Remember the last couple of years, when describing a Phish jam was little more than listing off the gadgets and effects Trey and/or Page happened to be using at any given moment? When Trey was slathering us in ill-timed echoplex exercises every chance he got, and their default mode for 90% of their jams was soaring two-chord bliss? Well, now it’s down to like 70%! The point is that Phish is very unpredictable again. Almost any song in any set is liable to get a little special treatment, and any jam could potentially go in a lot of different directions and not necessarily end up in the same predictable place. Bottom line, Mike and Page have been individually great this whole time, but on this tour they upped their collaborative game immensely, driving the improv in tandem more than they ever had before (at least in the 3.0 era), and less reliance on Trey seems to have freed him up to experiment more than he has in ages, only without just stomping on pedals and fiddling with knobs—via playing guitar. Maybe it was a matter of getting his tone dialed in; all year he’s been largely settled on this rich, crunchy sound that if you then go back and listen to a show from 2016 you’ll be like ‘why does Trey sound like such garbage?’ If they didn’t have to play all of these horrendously cheesy songs Trey has written over the past decade, they would’ve absolutely destroyed (a small portion of) America in the fall of 2018. Even with the crappy songs, it was the best tour of 3.0 so far.

As Phishheads we’re searching for those legendary moments; we want to be there when IT happens, but that’s not what we’re thinking about when we’re there. Ideally we’re not thinking; we’re given over entirely to the eternal now, and the lie of individuality dissipates into the collective mind, within the flow of energy between us and the band. Phish is one of the best bands ever at facilitating that oneness, that loss of self; even though there will always be thousands of douchebags at every show who can’t shut the fuck up and participate in the oneness, the oneness is always happening. Even during the songs you hate, it’s happening. Rosemont 2018 seemed to hold miraculously few of those douchebags, and was vibrating and pulsating with that oneness. Despite my curmudgeonly ramblings, I’m just grateful to Trey and Fish and Mike and Page for making it happen. Maybe it was all the sweeter for having to wait so long.

Cal Roach

Cal Roach is a word whore currently being pimped sporadically by Milwaukee Record and the Journal Sentinel, and giving it away for nothing right here at He also co-hosts the Local/Live program on 91.7 WMSE FM every Tuesday at 6 p.m. and spouts nonsense on twitter as @roachcraft.

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