Alpine Overload

At last, something we can all agree on.

Thu Jul 18 2019

I hope I’m wrong. I hope there are dissenters. Contrarians. That means there are fans out there still pining for more. That means there are still folks who want to discuss, to debate. That was a big part of fandom back when I became a fan. The internet facilitated the discussions to the point where I think people burned out on debating Phish. Just like with professional music criticism, snap judgment became the only valid form of communicating an opinion. People started getting offended. Either you loved Phish or you didn’t; declaring a show or a jam sub-par was bad for the community. Then the community disappeared. Disappearing was the best thing to happen to the community. Yes, the huge umbrella of people interested in Phish grows and grows, but the message boards and whatnots began to develop canonical opinion algorithms and to shun all dissention, ultimately splintering into like-minded cliques and fading from relevance, because people were taking differences of opinion personally. You see it in the disclaimers that precede every recap: People were taking the community too seriously, when in fact it was just the internet. Imaginary people having imaginary fights. The real community is made up of human bodies dancing, and it hasn’t disappeared. It has fractured, disseminated, reconvened, reconfigured and redefined itself over and over, but it’s still very strong. Maybe the days are gone when 37,000 humans will actually cram into Alpine Valley to see Phish play, but as long as Phish can still play shows like Sunday night’s, the faithful will keep chasing them. The over-analysis of Phish (and clearly I am guilty) and the aging of the fanbase (…) has distilled the value of their shows into two categories: length of jams, and oldness of the songs they happen to play that night. Summer 2019 failed miserably on both counts. Not only were they playing all the Kasvot Växt tunes, they debuted eight new songs from Trey’s Ghosts Of The Forest project, and continued to play the shit out of Fuego/Big Boat-era material. Meanwhile, the number of jams that stretched to 20 minutes prior to Sunday: two. (Mercurys don’t count; the composition itself is a good eight minutes you guys.) Last year we did get spoiled, especially in the fall. Jams every night, jams in the first set, jams out of songs that don’t normally get jams, loooong jams. Usually a career peak like 2017 yields a cooldown the following year; apparently the Baker’s Dozen afterglow was more potent than anyone could’ve guessed. In some ways, 2018 was even better. Twenty-nineteen had no chance, really. In some senses, I am a Phish curmudgeon, and I’ve bitched about lots of shows that others love. However, I’ve always railed against the notion that long jams are all that matters. For instance, I prefer it when Trey can sing and play his songs competently before any jamming even occurs. I give a shit about the quality of the actual songs, even (gasp) lyrics. Above all, I like it when shows are unpredictable, because when you’ve listened to so many hundreds of Phish shows, almost every tour gets monotonous to a degree. I don’t know about summer 2019. I think it’s unlike most 3.0 tours in that it will take a lot of distance to judge it. It was spotty for sure, and at face value, not chock-full of any of the stuff I generally prize, but particularly given the onslaught of new material, a few aspects stand out. One, they were all singing remarkably well for 3.0—aside from their more complex harmonies. Two, Trey played guitar incredibly well, on the compositions themselves, solos, group improv, all around. Plenty of flubs if you wanna be a stickler, but with the bar as low as it’s been since 2013 or so, a big step up, and on a purely subjective level, I thought his tone was about as rich and gnarly as it gets. Three, Trey relied less than usual on his various gadgets, and he integrated his pet effects more seamlessly into the natural flow of things more smoothly than we’ve been used to. Four, perhaps most importantly, the band was prone to taking the improv sideways almost instantly when leaving the confines of the song proper. There were times when they’d fall back on the worn-out strategy of patiently building a joyous bliss jam, but these were relatively rare. They got weird a lot, and quickly, even if they didn’t sustain it for long. Everything changed on Sunday, of course, but my hope is that Sunday encourages everyone to go back and explore this tour more closely, because shows like that don’t happen out of the blue. Or do they? That’s the big question of course. I don’t know what I believe any more. In the immediate wake of Ruby Waves I thought ‘you fucker, Trey, you could do that any damn time you want!!’ Such was the swagger and togetherness of the band during those 38 minutes. It goes a little deeper, though. Even though we try to reject the impulse, we’re always looking for messages when Phish play, and Trey knows it. Definitely stretching into last year, but on this tour especially, as I mentioned already, I got the impression that Trey was on one hand sick to death of fans’ gripes and projections and quests for hidden messages, and on the other, relishing the opportunity to fuck with us. What better way to do that than to get up there and horse the Mercury jam into one of his absolute worst songs yet (from a lyrical standpoint anyway) and proceed to take that song on the improvisational odyssey of a lifetime? To stand up there and play this inatant-classic show like it’s child’s play. Asshole! I say that in the most loving way possible to this guy who gets his ass handed to him every day. If he says that when he gets on that stage he does his best to just let go, I’ll take him at his word. Listening back to that jam it doesn’t sound at all like any part of it was preconceived or even forced. It sounds like the greatest rock band on Earth doing what only they can do, synthesizing elements from their past and fresh new stylistic modes into riveting, spontaneous composition. While this jam was the highlight of the weekend, Phish’s first three-night run at Alpine will always stand as one long piece in my memory. It began with catching the soundcheck, or at least the My Soul/Set Your Soul Free part of it, from our parking spot on Friday. They’ve taken away our lot scene; overzealous podunk pigs won’t even let somebody sell you a brat, much less establish a legitimate shakedown, or at least, not that we caught wind of. I’ve done this enough times that I bring everything I need with me, but it’s still ridiculous. At any other bucolic amphitheater in the country where Phish plays, you can enjoy the experience of rolling in early and being immersed in the scene without getting harassed, but not here. On this count alone, fuck you, Alpine and fuck you, East Troy. On all other counts, it’s pure gratitude. We had zero trouble getting in and out of the lots or the venue itself. Inside they sold local microbrews for way cheaper than Founders and Lagunitas and the like, and there was never much of a line anywhere except on Sunday when they shut down the main “craft beer” stand for some reason. My crew found our sweet spot on the lawn many years ago and it’s still perfect. I encountered one (1) completely hammered person the entire weekend, and even on Saturday night, the chatter during jams was surprisingly minimal. And, um, the natural beauty all around. There is that. I like to think of night one as having begun with a set-closer in Sand, like a coda for their last visit here way back in 2015, in order to kick the weekend off properly with Tweezer. I hate first-set Tweezers (like when Phish opened with it here in 2010, come on you bastards) but this one was part of this process of dismantling expectations, lightening the tension, what have you. And it was quintessence of summer 2019, covering a lot of ground in a short time. A nice little jam in Set Your Soul Free as well. Lawn Boy, always a very Alpiney tune but nowadays with the added significance of reminding us that in fact we are still in Lawn Boy. The second set flowed so nicely, except that nasty Prince Caspian coming abruptly out of the first jam to our dismay/morphing into delight. The Light>Plasma>Light sandwich and 46 Days with Page hammering away like he wanted to drown out Trey, earning him the Squirming Coil closer. A little extra jam in the encore with Tube. It was a killer start. Saturday was my most populous Phish crew ever, I think. We happened to have several local friends looking to dip a toe in, and I wasn’t about to dissuade them just because it had been a subpar tour. After all, the easiest way to hook a virgin is a hot guitar player, and that much we definitely had. And I think we basically hooked everybody we brought; young and not-so-young fans of good music already, how could they not be taken in, right from the slinky AC/DC Bag opener? The first set overall was easily the weakest of the weekend’s six, but it did have the fierce one-two-three of Sloth/Fuck Your Face/My Friend, plus the raging Character Zero closer. Listening back to that second set, though, I’m struck by how much goodness they packed in there that no n00b could possibly catch. Sure, we wanted that Halley’s Comet to blast off and AS USUAL it didn’t, but we got some superb condensed improv in A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing, Runaway Jim, and especially Ghost, plus Trey with the honky-tonk take on Undermind? Waaaay into that. To top it all off, the return of “the donkey” in Back On The Train, which had me cracking up uncontrollably along with the band. This little throwaway lick from the Camden 20 Years Later jam has popped up a couple times since and it’s a beautiful example of a Phish inside joke that even the jaded vets won’t catch if they haven’t been following the tour, a faint echo of the old secret-language routine, if you will. When they’re doing shit like that amidst an otherwise normie-friendly Saturday rock show, everybody but the stodgiest grouch is gonna have fun. And that’s the truth about modern Phish: They’re accessible as hell. The crowd isn’t zombied out on opiates and booze any more; the mood is light and joyous (again!) and you don’t worry about bringing outsiders in. Some might argue that that’s the problem, heh. But most will agree that if you’re bringing n00bs, you bring ‘em on Saturday. Not Sunday. The crowd was much smaller, and while I had dearly wished for some folks to be there who weren’t, there’s something very empowering and emotional about being surrounded by only your core diehard crew, the nerds who are all there for the same reason as you (i.e. can’t physically help it). The adage “never miss a Sunday show” is all well and good, but it usually means burning vacation time or at least being groggy as hell on Monday morning. Sundays aren’t for the curious; they’re for the nutjobs. It should be no mystery by now that the energy of the crowd plays a huge part in what and how Phish plays on any given night. Sure, we can’t make Trey’s fingers pick a flawless YEM or make Mike sing a perfect Glide; nights like Sunday remind me how very little these details matter. If you remember them, you remember them fondly, because Phish will turn right around and make fun of themselves and you’re just laughing right along. Then there’s the laughing incredulously as you turn, slack-jawed, to your friends during the show, because what’s unfolding is the stuff of your dreams, and those four guys onstage are feeling…well surely not the same way, but there’s a part of what we’re feeling that’s getting through, and there’s a big part of what we’re feeling that everyone in that crowd is feeling. Make sense? This is what gets lost in the arguments about whether or not they can play magnificent long-form jams any time they feel like it. If you were to ask the band, I’m confident they’d tell you the same thing I’m telling you: We all collectively created that Ruby Waves. I’m not taking any credit except for being absolutely present and tuned in to the moment, as the thousands of other fans all seemed to be. And I’m not saying we all got lucky and wanted the same thing that night, shitting on other crowds like we alone deserved this or some such bullshit. I think the guys in the band could express this better but I don’t think it’s necessarily about what we want or the band’s intentions; I think it’s more about not having any particular intention at all, just being open to what the fuck ever. Being as free from thought as possible and letting the flow or whatever you want to call it take control. The only thoughts I recall are a couple times during a lull between segments: What the fuck just happened? Oh shit, it’s not over… and a brief panic at one point: Jesus, is this turning into a Worcester Jim?? You guys could always play another song… Yup, busted. Because the Worcester Jim, the celebrated longest Phish jam ever, had some pretty lackluster stretches where they could’ve just gone into a new song instead of forcing it onward. They were trying to prove a point that night—either to themselves that they could do this, or to the fans that it doesn’t pay to do this. The Alpine Ruby Waves wasn’t like that. It never languished in contentment or uncertainty. It never got boring. It was all the things I love about my favorite jams of 1.0, leaping heroically from genre to genre and theme to theme, some of the most joyous and most evil improv I’ve ever heard. I thought I was perfectly happy with this being a thing of the distant past. Turns out I was the cartoon dog in the coffee shop. Only the coffee shop wasn’t actually on fire… So, how do I express what this show meant, so that you can understand…I’ve now seen the only 3.0 Shafty and the only 3.0 Olivia’s Pool; how’s that? They did almost all of their dancing songs? It felt like Trey actually gave a shit about Icculus? I could go on about why this song or that song means this or that to me or to the fanbase at large, but either you know, or you don’t, and there’s only one way to get to an understanding. I could talk about “the message” but I got a lot of them throughout the weekend and I’m still sorting them out. The biggest thing is that I’m learning to stop hating Phish songs. I’m learning to take in Everything’s Right as a response to itself. Because I don’t believe that everything’s right, but I do believe that worrying is useless, so I will by God just hold tight, at least where Phish is concerned. The thing is, I get what Trey’s intent is with his lite spirituality and eighth-grade metaphysics, and I don’t object. What I have to remember is that he just started writing this type of stuff, really. He’s putting it out into the world almost as quickly as it comes to him. I wish I had the balls to do that. It’s definitely not doing me any good getting hung up on the lack of artistic depth. What the hell do I know, anyway? Maybe the big lesson actually is to trust the Phish from Vermont to keep going about their business however they damn well please in order to arrive wherever they are, which is only ever the blasting-off point to wherever they’re going next. I can’t explain it any better, other than to say that when the house lights went up, and we walked in a daze towards the pavilion (note: pretty much sober), it felt like everything was different, and the feeling lasted for days. Can your favorite band do that? All these years, through all the ups and downs of being a fan, I can’t imagine anyone leaving disappointed on Sunday, but it was an outlier, not a normal show in any sense. Phish did not enter a new golden age but they damn sure made us all drool. I’ve yet to hear from anyone who was there who wasn’t dumbfounded. But if you’re out there, I’d love to hear your take.

It was pretty funny when Trey granted some couple’s request for Contact in order to spur a wedding proposal. “So I’ve just changed the course of your whole life”, he said, and I was like, ‘Dude, you have changed the course of all of our lives, millions of lives, for decades now.’ And let me tell you all, I don’t want to know who on Earth I’d be if he hadn’t.

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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