Ten months later, still in a damn pandemic, here I am again at Deer Creek and everything is different. My crew, the world, me. Presumably, Phish. Same hotel, only this year there’s some kind of hopped-up pickup-truck convention in or near Castleton, so the parking spaces are all full by the time we get back from the shows and there are always cops hanging around talking shop. This year, nobody’s wearing masks in Indiana except occasionally some restaurant workers. Shout-out to Doughnuts & Dragons and especially that caramel macchiato one.
In order to set ridiculous standards for the closing weekend of Phish’s “spring tour”, I began by seeing Primus at the BMO Harris Pavilion on Thursday, a huge improvement over the Madison show in all respects. We’re very lucky to have this as a venue and that the weather has been cooperative; it seems like a potential breakout year for it as its own entity. Whereas Les and the guys had seemed a bit shall we say long in the tooth at The Sylvee in April, they must’ve gained vitality as the tour went on. They were nastier and tighter and jammier in Milwaukee, plus the additions of “Erin On The Side Of Caution” and “Professor Nutbutter’s House Of Treats” and “Frizzle Fry” helped a lot. Stellar night. A nice leisurely dog walk the next morning before hitting the road to Noblesville.
On the road, I listened to some recordings of sets from this year’s Big Ears Festival, maybe you’ve heard or seen me mention it? Arooj Aftab. Damon Locks Black Monument Ensemble. Sons Of Kemet. Dead Rider. Phish can easily stack up with these, right?
Last year they could, but like I said, everything was different last year. It was the first show back (for many of us) after a hiatus that in some ways felt longer than the other two combined. That Friday night show was beyond my wildest dreams, musically, and it was the great communal letting loose of many months’ worth of pent-up who-knows-what. This year, these are just some Phish concerts. We didn’t learn anything.
I don’t know if you are all feeling this sense of massive upheaval these days like I am. I don’t mean the ongoing constant upheaval of the ever-changing collapse of society as we know it. I mean practically everyone I know is going through or getting ready for some kind of major life change. I suppose a lot of it trickles into our small circles from the larger sense of complete instability everywhere we look, sure. Still, after years of pandemic paralysis, there’s a sense of things getting moving again that’s inspiring. Unsettling maybe, but only because we’ve forgotten what it’s like. I tried to keep reminding myself of this all weekend. There’s a valid urgency to take advantage of any opportunities we see in front of us. It’s a different feeling than simply basking in gratitude for where you are, but it’s related; the crucial element remains, of not taking anything for granted.
It was funny talking to people in the lots this weekend; everyone seemed to be only suddenly aware that these were the last shows until mid-July. The old hyper exchange of uberfacts that used to dominate Phishhead conversations has morphed into a blissful unawareness of anything except what’s right in front of us. Did we come here in 2010 or 2011? Which year was it that it was like 110 degrees and we went to see Magic Mike in the movie theater just to be in some air conditioning? Was that the same year the helicopter flew overhead shining the spotlight on us during NO2?
Having played zero repeats over the first five nights of tour, we weren’t really sure which of our favorite songs were even on the table when we walked onto the lawn Friday night. It’s not as if there weren’t plenty of marvelous options regardless. Odd how few of them Phish played this weekend. I can’t lie, these setlists look abysmal on paper. They didn’t play out so poorly in real life, but it has to be noted. These shows weren’t about kickdowns for old heads.
It was an odd tour with little to define it or tie the shows together. Phish had opened three of the first five shows with big jams; in Indiana they all but stopped doing any big jams in first sets. The lone exception was Friday’s version of Everything’s Right, one of the better jams of the weekend. The first set that night was a bizarre mishmash of songs that nevertheless crackled with unpredictable energy. Saturday’s first set kept us guessing with more improv than usual in Stealing Time, Runaway Jim, and Timber, although all three were reined in before they threatened to break free. Sunday’s first set did not keep anyone guessing in any sense.
As for second sets, last year’s night one set an absurd precedent; all we could hope for this year on Friday was an interesting warm-up, perhaps. Even though it was Mike’s birthday, and the last time Phish played on Mike’s birthday (2011) was a breakthrough show for the fledgling 3.0 band. Nooooo expectations whatsoever tonight. Three of the four repeats from that 2011 show were notable: Cavern was our first indication that there’d be repeats on this tour, and Down With Disease was an obvious celebration of the ‘Disease Supreme’ from 2011, a monumental jam at the time, the caliber of which we’re now accustomed to on an almost nightly basis. To any laypeople who happen to be reading this, the experience of singing along to this song, now, is way beyond surreal for those of us who’ve been doing this since the mid-‘90s. I’m not even sure these lyrics meant anything to me until this pandemic.
Then there was Fluffhead, often a challenge for the modern band to nail, improbably impeccable Friday night. Coming late in the set after a respectably deep, cosmic Disease jam and a Ruby Waves that echoed a theme from Tuesday’s Set Your Soul Free jam in Charleston (essentially a transposition of the main What’s The Use riff, did ya notice?), Fluffhead sent spirits soaring. The Contact encore popped into my head a minute or two before they played it; I’d blown a flat on I-65 that afternoon and was going to have to buy new tires before making my way home and Phish of course likely had heard about this.
I was pure optimism walking out that night. My only mild complaint was that there was a little too much shameless Trey wankery for me. I was getting somewhat of a 1999 vibe from the tour, when there were lots of jams but some nights it was mostly Trey bulldozing the rest of the band and everyone would bitch about him and his ego. The sound mix at Deer Creek had the guitar cranked too high, and based on the official releases from the tour it’s been the same everywhere. I don’t like it. My solution for this weekend was simply to focus primarily on Page, whose playing is way more interesting than Trey’s these days anyway. It was a mostly successful strategy.
Saturday was even more of that, to be honest, and it did get to me. Obviously, I love Trey as a guitarist and I’m happy to have this complaint rather than past 3.0 complaints such as ‘this guy can barely play the guitar’ and whatnot. It’s just that this tour had already showcased so much impressive multifarious improv that the relentless contentment of Saturday’s second set bored me a little. It was as much the words as the music; this apparently wasn’t one of those nights when I could just gloss over ‘em. Give me a little contrasting darkness and I’m good; this set was nothing but Mickey-Mouse new-age spirituality and gibberish and ebullient guitar solos. Taken as individual pieces, the first second-set-opening YEM since 1989 with a bonus instrumental jam pasted on the end, the longest A Wave Of Hope ever, and especially the contained but infectious The Howling, were all wonderful; I’ve enjoyed them more in the relistening, when I can skip the pesky lyrics and Bug and Jibboo and the smug reminder of “no matter how I try I find my way into the same old jam” at the end of the set.
Saturday’s encore too was a delight: a debut slow arrangement of Maze, which was made both way funkier by Mike and Page and way more like 46 Days by Trey, who wants to turn all Phish songs into 46 Days eventually. The fact that this rendition sparked controversy among the fanbase was also a delight; it’s easy to forget, but we were all that dumb when we were their age, and the fact that young stoners and nerds are still glomming onto the Phish herd would seem to most like a good sign.
It’s also another thread threatening to unravel my fandom, however, because once upon a time we as Phishheads took a modicum of pride in the way our favorite band’s talents flew way over most people’s heads. It’s undeniably sad for me to watch the gradual dumbing-down of this band, which I acknowledge might only be indicative of a me issue rather than a band or fanbase issue. I’ve heard people are trying to compare the current state of Phish with the last stages of the actual Grateful Dead, but folks, this is so not an appropriate parallel to draw. For one thing, nobody in Phish is in ill health or losing their faculties; the only thing that has degraded significantly in the Phish world is the songwriting (okay and maybe the singing), and that gets to the heart of the difference between the two bands: despite all their quirks and obscurities, Phish have become a commercial rock band, which the Dead would never have allowed to become a significant driving aspect of their band. Their MTV success became almost a source of embarrassment, whereas Trey still spews out reams of hopeful catchy tunes. Jerry realized he wasn’t for everyone and that was just fine. Trey seems to still think he can be for everyone.
I don’t disdain modern Phish lyrics because of their subject matter per se. It’s the fact that they are woefully unoriginal and awkwardly constructed and painfully oblivious to the world around them that gets to me. (Forgive me if you’ve heard this one before.) Trey has always been explicit in his refusal to be political onstage, and after much hand-wringing and soul-searching, I had come to once again respect this stance. Unfortunately on Sunday, something changed. See, I’ve been having a ton of conversations recently about whether or not free will exists, a novel concept I know. It’s not something I’ve made up my mind about, frankly; I’d say that everything that’s set in motion before we can even make memories is overwhelming, but I think I start getting triggered when I sense that people are using a belief in fatalism as an escape from their own responsibilities or as a way to elevate themselves above the cares of the world. In short, the belief that we have no free will tends to be a privileged position, which makes me suspicious of it even though it seems true, and even if it is true, I doubt the merits of preaching it, especially when the choir is a culture of bacchanalia you helped to create.
Is this a political matter? I don’t suppose it is in the eyes of many. All the same, Phish shows have traditionally been a place where the only proselytizing comes from some nutjob fans in the lots. And now it seems we’re going to get preached at every night by the dang singer like it’s a U2 show. I love U2 but we’ve already got one of those. Besides, U2 have always been diehard humanists—even during their hardcore Christian phase—whereas the philosophies espoused by Anastasio increasingly since Phish’s return in 2009 have been anti-humanistic drivel. Some of it is general bland metaphysical detachment and some of it is more ‘whimsically doctrinal’ let’s say, as in some will nod their heads complacently and some will think ‘you are batshit crazy my friend’. These ideas that everything will work out fine and worldly concerns don’t matter if we “just knew the scope” are fine attitudes when you’re looking down on the poor suffering masses from your penthouse. They can even be healthy attitudes if you’re struggling with depression, don’t get me wrong! There’s a difference between truth and messaging, though, and these messages are condescending at best and megalomaniacal at worst.
I don’t bat an eye any more at one or two of these smug spiritual paint-by-numberses, but Sunday was cumulatively about all I could take. I was sick to death of feeling preached at. That was never what Phish shows were about in the past. Part of the problem, admittedly, was the fact that they have so many great songs that didn’t even get played on this tour. Believe me, I’m beyond grateful that they didn’t play Petrichor nor even Fuego! That 34-minute Sand, are you kidding me? And I thought I caught the greatest Sand I’d ever catch last year at Deer Creek.
It almost makes it worse, though. The fact that they can do such things at will, but preaching is more important. The fact that all four of these smart dudes onstage are cool with that being what Phish is primarily about nowadays. “I’m a part of you and you’re a part of me/And we rise up/And come together, come together, come together”, they sing in Rise/Come Together, as if in a gesture of openness. But who the hell do they think they’re singing to? We can’t get any more together, guys. We’re right here, all of us who are ever going to hear these messages.
In the end, these shows were still therapeutic even for me, and I fully accept that the words matter little compared to the feeling and the healing. I do not disdain the mental and spiritual uplift that Phish provide and the weekend was in almost every respect dreamy. I emphasize some points that at this juncture in history are small detriments, because I legitimately felt creeped out by the cult-like energy Sunday night. I’ve bitched plenty about Trey’s lame lyrics but I never seriously suspected he was trying to pass out kool-aid until now. I still believe in the importance and power of gathering together in celebration of music and I essentially even agree that, um, “It’s love, it’s love/It always was/And it is and it always will be love/And it is and it was and it will be love/It is and it always will be love”, I just, uh…