Generally, when I review music, I like to do so in a timely manner. The fact that I am reviewing this show almost one month after I saw it suggests that this is less a show review than a reflection, careful and considered, and after a repeat listening of the show, of why I felt this show was so bad.
I mean, the worst Phish show I’ve ever seen. A travesty so bad that I had no choice but to get heavily polluted, resorting to drinking scotch in the middle of the second set and ending up sleeping on my friend’s couch after he made the, perhaps, mistaken decision to invite me to the show and drive me to the venue. Nothing makes you feel more like a winner than waking up, 37 years old, at five in the morning, still marginally drunk, your friend and his pregnant wife sleeping upstairs, and driving yourself home knowing you have a full day of work ahead of you, opening the door to your house at 5:20 and seeing your wife awake with your infant son. Awesome.
But I get ahead of myself. What brought me to this low?
I was pumped up to see the show, having spent the days before reviewing set lists and reading reviews from the late summer tour and the two shows prior from authorities like Coventry Music and Mr. Minor. Having tried to get tickets myself through the pre-sale and then through Tickethorse and being shut out, I was elated when my friend Pete called a few days before and invited me to go to the third night of the run.
I’d last seen phish on the first night of the four night Red Rocks run in 2009, having decided at the last minute to pay three times face value to take my then pregnant wife. The show had been good, if not spectacular. Filled with moments of brilliance and more than a couple of hiccups, it had reminded me of why Phish had been such an important part of my college and early adult life. They built and released tension in a rhythmic way, working the crowd up to greater and greater levels of excitement. If the playing wasn’t perfect, the show at least conveyed the essence of why I’d revisited the Phish space repeatedly, choosing to exchange hard earned money (which I did not have a lot of) to expose myself to the strange mythologies, frequently over-the-top musical exploration and freaked out culture associated with Phish in the mid nineties.
In fact, my experience at that chilly Thursday night show in 2009 left me wanting more. I longed to jump back into that pond and on the Saturday night of that run, waited until my daughter was in bed and my wife was reading comfortably in bed to jump into my car, drive the ten minutes to Red Rocks and climb up the hill behind the venue, sitting with newly met friends around a pony keg and shouting “Hood!” to the cloudless Colorado sky as Phish played unseen below us.
So Pete and I discussed the possibilities as we drove to Broomfield for the October 12, 2010 show. The first night of the run had been a “greatest hits” show featuring AC/DC Bag, NICU and Stash in the first set and a monster Mike’s>Simple>Ghost>Weekapaug in the second. The second night (Pete went to all three) was more toned down but still included moments of inspiration like Reba, Tweezer and Fluffhead. After the relatively low key second night, we were convinced that they would end the run with an up tempo, rocking out, leave it all on the floor show that would put the exclamation point on their only western show of the tour.
We jabbered on about the possibilities: would we hear personal favorite covers of Drowned and Crosseyed and Painless? Favorites from the Phish canon like Cavern, My Friend, My Friend or Julius? Bust outs and rarities like After Midnight or Letter to Jimmy Page? The possibilities seemed endless. Like all concerts I have ever been to, the anticipation built within me, creating a metabolic energy within my body that pushed me forward toward only one goal: getting inside and letting the show start.
After a brief walk through shakedown (which seemed overly organized: were they renting spaces along that one row of cars or had the vendors just chosen to set up right next to each other, eschewing any other part of the parking lot?), we waited in the crush of people to get into the venue.
We grabbed beers and walked through darkened curtains into the bowl of the arena, a small, intimate place built originally to house minor league basketball and now operated entirely as a concert arena. Seating only about 7,000, I was happy to see that there would be plenty of spots to check the show out from. Most of these were currently reserved, marked by piles of clothing and guarded by the 2-3 members of each 20 person group who had taken it upon themselves to hold down their respective forts.
We were not in the mood for fighting and being only a duo, decided that we could start out on the floor until we could no longer bear the hippie masses and then swipe a couple of seats for our aging bones a little later.
We set up shop on Page side, about fifteen feet from the front of the stage. I hadn’t been this close for a Phish show since the Balch fieldhouse in 1993. The excitement jumped another notch.
After two or three beers and a very long conversation with the security guard holding down the front of the stage, the lights dimmed and Trey, Mike, Page and Fishman took the stage. There they were, not twenty feet from me and smiling. They took their spots and started off with Stealing Time from the Faulty Plan, off Joy, their newest album. While this wasn’t the earth shattering Boogie on Reggae Woman opener that I had been hoping for, it was an upbeat, driving song that features well conceived lyrics that are fun for casually drunk people to bang their heads to. “Got a blank space where my mind should be..” Who can’t relate to that? Especially when you are on your fourth beer and are surrounded by people who are collectively responsible for keeping the nation’s acid economy afloat.
Regrettably, the second song set the tone for the rest of the show. Time Turns Elastic is the king of the momentum killers among the current Phish repertoire, a song that I think only Trey enjoys, as its seventeen minute length allows him to move through many different styles of playing and feeds his ego as a composer of grand rock symphonies.
And to be fair, he can be. Some of my favorite Phish moments involve the intricate compositions and movements that Trey and his band mates have orchestrated, frequently around obscure and or silly themes: Esther, The Curtain, You Enjoy Myself, etc.
So how is Time Turns Elastic different? Is it only that it is newer and therefore does not have the revered history that older songs have? Or is it actually a weaker composition? I don’t know but I know that the air went out of the very young set as soon as the opening notes were played. Exits clogged as the venue’s bars and restrooms flooded with people. My own beer was full and bladder was empty. They could not have even waited until I had errands to run before busting out this monstrosity.
So I watched. And watched. And watched. Seventeen minutes is an extraordinarily long time and the song just went on and on and on. Many of the folks on the floor with us seemed to be enjoying it. Of course, they were ten feet from Trey and many were on drugs. But many others, like me, continually looked around, waiting for the next thing to come along. I checked my phone. Coventry Music made a prescient tweet: “Amateurs take a piss break at the beginning of TTE. Vets wait for the twelve minute mark.”
Eventually, it did end. And I waited for them to right the ship. Meat didn’t do it. Divided Sky/ Timber started to put us on the right track. Especially Timber. I had asked for this song as part of our pre show discussion and loved the way that they drew it out, slowly, true to their 3.0 form. But then, they moved in to the third movement of the set with a series of marginal songs that did nothing to build on the momentum of the second movement. Pete digs Sugar Shack and I was glad he got to hear it but the general consensus as the lights came on after 46 Days was disappointment. Hopefully, they would bust out in the second set and redeem themselves.
The second set started with promise: Carini is a crowd favorite that had the hippie masses grooving and David Bowie is Phish, in my opinion, the combination of straight ahead rocking rhythms and signature improvisational divergences that made me, and many others, fall in love with the band early on.
And then: Light, Theme from the Bottom, Free, Joy, Halfway to the Moon, Bug, Summer of ’89, seven songs in a row, each one mellow and deflating, as if they had intentionally created a set list designed to slow momentum continually until any interest I had in what was coming next was lost. By the time Split Open and Melt closed the set and the Meatstick encore inspired its crowd sing along, I no longer gave a shit what they did.
I think the real problem lay in song selection. Having listened to the show again (thank you Phish for giving away a free download of the show along with the cost of the ticket. Every touring band should follow your lead), I cannot identify any real sloppy musicianship. It’s not like Phish didn’t care about what they were playing or that they did not infuse their songs with power and intention. They certainly did. But couldn’t they have chosen songs that would have energized the crowd more than what they selected?
And this to me is where the reflection on the show gets interesting. I have no real interest in writing a bad review. I continue to love Phish and will see them again. It gives me no joy to say that I hated this show. So why write about it all? Why waste the energy?
I think the interesting question is: why did I hate this show? If the answer is song selection, does that mean that I am completely out of sync with this band? Does it mean that I shouldn’t waste my time with them anymore? I doubt that the band sat backstage and collaborated on a show that they intentionally felt would bore anybody to the point where they felt they had no choice but to get intentionally wasted to get through the remainder of the second set. And certainly lots of other people seemed to have an OK time.
Does the fact that Phish chose to play these sets and that I disliked them so much mean that the band and I are operating on different planes? Does it signal a disconnect between us?
With Phish, and with many other bands who have made a living by creating dynamic setlists every night, there is a contract between the band and its fans. The band agrees to play a different show every night, to keep things interesting for both parties. The fans, in turn, agree to take whatever the band gives them. You know you are not going to get the greatest hits every night. Hell, you don’t really want that. It would be boring and you would stop attending shows.
But does that mean that we have no expectation for what the band will deliver? We buy our $65 ticket and accept what they lay down and if that happens to be the slow, tender side of Phish with no spicy guacamole on the side, then so be it? I’m not sure. I think we are still entitled to expectations. I think that the band still needs to provide an experience that is consistent with their brand and I think they need to do that every night.
So what is that brand? I think, for Phish, it has something to do with momentum and with energy. I think that I associate the live shows of Phish with an upbeat and driving sensation, with hooks that pull you in, with tension that leads you into darker corners and that builds and builds until you are jumping out of your skin and that finally explodes into a kaleidoscope of light that makes you realize the journey was always about getting to that place where you could sit and smile, reflecting on the twists and turns that led you to the finish line, tattered, torn and exhausted but satisfied.
When they fail to live up that, they diminish the anticipation that leads to the next show.
Either that, or I really am too old for this shit and I should hang up the artifice and spend my money more wisely. If I experience another Phish show like this one, I may just do that.
Afterward: Thanks to Pete for the ticket. Just because I thought the show was sub-par doesn’t mean that I am not grateful. And thank you to Pete, Dana and Brody for not thinking less of me because I chose to sleep on your sofa for a few hours. It was a smart decision if not reflective of the best moral character.