13 March 2007

Nedstalgia: 15 Years Ago

This is the newest edition of my quasi-monthly reminiscences of live shows past concentrating on events from 5, 10 and 15 years ago. Previous editions covered Panic New Year's at the Fox and Freaks Ball II. Today I step inside thewayback machine and give you the genesis of pretty much all the others. 15 years ago today I saw my first Phish show... first of many, many Phish shows (for better or worse, this feature will be dominated regularly by Phish and Widespread Panic -- two bands I saw over 100 times each, but I'll try to get in as many others as possible). I'll also hit on my second Phish show which was 15 years ago next week.

If you'd like to listen to the shows talked about here:
Roseland Ballroom, NYC 14 March 1992: Part I, Part II, Part III
Broome County Forum 20 March 1992: Part I, Part II, Part III

In addition, clicking some song titles will lead you to download those versions specifically. (Side note: if anyone knows a way to stream this stuff within the blog that isn't going to cost me anything beyond a nominal fee, please let me know).

Anyway, as far as back story goes, I first heard the band Phish as a cassette-obsessed Deadhead counselor at Jewcamp in the summer of 1991... the summer before my senior year of high school. I can remember the moment clear as a high note on the Languedoc , flipping through some Dead tapes with this fella 5 years my senior who I'd just met and gives me the "you should check out Phish" drop and pops in a cassette of Lawn Boy as a bunch of us start tossing afrisbee around. It was silly stuff to me at first but somewhere in the middle of Reba I went into a silent, frisbee -throwing trance and when the tape player started back into the "Bag it..." section I darn near got bopped in the head with that disc. "Is this all the same band?" I asked. The education was on. By the end of the summer I had a Phish tape or two and about 9 months of the clichedsenioritis to deal with. In those pre-internet days, what felt like an obsession was probably more like puppy love -- there was no conduit of information to feed the potential insanity. I was ravenous for something but with about 1.5 interested parties at school and nowhere to turn to for additional poop, I was stranded on a deserted island, a cassette or two to scrape by on and not much else. That fall my brother (one of the 1.5) spotted that Phish was playing in Ithaca that night and try as we might to figure out if there were tickets or how to get there -- I spent a good hour on the phone with a Ticketmaster person trying to explain that it wasn't School of Fish orFishbone I was looking for -- we ultimately failed in making it to the show. It wasn't until the winter that we somehow caught wind of a Phish show in Binghamton in March that we bought tickets -- my brother and I, the Big Squeeze (yes, we've been together that long) and a couple of friends. At long last, a Phish show!

But first things first, a senior in high school's gotta do what he's gotta do. I somehow finagled a solo road trip down to visit another friend on Long Island for a couple of Dead shows at Nassau Colesium in March. Sure, I didn't have tickets, but I had disposable income from my job slinging fro-yo and not a care in the world. I caught two shows and probably overpaid for tickets by 200% and had a great time. But something was lacking from the shows, no oomph. Not surprisingly, I remember almost nothing beyond getting ripped off for tickets about these two nights.

It was maybe driving home from one of these shows with friends of the friend when one of them let drop: we're going to see Phish tomorrow in the city. WHAT!?!?! Phish is playing here -- we've gotta go, we've gotta go, we've gotta go, we've gotta go.... Friend's mom none too happy about another night out seeing music, a trip into Manhattan nonetheless, but Neddy will not be denied. The next afternoon we head over to local Ticketmaster outlet and voila out pop two tickets -- not sold out, not even $20 -- holy shit! We're going to see Phish. Sure I had tickets for a show less than a week later, but really, would an astronaut say "you know I'm going to the moon next week, I can wait..." No fucking way, get me on that rocket ship immediately.

And going to the moon is exactly what it was. Sure we look at the moon from down here and we look at pictures, but do we even pretend that it's even the same piece of rock as when you're actually standing on the thing? Nyet. My first Phish show was a trip to the moon; an experience that surely and quite literally defined my life from that point forward. Pretty heavy stuff when you look at it from this distance. It was also my first live music experience in New York and if I've seen 125+ Phish shows since that day, multiply that by an integer or two and that other branch diverges plenty far as well.

So, the show was at Roseland Ballroom which is one of the least enjoyable venues in the city and yet one that I will always have a very soft place in my heart for -- like cuddling up at night with a carton of rotten milk, sure, but what can I say? We walked in and the immediate feeling was: what a buzz! It was one intoxicating moment after another. The energy in the room, even pre-show was so unlike a Dead show you couldn't help but get drunk on it. The crowd was young like me, 20 somethings who listened to good music but weren't submerged in patchouli -- college kids. The room seemed to bend and turn -- no corners, no edges, a big cozy couch. The band took the stage and suddenly I was alone and part of a collective all at once -- a single molecule of water in an wavefront of energy -- I hadn't felt anything like it in, like, well forever. What does it feel like to be born? Walk on the moon? There was a vibe at a Dead show -- a thing between the band and the audience that was special, I felt it at Nassau: a conversation between friends. But that conversation felt like a scripted reading and the shit going down at Roseland, within the first few moments of that Runaway Jim, was like improv, sketch comedy where the crowd was the straight man and Phish was... well, Phish.

I knew most of the songs they played that night (setlist here) from my months of listening, if there was a greatest hits show for the band in the early nineties, this was it, perhaps the most timid show they've played in NYC. Frankly what a perfect primer for the newb I was. I felt like I fit right in, singing along, anticipating the climaxes and as such, I was able to concentrate on the ancillary kinetics around me. The way the four musicians filled up the stage with their presence, the way the lights were both incredibly simplistic (in those days they were) and yet complicated and intricate -- they actually followed the music in a fascinating choreography. Three large lucite panels with strange phosphorescent stripes were hung behind the band like the stage itself was some ultra-modern art gallery. The panels pulsed with the lights and therefore with the music. I had landed on the moon and it was inhabited... take me to your leader.

Perhaps if I hadn't come straight from two nights of Jerry & Co I wouldn't have noticed some of the things I did, particularly the crowd. They didn't stop moving. And there was no space in between them, they filled every gap so that you were in constant contact with the guy next to you. It would seem that the room was incredibly oversold, but the fact of the matter is, as I soon learned, it was because everyone was pulled -- musical gravitation -- toward the stage and self-assembled in some hexagonally-packed way to maximize their proximity to the stage. The combination of the crowd geometry and the rocket fuel propulsion dictated by the music resulted in an exhilarating verticality: people could not help but dance... upward. Phish fans were literally bouncing around the room. It was a lesson I learned quickly and continue to heed to this day: go up young man.

There were musical moments I remember very clearly as well, of course, there always are. The angular prog of Stash and the way the music, the lights and Trey and Mike all moved in an insanely coordinated fashion. Of course, my first real Phish song, Reba, letting me know that this was my home -- the studio version, the one or two live versions I had on tape... they were but artificial flavoring, scratch and sniff stickers of the real essence. Reba -- my favorite Phish song on 3/14/1992 and my favorite Phish song on 3/14/2007. The way Trey implored the audience to do some ballroom dancing for Take the A Train since we were in a ballroom. Bands I had seen and listened to didn't do those kinds of things, nor did they flood the entire room with smoke -- that candy sweet fog -- during Mike's Song while the nutty guitarist and "something's off about that guy" bassist hopped giddily on trampolines. How can you describe this scene in words or photographs even? The fact that this single moment, the squealing guitars, the deep thumping bass, whirling organs, the smoke, the strobe lights, the fact that all this fit together and fucking rocked and jammed -- it surpassed the sum of every moment in every Dead show I had seen or even listened to up to that point. How could things not change?

My favorite musical memory from the night was the Harry Hood, the way Trey slyly dropped in "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" vamps in the closing section, it still gives me the chills to listen to it and I felt nothing if not cool-as-hell for having caught them at the time. Sweet, blissful Harry Hood, has it really been that long? Hard to warp my head around the fact that LJ is now closer in age to the doofus at that Roseland show than the guy writing this is.

Of course, the absolute highlight of the night was the encore. During the set closing Possum (where Trey dropped plenty of Secret Language that was so far over my head... don't know how a self-confessed Simpsons fanatic at the time missed that one) I noticed one large fellow sitting on stage behind Fishman's drum riser, pretending to play a trombone along with the jam. I had only the Blues Traveler CD to guide me, but somehow I got the notion that it was John Popper -- don't ask me how. Sure enough, during the encore, Trey brings up Popper who absolutely wails on the Sleeping Monkey > Good Times, Bad Times encore. It was the kind of "howdya like dem apples" metaphorical kick to the groin after I was already in a heap having my reality cold-cocked all night long. Sleeping Monkey was a tune that was brand new and the little "Let It Be" riff into the Popper solo was beyond anything that I could have imagined when I hopped in my car to drive down for the weekend. Looking back at this moment, I was also pretty high on Blues Traveler and I was (almost) equally as excited to see those guys live at the time... and yet, since that night I've probably seen them less than the number of fingers on my left hand if I took away the pinkie and thumb. Strange the way these things work.

I left the old me there on the floor of Roseland Ballroom, but did make sure to remember to get my coat from the coat check. I remember the buzzed conversations between everyone getting their jackets, standing like a geeky slack-jaw as a guy went on and on about Phish playing at his fraternity "back in the day." I simultaneously was in awe and loathing of this guy and a decade and a half later, I pretty much am that guy. Douche bag.

Into the NYC night, we went down into the subway stop to get back to Penn Station. It was down there that I had a complete epiphany. There was a hippie-looking dude and a couple other heady types waiting down there. We started chatting it up with the guy, completely intoxicated with 100% pure Phish show -- "hey man, how did you like the Phish show?" "Who's Phish? We came from the Allman Brothers." The Allmans were in town for one of the early incarnations of their annual Beacon Theater mega-runs. That's when it struck me -- Grateful Dead, Allmans, Phish, all in the same town, all in one weekend. New York City immediately became New York fucking City -- "the city that never sleeps" went from cliche to mantra for me in a single instant and it's no surprise that I find myself heading back into town week after week. Still chasing that high. By the way, that guy, white beard and glasses, gnome-like in every way, is still out at shows, if you've been out in NYC, you know who I'm talking about.

Hard to believe that I saw my first two shows in a matter of a week, but it was the following weekend that a carload of us headed down to Binghamton. It wasn't the first one for me (although it was for the Squeeze and my Bro), but it remains one of my all time favorites. Chances are, if you've listened to a decent number of Phish shows, you've heard Binghamton 3/20/92. It was that good and we knew it at the time. The setting this time was the Broome County Forum, one of those old fashioned theaters with lifeworn seat cushions, ornate ceiling and walls and a big orchestra pit in front of the stage. Still, the energy in there was equal if not greater to that down in the city. We quickly learned that a seat assignment meant very little and that the close-packing, vertical-dancing phenomenon was equally in play in theaters as it was in clubs. But the music, oh that music. The Roseland show had been landing on the moon, a new perspective, a new world, but with the Earth still in sight... but this one was across the event horizon. From the opening bleat of Wilson -- this was back when the crowd barely knew the tune, let alone how to sing the opening section -- the mood was dark and otherworldly. The entire first set runs together like a novel, or maybe a screed -- a call to arms, join the cult, to kill live music as we knew it and create something new. It was all new to me, the way Wilson dropped into another sweet Reba, the way Maze came out of nowhere, a completely different sound than anything I had heard on Junta or Lawn Boy. The energy from the stage wasn't quite the bubbly, friendly happy vibe of Roseland , but more of a manic, explosive rage... still bordering on the absurd, as when Trey turned the orchestra pit into an alligator pit for Brother.

They had rewritten the rules the previous week and already they were breaking those 6 nights later (full setlist here). The Mike's > Hydrogen > Groove section was a dark howl of distortion, bass and guitar losing each other in that fog which took on new shapes in the high-ceiling theater. Sanity, Sloth, Glide -- the music bordered on evil. Was this even the same band? And which one did I love more? And then, just like that, Uncle Pen provided a bizarre respite, the crowd went from physical flailing against each other and the fold-down seats to twirling square-dance style in the large openings near the doors -- the Grateful swirlers had nothing on these dudes. Once again, the big memory, the musical highlight, was Harry Hood, but it was a much different take. I remember looking out at the stage, halfway back on the left side, whiffs of smoke swirling around green and red lights, the mood was not a happy one and the opening section reflected it. Deep, hypnotic, intergalactic, the introduction went on and on and on, I remember reveling in how the payoff kept getting pushed further and further down the tunnel. The lights perfectly synchronized to the thoughts swirling in my head -- was this even Harry Hood any more? I feel good.

Moments, moments, memories... I can pinpoint so many, they all make up that certain it. Fishman plugging his vacuum into a bagpipe (!) for Terrapin. How about Trey, breaking down during the intro to Possum -- you guys know the language? I feel the vibe in this room tonight, let's teach the language. Holy shit, I couldn't even wrap my head around it as Trey went into a rambling soliloquy about this secret language and "special this" and "codes that" -- I exaggerate only a little when I say that Mr Anastasio could have instructed me to go out and start shooting pedestrians at that point and I would have considered it. Was there anything cooler than this band playing like they were in some secret club and then teaching you the handshake? "Don't tell anyone, but you're my best friend." "I love you, too, Phish." Impressionable teenager or not, I was smitten.

Twas the week that rocked Neddy's world, ground zero (are we allowed to use that phrase?)... still remember the tasty McDonald's we had on our way out of Binghamton, when they locked the doors right after we got in and watched many a Big Mac Attack denied as we chowed down. No, it really didn't get any better than that. Probably still a top ten Phish show for me, although there were plenty more sublime nights to follow. It brings a smile to my face to listen to this show and remember everything that I can still remember and to know that with everything that precipitated from that week of music, I regret nothing.

Hopefully you've made it this far and have enjoyed the swim. 15 fucking years! Comments, suggestions, stories of your first show, Phish or otherwise, please leave a note.

(n.b. I've got two more March anniversaries, one from 10 years and one from 5 that were also big ones for me, so they'll be an extra dollop of whipped cream on this bloated blog in the near future.)


Brother OTW said...

My favorite memory from binghamton: I knew about gamehenge but never had heard the song Wilson before. So when they come on stage, lights dark, spotlights up on trey and mike, and the eerie call "WIIIIIIILSON!" I nearly lost it right then and there. That show is definitely still in my top 10, maybe top 5. I certainly loved it at the time, but wasn't able to truly appreciate all of its nuance. It is like a good book or movie, you instantly love it, but on subsequent listens you catch different things and come to appreciate it even more.

Seven Seconds! said...