27 October 2009

Nedstalgia: 15 Years Ago (Ph-Anticipation)

Bear with me... even more rambling stream of memory than usual...

OK, with the anticipation for Phish’s return to the Halloween stage at the proverbial fever pitch, I’m drawn back 15 years to probably the craziest show anticipation I’ve witnessed in my years of seeing Phish… well, maybe up until the moments the lights went down in Hampton this past March. Of course, perhaps nothing beats what’s been going on since that flash animation map appeared on phish.com what seems like ages ago. We may very well be watching the greatest manipulation of a massive population’s emotional state by small number of powerful individuals outside of North Korea. The slow burn release of information via official and unofficial, online and offline means has been nothing short of remarkable. I joked to someone recently that the “refresh” button was invented for Phish. It’s been crazy.

15 years ago, the information came (to me at least) via telephone. No, people, the phone was not rotary, and I do believe it was cordless, but it was the old Alex Graham Bell for me. Calls into the Phish headquarters were regularly scheduled and 99 times out of 100 it was the same repeat message from last time… until finally that 100th call (by now knowing from the immediate first note of Shelly’s voice whether it was the same old message) it’s new dates! It was some time in the middle of the summer of 1994, I remember it clearly: October 31st, Phish returns to the Halloween stage, stay tuned to the end of the message for more details. And then I listened to said details. Then I called back again to make sure I got it right. Then once again to get the ticket info. Then once more just to make sure. Once more. Once more. wait, they’re gonna do WHAT!?!?! WHERE!?!?! WHEN!?!!? What is common knowledge now, came as a shock to the system: the band announced they were donning a “musical costume,” playing 3 sets with the first one starting at 10 pm. TEN?? Ooooeeee! The information entered my system like a a drug: an immediate hit dazing my senses and then the slow seep as I realized all the ramifications. When I was growing up, my grandparents lived in Glens Falls and we made many a many drive from Syracuse to there. The words “Glens Falls” had certain connotations to me: trips to “Storytown” amusement park in Lake George, homemade brisket and bowls of chocolate pudding and all that other good stuff that comes with visiting your grandparents when you’re a little kid. When I hung up the phone for the umpteenth time, those memories were now runners-up to the new memories. Not even to the memories I knew would come from the memorable evening, but just to the anticipation of making those memories. It was the middle of the summer and I was mentally flipping the calendar over in my mind. Anxiety set in. Back then, there wasn’t any “here are the dates, mail order is underway” attachment to a tour announcement. No, there was the initial phone message – the moment where you felt like you were in on a secret, no matter how long – then there was the newsletter (still just the Phish newsletter in July of 94), then there was the on-sale, a month or two later, THEN you started waiting for the show day. All this and I was already, within moments of hearing the words “general admission” leave the receiver, worrying about getting up front. How could I make it go faster? Problem was you couldn’t. It was hurry up and wait in the worst possible way.

School had started back up before tickets went on sale; I remember clearly the pacing in my apartment in Somerville, dialing, dialing again, hoping, hoping. I’m getting incredibly anxious just remembering about it right now. Getting tickets didn’t seem to be an issue; I remember the stress of wanting to have GA tix in my hands. Finally, got through – tickets confirmed, in my name, reserved, in the seats. Quick call from The Big Squeeze: she got ‘em, on the floor. Plus we now had extras in hand. Excellent. So far, so good.

Now it was just waiting. It feels like nearly every college friend I had went to that show. Of course, all of the obsessive, geeked-out die-hards that I spent my days with discussing the finer points of the 4/18/92 soundboard quality and whatnot were on board, but there was enough interest and enough of a party to draw out some of the merely “fans” and merely curious. It would be my house-mate’s first Phish show. He spent many hours lovingly crafting a pretty sweet Jimi Hendrix costume with a homemade jigsawed Fender strat taboot. I planned on a makeshift Big Black Furry Creature from Mars costume, with face paint and some old-school deedly-boppers and a t-shirt I had made at the mall that said “Why Am I Running?” on it. It was an awful costume, but it was better than nothing.

Of course, there was plenty of discussion about what they’d play. Unlike the next year when I sent in countless postcards (recalled here), I played no active part in the process, just speculated. It seemed to everyone that the choice was clearly between “Physical Graffiti” or “The White Album,” but frankly we didn’t really know and there wasn’t enough of that internet-trickle of information to me that I felt I had an inkling of what was going to go down. In fact, at that moment, the band was advertising that “at some point during the night” they would play the album set, maybe it would be scattered throughout the night, maybe it would be the last set, maybe the first, maybe they wouldn’t even play a whole album, but just pieces. Frankly, it was completely up in the air – no precedent whatsoever. Only one person seemed confident – they are definitely playing “The White Album” he said, a week or two before the show. I didn’t question his sources. I could only wait.

Finally, it was October 31, 1994. With all the memories jumbled in my head, I cannot recall how I got to the show. All I know is that I got there early. There were plenty of cars leaving from my neck of the woods, I’m almost certain I figured out which was leaving first and hopped in that one. I had a big box of Butterfinger candy bars to hand out in the parking lot cause what's Halloween without some freakin' candy, right?, a ticket in my hand (not to mention one for a friend) and a fidget that just wouldn’t quit. The weather was miserable, absolutely awful: cold and rainy, alternating between a steady pour and a fine, cold mist. Upon arrival in Glens Falls, there were already fingers in the air. It was an arena, but a small one. The energy in those milling about was unlike any I had witnessed in dozens of Phish shows up to that point. There was a feeling that this was the Phish show, this was the one. People who had tickets were giddy and gassed, just hoping their adrenaline would hold out until 10pm and beyond. Those that didn’t just had to get in. One way or another they were getting in through that door. Then it got dark… the hour grows closer.

Unfortunately, this was the pre-cellular days when you couldn’t just text a meet-up time with your chums and nobody ever got lost or left behind. I had my buddy’s ticket. My buddy was nowhere to be seen. The doors were opening soon, and I was already gonna have to do some wrangling to get myself on the rail. Finally, I had to make the choice, I ditched my remaining Butterfingers and unloaded my ticket to a guy I knew and knew had to be in there as badly as I did. I still remember his face, dripping sadness and then… the proverbial frown-upside-down moment. I saw that dude many years later at a Duo/Gordon show… I remembered giving him my extra, he did not. Oh well…

Then the doors were opened and we were inside. Not just inside but on the rail. Maybe not dead center, but a touch to the left of Trey. It was the spot nonetheless. It was me, and my brother (with more Fluffhead cotton balls stuck to his head than is recommended) and The Big Squeeze and a bunch of others. It couldn’t have been better. Now… more waiting. Waiting and waiting and waiting. I remember the look on my buddy’s face when someone criticized his awesome costume saying “Hendrix is not a Phish song” – ah, pity the poor fools. That was an awesome Jimi costume, don’t let no one tell you different. Probably about 9:45 or so something happened. Something just clicked in the crowd and all of the sudden everyone went crazy. What happened, I found out later, was that a bunch of people found a way to break in through the roof of the venue – people were pouring into the arena and the people inside started pouring onto the floor. It was like a cascade of Phish-ravenous flesh pouring down. There was at least one guy hanging from a banner in the rafters before falling into the seats. People were going nuts, absolutely NUTS! Like I said, the only thing even close to that was the moments before Fluffhead in Hampton. I learned at a show later that week that the fans had done tens of thousands of dollars of damage to the roof and that, so they said, rock shows would no longer be allowed at the Glens Falls Civic Center. I have no idea if that was upheld or not.

I don’t remember exactly when the band stared that night. It wasn’t 10, I assure you of that… probably closer to 11. Crazy. Thankfully I was young and dumb and full of energy. When the lights finally did go down, it was an explosion of noise from the crowd. Trey wearing a weirdo Fluffhead(?) mask as the band launched into Frankenstein. My lord, that was amazing! What crazy energy. Best ever?

I won’t go into the usual blow-by-blow of the whole show musically. Hopefully you’ve heard it before. Needless to say it was pretty amazing from the get-go. Folks may argue that it was the best Reba ever, and I wouldn’t argue back. The Harpua with the Vibration of Death set the tone for the rest of the night, with the wicked War Pigs vamp. While everyone’s sitting around and wondering what album they’re going to play, the band is going off playing an utterly electric set of classic Phish. Finally, set break and the anticipation builds. Either it was the longest set break I’ve ever sat through or it just felt that way. There may be no words to describe the buzz that built in that room during those minutes, those agonizing minutes. And at that point, it’s almost the worst part of the whole ordeal, isn’t it? All those months – literally months – of build up, all about to come crashing down in a single moment.: could the orgasm possibly match the foreplay? (will it this time?).

I will never forget that introduction… first some noise: what is that? Pink Floyd? I wasn’t ready for that, for whatever reason. Then the voice of Ed Sullivan introducing the Beatles and the mindfuck is almost over… the crowd in the Ed Sullivan Theater starts screaming and then the crowd in the Glens Falls Civic Center starts screaming and it’s loud. I mean really loud. And then, there they were, on stage, playing the Beatles, all two LP’s of the White Album, well pretty much all of it. In most ways it was glorious and after it started it was almost like they were predestined to play it, although the further we get from the night, the less convinced I am of that sentiment. So much of it totally kicked ass, the “Cry Baby Cry” may be one of my favorite things the band has done ever. Other times, they felt over-rehearsed, too rushed or not into it enough. It's just a lot of music there. About halfway through, the crowd seemed to split in two: one part (maybe it was half?) completely lost themselves to the music, threw all they had into it and lapped up everything the band served them; the second part lost some interest, large chunks of the audience sitting down where they stood, certainly enjoying it, but not feeling the party they had hoped for. I, for one, loved every minute of it. Knew the album front and back and was continually astounded at how well they were pulling it off. There weren’t as many “Phish” moments as you might have guessed going in, mostly a straight reading, but there were enough in there to keep it fun and interesting. I loved the Brad Sands birthday cake with Brad wearing a Fishman dress. I loved the chance Trey got during While My Guitar Gently Weeps. I loved it when Mike got to sing or Fish sang out “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road.” I loved it all.

Then as the album wound down and we had that glory of all glory readings of “Cry Baby Cry” it occurred to me – not until they actually got to the moment – my goodness, they’ve got Revolution 9 to play. WTF is that going to be like? It was a pure Phish moment, weird looping samples over the PA, vacuum, chanting, etc. I’ll never forget the first time I heard that “song” when I was a kid, playing with a friend and hearing this noise coming from the stereo and I giving my father a 7-year-old’s version of “um, dad, what the hell are you listening to?!?” look. So, having known Number 9 for 10+ years should have prepared me for Phish’s version, right? Well, not exactly. There are moments when it is awesome to be in the front row of a Phish show – these moments total every single possible moment except one. Unfortunately, I was up front for that one: when Jon Fishman lifted his dress (“we become naked”) and started prancing around the stage with nothing – absolutely nothing – on his body. On the rail took on a whole new meeting as DeWitt’s own pranced and danced in his birthday suit. Oh, how I will never forget. Afterward, people thought he wasn’t really naked, but I cleared that up for them real quick.

And then it was over. The crowd stood stunned. By the music, the absolutely amazing feat the band had just pulled off almost flawlessly and by what the drummer of said band just pulled off, literally. Brad Sands returned to the stage to assure everyone they were coming back for one more set. If I had a watch on, certainly I looked down at it then. One more set?? It was Monday morning!!

By the time the 3rd set began, it was well after 1am. But that didn’t slow these guys down. Now, the crowd was holding on for dear life -- it's one thing to make it through a tour de force set in exhaustion, quite another to make it through a set break -- but the boys didn’t have to drive after the show and not too far to go to their home base pillows at that and so they brought it hard for Set number 3. David Bowie opener, a killer Slave, Sleeping Monkey. I will never forget that moment, it was probably about 2:30 in the morning, when they started Run Like An Antelope. A good portion of the audience had left, many more were sitting down or fading fast, barely moving, their costumes disheveled, their minds swept clean of sanity, and yet the band hadn’t a care about any of that – they just started up their highest energy, fastest tempo, balls-to-the-walls song… that song that’s about running… like an antelope… out of control... at almost 3 in the morning. I mustered up as much energy as I could to get my dance on but not before screaming at the stage as loud as I could: “Are you fucking crazy!?!?!”

And yet, they still weren’t done. A funked-up costume contest and a too-long Squirming Coil (quite possibly the worst song to send you on the road at 3am??) finished the night. Absotively outta sight! Somehow I worked it out with my parents that I'd wrangle the car from my brother (how did he get home after that show?) and made my girlfriend drive back to Boston (you can see why she married me, right?). I don’t think I’ve ever been that tired after a concert before, just left it all there in Glens Falls. I convinced myself that I could do the show without missing a class and sure enough, I made it there in time. Why I insisted on going is beyond me. A couple months later I went back to study for an exam and saw some sick-ass doodles on the side of the notebook from that day -- one sticks out, a coarse stick-figure with a guitar with "TREY!" written in block letters under it. Hey, at least I was awake!

4 years later, I (re-)met a guy at a show out west and were discussing that show and discovered we were standing next to each other – “you were the guy who yelled ‘Are you fucking crazy!?’ when they started up Antelope!!” Yes, they were crazy: totally out of their minds. And we were nuts for following them like we did and for obsessing for 100+ days about a frickin’ concert. But here we are, 15 years later and still doing the same. Look for me there; I’ll be the one wearing the 15-year-old, only-worn-4-times, t-shirt that says “Why Am I Running?” on it. Just like I always do.

08 October 2009

Nedstalgia: 15 Years Ago (Phish)

So, 15 years ago this week, Phish started up their 1994 fall tour which would sandwich around the historic 10/31/1994 they're-playing-the-freakin'-White-Album! show. Truly one of the crazier concerts I've been to, from the months of build up to the actual execution. And now that the anticipation is building with frantic refreshes of the Phish Halloween roulette and wild speculation for the 15th anniversary Halloween show, circled in bright red sharpie on my proverbial calendar, I thought it might be time to start looking back on this long-dormant blog (also noting the fact that no one would read this unless I wrote about Phish, anyway).

I'll get to the goods later on in the month (or not), but for now let's dial it back to the first week of October and the lesson that even as the band was approaching its peak, there was plenty of mediocrity to be had in mediocre places gotten to by unmemorable road trips and encounters.

The first show of the tour was on the campus of Lehigh in Bethlehem, PA. Does that sound like the kind of place you want to start a massive two-legged fall tour? Well, that's where we found ourselves on a brisk fall evening. 15 years later and the music that was this middling show have pretty much washed into a memory or two. I got in early hoping to hop down onto the GA floor even though I didn't have the requisite bracelet to be down there. Things were loose enough early on when I got there so I waltzed up front (certainly ditching the not-yet-Mrs. and my ride in the process, although that part is even hazier) and started chatting it up with a fellow geekoid. Turns out minutes before I got down there, Tom Marshall was milling about, talking about this great new song they'd be debuting. The guy had written down the name of the song as best he could, "Guite" I believe is what he had scrawled -- "about a pig" he said. I thought maybe he was pulling my leg, but whatevs.

The show started up and the floor was a strange mix of drunken anarchy and gestapo security trying to clear out those that didn't belong (i.e. me and my ilk). I stayed down up front long as I could, slightly overwhelmed by the frantic crowd and the muddy sound. Oy, that sound! Has to be down there on the list of all time worst sounding Phish shows I've been to. Like I said, the music was pretty middle-of-the-road, certainly a typical 1st show of the tour, getting ready for the road kind of night.

Certainly the only thing memorable was when they did, indeed, pull out a new tune late in the first set. Daggone it, Tom Marshall was correct. Unfortunately, it wasn't clear that the band was ready to pull this one out of the oven yet. The thing was rough, the band all searching each other out with each measure. The awful sound in the room did nothing to improve matters. In all honesty, at the time I had no idea whether the song was any good or not. I do remember it totally sucked all the energy out of the room... for a good 12 minutes, the Lehigh partiers and the Phish geeks got a tranquilizer dart of brand new, untested prog rock. Listening back, it doesn't quite sound as bad as I remember it -- I think the utter newness of a song of this type threw me (and everyone) for a loop. I think my general feeling after Trey said "you're the first people to ever hear that song" (can never beat that!) was "can't wait to hear that one again."

The second first-show-of-the-tour bustout came in the encore (I really have no memories good or bad of anything else). The band came back out front in "acoustic" mode and in a move that almost exactly mirrored the first time they played "Freebird" in the summer of 1993. Instead of an a capella version of a southern rock radio classic, they instead did a down-home bluegrass version of New England classic: Boston's Foreplay/Long Time. It was one of those "what is this, I know this" moments, as bit by bit the crowd became hip to what they were doing. Absotively brilliant in concept, if not execution.

I spent the night on a ratty couch in my buddy's high school buddy's apartment and woke up to an even rattier, bizarre pug-like pooch licking my face.

The next day was a new day and instead of doing the wise thing and heading back Boston-way on a Saturday, we continued away from home base down to Virginia... Fairfax, VA to be precise. The crowd for this show was a really weird mix. Turns out the Grateful Dead had been in Philly on the 7th and were playing the 9-11th in Landover, MD. The night Phish was playing in Fairfax -- the 8th -- was the Dead's off day and a healthy number of Deadheads decided to check out what these Phish fellas were all about. I believe this is the first major crossover between the fan bases (but of course, I could be wrong).

The show was no GA, but I managed my way up front with a whole slew of other people and for a while before the show, it appeared we'd have no problem hanging out there. But then the lights went down, the band came on stage, Chalkdust started and the security guard came through checking tickets. I pushed myself into a possibly empty seat in the front row and hoped I looked like I belonged there when the guard passed. To my relief, it worked -- in fact, the guard cleared everyone out except for me -- how long would that last? As Chalkdust finished and Horn started, the guy next to me leans over and tells me that his friend couldn't make the show, that no one is sitting in that seat and that it's mine, no problem. What luck! Basically, I had the seat directly front row center, not a soul in front of me (and a place to sit @ setbreak). Back then, I was apparently flowing in Phish front row karma...

Like I said, the crowd was weird, and the energy dampened the otherwise solid show. Things already seemed much crisper than the previous night -- better sound, a more cohesive, jammy spirit from the band. But the room was bigger than it was in Lehigh and although it was filled, the setting felt a bit sterile. Still, the show was good -- average, but good. When they got to Guyute, I was feeling "do over!" in my mind and I was right... it took but one more try, but they nailed it and hooked me -- I got it. Seeing the debut of a tune is great, seeing the first two or three times can be a real treat for the fanboy.

I will never forget the conversation I had at setbreak. The guy who lent me his seat for the night started chatting about the Halloween show. Seemed like he only had half a picture of what they were doing, like a game of telephone, talking about playing one side of an album and a bunch of other nonsense. Finally he says he'll let me in on a little secret -- he knows for a fact (you see he knows a guy that knows a guy) that they're going to be playing the first side of The Grateful Dead's Europe '72 on Halloween that month. I still get a chuckle out of remembering the look in his eye when he was blathering on. Classic.

The second set was a blazer. Maybe a little more sizzling on paper than it was in reality -- everything was clean, well-played and high-energy, but nothing really launched to the next level. It had its moments, of course -- it was a Phish show in the 90's, fer crissakes. Of course, the most bizarre thing was during Mike's Song. Those were the days of thick clouds of smoke billowing from the stage and trampolines during Mike's Song which always lent the jamming a crazed, heavy metal, loud-as-fuck feeling. Then there were nights when things got even crazier and louder (for better or worse). This was one of those nights. As the smoke is still swirling around the stage and Mike's wound done, a bunch of figures start moving onto the stage, a whole slew of what started to become clear were little girls, maybe 10-12 years old, dressed in some sort of uniform. Then the band quiets to a stop and these girls start screaming these cheers, really loudly. Is there anything less musical than 15-20 10-year-old girls screaming at the top of their lungs? Maybe, but wow! There it was: perfectly pointless and bizarre, but perfectly Phish all the same. Then they were gone and the band went into Simple -- my first time hearing that one, check-mark. I heard later that the band was awoken by these girls screaming at their hotel -- in town for some soccer game/tournament -- and they were impressed by the volume and invited them to come to the show. Strange but true.

Back then I was a Harry Hood chaser in the worst way. A good show became a great show if they played Hood and even a middle-of-the-road offering would score in the win column if I got that wish. Needless to say, I was tickled when they started the song. My memory of the moment is clear as it seemed at this moment that everyone in the crowd seemed to completely deflate -- there would be no Dark Star this evening. I had been tentative about moving from my seat all the way to the front of the stage fearing the security would wrangle me out of there, but at that moment, the show almost over, I had little to lose and so I moved up a few steps and put my hands on the rail. At that moment, everyone else was behind me and for 12 minutes, it felt like just me, the band and Harry Hood. It was moments like those that made ill-construed weekend jaunts to places like Bethlehem, PA and Fairfax, VA worth every stinky dog lick in the face. The next day it was back to Boston and two weeks of waiting until we got back into the car and headed to another one of those what-the-hell-are-we-doing-in-Glens-Falls kind of places. But that'll be another too-long blog post.

Thanks for reading...