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...


Anonymous said...

My first show was October 28th, 3 days before the legendary show of 94...those days were a tremendous ammount of fun, small venues, small lot parties, much more chill folks. Thanks for the jogging of the memory!

123 said...

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