31 December 2010

2010:: Favorite Albums of 2010

Finally getting back on track here. These are my favorite albums from 2010. Not the best and certainly not your favorites. Didn't get to listen to everything and these opinions are all subject to change as early as later today. As usual, I'm putting these in alphabetical groups of 10, because that's the way I like to do it! If your favorite isn't on there, I probably just didn't listen to it, so feel free to drop a rec in the comments.

The Top Ten (alphabetical)

The Bad Plus -- Never Stop
Another year, another album, another spot on Neddy's top 10 list. Impossibly the compositions are getting stronger and stronger with too many highlight tracks to bother mentioning. This album is unique in its lack of any sign of the vintage TBP covers... and is all the better for it.

The Black Keys -- Brothers
Fueled by Danger Mouse's production, the Keys are in a serious groove right now. This album is rock and roll, 2010 in its essence. Somehow it sounds both like the raw guitar-drums-and-voice stripped down Black Keys and a more grandiose, detailed subtle pop masterpiece, that just happens to make your hair stand on end.

Broken Social Scene -- Forgiveness Rock Record
Finally a worthy successor to "You Forgot It In People" that shows a leap in maturity and breadth and yet retains that BSS thing that makes it so much different and awe-inspiring than just about every other music being made out there. Amazing to think that this is the same band that will give you a drunken, raucous, ragged live show night in and out. This one is still growing on me. Also seek out their EP "Lo-Fi for the Dividing Nights" which is a perfect bedtime companion to this one.

The Dreamers -- Ipos Masada Book 2
John Zorn's power ensemble. Frankly, any time Ribot, Dunn, Baron, Saft, & Wolleson are playing together, I want to be a part of it. This album has them playing Masada selections, but it's less about what they play than how they're doing it and once again they are possibly the most talented band in the universe pushing each other to be better. This music has no genre.

El Ten Eleven -- It's Still Like a Secret
If you haven't heard El Ten Eleven yet, this is the time to start. Layered, architectural electropop instrumental music made by two guys on bass and drums. This album captures the balance of move-your-mind/move-your-body well without having to stare at them on stage and say "how they do that??" Check 'em out, you won't regret it.

Jason Collett -- Rat A Tat Tat

This is probably the biggest "how'd this get on here?" of my top 10, but this is the album that probably spent the most time in my car CD player this year. It just didn't want to come out! Great songwriting from Collett backed by the band Zeus for a spongy sound that's perfect for lazy mornings, long commutes or impressing your friends with something they haven't heard yet.

Midlake -- The Courage of Others
The perfect follow-up to one of my favorites from a couple years ago (Van Occupanther), this back country baroque sounds fantastic, transporting you to another world. I don't know how to describe the Midlake sound, and it's probably something you have to "get" but there is a subtle richness in this album that's worth a little patience.

Janelle Monae -- Archandroid
Wow! Just... wow! Epic vision, perfectly executed. Looking over this list, many of these favorites seem to be not just cross-cutting styles and genre, but almost newly invented styles and genres in their own right. Monae is a musical entity unto herself -- yes, you will hear Sun Ra, Outkast, Kanye West, Carlos Santana, Jimi Hendrix and who knows what else in there, but blown together in some supersonic quasar. Probably my album of the year if forced to pick.

Spoon - Transference
I don't know if I'm even a huge Spoon fan, but good lord they put out some sweet albums. Some bands just shit out great music and Spoon is one of them, if I was a rock musician, I'd be jealous as heck.

Vampire Weekend -- Contra
I feel like I don't want to put this here for some reason, but the early year hype surrounding these guys and their sophomore effort is warranted, this is a fantastic record. I didn't think these guys would amount to more than a flash in a pan, but there is growth in sound and songs here that tells me they might be around for a while. Pick a track, listen to it and most likely you'll have it stuck in your head all day. Not many albums can do that, but Vampire Weekend can.

11-20 (alphabetical)

Clem Snide -- The Meat of Life
Cornershop -- Lucy Sucks a Lemon for Breakfast
Dawes -- North Hills
Local Natives -- Gorilla Manor

Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band -- Where the Messengers Meet
Of Montreal -- False Priest

Portugal. The Man -- American Ghetto
Wolf Parade -- Expo86

John Zorn (Burger/Dunn/Emmanuel/Perowsky/Ribot/Wolleson) -- The Godess
Kanye West -- My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

21-30 (alphabetical)

Broken Bells -- s/t
Dr Rubberfunk -- Hot Stone
Cochemea Gastelum -- The Electric Sound of Johnny Arrow
Horse Feathers -- Thistled Spring

Jenny & Johnny -- I'm Having Fun Now
Preservation Hall Jazz Band -- An Album to Benefit...
Ratatat -- LP4

Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros -- s/t

The Roots -- How I Got Over
Zeus -- Say Us

31-40 (alphabetical)

Ryan Adams & the Cardinals III/IV
Clothesline Revival -- They Came From Somewhere
Dr. Dog -- Shame, Shame
LCD Soundsystem -- This Is Happening

Anders Osborne -- American Patchwork

Phantogram -- Eyelid Movies
Sufjan Stevens -- The Age of Adz

Laura Veirs -- July Flame

The Tallest Man on Earth -- The Wild Hunt

41-50 (alphabetical)

Arcade Fire -- The Suburbs
The Books -- The Way Out
Ben Goldberg Quartet -- Baal Masada Book 2

Javelin -- No Mas

Konono No1 -- Assume Crash Position
The National -- High Violet
Nels Cline Singers -- Initiate

Grace Potter & the Nocturnals -- s/t
Ra Ra Riot -- The Orchard
She & Him -- Vol. 2
John Zorn (Blumenkranz/Burger/Cohen/Perowsky/Wolleson) -- In Search of the Miraculous

51-60 (alphabetical)

Band of Horses -- Infinite Arms
David Byrne -- Here Lies Love
Caribou -- Swim

Delta Spirit -- History From Below
Justin Townes Earle -- Harlem River Blues

Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings -- I Learned the Hard Way
Onra -- Long Distance
John Vanderslice -- Green Grow the Rushes

John Zorn -- Filmworks XXIV
Various -- Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows

61-70 (alphabetical)

!!! -- Strange Weather, Isn't It?
Blitzen Trapper -- Destroyer of the Void
The Clientele -- Minotaur
The Gaslight Anthem -- American Slang
The Hold Steady -- Heaven is Whenever
Menomena -- Mines

Mop Mop -- Ritual Of the Savage

Joanna Newsom - Have One On Me
Stars -- The Five Ghosts

Various -- Dear New Orleans

70-75 (alphabetical)

Roky Erickson with Okkervil River -- True Love Cast Out All Evil
Blonde Redhead -- Penny Sparkle
Crystal Castles -- II
Girl Talk -- All Day

Jamie Lidell -- Compass

If you're still reading down here, some fantastic EP's worth seeking out:
Broken Social Scene -- Lo-Fi For the Dividing Nights
White Denim -- last day of summer
Junip -- Rope and Summit
Various -- Twistable, Turnable Man

22 December 2010

2010:: Reviews recap

By means of wrapping up the year, here are the reviews I wrote for the Bowery Presents House List. Although I don't find the time to review all the shows I go to on this blog any more, I'm happy for the outlet to write a review every once in a while and to see some music I wouldn't see otherwise. So...

21 December 2010

2010:: Favorite Artist of the Year

(photo stolen from Dino Perrucci)

I’ve enjoyed the last few years picking my “band” or “artist” of the year. 2008 was the year of Apollo Sunshine while last year Portugal. The Man took the honor of digging deepest into my soul. Here was last year's bands of the decade retrospective.

As with last year, this year’s pick could easily have been the Big PH, but that would be boring, and, time permitting, I plan on doing a separate year-end post on those guys. Even crossing them off the list, there are a few great choices in there, bands that impressed me on CD and blew me away live.

When it comes down to it, though, I think I have to go with Jim James. James, of course, is the front man of My Morning Jacket, which didn’t even have an album out this year. Still, during a weeklong stretch in late October, James and his band were the story in NYC and my life, when I got to see them at the Ed Sullivan Theater (my first time in that theater) in a special Letterman online show and then 4 (out of 5) nights at Terminal 5, absolutely destroying each of their studio albums and then heaping amazing cover after amazing cover into encores like forkfuls of pie after a Thanksgiving feast. It was as impressive a week of music as I’ve seen a band put on. Not just “A game” but a different game altogether. My old review-writing self would have expounded on the treat it was to see a band climb through its own history, and then re-envision their past with the knowledge and talent of today. “I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger...” Have you ever seen a band do that before? It was awe inspiring. It was also, loud, rocking fist-pumping fun.

It’s a rare thing to *want* to schlep to Terminal 5 multiple nights in a row, to need to get there at all costs. This year has been a lot of “maybe I won’t go out tonight” kind of nights for me, it would have been easy to fold ‘em for one of those T5 shows, but I didn’t consider it for a minute. I would have hit all 5 if I hadn’t forced The Big Squeeze to go to at least one (the night they played “It Still Moves,” which may have been the best of ‘em all). The night they played “Z” was one of the best shows I saw all year, not only because of the main album set but because they killed a cover of one of my all-time favorite songs, A Quick One While He’s Away by the Who. Wow! Still gives me the sweats thinking about it.

Still, one week in October doesn’t make an “artist of the year” for me and there’s a reason why I say Jim James and not My Morning Jacket. The reason was the Newport Folk Festival this summer. This was my 3rd time hitting the historic festival, and, of course, I’ve been to dozens of other music festivals from New Orleans Jazzfest to Bonnaroo to Austin City Limits to festivals that don’t even exist anymore. I have never, not ever, seen a festival dominated like Newport Folk was dominated by Jim James this past August. The guy was just everywhere, as a headliner, as a guest, as a stealth ensemble artist. Quite frankly, if you were an old-timer who didn’t know James or his music, I feel like you may have missed one of the all time great front-to-back festival appearances happening right under your nose. And to dominate not any old festival but the Newport F’in Folk Festival is impressive. James played an incredible solo set (as Yim Yames) which wasn’t really a solo set, then he magically transformed a set billed as Ben Sollee and Daniel Martin Moore into an intimate, under-the-radar Appalachian Waltz show in the small tent and also had an awesome extended guest sit-in with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, transforming them into his back-up band by sheer talent and will. Here are some videos from the festival:

Gideon from the Yim Yames set:

St. James Infirmary from the Pres. Hall set:

As you can see, not only was he Michael Jordaning the crap out of that weekend, he was looking like one cool customer while doing so. So for that week in October and that weekend in August, Jim James was my personal artist of the year.

Some more links:

2010 Rundown

OK, so the end of the year is nigh... gonna try and fit in some of my usual year end bologna in this space for you. Hopefully a post a day more or less through the end of 2010. Enjoy!

10 December 2010

Nedstalgia: 15 Years Ago

During my Phishgoing glory days in the mid-90’s, I had this feeling that I wasn’t just going to amazing show after amazing show, I felt like I was part of the reason why the show was amazing. It was a chicken-or-the-egg kind of thing. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this way, in fact that’s part of the appeal of the band, right? The shows were not just concerts, but two-way communications between audience and band that no other band seemed to tap into quite like Phish did. Still, beyond that, there was something personal about it, spending so much time in close proximity to the stage as detailed here in Nedstalgia time and time again, it was almost as if you were inside the cloud where the weather was being made. Never was this feeling stronger than during the month of December in 1995, 15 years ago.

Now, there are many great runs and weeks and months in Phish history (and I think you’ll find, many of them are at the tail end or second leg of tours), but 12/95 may very well be the champion of Phish in month/year debates. There are plenty of reasons why this was the case, I’m sure, we could argue that for weeks if we wanted to, but what made it doubly impressive was that Phish was in the midst of “the leap” from playing theaters and college gyms to being a full-fledged arena band. That month Phish established the Knickerbocker Arena in Albany as one of their many “homes.” That was one of the Grateful Dead’s “homes” over the years. That’s kind of huge if you think about it. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the fall of 1995 was Phish’s first tour after Jerry Garcia’s death. For better or worse and still to this day, from that tour on, Phish was in more ways than one, the Grateful Dead.

So that’s the backdrop, and into that setting, we find the 21-year-old me, once again lucky by birth and college choice, to be the right age in the right spot with the accommodating class schedule and car-owning coterie of friends and family to drive me to many of these shows, 6 in total without affecting my GPA too badly. I won’t go into gory detail on all of those shows, but suffice it to say, there was a new energy in the band. Not brand new, but a refurbished, evolved sound, a little darker and heavier sound that predated the cow-funk era by about a year or so, but still was the seed in which the greatness of fall 1997 was planted. This was a band who opened the 2nd set of 12/4/95 in UMASS with a deep, groovy Timber that still sticks out in my mind for its ability to turn a gym of 20-somethings into something of a anarchic rave party. That same set featured a mid-set Antelope and closed fiercely with a YEM, Sample, Frankenstein. The band was working the Billy Breathes material, but reinventing it a nightly basis. Although the album featured a lot of solid, concise songwriting, it also had several vehicles for exploratory work that would tend more towards evil than good, in those days at least. Add to that mix the bounce of The Who’s bombastic mix from the 10/31 show and the band was a fiery foursome to say the least.

The early month highlight, has to be the Tweezer from 12/2/95 in New Haven, CT. Like nearly all the shows I saw that month, I was in the front row for this one. I was a front row center master already, but I believe during the fall of 1995 I was a Jedi, willing myself to the spot I wanted to (nay, needed to) be without hassle or worry to me or those around me. I knew in my heart that I belonged in that spot and time and time again found myself there dancing my ass off in utter bliss, jumping my young, indestructible body straight into the air as if it were just me they were playing for. And didn’t it always feel that way? Don’t mind the self-absorption, I don’t think this feeling is any different than anyone else’s, but these are my memories and let’s face it, I was young and in love.

So, that’s where I was standing in New Haven that night. The rest of the show was actually rather mediocre. That was my first show of the leg and while the 3 midwest shows I saw were great, there was no sign of the transcendence of 12/95 yet. In fact, the first set was downright mundane despite an always-pleasing Reba. It wasn’t until the Tweezer got going in the middle of the 2nd set that there was anything to suggest that we were at the forefront of several weeks of musical insanity. I could go into a Charlie-Dirksen-style second-by-second analysis of the 15 minutes that are the 12/2/95 Tweezer and it would be worth my while to do so. But that wouldn’t do it justice and even listening to it doesn’t quite capture the way it felt in the room that night (does it ever?). That shouldn’t stop you from going and grabbing the SBD version: http://www.mediafire.com/?zmk3jt2inod and blasting it right now. It starts off innocently enough, like any Tweezer would. Then about halfway through when you feel like you know where it’s going, something kind of clicks. That clicking noise might just be the moment when 12/95 went from the final stretch of the Phish fall tour to becoming all-caps “12/95”. What’s funny about this jam is that until hearing it on the archives show at Festival 8 last year, I don’t think I ever heard it again after the live version. It was one of those few moments of Phish clarity that lived only in my memory. I remember talking about it with a friend at school who always called it “The Boweezer” for the way the jam took the best parts of David Bowie and Tweezer and mashed them together like meat and melted cheese. He had a tape of it and always meant to make me a copy, but we never got around to it, more shows, more tapes, whatnot. It’s great to listen to it now, how it’s Mike that kind of pushes the change, how it’s his bass playing that’s the magical elixir that changes this from a Dr Jeckyll Tweezer to a full-throated, murderous Mr Hyde Tweezer. And Trey takes it and runs with it like the human methamphetamine. How fast and how hard could my 21 year old body dance back then? This Tweezer would be the test. Four guys each taking the threats and dares from the other three, can you play faster, can you get any more intense? Oh yeah, well beat this!! From the 7.5 minute mark to the end is one perfect musical arc, like a rainbow that leads not to a pot of gold but a small spot in a hockey arena where I had one hand on the rail, one hand in the air and 2 legs below me moving at incomprehensible angles. Maybe I heard it after then, maybe not, but when it came on the radio back in Palm Springs last October, it silenced all splashing in the pool, all conversation, it sent everyone within earshot into a hypnotic haze. When it finished and the host proclaimed it to be *the* Tweezer from 12/2/95, I was not surprised. Not in the least. 15 years and many excellent Tweezers later, it still stands out as one of the best.

By the time the Saturday show in Albany came around, it was clear there was something in the water Phish was drinking. You’d be a fool, ticket in hand, to skip the show at the Knick – seemed like everyone I had ever sat in a dorm room with listening to Harry Hood was going to that show. It would take something biblical to get me to skip that show. And then, as it always seems to do when Phish-in-December is involved, the biblical happened. Was it a blizzard or a Nor’easter or just a plain old snowstorm? Whatever it was, only a complete moron would get in a car and drive the 170 miles from Boston to Albany for a freakin’ Phish concert! I mean, 5 shows ain’t enough, you’ve got to risk your life to see a precious 6th? (note: if I ever say anything like this to my kids, show them this). Of course, we were going. Several carfuls made the voyage. Mine was driven by a friend of mine who decided (this is college idiocy at its finest) that he wanted, no he NEEDED to get beer and drink a 6-pack on the way and yet insisted that he drive. This is one of the many instances in my life where I look back and wonder how I’ve made it this far alive, happy and in one piece. Yes, you could barely see 50 feet in front of you, where the road ended and the shoulder began was a matter of opinion and even the plows were sitting it out for a bit on I-90. And yet, we barreled on through, one bottle of beer at a time, the passengers’ knuckles whiter than the Republican convention, until we, thank the lord in heaven, made it to Albany.
As it was halfway to my hometown, there were friendly faces everywhere I looked and both my brother and sister were in attendance. Met up with my bro and we made our way to the spot where it so happened that old neighbors/schoolmates/acquaintances legitimately had seats right there in front of Trey (in one of those classic, “wait, you like Phish?” moments). Another summer camp buddy joined us and we had a nice little friendly posse up there.

Now, I’ve mentioned this feeling of being not just an observer but maybe a little bit of a participant in the show. A lot of times this was just the energy, the dancing, a look here, a nod etc. But increasingly, it became a bit of a game for us to try and get the band to play a song. This started for me, I think, in 2/93 on another snowy night in Poughkeepsie when we chanted for Harry Hood until we got them to play it as a little unplanned bonus. Later it was AC/DC Bag and in 12/93 it was Slave. In 1994, my brother and I were determined to cross Funky Bitch off our need-to-see list and made it our mission to scream for it whether at a show together or separately. That’s a story for my brother (Liffstalgia anyone?), but needless to say, we eventually succeeded, even if I wasn’t there to enjoy it when the struggle was acknowledged. When 12/95 rolled around, our goal was Tube. It was a touch obscure at the time, or at least it felt that way but it was one of those tough-to-catch tunes for us and a pretty killer song that should have, we felt, been a stronger member of the repertoire. Our camp buddy felt the same way, or at least we were successful at recruiting him and he went above and beyond by taking a toothpaste tube and writing “TUBE” on it in big letters. Yes, we were freaks of the nth degree, but having a blast and seeing some sick shit along the way. The guys we knew in the seats had a sign that said “Free Bird” on it, which was one of the first times I’d seen someone bring a sign into a show… it was all scream-it-out-the-lungs back then for us dunderheads.

So the show starts and before the set starts we’re screaming for Tube and when they’re discussing what song to play they’re screaming for Tube. I mean, they’ve got to hear us, right? And eventually they’re going to play it for us, right? The first set was solid with some more of that quintessential 12/95 darkness coupled with a lot of quieter moments that the era also had. We upped our lungwork for the start of the second set, screaming for Tube, but I think at one point we crossed the line. Trey gave us a fairly obvious “STFU” look that chilled me a bit, saying “alright, alright, I hear you!” You can even hear his admonishing on the tapes. I remember thinking then and there that I would not ever scream for a song again. It was a pretty fun game for a while, but Trey’s look made me realize I’d crossed the border to obnoxiousness. I was happy to go home with the victories I’d already had in my belt. There was more than just the chase of the song to enjoy.

Probably lucky that I put the notion of Tube out of my mind for that set, because it was a smoker! One of the best of the month. Scott B from Hidden Track/YEMBlog does a great job dissecting the action in his own nostalgic post here: http://www.glidemagazine.com/hiddentrack/best-jam-ever/, so I won’t get too protracted. But, needless to say, this set had all the ingredients of Phish greatness. There really isn’t a letdown. The Timber took off where the UMASS version ended, plunging us one step closer to the funk era. In fact, I would argue that “the funk” began in earnest during the 12/9/95 second set and just you *try* to disagree with me! Plunging-the-depths jams are fantastic, but great Phish sets also include some of that “we’re wild and crazy guys!” antic and in Albany, Trey obliged, pulling out a little gizmo that had Beavis and Butthead samples coming out of it -- which in 1995 was probably a pretty unique gadget. “Uhhh this sucks!” “Asswipe!” There are a few awesome things about this little gag. First is how dated it is in retrospect. Phish of the 90’s was transcendent of time, but also very *of* the time it was in. Like I said, we can listen to the tapes and enjoy them, but remembering that the Dead had just met their untimely demise with Garcia’s passing is important. Hearing a Spin Doctors tease is ironic and makes you smile, but back then, they occupied a more subtle part of the Phish universe. But Beavis and Butthead may take the cake. Obviously, it was a rather popular TV show, but it was also the one TV show where you could actually see the one and only Phish music video (for Down With Disease… can you believe *that’s* the song that got a video??) where they characteristically panned the music, the band and the (admittedly horrible) video. So when it says “This sucks!” there’s some good shit buried in there. But mostly, it was hilarious and weird and classic “we’re kinda feeling it tonight” Phish stuff. Plop in the middle of Wilson and you’ve got something there.

Which is all well and good, but ask anyone and the only reason to get the tapes of 12/9/95 (wait, did I just say “tapes?” ) is the You Enjoy Myself. If 12/2/95 is the Tweezer of the month, tour, era (arguably it isn’t but who cares), then 12/9/95 is the YEM of the month, tour, era. Scotty B breaks it down pretty well, but this is quintessential had-to-be-there Phish. The way Trey went at his guitar during that Shaft section essentially predicted the move towards the funk. It was the first time I’d heard the band really delve into something that overtly funky like that. Sure the band could groove, but this was something different. It was a vamp, a tease, whatever, but I remember we would bring it up all the time afterwards; it was something different that warranted a second listen. The funk dripped down to near silence. I’d seen the band get so quiet they were barely touching their instruments but like so many things during the transcendent moments, they took it a bit further and actually stopped playing altogether. But the key was they kept moving like they *were* playing, like they were some weirdo “air band” like we used to do at summer camp. Except somehow there was still music coming from the stage. You couldn’t hear it, but you could feel it. I know others felt it too because people kept dancing, the beat and the melody still inside them. It was really cool. I think Trey lifted his guitar and did the classic Hendrix behind-the-back thing and Fishman got so excited pretending to hit his drums that he actually did hit his drums a couple times. And then, as if it were planned, they eased back into it, like they had ducked their heads underwater and found themselves in some underground river or something. It was a thing to behold.

There is an underappreciated aspect to the silent jam, which is where it occurs during the set. Back then, when 90% of Phish fans got their hands on this classic 12/95 gem, they got it on a 90 minute cassette, almost certainly a Maxell XLII. This YEM was long, almost 35 minutes of Phish at its finest, but could have been a bear to fit onto a tape like that sitting as it did in the middle of the set. But silent jam to the rescue! it came right where a tape flip was appropriate and so the band naturally faded out Side A and faded into Side B without any jarring (cut) on your label. You want to talk about a band in tune with its audience… THAT is a band in tune with its audience. But rest assured, this wasn’t a half hour of farting around on Beavis and Butthead samples or Shaft lyrics or silent jamming… this was 30+ minutes of a band dialed in like few bands could ever dream of. Phish was in the midst of an ascent and during You Enjoy Myself on 12/9/95 in Albany, they took a gigantic step towards that peak.

Great sets also need to sustain to the end and this one had no problem on that front, with an always-welcome Slave to the Traffic Light that made way for a blistering Trey’s-gotta-get-his-rocks-out Crossroards. Good times in Albany, NY. Always good times in Albany, NY, right??

Post show, the snow had stopped and the streets were well on their way to being cleared. I hooked up with my brother who was driving back to Boston with me, but the plan was to crash at a hotel with my buddies for the night. In yet another sign-o-the-times we could not, for the life of us, figure out where the hotel was, sans cell phone or GPS we drove around and around and around and eventually gave up. The cell phone would have also been very helpful for hooking up with my sister who was supposed to have a ride back to Syracuse… but that ride never made it to the show due to the weather and so she was stranded. We still get crap about leaving her to freeze in Albany (our gallant, Tube-wielding buddy actually saved the day on that one, so much for big brothers). Yes, still get crap to this day, but back then, the crap would have to wait until we reached a landline. Finally we just said fuck it, we ride! And off we drove to Boston through the night. I remember being so tired that as we pulled up to the I-90 toll booth I made a complete stop and fell fast asleep. Needless to say, little brother completed the trip.

12/10 was an off day. 12/11/95 was one of those all time great Phish days. Now we had a car with me, my brother, my future wife, the Big Squeeze, Oopy and his girlfriend at the time. The show that day was in Portland, Maine. The last time we had seen Phish in Portland was also a snowy, bitter cold day in December and happened to be, still to this day, one of my favorite Phish shows ever. Nothing was going to stop us from making that trip. But FIRST! Lunch!! There was sandwich stop near our school… I know, I know, everyone had a sandwich stop near their school. But Hungry Herb’s in Malden was like the Phish of sandwiches, transcendent in ways I continue to dream about (alas, it is no longer!!). You could get full just reading the menu (maybe someday I’ll just do a post on Herb’s), but I almost always got the Barbecue-Bacon-Bleu chicken tips sub. My stomach just made a weird noise as I wrote that, holy kashruth, that was a helluva sandwich. Big as heck, too. We made the incredibly forethoughtful decision to eat half of our sandwiches and take the rest with us for later. You don’t give a shit about this (if you’re still reading at all), but it’s important to my memory of the day.

The Cumberland County Civic Center is kind of like the ideal Phish venue in its size, location, and general admissionness. The only thing we knew was not only were we going to be in the front row, but we were going to be at the front of the line to get in. Now, the temperature in Boston was probably 30something but by the time we got up north to Maine it was likely in the single digits. It was a crisp, sunny winter day that made your noise sticky with ice on the inside every time you inhaled. It was cold!!! Oopy bought a ridiculously large furry hat like you might wear in Siberia and we settled down at the door to the Civic Center… and waited, waited and waited. You know you’re there early when it takes hours, plural, for the next crazy muthfukker to show up. But at that point in our lives, being in the front row was more important than most of our toes and probably a couple fingers, so we did it. When you wait for that long in somewhat insane conditions, you have a certain way of *willing* a show to be great. It had happened in the past. Hell, it had happened two days earlier with that drive to Albany. We knew we were doing the right thing, never a we’re-the-biggest-douches-in-the-history-of-Phish doubt in our mind.

Finally, after the line had swelled to a less meager size and the anxiety and anticipation an adrenaline mixed with the cold until we had some sort of unnatural high, long after the sun, which had provided a false feeling of warmth, had set, after most of the feeling in our extremities was a thing of the past, after many, many hours, the doors finally opened and we were let inside. There are so many myriad emotions associated with a Phish show, from the moment it is announced, getting a ticket in your hand, through the show itself and then years later on recordings and conversations and ridiculous pages-long exercises such as this one. One of my favorite feelings was that sensation of being the first person into the venue, walking (no running! sez the Mr. Security Man) quickly to the rail, which is standing there, bare naked, waiting to be embraced, the tension of “the wait” broken as you take “the spot” and sit down, only to have “the next wait” upon you. Settled securely in our spot, the tension switches from where we’ll be standing, to what we’ll be seeing. It is a subtle shift in anxiety, but a fun part of the process. Of course, there was chit chat about what they’d play, remembering the 1993 show which we’d seen from much the same spot, etc. The possibilities were endless, but one thing I knew was NOT going to happen was that I wasn’t, no way in hell, going to shout *anything* at the stage, let alone a song title. I’d get my Tube when I was ready, not a moment sooner. At this point, the other certainty was that we were going to get an epic show. There was little doubt about that. You don’t wait in the cold like that for anything short of Phish history... at least *I* didn’t and because I truly believed I could will greatness from the band, I knew it would be so on 12/11/1995.

Finally, the band takes the stage. Trey takes a quick look into the audience and I catch his eye as I hop up and down in excitement. Was he still pissed? Did I really think this way back then? Yes, I did and probably still do. Weirdo.

My Friend, My Friend opener. The tone has been set. Phish loves Maine, did you know that? They love lots of places and the whole state of Maine is somewhere up on that list, I can say with confidence, even though I’ve only see three shows up there... two of them happen to be two of my favorite shows of all time, although that list is probably too long to consider. Anyway, MFMF, WTF? My Friend My Friend > Ha Ha Ha which had been one of our favorites since hearing it in Lowell that past spring. Twisted, glorious energy quickly heated up the room, the outside wait long forgotten, the inside wait a thing of the past, we were digging it in the moment. The band was bundling all the greatness of the previous two weeks and resurrecting it before our very eyes. Great shows start like this, the very greatest shows started like this, we were well on our way. Bang, bang, bang! The crowd, jackets strewn on the floor below us or over the rail in front of us, was a singular, sweaty mass. We were the ball of yarn and the four musicians on stage the cat pawing away at us, like we were their toy. In 1995 Stash was just getting warmed up as a part of the repertoire and this one was solid A. Even the Caspian was a treat with Trey explaining that Elvis played his last show in the room and it was for his son, “the prince.” Excellent banter from Mr. Anastastio with the added twist of glorifying the venue, which is always a good sign. It’s weird to think that certain rooms can bring out the best in a band like that, can rise about the cookie-cutter arena-fare to make an impression. What the hell was it about the CCCC that made it special to the band, that brought us 12/30/93 and 12/11/95? I don’t know and I don’t care.

Reba followed. As almost all Rebas are, it was special. Now here’s where things took a twist to the Phishy weird. Trey announces they’re working on a new album that’s going to be 15 different versions of Dog Log which they usually play during soundcheck. Actually he says that he thought of something funny during the Reba jam which is ridiculous and amazing on so many levels, I don’t even want to go into it. Anyway, he goes on: all sorts of different ways of playing the song and tonight they needed our help with the crowd reaction. So they play the song and we’re supposed to “BOO!” really loudly in the middle of the song... “this sucks!” we were supposed to yell (which kinda hearkens back to the Beavis thing from before). It was fun and unexpected and Phish at its best. Cause when they’re having fun, you’re definitely having fun and they were most certainly having a blast up there. Plus, got to cross “Dog Log” off the list, can’t complain about that. Llama was next which was characterized by Trey’s work on the additional percussion kit he had on stage. This was one of those weird wrinkles in Phish history: Trey had this mini percussion kit on stage which he would sometimes knock away at, abandoning his Languedoc to leave the jamming to Page and Mike. Sometimes it resulted in some cool moments, other times it lead to some mind-numbing monotony. But moments like that Llama were pretty cool. Next up another Dog Log, this time we do a piercing scream. See, it’s always that *next* step that makes things super-special. Play Dog Log once with some bizarro banter and it can add spice to the soup, but play it twice, perpetuate your ridiculous ruse and you’ve taken us into uncharted areas of Phishopolis. By pulling the Dog Log stunt further into the set like that, the band was exploring their own absurdity to great effect. All this and they were just getting started, we were only halfway through the first set.

Now Trey thanks everyone for helping make the album (what’s the release date on that again?) and says that to repay us they’re going to play a song that people request all the time that they “never play.” -- looks askance at Neddy and crew perhaps? And then, when you least expect it, expect it, blammo, my first Tube! Barely 3 minutes and devoid of any jamming or accoutrements whatsoever, but who cares, right, it’s the 90’s baby! Guess he wasn’t that pissed after all and he gave me a nice little nod afterwards at which I returned a slight bow of the head and a “thank you very much!” Thanks again for that, Trey!

At this point we were positively giddy. Picture perfect playing from all involved, silly larks indulged upon, Reba, Ha Ha Ha, bustouts and, not to be outdone, my long-sought-after Tube! That’s a lot of tick marks in the notebook, enough to last a couple of shows and yet, still, we had much more. Starting first with McGrupp, a beloved tune by me that always seemed to crop up in great sets. Certain songs have a way of doing that, like an official embossed seal on the document “I hearby declare this set to be schmokin!” During the 90’s, McGrupp was one of those. As if to make sure we realized that that had been one killer first set, they closed it twice, first with Julius and then again with Cavern.

Whew! Lights come up and we sit down to deliberate, to consider, was that as good as I thought it was? Maybe you listen to the tapes and it seems like a goofball little set, that Tube isn’t such a rarity, Dog Log, who cares? But to be there on the floor of the ole Cumberland County Civic Center we were beside ourselves. Of course, before long my goofed up self can’t sit still and I stood up to look around. The set-up at the Civic Center was a little weird, there was no curtain or anything behind the stage, and there were no people sitting behind the stage, so you could kind of see backstage a little bit. Not where the band was hanging out, but certainly crew members doing this or that and whatever milling going on. So I’m looking through to this area behind the stage and I see a long-haired dude that looked kind of familiar. Could that be the guy from the Allman Brothers? Warren Haynes? What the hell would he be doing up here in Maine? This was before Warren was the ubiquitous, the hard-working, capital-M “MAN” that he is now. He was just the guitar player in the Allmans to me, although I had seen a killer Warren Hayne in Boston a year or so prior, but I could have sworn that was him. Or maybe just someone that looked like him that schelps the boxes around or drives the bus? Tracking...

Now if McGrupp was one of those waxen seals of Phish set superiority, The Curtain was/is the granddaddy of them all, for me, the song that seemed to pop up whenever the boundaries of greatness were trespassed. It continues to this day in its superior “With” form. In retrospect, there was no way the second set of 12/11/95 *didn’t* open with The Curtain. Followed by Bowie and we are officially hitchhiking to Gamehendge we are so far gone. The set from there was just one solid hit after another. Perhaps no version of any tune from the show rivals the YEM from Albany or the Tweezer from New Haven, but through relentless awesomeness, the show itself reached proportions epic. But we did get a glimpse at the epic as the set wound down through a sweet Harry Hood and a nod to The King in Suspicious Minds. Before the end of the set, Trey invites none other than (you saw this coming, right?) Warren Haynes on stage -- right again, sir! Special guests at a Phish show were and are indeed a special occurrence in their rarity, but not always special in the music that results. I’ve seen plenty of sets go completely south the moment the guests came out. Not to worry here as Warren elevated the set-closing Funky Bitch to places it shouldn’t be allowed to go. Rip-roaring guitar dueling of the kind Warren was born to crush. Anastasio vs. Haynes to finish an already Mothra of a Phish show. What could be better? I’ll tell you what could be better -- to do it all over again in the encore with Warren joining in on While My Guitar which impossibly surpassed the Funky Bitch and probably remains the definitive version of this song played by anyone anywhere. (maybe?)

It was like a Neddy greatest hits with Reba, The Curtain, McGrupp and then the semi-ironic appearance of not just Tube, but 2 other in the songs-I-loved-enough-to-shout-for genre in Harry & Funky Bitch. It’s like the moment I let go, they started indulging all my setlist desires. Even looking into the future, since these days, I’d be happy if they played Reba and The Curtain every night which were two of the standouts from a night full of ‘em.

We exited the arena and made it back to the car which felt like the inside of a refrigerator. Good thing, too, because the second half of our sandwiches were waiting for us like the return of Warren for the encore slaughter. The day had been fun, the show an ecstatic front row undertaking, but perhaps eating those frosty cold BBQ-bacon-bleu subs tied the whole thing up for us. Holy shit, nothing has ever tasted so good after a Phish show!! Never, ever! We still talk about this show as the one where we had the Herb’s subs waiting for us.

This write-up is impossibly long, but hell, it was December 1995, it deserves such blathering, doesn’t it? What gets shortchanged was 12/12/95 -- how the hell I made it home from Maine and then went back to Providence the next day is beyond me. Who drove me to that show? I do not know. According to phish.net, Portland was on a Monday and Providence on a Tuesday... how the hell did that happen? How did I graduate in 4 years? The Prov. show was punctuated mostly in my mind by the terrifically long version of Down With Disease. The “made-for-MTV” tune was actually a lot different during its first couple of years in the repertoire, serving more as a high-energy set closer a la Chalkdust or later Character Zero. According to my recollection, this was the first time I heard the band really use it as a springboard for something more improvisational, and boy did they stretch this one out and out and out. I don’t remember it fondly, but I will admit, I don’t remember *everything*. Anyway, Providence, in my memory, pales in comparison to the previous weeks full of shows, but maybe it was just as good if not better and I just need to go back and take a listen. I mean, it was part of 12/95, how bad can it be?

Thanks for reading! You’re nuts for making it this far, but not as nuts as I am.

28 October 2010

Nedstalgia: 15 Years Ago

OK, I know this blog has long met its demise, but it’s the only place I have to spew and with another Halloween trip coming, I’m having trouble concentrating on work and I’m feeling… Nedstalgic.

Here's my Halloweens recap written after last year's show

15 years ago I was in the fall of my senior year of college and there was no way in hell I was going to let a thousand miles keep me from seeing Phish on Halloween. Not after what had gone down the previous year. In fact, with my usual show-going dexterity, I managed to work in not just Halloween but the two previous shows as well. My little sister was a senior in high school at the time and she decided to come along as well for a little old school road trip.

I won’t go into painful detail about the shows and the trip, but as always there were plenty of little notables to mention along the way. Perhaps my favorite anecdote about Halloween 1995 happened well before I even packed up to leave. This was one of the first times I had mail ordered for a Phish show, I don’t know that it was a normal or necessary thing at the time for most shows. I remember going to the computer center at school to print out the mail order form, one of my earliest memories of (useful) world wide web usage. Anyway, I remember waiting and waiting for that ticket to come in the mail and it didn’t come and I was getting worried. Then one day I get back from class and there’s a message on my answering machine from Shelley, the lady whose voice you heard when you called the hotline. “Hey Aaron, this is Shelly from Phish. There was some issue with your ticket delivery and it got bounced back to us. Give me a call and give me the address so we can get it out to you.” Man, I loved this band. Had a nice chat with her and a few days later had the ticket in hand.

First stop was Detroit for the show in Auburn Hills. The night before we arrived in Ann Arbor and spent the night in the dorms with a friend. Before driving to Auburn Hills, I took my friend’s unwanted football ticket and went into the stadium to experience the game for about 10 plays. I didn’t have that major Division-I football experience so that was pretty cool. The show itself was pretty blah, certainly down near the bottom of my list. As always, it had its moments (my first Timber, for example), but mostly mehtastic. But no matter, the true highlight was the post show doings where my sister, a couple friends and I ventured back into downtown Detroit for another show – my first time seeing Medeski, Martin and Wood. I’d been listening to them pretty voraciously since the spring (even before they got the Trey seal of approval) and was incredibly psyched for the show. I have little recollection how we found the venue or anything in those proto-internet, pre-GPS, cell phone days, but find it we did. It was called Zoot’s Coffee House and was essentially a house in a rather decrepit part of town (is there any other kind?). Basically, it was a concert in a living room… we walked in to a packed house and I squeezed my way past a couple of folks and turned around only to be standing with both my hands on top of Medeski’s organ. That tight and that small. The show was absolutely phenomenal, like their album “Friday Afternoon in the Universe” stuffed into a cannon and blasted all over the room in glorious pyrotechnics.

The next night was just me and my sister in Louisville. We checked into the hotel and as it was Sunday there was absolutely nothing to do in town. Since it was a GA show, I figured we could just wait in line so we walked down the venue and who should be walking along the street as well… none other than Mr. Trey Anastasio. I’ve never had much desire to chat up the band so just gave him a nod, but others not so much… one guy yelled “play Silent in the Morning!!!” which annoyed me because it was obnoxious, but also because why yell for *that* song? Didn’t make sense… of course, they’d end up playing it that night which annoyed me even more.

We were basically second on line and got “the spot” for the show. And what a show it was – a truly great and underappreciated show from the era. Certainly one of those don’t skip show-before-the-show’s (that I usually skip or miss). Everything was played really solid and the band was in a loose, playful mood. Basically, the whole second set was a highlight with a crazy Makisupa>Bowie opener. The Bowie remains one of my favorites, it just started off slow and quiet and slowly and consistently built on a single arc until exploding in the climax. The It’s Ice was a bizarre set of segues, going into Kung in the middle portion and back into It’s Ice which had an extended outro which meandered into Shaggy Dog. There are not many Phish songs I haven’t seen and missing from that short list is Shaggy Dog which is totally strange. Not many people can say they’ve seen that one, but I don’t think too many people care.

Night off to get to Chicago and then the big night. Of course, the lot and venue were buzzing with that special energy. This was still only the second time they did the Halloween thing and the last time they did it without letting people know what album they were going to play as they walked in (The PhishBills started in 1996). What they did hand out as we walked in were gold-foiled chocolate coins embossed with the Phish logo and a radio station’s info. I took my chocolate and put it into my pocked where it lasted the entire night and the trip back home… I still have that chocolate in its original gold foil, a little deformed, but still good to go. One of two souvenirs I’d take home from that show.

Our seats were in the back of the arena, but we were in there early, so I went to go to the bathroom and then, sensing my moment, walked pretty much straight past all the security milling about and staked out a spot on the rail in front of Trey’s microphone. There were a couple other guys there that obviously weren’t supposed to be there, but still plenty of room for all, even after the folks who had those seats arrived. Another Halloween, another night front and center. I couldn’t have been happier!

I’ve previously written about my campaign to get Thriller played that night so won’t get into that. Of all the Halloween shows, this one had the creepiest, Halloween energy from the start. The Icculus that opened it with Trey absolutely losing his mind about the book not being strong enough to beat back the dark energy of the night. And how right he was. Everything had that extra edge to it. Guyute had been shelved for a little bit and came back stronger than ever that night. The first set closed with a bizarro Harpua that featured a taunting Beat It tease and a long narration from Mike that was essentially an unrequested brain dump from the freak.

Of course, strong version of Guyute and extended weirdness in a first set Harpua are all well and good, but we were all there for the second set. There were microphones put out for a horn section which raised the ante even more. I can see why they announce the album now for people coming into the shows, but those moments waiting for the band to come out in the Rosemont Horizon have to be some of the most stomach churning “what’s gonna happen!?!?!” times in my Phish career. Finally, after much, much too long, they came back. The sound of an ocean surf and blips of music came over the PA. It was somewhat familiar to me, but not 100%. Finally they broke into it – “I Am The Sea” this is The Who, I remember thinking excitedly… Quadrophenia. The guy next to me kept insisting it was Tommy, but I just smiled, nodded and tuned into Trey and Company.

As the recordings will attest, the band nailed it. Well rehearsed, so much tighter than the White Album had been, the horns, the vocals all right within the range of whoever was singing. It was a perfect rendition from top to bottom. I really loved the 5:15 best from that night, the way the horns blended in and it just kind of jammed out for a long time. They hadn’t really done anything like that the year previous. I’ve always wished they would have played it again, but it wouldn’t resonate as much without the horns. What else is there to say? Just an impressive, impressive set of music right down to Fishman belting out Reign O’er Me and never sounding quite as good ever again.

What do you do after a set like that? Well, first you take a break and as the band left the stage, Miles Davis’ “Tribute to Jack Johnson” came over the PA. They’d played it before between sets, but never before did it seem so perfect to me, like all this stress from the band and the audience from the start of the night had finally released into this easy, mind-mess music. The band was gone for exactly the length of that album, not a minute longer.

That was all the time it took for them to transform from The Who back into Phish, but a different Phish, one another step along in the journey. As if Miles Davis were still playing they launched right into one of the longest, most ambitious and exploratory You Enjoy Myself’s I’ve ever seen or heard. We’re talking 40 minutes of jam that somehow bridged Pete Townsend and Miles Davis and yet was all Phish all the time. Of course, it meandered at times, plenty of it was glorious, but that was hardly the point. It was like the band had been the tense ball of nerves, walking on eggshells to make the Quadrophenia set happen, and once the set was done…once they totally slayed the album, they just felt the need to just be Phish. For as long as it took. That YEM was their version of just sitting on the couch and vegging out in front of the TV. Thankfully we all got to hang out and watch and dance and wonder what else they could do.

The YEM kicked off a magical set of music. Afterwards, they veered in another direction playing a rare-at-the-time Jesus Left Chicago which featured Dave Grippo on saxophone for one of the best guest appearances at a Phish show I’ve seen. Everything about that song choice and execution was spot on, to the geographical appropriateness to the crowd-charging sax solo. They could have ended the set there and it would have been everything you could have asked for. They tacked on a Day in the Life and then another monster horn-fueled Suzy G to end the night. Nothing beats a Suzy with horns, it’s gotta be one of the Phish commandments – if horns are on stage, Suzy Greenberg MUST be played.

For the encore, the crew set up an acoustic set and a small drum kit with “The Who” logo written on it. Coolio, more special stuff. The band came out and played a postmodern acoustic/bluegrass version of My Generation. The show needed no extra bells and whistles but it got them anyway. We essentially got every kind of Phish you could ever want in a show: tight constructed compositions, crazy long jams, narration, new covers… everything. But we didn’t the nutty, silly side in full until that encore which brought it out in full. After a couple of verses, Page (on upright) and Mike (on banjo) kept playing in hilarious, monotonous stoic fashion while Trey and Fishman smashed the guitar and drum kit a la the Who. They acted like cartoon characters, setting up an old style plunger and proceeded to “explode” the drum kit with a puff of smoke and a loud bang… and that’s how the show ended. One of the better shows I’ve seen.

Before I left the front of the stage in utter, exhausted awe, I was able to grab a small shard of Trey’s smashed acoustic guitar, which I still have today in my small, humble pile of collectibles along with my not-quite-smushed chocolate coin and a ping pong ball that got thrown out of a flying hot dog on one miserable, rainy New Years Eve.

As always, thanks for reading.