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.