Saturday, March 07, 2009

The Return of the Phish

By Pauly
Hampton, VA
Waffle House waitress: "You going to all three shows? Aren't they going to play the same songs?"
Phishead: "I hope not."
I waited 4.5 years for Friday night. I never expected to see my 152nd Phish show. And as much as I went into the weekend with the lowest of expectations, the boys from Vermont topped anything I could have imagined... and that's after one single show. For once, I am a loss for words. I doubt that I can fully describe everything without needing more time to reflect, but I'll do my best.

Pre-show... I went to the Food Lion near our hotel to load up on supplies like food and beverages, while Nicky finished up some work in our room. I bought a cooler, which was clutch, for the icey cold beers in the lot. Nicky and I arrived about 30 minutes early and we couldn't get into the Hampton parking lot. We pulled into Target's lot and that became the pre-lot hang out area. Everyone that I met was about to jizz in their pants. And at least 50-70% of the people I spoke to did not have a ticket for Friday's show. The people who did score tickets paid a hefty price.

The Joker and his crew arrived (from their hotel in Norfolk) and they were one of the first groups inside the lot. Nicky and I got caught in a mini-traffic jam and eventually made it in by 2:30pm. By 2:35pm, we found the Joker in front of the fountain where the art crew were setting up smiling block heads. The Colorado crew (which also included a couple of guys from South Africa who flew in for the shows) were already waiting in line. Some phans arrived as early as 10:30am to get in line. That's dedication.

We hung out for about three hours and took turns returning to the car for drinks and smoke breaks. Oh, and pee breaks down by the water. I didn't see much of a Shakedown area, but then again, I was standing in line most of the afternoon. So many people looking for extras. Didn't see too many tour puppies... they were all grown up now... and turned into dogs. Since Phisheads are older, I saw a lot more phans with kids and nicer cars.

I met up with Noah, the documentary film director who was working on his project Maybe So, Maybe Not. We shot a quick interview and I checked out his base of operations. Impressive set up.

G-Rob and I gambled on different prop bets involving the songs. We were constantly drafting teams of songs for the show opener, the second set opener, and the encore.

The line to get in got a little freaky around 5:30pm, and the crowd surged a bit. It was highly claustrophobic for about a forty minute period until we finally made our way to the first checkpoint. Our group of a dozen people got split into two during the craziness.

There was a moment of uncertainty when I finally made it to the door. The lady scanned my ticket and it didn't register. I almost shit my pants. She scanned it a second time and she nodded her head. I ran past her and jumped up and down in between a circle of another six or seven Phisheads who were doing the same. Rejoicing. We made it inside.

Holy shit. Is this real?

Nicky and I bolted upstairs and could not find a spot on the rail. We lost our group and we had to make due. I found four seats in Row 19 on Page's side. Not the best seat in the house, but I didn't care. We could have had an amazing spot on the floor but opted for a seat on the first night. The Joker and his boys were down in Row 6, while I was hanging out with Nicky, Daphne, and Daryl.

About five minutes after I sat down, I got offered a hit of liquid sunshine. I politely declined. Not that I didn't want to do it... but I made a promise that I'd see all of the Hampton shows sober. And by sober I mean no chemicals substances. I didn't even have a sip of booze... just a little herb and a half of a painkiller to calm me down. I didn't need drugs because I couldn't sit still. My palms were sweaty. I slurred my speech. It felt like I was coked up or on ecstasy without even ingesting those party favors. The Phish reunion was enough to alter my senses.

The first thing I noticed about the coliseum were the massive balloons hanging from the rafters. Medium-sized balloons circled the Jumbotron and the Jupiter-sized balloons hung along the outer perimeter. Then I checked out the stage. Old school setup. Fishman's drum kit was back to where it began... on stage left (or from the audience's perspective, it was on the right side of the stage).

Lots of frenetic energy inside the venue. Every five minutes everyone started screaming and cheering. A guy in my section tried to get everyone to do the wave.
Phish 3.6.09 Hampton, VA

Set I: Fluffhead, Divided Sky, Chalkdust Torture, Sample in a Jar, Stash, I Didn't Know*, Oh Kee Pa > Suzy Greenberg, Farmhouse, NICU, Horn, Rift, Train Song, Water in the Sky, Squirming Coil, David Bowie

Set II: Backwards Down the Number Line, Tweezer, Taste, Possum, Theme from the Bottom, First Tube, Harry Hood, Waste, You Enjoy Myself (with a false start/joke)

Encore: Grind (acapella), Bouncin**, Loving Cup

* with Fishman vac solo and Trey on drums
** with balloon drop
The lights went down at 7:58. The boys took the stage at 7:59 to a thunderous applause. The ground below me vibrated. Screams. Cheers. Yelling. Whistling. Pure ecstasy Much like the NYE reunion show at MSG, it was hard to hear the first ninety seconds of the show. But I caught a few notes. Oh man... Fluffhead to open?

That was a powerful statement and was indicative of the reunion itself. The boys avoided the fan favorite during the Phish 2.0 years and as maturing musicians, they often scoffed at the notion that they'd stoop to the fans wishes and bust out a silly song from their youth. Yet, for the reunion, the gave the fans exactly what they had wanted. Phish returned to their roots... and the early day back in Vermont when they were still young kids... and took those memories and transported them to the present.

Photo credit of

The tunes off of Junta were not improvised and intricately structured. They followed up Fluffhead with Divided Sky, another heavy hitter from their first album. They nailed the first thirty minutes of the reunion show with those two songs. It reminded me of a football team that scripted their first ten play -- then proceeded to come out and score a touchdown on their first possession.

After the first thirty minutes, Phish demonstrated that they were back... with a mission. Their diligent practices paid off and the result? A tight, smooth, and structural solid band.

Without hesitation, Trey ripped into Chalkdust. It was short and sweet and packed a tremendous punch, followed up by another short crowd pleaser... Sample in a Jar.

About fifty minutes into the show, the boys finally opened up a bit and entered the improvisational space for the first time in the evening. Clocking in at 12 minutes, Stash's launching point did not drift off into one of Trey's bizarre Oxy-jams. Instead, the jam out was cohesive and I was more than impressed with Page's Thelonius Monk pecking and filling in the melody behind Trey's solos. Much more appetizing at 12 minutes than a 20 minute dirty mind-fuck. I'm sure that by the summer, Phish will open up those jams and throw down like a 30-minute Stash at Alpine Valley, but for now, they regulated their jams.

And yes... I flew from LA to NYC, then drove 400+ miles to Hampton to see a 40+ year old guy in a dress play the vacuum. The band is called Phish for a reason... because of the zannyness of one John Fishman. I Didn't Know featured Trey jumping on drums while Fish played his first vac solo in 4.5 years. Hijinks. I missed that stuff. Trey introduced him as "dad".

When OKP began, I knew they were going to rip into something juicy... like a funkified Suzy Greenburg... which was my personal highlight of the first set. Page was on and the funk poured out of all of their pores and kicked me upside my head. Man... for a brief second, I had a flashback to the Year of the Funk.

The middle of the set lost some sort of continuous flow. They varied the songs... Farmhouse to NICU to Rift to Mike crooning with Train Song. Loved the "Play it Leo!" part and man, it was one of those little things that I missed about Phish.

Water in the Sky was a much slower version (similar to the early incarnations) than the version they used to play in the late 1990s. Coil was near perfection even though it's one of my least favorite songs. I thought that Coil would end the set... but they kept on playing... and when Fish launched into the high hat, I knew what was coming... David Bowie. Technically? They nailed all the changes. The few folks who were seated jumped to their feet and shook their asses. That smoking Bowie closed the set at 9:52. Wow... almost two hour first set. Welcome back.

Phish kicked off the second set with a new song. I dug the symbolism. The second set was about looking forward to a new era. That included some new material in Backwards Down the Number Line. I saw Trey perform that song twice with his band a few months ago. It was one of the new songs that Phish had been practicing. Although I wasn't the biggest fan of the song (and it really didn't blow me away), but I appreciated the effort and fact that Phish is working on new material. I figured that we'd get one or two new songs a night during the Hampton run. Will Alaska be next?

The highlight of the show was Tweezer. Shook me to the bone. I really hadn't experienced a musical moment like my mind melted and dripped out of my ears as my guts spilled out of my belly button in a very long time. With Tweezer's appearance, I knew that I was doomed to lose a big bet on the encore with G-Rob since he picked Tweezer Reprise, which they almost always played as the encore if they busted out Tweezer.

Page stepped up during Taste and Mike shined on Possum. Trey rocked back and forth during First Tube. After a lengthy hiatus, Trey finally got jam it out with Phish instead of the methadone versions of FT with TAB. I almost wet myself during the intense build ups as the floor below me shook.

Harry Hood featured some amazing disco/sparkly lights. Check out the video to see what I'm talking about. Hood was another intricate song with a lot of changes with sections where they could improvise. The reunion version was much like the rest of the songs... tight, cohesive, smooth and focused.

I really had to piss and ran down to the john during Waste. Guys in line for the urinals were singing, "Come waste your time with pee...."

Phish showed a sense of humor during their faux false stop of You Enjoy Myself. During the 2003 shows in Hampton, they had the infamous incident when they butchered the opening and they stopped and restarted. Oooops. The boys decided to spoof themselves in a self0depricating manner and played a few notes to YEM before they stopped 17 seconds in.

"We're starting this song again," joked Trey with a shit-eating grin running down his face. "This time it won't be like the last time we started the song. So there!"

And then they kicked our asses with a mashing YEM. I always judged a YEM by how loud the crowd went before the BOY! part. And the crowd erupted in one collective orgasm.

I think Trey flubbed the lyrics and said "Shit!" third instead of "God!" Then he shook his head and said, "God... shit!"

Mike went off on a bong-rattling bass solo before the lights went down and they embarked on an old school vocal jam. If I was on acid, that deviant shit would have freaked me out.

My biggest criticism of Phish of the years has been their weak and inconsistent encores. Thank God for no VelvetCheese! They did not disappoint us in Hampton with a three song encore that featured a little bit of everything... a fan favorite, a sizzling cover, and a bit of a cappella diddy with Grind including some amazing math skills from the band.

Bouncin' was special because the inner balloons fell one by one to the floor. One reached the stage and Trey popped it with his guitar. The remaining bits fell on Page's keyboard. You can check out the video that I shot of Bouncin'.

The closed the show with one of my favorite Rolling Stone covers... Loving Cup. I really missed Page.

They ended the show at 12:21am and we trickled out into the parking lot. I looked at the Mothership lit up and all I could think was how lucky I was to see Phish's return to the music scene. It's going to take me a few days and weeks to really write a little more about the reunion show... and their impacts personally, historically, socially, financially, and musically.

But for now... I really missed Phish. And more importantly, I missed the person inside of me who used to love this band. Since they broke up, I fell into a very murky and evil place in the gambling world and I although I was always conscious of the deviancy of my surroundings in Las Vegas, it wasn't until I arrived in Hampton that I truly realized just how black that darkness was until I saw the bright side of humanity resurface in Hampton. The indescribable energy floored me. I forgot about how special and soothing the Phish vibe was, is, and (I hope) will continue to be.

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