Phish in 2013: The Pleasantly Plain Taste of Tempered Expectations

Chad Berndtson

Dreadful wind and rain define a recent Phish gig in Wantagh, NY as fans mull the band's standing and purpose in 2013.

City: Wantagh, NY
Venue: Jones Beach Theater
Date: 2013-07-12

For a band as painstakingly scrutinized as Phish, what else is left at this point but to keep on discussing, analyzing, rehashing? To hope there are stones still unturned?

What does it mean to be a Phish fan in 2013?

Well, how old are you?

Phish rose from bars and clubs through the ‘80s, became an arena-level colossus and festival legend in the ‘90s, peaked somewhere around 1997 or 1998 or 2000 depending on whom you ask, took some time off to deal with frayed ends, came back in 2002, broke up “for good” in 2004 with the rancid aftertaste of some of the most mediocre shows they ever played, and finally returned again in 2009.

They’ve been fitter, happier, more productive since then, playing to their strengths without taking too many chances. But four years into their reunion, you can’t quite shake the feeling that Trey Anastasio, Page McConnell, Mike Gordon and Jon Fishman are doing this out of obligation, and that while their creative energies might visit the Phish sphere to make for some exciting shows and the occasionally decent new song, those energies no longer live in the Phish sphere.

That’s one way to look at it. You give in to that cynicism as an older-era Phish-head. You bitch and complain about the neutered jams and the predictability of it all. But you hang on, and once in a while, you get vindicated: pleasantries, gimmicky gifts like the now-famous “S” show of 2011, and, on rare occasion, modestly prolonged periods of weapons-grade Phish, such as the justly heralded Colorado run of Labor Day Weekend 2012.

What it all means is that most every Phish concert these days is the same test bed it always has been, but no longer described in degrees of “good to great.” Like the Grateful Dead in their later years, the magic returns less frequently, and for the jaded-beyond-jaded of Phish fans, rarely at all. And what was frustrating about this wild night at Jones Beach is that it was a corrupted sample -- the weather, not the music, was clearly the story.

Yes, the weather. Oh, the weather. Sopping, soaking, swirling wind and rain that turned Jones Beach into a wet-wetter-wettest mess. Ponchos were laughably inadequate; umbrellas, too. Layers upon layers, drenched and being wrung out. There were garbage bag cover-ups, requested or stolen by the handful from food vendors scattered throughout the venue. And of course the hardy, or crazy, were dancing in the rain with no shoes and no visible protection against the elements. But they were the minority. Others fled for covered stairwells jammed well beyond fire code with shivering friends. And there were those otherwise hardcore concertgoers silently hoping the bathroom lines would stay that slow if only to relish a few more moments of dry-off.

For Phish, we endure these setbacks, and isn’t that enough sometimes?

The soaking masses expected a reward -- some felt that Phish saddling up to play at all was enough, others that the first, frustratingly uneven set was appreciably extra-long to make up for both the whipping rain and a start time delay of close to 40 minutes.

There were occasional gems. “Cars Trucks Buses” is an unfailingly groovy instrumental, this version enlivened by McConnell’s stem-winding organ solo, if not Anastasio’s unfocused guitar excursion. “Beauty of a Broken Heart”, a McConnell composition circa 2007, is a hypnotic rocker that your eyes move past on a written setlist but that proved a surprisingly potent mid-set surprise in concert. “A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing” was a sly bust-out; “46 Days” was an idiot-proof power stomp for snapping the rain-beaten crowd back to attention; and “Water in the Sky” was played because, well, yeah. “David Bowie” had an interesting jam that sounded like it would take off into something other than its usual major key bliss-out, and then didn’t, so there.

A reward, it wasn’t quite. But set two, as usual, was where things got interesting. Lovers of jam band music reserve the term “patient” for the type of improvisation that takes its time yet doesn’t meander, assesses its options yet doesn’t quite commit to any one immediate path, and offers moments of tension and excitement without peaking too early or bailing out. This type of jamming used to be expected of Phish: wonderful, digressive, starry-eyed-yet-motivated exploration that sputtered as often as it soared but was frequent and adventurous enough that the odds of a transcendent concert experience were pretty good.

“Patient jams” are no longer a Phish guarantee -- this is a band that these days more often favors a tucked-in, “well, that was kind of cool, let’s move on” approach. But if you came for patience and richness, you found it in the front half of the second set. First up was “Rock and Roll”, the Velvet Underground nugget that survived Phish’s 1998 Halloween performance of Loaded and became a reliable vehicle. The song’s lengthy jam segment didn’t pinball so much as caravan -- slow, all-together-now shifts by the band into different themes and textures that would get a few minutes to gulp air before submerging and re-emerging as something else.

Anastasio can drive or wreck a jam when he feels like being lead explorer, but restraint was what seemed to interest him most in “Rock and Roll”, plumbing various possibilities of where the rhythm could go and not sonically pushing the band to merely abandon themes, something the guitarist does frustratingly often when he’s bored. Indeed, that patience helped the band invest “Also Sprach Zarathustra” with a heavier touch than the song has been given recently.

Then came the main event: “Tweezer,” that groovy slice of Phish legend for which the jamming possibilities cover the entire spectrum of rock and funk and for which the band can still mine the unpredictable. This version was the show’s highlight: a skywriting jam that pushed forward without schizophrenic switches, without boredom, without manipulation to get it to its destination faster than it wanted to get there.

It was the only time of the evening where, to borrow a Dead-generation phrase, the music played the band, and Phish seemed to yoke that swell of audience excitement during “Tweezer’s” introduction to keep the frissons coming. It wasn’t an out-there “Tweezer”, let alone an era-best “Tweezer”, but the effect was a sensuous, shimmery sort of jam journey. It was a groupthink excursion that got pretty gooey, then slowly, surely hardened around the band members and became the opening chords to Talking Heads’ “Cities”, a nice surprise for this late in the show.

What made it so potent was the satisfaction that defines the great Phish segue: by the time you knew what it was, you realized you probably knew what it was many minutes earlier -- that seed was planted, the suggestion was made, the whisper you thought you heard, and maybe you heard it a little ahead of your neighbor, was not imagined.

In this era of Phish, that’s usually enough. The band executes something like the “Tweezer/Cities” segue and then coasts, confident they’ve done their job. But there was extra adventure in “Cities”, and it came courtesy of Fishman, who through much of the funk-hearty “Cities” jam kept teasing Phish’s own “The Wedge”. “Cities” didn’t get to “Wedge” immediately -- the band seemed suddenly very aware of the conflict of heading into “Wedge” versus letting the “Cities” jam marinate, and that push-pull delighted for several more minutes before Anastasio finally yielded to Fishman and onto “The Wedge” they went.

That second-set journey (“Rock and Roll > Also Sprach Zarathustra > Tweezer > Cities > The Wedge”, for your cribsheet) was what you took away from Jones Beach. The sweet “Wading in the Velvet Sea” and perfunctory “Character Zero” big-rock closer were pleasant throwaways; the encore’s “Sleeping Monkey” was a sort of goofy train wreck, even with a poignant dedication by McConnell to Hurricane Sandy victims.

So what does that all mean for what Phish “is” now?

Are we glad they’re out there, burnishing, if not adding to, their legend, still able to offer nightly evidence that all this continued interest in Phish scholarship is justified?

Is it all a continued victory lap for the great years and an apology for the rough false-ending in 2004, for the people who’ve made this band and its fandom a little world?

Too many questions, so stick with the simplest explanations. Beneath all the analysis and complaining and fan tiers and deconstruction and legacy, there are three things present: a band that clearly loves to play together, a loveably scruffy fan community that doesn’t quit, and stretches like the first 45 minutes of the soggy second set that still have the power to move.

Beneath the older ages, the skepticism and the water under the bridge, “it” -- that “it” that built this thing; the “it” that’s discoverable to young fans who weren’t around for Phish in the heady '90s -- is still there.

Whatever it is, it’s still hard to deny.





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