Music Tuesday: Camden Welcomes Phish “Back”June 9, 2009
I have to admit that, in seeing my first Phish show in almost six years, I was nervous. For a number ofreasons. One, the last time I’d seen them, they played a fairly flat show, and encored the worst encore song ever, “Friday”. In fact, the show was so disappointing, I don’t even have a copy of it, which I can’t say for any of the other 20 shows I’ve been to.
Two, they downright stunk in 2004, which happened for a very good reason—the band had run its course and it was time to hang ‘em up. While there were very promising signs from the Hampton shows in March, and the beginning of this summer tour, given how badly the wheels came flying off the train in ’04, it was just a matter of time before the other shoe dropped (I like compounding metaphors, by the way). Three, they’d played some pretty good shows so far, and they were due for a stinker. In 2000, and especially 2003, a stinker would pop up after every handful of shows, so there was no reason to believe that the trend had been broken.
Four, and most important, I was taking The Goat to his very first show—after 13 years of uberfandom, hype, stories from the road, and his having never seen them, there was a lot of pressure on this show. He’ll tell you he was going in without expectations, but I surely wanted the show to have been worth all the fuss.
Some might throw in a fifth reason here, citing how terrible it was to order tickets from LiveNation on the day the tickets went on sale. Somehow, LiveNation had turned a whole nation of Phish fans, with their longstanding seething venomous hatred of Ticketmaster, into TM sympathizers. As The Goat said following his two hours of debacle, “It made me so angry I wanted to eat babies”. (Not sure on the exact quote, memory fails, might have been, “…wanted to kill babies”. It might have even been, “I killed babies”. The LiveNation debacle was pretty bad. Google it.) My wife and I chalked it up to being the requisite challenge to see Phish, like the 17 hour traffic jam, the van fire, the blown tires, Tzivia, everything else that can go wrong. This time, it was the tickets. But we always make it somehow.
Goat and I had been debating what Phish would start with. I held strong to “Tweezer” for the last few months. It just felt right, and I’d only seen it twice in my 21 shows, so it was due. Instead, they started with “Chalkdust Torture”. Opening a show with this one’s nice, because it gets everyone moving and in a good mood. Coming back from the bathroom, I danced my way through the crowd yelling, “Can’t this wait till I’m old? Can’t I live while I am young?” Maybe this song will only resonate more loudly the older I get. Who cares about youth while you’re young?
That the second song was “Fee” gave me my first sense that the show was going to work out. I’d only seen it once before, and really couldn’t have predicted it. This was also the first time they’d played it since being back. Sure, Trey butchered half a verse. But they were synched in perfectly for everything else. This was when the happy began for me, and the nervousness started to subside.
The full moon on this night had us calling “Wolfman’s Brother” (or “Wolfman’s Brotha” as the “Desmond” T-shirts had it), which proved to be one of the few correct calls of the night. Amazing how you can study a band judiciously, and the whole tour of shows leading up, and still only bat .174. It was in Wolfman’s that it became clear whose this show was—Trey’s. Though I’d been most excited by what Mike and Page had been doing since they got back together, that it was going to be Trey’s show meant there would be a lot of energy, that he would probably nail most of jumpshots, and that there probably weren’t going to be a lot of bathroom songs. It helped that this Wolfman’s was not only perfectly placed in the set coming out of the lovely descent of “Fee”, but that Trey brought his fastball during his solo, and cranked it up a few mph for the jam.
But it was during “Guyute” that I began to see what was happening. The first several times I’d seen it, it was good. It makes a nice encore, as if Phish is saying, “Okay, you’ve seen how well we jam throughout an entire show, but now check out our compositional Kung Fu”. The Camden “Guyute”, on the other hand, was more than just some compo Kung Fu. This was a statement to everyone involved, at the show or at least paying attention—we care about this again, we are practicing like we should have been before the break up, and for those of you who have never seen what we are really capable of, because of all those years of nailing some of our songs, here it is. I couldn’t stop myself from belting out a, “Welcome back, Phish!”
This “Guyute” was the microcosm of the show. When Phish practices these tight, technical compositions, something happens to them live. There is this doubling effect. It’s like a sonic boom, the gaps between notes crystallize, something bigger emerges beyond a mere collection of notes played on instruments. This show, like “Guyute”, was going to be a show more about hitting the notes, playing within the pocket of the songs, and saying to the crowd, “This is how professionals do it”.
And I couldn’t help but think that Phish was also taking back their rightful place on the thrown that they’d left vacant since maybe 2003.
Then came “The Wedge”. I’d seen them play this song before, in Colorado. That time left me a little bitter, and made the end that came in 2004 visible to me over a year before. I had been so excited to hear that initial beat to the song, and probably yelled louder than anyone else in the arena. And yet, when it finally closed its final notes, I felt a little empty inside. Something just wasn’t there. I wasn’t even sure they cared. Just motions, filler, a flimsy excuse to tip their hats to their proximity to the Great Divide. How sad.
But THIS “Wedge”, my friends, was a whole different beast. This one had not only been practiced, but had been given the TLC it needed to fluorish. It’s hard to say whether or not the monstrosity of this song can come through for people whose only exposure to it is recordings. What I know for sure is that anyone who was there felt it in a way they hadn’t felt it in a long time. And if they didn’t, they were at the show for perhaps the wrong reasons. Throw in Kuroda’s lights and a decent glow ring war, and you have yourselves more than just another in a night of Phish playing, and nailing, some of their more challenging compositions. Unlike the “Wedge” in Colorado, this one I will be listening to frequently.
In fact, I’m going to be listening to this show frequently. That I can say that about a show I’ve been to almost seems foreign, after a lot of mediocre shows that only merited a few listens. Thankfully foreign. Fantastically foreign.
Something else about this show that was fantastically foreign was that their improvisational jamming was something I often get tired of, but in this case, in the greater context of this show’s style, I actually celebrated. They never left songs too far behind, and mostly jammed within the envelope of the song. Certainly they pushed to the edge of that envelope. But they stayed within it. In the past, I might have been somewhat bored by this. I like when Phish leaves the world of whatever song they are playing behind. In Camden, they turned staying within the box into its own kind of risk taking. There was so much focus on what they were doing that they didn’t need to jettison to find meaningful structure, but rather decorated the walls that already stood. It was in the details, the corners, the shadows, the rooms that hadn’t been visited in a while. Nothing they played this night was necessarily all that new, save for a couple of new songs that may or may not go anywhere. What they did was sustain near perfection within each of the property lines of the songs they played for two sets and a long encore. That was the revolution of this particular show, and if you weren’t paying attention, you might have missed it. This was a show about strength, about size, about musicianship. The innovation was in relation to the past, not the present.
I look at it this way. In 2003, you basically got a mediocre show with bright patches here and there, one big jam during a set. Sometimes, that set would be forgettable, sometimes it would actually stand out in your own personal canon of shows. If you went to a bunch of shows that year, you might have gotten one great set, or even a great show. A lot of the time, the songs were just a setup for good jamming, and not all that remarkable on their own. For this Camden show, they gave us wall to wall nailing of composition and solid pocket jamming. In 2003, a show like this was never on the table. They could never have sustained a show on it. That is the innovation of Phish, as of Camden. This style of show is back on the table, after at least a decade of not even being in the building.
And how fitting that they’d end the second set with “Tweezer”, after my months of calling it as the show opener. If anyone out there called that, I’d love to hear from you. Because I’m pretty sure you didn’t, since they have almost never ended a set with it. This is what I love about Phish. Thirteen years, twenty-two shows, hundreds of recordings, and unquantifiable amounts of time spent listening closely, and I still can’t call a show, let alone that they closed with a more likely opener.
This wasn’t one of those shows where you say it is great, while keeping in mind that you are biased toward the band and therefore perhaps a little too forgiving. In 2000 and 2003 there were a lot of those shows where you were often clapping just to tell the band you like them in spite of the fact that that was the weakest “Bowie” you had ever heard. In Camden, you clapped to thank the band for taking you and their music seriously, but not so seriously that it couldn’t just be fun again. For a while in the past, there were moments where you were always a little on edge wondering when the tractor trailer was going to smash headlong into a bus full of cub scouts. In Camden, it became clear early that you could sit back and know that the driver was in control of his vehicle, and that all would be okay.