To begin with, I am almost fifty, have raised three sons to maturity, have three granddaughters, have been a musician all of my life, write music of my own, and have been a rock and roll fan since the day I first heard, as a child, some of that rockabilly stuff playing on WMPS and WHBQ in Memphis. My life span has been parallel with that of rock and roll, and the music has influenced me profoundly. I have been through obsessions with Elvis, Gene Pitney, the Beatles (that was a big one), Led Zeppelin, Three Dog Night, Billy Joel, Elton John, Eric Clapton, Tina Turner, and more recently Pink Floyd (another big one), and now Phish. Now, I've gotta tell you, I was bulldozed into the Phish thing. My son John (twenty-one) wouldn't let it rest! He kept shoving it down my throat.
When I first started listening to the Phish music he played for me, I was not very interested. It sounded like repetitive nonsense to me. It was a time when I had lost rock and roll. I just couldn't follow it. It was really fragmenting into a hundred different categories, because rock bands were so determined to be "unique"¯ and original, most of them being neither. It seemed that everything had been done by the end of the `70s, and the Green Day genre of careless, unemotional, I-don't-care-whether-this-does-anything-for-you rock and roll was making a big entrance. I was jaded and unreceptive. But Phish (and John) won out! Given no real choice, I began to listen and receive.
But it was my first Phish concert that really convinced me. I bravely took four students from my music appreciation class (at the private school where I teach) to the Charlotte concert in fall of `96. I was in awe of Trey's incredible skill on the guitar. His playing revealed a very unique and quixotic personality that smacks of delayed development in the most pleasant and creative way. I was mesmerized by Page's keyboard work. It was on one hand naive and clumsy, and on the other, focused and heart-driven, sometimes revealing measures and measures of hypnotic momentum. Fishman's punky, Animal House style seemed the opposite intellectual extreme and gave a rounding-out effect which saved the group from being too "ozone-layer."¯ And Mikestable, unflappable Mikeplugging away on the harmonies and the basic beat, never giving us a hint of the man behind the bass line. They seemed the perfect ensemble musically and spiritually.
After that I went to the Boston `96 New Year's concert, four concerts in the `97 Summer Tour (that's another story!), the shows in Hampton, VA, in November `97, and the show in Lyon, summer `97. It is this last night to which I hitherto refer.
John, Marie (a German seventeen-year-old whose family relocated to Spartanburg with their business when she was twelve), and I left our dorm in Lyon to head out for the unknown enclave of Americans and a small-venue Phish show in Lyon. We were really psyched! It was Marie's first Phish show. But John and I were coming from huge Phish shows in the U.S. where the individuals on the stage were somewhat impersonal little dots through a haze of smoke and noisy fans.
We came early as all Phish fans know to do.The summer daylight fades very late in France (9:30 PM in July), so we had lots of visual time in the lot. We were not surprised to see people there in the casual organization that Phish fans usually take before a show, but we were somewhat surprised to see that there were so few there. They were clustered under some trees there doing their usual stuff, and being friendly if approached, but not intrusive to others' personal space.
We could hear the soundcheck, but when John, unable to contain his amazement that he was this close to an open door where the elusive four were actually playing something that he might otherwise be barred from hearing, took his place alone by the door to listen, the few authorities there officiously closed the access! So, we decided to find the entrance and camp out there. There were five guys at the entrance from various parts of the Northeast U.S., drinking a little wine and talking about Phish and life in general. That was one of the best parts of the experience. We had time and something in common. They were a little put off by having a mom there at first, I think. I didn't try to assert myself, but as time went on, sitting on the asphalt together, they offered me a swig du vin, and they relaxed about my presence. That was such a special gift to me of which they were probably unaware.
Finally, the doors opened and the excitement built as it always does. Random cheering and unnecessary but habitual hustling for a place in the relatively small line at the unimpressive entrance to this Transbordeur place proceeded in good order: a sort of microcosm of the bigger venues.
Inside, we found to our delight that this was a stand-where-you-please bar place. People learned of each other and the circumstances of being in such a strange place in the summertime. There was lots of smoking and tossing of the hackey-sack. We were almost first in, delayed by queuing up at the wrong door inside, but we found that we could stand right up under the stage. John was ballistic at the prospect of actually being spat upon by Trey in concert! We struck up a conversation with a "granola-type"¯ male of early age who instantly started making protest about the smoking of tobacco in the club. I decided that I would go to the grandstands in back and smoke my one cigarette that I allowed myself. I began feeling out-of-place and decided to stay there for a while and observe. Often, people at Phish concerts think I am "event staff"¯ or a journalist or review writer, so I just go with that. I enjoyed watching the various individuals and their pets and personae parading by me. That is always a spectacle that I enjoy about Phish concerts.
They came out with no fanfare. The concert began with some random reference to "Pierre"¯ of Haagen-Dazs. I was bewildered from the beginning with that, but before the concert was over, Trey revealed the mystery of Pierre. I'm still not sure what it was, but everyone else seemed satisfied that Pierre was cool and it was part of the enigma of many Phish references: random, ironic, humorous nonsense that is fun to figure out.
They began with a low-key version of "PYITE"¯. The familiar music was accessible to all and instantly united us all. Cheers rose as a short, happy jam began. The Latin beat and tinkling piano ended the song quickly, and the band and softly segued into "Prince Caspian"¯. Phish has an uncanny knowledge of "programming."¯ The concerts are often like a long story line, which is followed intuitively by those who know their style. Listening experience is required for the full experience. The melancholy, thoughtful idea of "floating on the waves"¯ was a gentle invitation to join in the fantasy. It was a particularly sweet version. We settled in.
"Ginseng Sullivan"¯ shows the penchant for their eclectic style, never wanting to be pigeonholed. Nashville, step back! It was short and probably threw the uninitiated totally off. Then a funky drum beat introduced "Split Open and Melt"¯. The introduction defied a tonality until the lyrics began. It began normally enough, but as the music progressed past the traditional nontonality of the song, it became evident that the jam had begun. I hear John's delighted "whoo-hoo-hoo!"¯ It's right there on the tape! This pulled me back to standing under the stage. It is wonderful how the coming together of a few elements of organized joy in the music can bring one to such a state of well-being. That jam made tears roll down my face. I don't know why. The immersion of the entire essence of one's being in the communal experience of music and fantasy is a powerful thing that Phish can elicit better than any group I've known. They are not media gods. They are ageless, classless fellows in nonreality. We rocked!
Keeping things slow and relaxed with "Dirt"¯, Phish delayed the real excitement. Trey's sweet, epic guitar plays the lead line of the break while he intersperses little soft vocals underneath. A very short version, it could almost be considered a prelude to "Taste"¯, which crescendos in with that running guitar and dampened cymbal pattern. What good musicians these people are! Their often-apologetic vocals put us all in their league, but never obscure their musicality and heart! In this jam, with its soft, fast underpinnings in the bass and percussion, you can hear the excitement of the entire concert begin to build. Masterful in his guitar solo, Trey takes us to the first level. And Page, alternating between duple and triple meters in the background, adds to the ascent. Good golly, we're off and it feels good! The crowd roars and whistles as the jam comes to its inevitable climax.
Then as Phish does so well, it goes from the sublime to the almost, but not quite ridiculous. The crowd was adoringly polite and receptive as the group broke ranks to come way downstage. I heard myself on the tape laughing aloud as they began an a cappella version of "Sweet Adeline"¯. Now, here is where we have bragging rights at this concert! We were looking up their noses as they sang. Wow! Fishman's dramatic solo brought supportive laughter and applause.
Quickly, the boys manned their former positions and began a bumpy, unphrased, non-continual intro to "Harry Hood"¯. Humorous unpredictability is a definite trademark of Phish programming. Where are we going now? Seemingly, nowhere! Then as we think they have wandered into discombobulated indecision, sounding somewhat like an exhibition of styles and meters, and no one can convincingly boogie, the non-sequitur "Thank you Mr. Minor"¯ makes the conundrum more intense. The experience descends into a very chilled-out guitar and bass duet with a bit of celeste-type diddling on the keyboard. But then you hear it, a gradual perception of building intensity, and you know the jam has begun. It's a code from them to us. There was another mention of Pierre and a corny reference to "AC/DC Baguette"¯ as the little crowd roared!
At the beginning of the second set, they mentioned Pierre again to some surreal synthesizer noises. This gave way to the first watery blurbs of "Down with Disease"¯. This is one of John's favorites, so I was glad to hear it begin. It's a classic, full of "hooks"¯ to grab your memory and keep you wanting more. I love to sing along with this one. But not at this particular concert
The twelve-bar blues shows up with "My Soul"¯. An unusually fast blues song, this one rocked along almost like a ragtime number with its fast-paced piano breaks. And what was that maniacal laugh near the end?
Next, with no break, comes "Cars Trucks and Buses"¯ to give us a bit of jazz-rock. I love it when Phish cools down and plays in a jazzy style. Page's improv alternated between genius and klutz. I love that about his playing, it's always human enough to make him believable. He really revs up at the end playing chord clusters and thickening the texture. This piece is always a bit of ear-hormone to listen totoo fine.
Now when Bč©la Fleck and the others came into things, it got a bit complex to gather up. We didn't know for sure that they were coming. We heard rumors going around of all kinds of guests. Bč©la has played around our parts a lot (the Carolinas), so I recognized his group immediately as they came out, and I was really glad to see them. I can't remember the sequence of things as Fleck and the `Tones appeared. I know Future Man played with Fishman first. This strange-looking gadget that he plays on is past my comprehension. He presents a really good synthesized percussion performance on it. It seems that he can do a thing or two that a primitive trap-set drummer can't do, but I miss the visual, visceral backdrop power of the drummer. And I have never seen anyone who entertains me more than that incredible bass player, Victor Wooten.
In the "You Enjoy Myself"¯ jam, things get much cooler and thicker in texture with this ensemble. The whole thing spins and spins with little bits of competitive, tandem repetition of ideas with variation according to the artist.
"Ghost"¯ was an awesome collaboration for me. The octave-apart vocal harmony in the slow, funky tempo, combined with those "blatty"¯ low-note interjections by the tenor sax and the insistent, popping and slipping bass part by Wooten made for constant just-short-of-hypnosis involvement. The end of this one is a random, noisy "train wreck"¯ of atonal "spastisism"¯ tripping into the first strains of "Poor Heart"¯. Very fast and ultra-traditional, this song simplifies things for everyone, dispelling any mysticism. Jeff Coffin (special guest of the Flecktones) went wild on tenor sax in this one! He was right in front of me freaking out! It broke the mood, for sure! But Phish never lets you rest, do they?
The finale at the end of "Poor Heart"¯ included several themes and endings from other songs, drawing from snippets of Gershwin to an Irish jig, radio jingles to stripper closers, rock and roll knock-off riffs, and ended on a grand vaudevillian final chord. This went on for quite a while as each of the musicians on stage tried to one-up the others. The crowd wouldn't let them get off easy. They continued to insist as long as there was any hope for more music.
Trey called up Pierre to the stage. There were the ubiquitous calls for "Freebird"¯ from the audience, who didn't really know what to expect at this point. They brought this Pierre person out on the stage and sang "Hello My Baby"¯ to him and to us all. That was some hot barbershop stuff! We participated with laughing, whooping support. What a celebration! It was an American island in the middle of France, and we were all acting very American!