Chalk it up to fate, and the iPod.
A few months before this gig, I decided to dovetail a business trip to Pittsburgh with a Phish show. It was a legitimate piece of business, really, and July 28th seemed like a reasonable date. I had managed to see only one other show on summer tour – an excellent Chula Vista gig that petered out a bit in the homestretch – and I was itching to get just a little bit more. It never hurts to see what you can, especially when the band is at the top of its game.
My colleague Donald and I took in some of Pittsburgh (a very cool and very underrated city), worked a hard day in the metaphorical salt mines on Tuesday, then doffed our corporate vestments and headed out to the venue to scope out the scene. There was a Shakedown Street in full-swing (several, in fact) but the whole circus was a little on the mellow side due to overzealous and under-qualified venue security. These bumblebee ass-clowns were verbally abusive, and intent on pestering the citizenry by enforcing non-existent statutes (in Burgettstown, apparently, it is legal to sell beer and bootleg videos, but not to hold a ticket in the air). I wondered if the Post-Gazette would see fit to publish a story about the insufferable Stalinist pricks minding the store at the venue that bears its name, but quickly pegged the chances at slim to none (with slim having recently departed).
The Post-Gazette (once the Star Lake Amphitheater) is structurally and sonically a nice venue, and it has lots of interesting vending choices, including a piercing booth. Personally, I have a hard time imagining asking some Swiss cheese tweeker to hook me up with a Prince Albert at a Phish show, but far be it from me to slag others who decide to go that route. The biggest criticism I have of the physical surroundings is that the parking lot is “paved” with huge rocks, many the size of a fist, that make plain old walking a unique hazard. I turned my ankle over twice and was fortunate not to sprain it. What brain surgeon made this call?
I put the day behind me, settled into my thirteenth row seat, and quickly watched this innocent little business trip of mine turn into a headlong tumble through the Looking Glass. Immediately after the show, I was convinced that this was the finest two-set Phish show I’d ever witnessed. As is almost always the case, time and recordings have tempered this opinion somewhat, but it remains by any standards an electrifying and historically important performance from Phish.
My first “Daniel” was a killer surprise among many to follow. But if “Daniel” came from left field, “Camel Walk” emerged from Phish's collective booty. This was a filthy, seething version that built to a fine growl and held together from start to finish. “Jibboo” appeared next, and quickly bloomed into a muscular, chromatic rock declaration. There was nothing textural or patient about this “Jibboo;” they just blew the doors off.
“Cool It Down” followed, and satisfied my recent desire to see Phish cover a Velvets tune that wasn’t “Rock and Roll”. This jam contained a wonderful “Gin”-like jam in which Fishman and Trey (who was wearing a white t-shirt that featured an image of the face of Fishman, circa 1992) played like putty with tempo and tone, careening from one theme to another, and surfing a wave of rippling, sonic magma. What a great pull this was. By this time my show was made. Everything else, I thought, would just be the sauce.
I used “Scent of a Mule” to go buy much needed water and a beer, and appreciated some of the good business going on in the jam from my vantage in the concourse. I’m sure the gentleman who ranted the whole way into the venue about how it was time for his “Mule” was well pleased. A neat little ambient outro jam in the “Fee” that followed gave way to a perfect segue into “Timber.” I realize that I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but this was a stupendous version of “Timber.” As in “Jibboo,” there was no noodling around and no grab-ass whatsoever before Phish collectively decided to bring the mojito and crush skulls. Only a precious few 1995, straight-to-the-jugular “Timbers” can hold a candle to this one. We were exhausted by the time the band dropped into a well-placed and well-played “Circus.”
The set was over an hour deep before they finished and I was sure that they would have to break soon, since I had assumed the curfew was 11:00. It wasn’t, and they didn’t. My first “McGrupp” since L.A. in 1998 was immensely enjoyable, and fairly tight given its rarity. Page gilded the lily with some remarkable piano work at the end, and though the conclusion was slightly flubbed, it mattered very little. My neighbor, an attorney from Columbus named Chris, turned to me and joked, “Gee, what’s next, ‘Crosseyed?’” I laughed, as if the thought hadn’t already crossed my mind. The crowd was so appreciative of what was clearly a special first set that the obligatory “Golgi” was met with great approval from all.
As we took our seats for the second half, one of the crew members came out and placed sheets of paper at every band member’s station on stage, which led me to believe that some kind of wacky cover was planned for set two. Heh.
“Crosseyed,” as the song is wont to be, was a voyage; a nine-course meal of moods and movements. This was Trey’s version from the start, and the first ten minutes or so were quite dark and pointed. In fact, Trey almost seem to snarl the vocals; I got the feeling that this song was a statement of disgust at the family of rodents who have infested the Oval Office, and the general morass into which they seem hell-bent to lead us. We hang our hopes on statesmen and speechmakers, and for the things they promise us? “Still waiting.” The angry jam led into a more melodic and delicate section where Kuroda literally took over the band, and then it all spiraled back downward into the form of the song. The entire trip lasted almost twenty-six minutes before it segued neatly into a beautifully-placed “Thunderhead” (a tune that’s grownon me quite a bit).
Like the rest of the devotees in my section, I went bananas at the start of “Brother” and spent the next ten or twelve minutes trying to keep my last few remaining marbles from spilling out of my skull. Before launching into the jam proper, Trey yelled something into his mic that I could not quite identify, and then everything came wonderfully unhinged. This was the fourth “first” for me in this show, and by this time I was fairly certain I was dreaming. “Brother” reached a searing, soaring, almost “Antelope”-like peak, and as it ended I prepared myself for the inevitable “Friday” (or the like) to follow. Instead, Trey made his rounds and started giving some quite specific direction to his band mates. The crowd near the pit started cheering wildly, having picked up on the chatter, and the place went absolutely nuts as everyone stepped to their mics to harmonize the opening lines of “Harpua.” All I could do was shake my head. What the hell was happening?
The composed section of “Harpua” was laid out well, and Trey wove his tale. What we didn’t know about Jimmy, he said, was that he was sort of lost and adrift in his teen years and felt like he didn’t really have purpose, or direction. He needed that thing that was missing in his life. He needed “IT.” So Jimmy was lamenting his waywardness with Poster Nutbag as they sat together around a campfire, and they took out their guitars and began to sing a sad song. A beautiful “Bittersweet Motel” followed, with the crowd showing gracious appreciation at the “halfway between Erie and Pittsburgh” lines. In the wake of the angry “Crosseyed,” the “everything looks like a nail” lines came off more like social protest than the romantic lament I’ve always taken them for. Very nice.
Back into Harpua. Trey continued on to say that Jimmy figures out what he needs to do to find IT – so he joins a rock band. For a while it was great for Jimmy – lots of one night stands, lots of adoration, lots of everything else – but then the chicks lost their allure, so Jimmy decided that maybe it was time to settle down. In fact, Trey said, Jimmy “looks a lot like this guy” – pointing to Fishman’s face on his t-shirt – and there's a t-shirt out on tour that reads “Jimmy Hit On Me.” [Some of you might remember the popular buttons from the Fall 2000 tour that read “I Did Fishman.”]
At this point, Trey traded places with Fish, and the band stumbled into “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” – which seemed like a fairly obvious tribute to Fish's infant daughter. This proved to be a great Fishman cover in the vein of “Purple Rain,” delivered with great panache and a virtuoso Electrolux solo as well. “Harpua” finished sloppily – Trey forgot to give Page his B-3 solo – but no one really seemed to care.
The hi-hat intro to “Bowie” came as the night's final surprise. How there was another hard-hitting jam vehicle left in these freaking androids? This was a tight, to-the-point “Bowie.” I was so sated and giddy after this that I dug in my heels and accepted the “Friday” encore that I was certain they were going to play. This approach may have something to do with how blissed-out I felt during the “Farmhouse.” Again, here was an illustration of the importance of placement. It’s okay to play a mellow tune as an encore now and then if it appears once or twice a tour, and especially if you’ve just capped your hands-down show of the tour with rock solid versions of “Brother,” “Harpua” and “Bowie.”
As I recovered from this performance and called my miserable friends to gloat, I developed the theory that someone “on the inside” had read the band the riot act for summer repeats and the lack of dramatic bustouts – and that finally the band just caved. Prevalent rumor has it, however, that the rare tunes were inspired by Trey’s fiddlings with a new iPod that contained the entire Phish catalog. He got the bug to play a few of the old forgotten gems, and the band rehearsed them on their day off the day before the Burgettstown show.
Best business trip ever. IT can happen anywhere.