[Take the Bait is spirited deliberation centered around the hyperbole of Phish’s music and fandom, passionately exuded via the written words of phish.net contributors @FunkyCFunkyDo and @n00b100. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of phish.net, The Mockingbird Foundation, or any fan… but we're pretty sure we’re right. Probably.]
Funky: Well, n00b, Gordo tour is done. March Madness has left most of us in ruin. And the phish.net forum is cannibalizing itself, wondering just when those West Coast dates are going to be announced ::refreshes forum… clenches fists:: Apparently not today, but some dude thinks tomorrow. I’m rolling with that guy. With Phish, like you, I, that guy, and Smooth Jimmy Apollo all know, when you're right 52% of the time, you're wrong 48% of the time!
Even if our wildest dreams don’t come true (West Coast December Tour!), that doesn’t mean our readers shall be left by the wayside, as we (rather, I) had done over this past month. Sorry, everybody. ::crickets:: But now, the distractions have depleted. Summer Tour is still really far away. And we desperately need to pick apart something, so, how about shows from recent memory. How about this one? It happened just ten, wow, ten years ago for our 10th, yes, the big One-Oh, same as this Take the Bait episode, we made it to ten! Oh, right, the shows... ahem... BEHOLD! Festival 8!!
Encore: Character Zero
Set 2: Rocks Off > Rip This Joint, Shake Your Hips, Casino Boogie, Tumbling Dice, Sweet Virginia, Torn and Frayed, Sweet Black Angel, Loving Cup, Happy, Turd on the Run, Ventilator Blues -> I Just Want To See His Face > Let It Loose, All Down the Line,Stop Breaking Down, Shine a Light, Soul Survivor
Encore: Suzy Greenberg
 Lyrics changed to "Been you to have any Coil?"
 Phish debut; Dave Guy on trumpet, David Smith on trombone, and Tony Jarvis on saxophone.
 Phish debut.
 Phish debut; Sharon Jones and Saundra Williams on backup vocals, Dave Guy on trumpet, David Smith on trombone, and Tony Jarvis on saxophone.
 Sharon Jones and Saundra Williams on backup vocals, Dave Guy on trumpet, David Smith on trombone, and Tony Jarvis on saxophone.
 Phish debut; Sharon Jones and Saundra Williams on backup vocals.
Set 1: Water in the Sky, Back on the Train, Brian and Robert, Invisible, Strange Design, Mountains in the Mist, The Curtain With, Army of One, Sleep Again, My Sweet One, Let Me Lie, Bouncing Around the Room, Train Song, Wilson > McGrupp and the Watchful Hosemasters
 Acoustic; Phish debut.
 Acoustic. Fish whistled his solo.
 No whistling.
Funky: Walking back onto the airplane in the Buffalo airport this past summer, bags still unpacked, sadness: infinite, I thought to myself, “Why don’t they just go back to Indio?” Now, I myself did not go to Festival 8. Nor did I to Curveball, albeit for two completely different reasons, but the wheels started turning, lotta strands in old Duder’s, er, Funky’s head. My brother, cousin, and a small contingent of nefarious charlatans that I call my friends went to 8, and each came back with glowing stories of a Disney-esque meadows of green grass, wide open spaces both in mind and campground, and weather so pleasant it made the palm trees glow <-- that actually happened. From all accounts, both personal and online, Festival 8, as an experience, was the tops. No crowds, fresh "8" themed donuts, the first ever specialized Phish craft beer, and a burble!
But, as we’ve hopefully embossed into our readers’ minds by now, we try to keep these novellas about the music. If you feel so inclined to chime to in the comments section with your opinion (on the experience or the music), we sincerely encourage you to do so.
So, 2009… ::booooo, hissssssssssss:: …OH COME ON!! It’s not that bad. Well, some of it is. But Festival 8? 2009 was a full year of Phish. We had the three Hampton comeback shows, a two full legs of summer tour (with time-tested, A+ showing on August 7 at The Gorge), an isolated AND combined Halloween/festival run, a full fall tour featuring another smokeshow in 11.28.09, and a four night NYE Run in Miami. Bet you forgot about most of that, didn’t you? Some of it is forgettable, sure enough, but Festival 8, well, maybe so, maybe not.
The first set of the first night will not blow you away with its improvisation. It is entirely average jamming. However. When listened to against what 2009 has presented up to that point, save The Gorge run and a smattering from Red Rocks, we have some things to discuss. The energy. Phish in 2009 was a lot of caution and soft playing. A lot of space – no, not ambient space, at least not yet (that’s called a tease, winkwink) - musical space, emptiness between the notes. No texture, little depth. The band members, Trey specifically, sounded timid, trying to not step on anyone’s toes while also not trying to take the lead on a jam. It was polite and respectful as the band was trying to re-establish their chemistry, identity, and tapestry both onstage and offstage. Who could blame them? Still, it lacked oomph. Very little pizzazz.
So, this first set. It looks as average on paper as my snark about its improvisation suggests, yet, still, it is noteworthy because nearly every version of the songs in the setlist had a flourishing brightness to them. There was pop and zing. When listened, again, against what Phish had been putting out in 2009 until that point in time, one could not help but tilt their ear a little more towards to speaker, and turn the volume knob up a few more clicks. They were really going for it. Now, again, this is 2009 we are talking about, not Fall 2013 or Summer 2015 or Summer 2018, so there still are hints of trepidation and caution, and certain off-ness to the overall sound of the band. Take that with a spoonful of sugar, please. I wonder, especially knowing what happens in the second set (it’s pretty dang good), if this festival was a mini-turning point in the direction of Phish. An antithesis to Coventry. A catharsis from the mud. A phoenix now basking in the sun, laying on grass which really is greener. Really.
n00b: First off, I think there’ll be a Fall tour, and us West Coast folk will be pleased with where they go. Call that a hunch.
Every time I find myself talking about Phish in 2009, I bring up the famous Bob Dylan quote about his post-motorcycle crash career: “It took me a long time to get to do consciously what I used to be able to do unconsciously.” That says a lot both about the man specifically (his prolific open-spigot-like songwriting from 1965-66 is well-documented) and about the creative process in general, and I think it perfectly applies to our pals from Vermont in this, their comeback year and the first year of their current incarnation. The four-and-a-half year layoff between Coventry and the Hampton shows had caused the band to lose a great deal of the psychic jamming powers that they’d maintained even through a haze of opioids in 2003-04, and they’d spent the year trying to regain that psychic connection to rather decidedly mixed results, leading to a year that most everyone (once the jubilation of having Phish back had subsided) now greets with a shrug. I don’t think that’s entirely out of bounds, given how much workmanlike music they churned out in pursuit of that which once came so easily to them, but I do think that (as you noted) there’s still some wonderful music that came out of the year, if maybe hidden both by the year’s reputation and the absolutely brutal soundboard mixes from those shows, mixes that I will go to my grave stating have played a role in 2009 being ignored the way it is. So yeah, cue up an AUD of 8/7/09 sometime and behold one of the modern era’s great shows.
Let me briefly touch on your point about Festival 8 as a mini-turning point. While we’re both in agreement of what the *actual* turning point of the era is (what was that, Episode 3?), I think that even in 2009 you could see the band making gradual improvements as both the summer and fall tours went along. Yes, those improvements were in fits and starts, but they were certainly there (the Phish of Hampton 2009 couldn’t have played the majestic 8/7 or 11/28 shows), and it all paid off with a surprisingly good NYE run. I don’t know that I’d necessarily agree that this festival was one - certainly not on the level of the Red Rocks/Gorge runs, which I think are a cut above musically - but it’s absolutely the antithesis of Coventry, and in that sense is extremely important. 2009 is very much a “for the fans” year, and I think the folding of two of their most beloved traditions, the yearly festival and the Halloween show, into one package is a part of that (“we’re giving you two for the price of one!”). That’s worth a lot, even without the strong musicality of either Magnaball or, say, the Vegas 2018 run.
By the by, I share your thoughts on the first set, although I would note that "Stash" moves into a pretty nice - if a tad plodding; it’s wild hearing Fishman a step behind the band in this jam, given that he’s now reverted to the multi-armed drumming god we remember from 1995 - major-key jam space that gets even a touch Phrygian at the end. So let’s talk the second set instead. It’s strange writing about a 3.0 "Disease" and not talking about it being the highlight of the set, given how many exceptional "Diseases" have come since about 2011 or so, but this "Disease" is a fair version that peters out into proto-stop-start jamming before Trey wanders into Caspian. The real meat of the set, then, is the "Wolfman’s" > "Piper" one-two punch, the former of which jauntily bounces along before collapsing into an eerie and ugly space reminiscent of the 8/4/17 "Prince Caspian" alienscape and the latter of which moves from the usual quicksilver "Piper" pace into a low-key melodic jam replete with cool harmonizing from Trey and Page. A nifty Hood is the final highlight of a quite good set, one that holds up surprisingly well a decade on.
Funky: It is important for our readers to note that when we talk about the music, we try to contextualize it within the framework of time. Sometimes we talk about best-evers, sometimes it’s a single show in and of itself, sometimes it’s a show or shows compared against their immediate predecessors and successors, but not necessarily the entire history of Phish. I say this because, coming on the (rather delayed) heels of our Oswego episode, which was not entirely positive with respect to the music, I am sure there are many fans that will (rightfully?) explain that Oswego kicks the musical pants off of Festival 8, because, well, Festival 8 didn’t even have a jam ("YEM," "Divided Sky" notwithstanding) that went over 16 minutes!
This is a valid counter, and I will not be picking sides as to which festival I prefer. I will also, however, attempt to contextualize the music within the environment of what Phish was at the time, during those shows. What I mean is, yeah, Oswego did, 100%, have far more extended jams than 8. Period. But. At what cost? Opiate-driven droning and monotony? Languid lethargy smattered with some spikes of energy? The jams were longer, but were they better?
At Festival 8, there is not too much which will blow you away – very little “type 2” jamming, rather tame first sets, and, as both n00b and I have touched on, Phish sounds like a band that hadn’t been playing in a while. That should not come of a surprise, when you really think about it. But. At what cost? There was palpable energy here, albeit infrequent – but not for the same reasons that define the inconsistencies at Oswego (sorry to pick on Oswego, it just seems like the most relevant point/counterpoint right now). There were some locked-in jams… and some that were, well, pretty lost. This was a band finding itself rather than losing itself, and those are extremely important differentiations, any way you want to color it. The wobbly legs of the music were not those of atrophy or wariness, they were of youth and newness – learning to walk, building strength, instead of breaking down and being unable to move.
When listening to Phish, context is important… not every time, but sometimes. Sometimes, some jams just kick ass for the sake of ass-kicking jams, regardless of timing or year. That’s rad. Sometimes, you need to dig a little deeper into the periphery of the music, to get a little more from it, perhaps, to understand it more… to understand where the music was coming from. Listening to Festival 8, the context of the festival is extremely important. The full tour schedule surrounding it, the Halloween/festival combo as a standalone run with no tour attached, the fact that this was a mere 30 shows back from a five-year hiatus, er, breakup, and the biggest fact, this was their first festival since Coventry, during their first half year of touring. This was a fearless statement. The past is behind us. We are going to be Phish again. All of it.
So yeah, you have weak first sets at 8. But then, still within the first night, you have some wicked jamming in "Wolfman’s Brother" and "Piper," back-to-back. I linked them right there, skeptical reader. Click and them when you have some time and see for yourself, Phish was pretty dang good at certain points during 8. Really dang good, actually. And we still have two nights to go.
On Halloween night, the second night of the festival, more of the same in the first set. Pretty benign from an improvisational standpoint, but I just can’t overlook the energy and pop that I am picking up on. It’s like you could feel the rust flaking off, you could see the tarnish being polished away, song by song. A work in progress, with emphasis on progress. The metamorphosis from canceled band to renewed band was blossoming, but not yet bloomed. It is tantalizing and also agonizing to listen to because, well, I will speak for myself - I am saying to myself, “Ah! You’re so… close! Push it a little further, keep the jam going a little longer… dahhh no!!!” But, something seemed to change in the straight-up party of the second set. I mean, it was a parrr-tayyy. Sharon Jones’s voice, the horns, the throwback rock n roll style of the Stones being set ablaze by Phish – it worked. It was fun and it was filled with life. n00b, are you hearing what I’m hearing in this cover set? Did Phish transform into a Saturday night, small-club band that was there for a dance party?
n00b: Yeah, I’d say so; obviously the presence of Sharon Jones (RIP) and the Dap-Kings played a lot into that mood, but after something of a shaky start to the set the band really kicked into second gear and did the costume justice. I’ve been a fan of Exile on Main St. for over 20 years, and it’s a bit odd to hear how clean Phish’s version of the album is compared to the murkiness of the original (no surprise given how wild the sessions were), but the brightness totally works for a festival set, especially when they kick into a particularly nasty rocker like "Tumbling Dice" or "All Down The Line" and the horns really strut their stuff. Bonus points for keeping the segue between "Ventilator Blues" and "Just Wanna See His Face," too. Oh yeah, might as well mention it here: "Suzy Greenberg" really gets an extra kick in the pants with Sharon Jones et al. backing up the fellas, doesn’t it?
Funky: It sure f****** does!!
n00b: As there isn’t a ton else to talk about this show from a musical standpoint ("Number Line" has a decent little jam from the days where it was a jam vehicle and not a Type 1 rave-up "Cavern" style; "Ghost" has a brief major-key jam that would slot it neatly into 2015-16 first-set "Ghosts;" the five-song third set is fun to see but on the very low end of great five-song sets), let me get back to your point about context. I think that context should be taken into account almost all of the time with Phish’s music, mainly because the band’s eras are so distinct - even within 3.0 - that really it’s only the truly great jams that escape the context. Yes, they played some really exceptional "David Bowies" in 1994, but it’s 12/29’s version that stands out from the rest and has more or less since it was played; same with 5/22’s "Ghost" from 2000’s versions; same with 12/9’s YEM from 1995’s versions. Otherwise, when you’re listening to a jam or show it’s both instructive and often necessary to consider the shows surrounding it and the tour it’s in, like how 11/30/97 is a middle-of-the-road show for Fall ‘97 but a kickass show for nearly any other tour, or how 7/24/15 is a superb show that has almost completely fallen off the radar because they played about 15 more kickass shows during Summer ‘15. It’s that sort of contextualizing that I think really allows you to best understand the history of the band, and here’s the part where I bring up .net user @mikh2wg’s brilliant summation of the band's history.
So yeah, you nailed it w/r/t Festival 8 versus Oswego. I think what really separates the great tours like Fall ‘97 and Summer ‘17 from the lesser tours is consistency - plenty of tours have shows that approach 11/22/97 or 12/14/95, but none of those tours have *as many* shows that approach those monoliths as the best tours do. And Summer ‘99, as many great shows as it has, was not a tour for consistency by any means, and Oswego (as part of the tour, even, and not a stand-alone event - that’s been covered) is a shining example of that tour’s lack of consistency. Compare that with Festival 8 - yes, we all know 2009 is not a particularly strong year, but it’s an important one for the band’s evolution and not just because it’s the modern era’s first year, and Festival 8 plays a role in that evolution. Are these shows the equal of Oswego’s musically? Probably not. Are they the equal (and probably superior) in terms of standing out as events in the touring year? I think so.
Honestly (and this is me bleeding a bit into your next section, Funky, apologies), that’s why I think the acoustic set from 11/1 is such a meaningful experience. It’s not the strongest set musically the band has ever played to my ears (I like many of their songs, but I like their improvisations more and always will); it’s not the first time Phish has gone acoustic on stage (we all love those ‘94 bluegrass performances); hell, it’s not even the first all-acoustic set the band has ever played (that’d be their Bridge School Benefit sets in 1998). But the fact that they specifically earmarked one of their eight festival sets to be an all-acoustic affair, and the fact that some of the versions truly are wonderful (I think everyone loves the "McGrupp," and the "Curtain (With)" really benefits from the arrangement), and that it’s *such* an outlier from the Phish experience - all of that gives the acoustic set an extra cache only a few sets ever, even festival sets are privileged to have. It somehow works as a summation of the entire festival itself, in a way; yes, there isn’t a ton of improvisation to be found, but everything else is so much fun to listen to, it’s hard not to have a soft spot for the whole deal. IMO, anyway.
Funky: No need to apologize, n00b, that acoustic set’s magnificent is in its innocence. It is incredibly meaningful, as you said, because it strips down Phish to its most basic and fundamental components. It is as though the band and music was naked onstage, not necessarily vulnerable, but exposed. There were no walls, no effects, no light show, and no free-form, long-form improvisation. It was, in a sense, a rebirth.
It was innocent, and it worked so well within the context of what Phish was, and was growing into, at that point in time. It was beautiful, both aesthetically and emotionally, and it showed me that Phish was very much aligned with themselves and what they were at that point in time. Listening to the acoustic set is incredibly calming and soothing, whereas listening to, say, Coventry, generates so much anxiety and tension. They recognized that, and put that juxtaposition out there, and ultimately behind them, with the acoustic set.
The rest of 11.1.09 is where the proverbial gloves came off. Kind of. I mean, it’s still 2009 after all, but Phish went for it! Another highly-energized “first” set (it’s really the second of three sets, but let’s face it, it is a first set) contained much better song selection than the previous two. Still improv was lacking. A torturous entry into the “Reba” jam seemed to jar the band – you can feel the “ouch” radiating from them; I don’t think Fish changed the most simple and basic drumbeat for like 2 minutes. It was weird. Anyway, “Undermind” ripped (it always does) but the rest of set, well, it was fine.
Set two, though, saw Phish take some chances that they, quite literally, had not been taking at any point up until that set. n00b, if I know you as well as I think I do, I bet you have some choice opinions on this set, and I’ll let you get there, but first, I am going to dive into this “Light.” Why just the Light? Because this was Phish’s first true journey back into extended ambience.
Earlier I had written about how the day’s acoustic set was Phish being in tune with their current position as a band and where their music was. Innocence, rejuvenation, and being happy within the simplicity of the moment. As nice and real was that was, there are other elements coded deeply into Phish’s DNA. There are parts of Phish that are profound, mentally-testing; parts pushing the limits of what music can be, and how your mind can interpret the vibrations entering your skull. They cross event horizons of discomfort, and open the mind to new realities of wonder, anxiety, excitement, and fear. Ultimately, elation.
At no point in 2009 had Phish done what they had in 11.1.09 “Light.” There were very brief smatterings in 10.30 “Wolfman’s” and 8.7 “Sally,” but nothing extended and focused, more like refracted, like this “Light.” “Light” went back down the rabbit hole for the first time in 5+ years. It was brave. Courageous. It was entirely necessary and entirely Phish. They needed to push the music to darkness again. They needed to warp rhythm into knots, and destroy fluid harmony. This is a part of Phish. It always has been, and for as long as they take the stage in a wash of indigo blue light, not unlike space, this ambient musical soundscapes will always be a part of Phish.
And to emerge into Phish’s most cathartic and uplifting themes, “Slave to the Traffic Light,” I mean, it was perfect. For that moment, it was perfect. Of course, you will hear much deeper, heavier, spacier segments of Phish as “3.0” sojourned on, but in the context of what 2009 Phish was, this jam cannot be overstated. It was the perfect end to the festival, and also a (re)new(ed) direction; a sweeping lighthouse pulsing in the distance, calling to Phish from the darkness, saying the water, though uncharted, can still be safe. Venture into the darkness, Phish, be bold, and trust you will emerge back into the light.
n00b: So, yeah, that third set is pretty cool, both from a setlist standpoint (a legit segue out of a decent "Tweezer" into "Maze," only the third such combo; "Mike’s Song’s" first appearance sans "Paug" in a show for many years and still the last such to date) and from a jamming standpoint, as the "Tweezer" dissolves into dark space as sort of an appetizer to the main course that is the fourth-quarter "Light." You already talked a great deal about it, so I won’t piggyback too much, other than to say that this is the sort of space the band entered during the Baker’s Dozen when they were really feeling it (say, the 7/29 "Meatstick" or the 8/4 "Caspian"), and that’s the through-line of Phish’s improvisational history right there. It’s a great, must-hear jam, and the "Slave" really is the icing on the cake for the set.
Let me talk a little bit about "Light," the song. From the moment it was debuted at Fenway Park (in and of itself a major deal, as the Fenway Park shows were obviously meant as event shows), "Light" was mooted as a major jam vehicle; it just sounds like one, doesn’t it? And yet it was very sparingly played for the rest of the summer, only showing up at Bonnaroo and as a tremendous highlight of the already-discussed incredible 8/7 show. Take a look at its song gaps - two nine-show gaps and an 11-show gap, the longest non-Baker’s Dozen gap of its history (and that gap, of course, is artificial). Even though you could tell it was ready to break out and take its place in Phish’s jam vehicle rotation, the band was holding it back...and then, at Festival 8, it broke out in the biggest way, and has basically been the major vehicle it’s been since.
We’ve talked a lot about 2009 and the band’s struggles to reclaim their improvisational nous throughout the year, but I think that you can make a really good comparison between that struggle and "Light’s" travels to the esteemed place it holds today. For a lot of the year, it definitely felt like the band was holding something back; I’ve argued a number of times that Trey, perhaps, associated long and thorny jams with the period of his life in which (lest we forget) the drugs he was addicted to nearly killed him, and when Phish reconstituted he took that opportunity to redefine what the band would do onstage. Remember, "Fluffhead" was played 23 times in 2009-10; it had been played 22 times between 1997 and 2000, a period of time that covered significantly more shows. Phish was probably closer to their 1980s-early 1990s incarnation in the first years of the modern era (and especially so in Fall 2010), and while there are still people that love the 1980s-early 1990s incarnation of Phish, I can’t imagine they outnumber the people that love the Phish that got onstage and just jammed their asses off, whether it be atonal nastiness or smoothed-out funkiness or spaced-out ambiance. And 2009 Phish wasn’t giving us a lot of that.
They wouldn’t consistently for a while, yet (again, see the episode about the Storage Jam), but what we heard in the Festival 8 "Light" was that the band could, and perhaps that they wanted to see that they could as well. They surely knew that there was a jamming power latent in "Light" that year (I again direct you to the spine-tingling 8/7 version), but they weren’t ready to unleash it the way they do now, just as they weren’t ready to declare their improvisational battle station fully operational. And then 11/1/09 happened, and "Light" made its way onto the track that’s given us 8/7/10’s, 8/9/11’s, 9/1/12’s, 8/22/15’s, 9/4/16’s, and so on. And in short order Phish would be back on track as well, and the treasure chest that contains the bountiful riches of 7/13/14 and Summer ‘15 and the Baker’s Dozen and Fall 2018 would eventually be unlocked.
And, to bring this full circle, Festival 8 is a snapshot of the band not yet ready to unlock that treasure chest, but certainly a darn sight closer than the one that had stepped on stage at the Hampton Coliseum and created an oceanic roar at the opening notes of Fluffhead, a song that had not been played for nigh on a decade. There are stronger improvisational shows from 2009 (which isn’t saying much), and certainly in the continuum of festivals Festival 8 ranks on the lower end. But the continuum of festivals envelopes some of the greatest shows Phish has ever played, and 2009 is part of a decade-long era of the band that has given us some of its strongest years, and thus Festival 8 can be forgiven for being a signpost to the promised land rather than the promised land itself. We’ll always have that acoustic set, is what I’m saying.
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