Our four-part series continues with Part III. Indeed, we had hoped to publish the last piece as one, but it turns out to be too long for the blog. Please check out Part I here and Part II here and look for Part IV soon!
“Lots of songs coming out. I hope they provide a bit of joy, or even distraction. The truth is, writing helps me. It feels like connective tissue with our community of friends.
Or maybe this is just another addiction? Who knows? It sure as Hell beats “that other addiction”. Which makes me want to say this: For those out there suffering with addiction, You CAN get off drugs. Keep the faith. life is joyous on the other side. This event could be your salvation if it lights a fire that leads to a life off drugs. Drugs and alcohol never even cross my mind today. There was a time when I couldn’t go 5 mins without thinking about that stuff. If you’re reading this and you understand, then you understand. If you don’t, I could never explain it to you in a million years. I hope you never have to know. But to those who are spending every second of this pandemic scrambling in sheer terror to get what they need, there’s a way out.
Winston Churchill famously said, “If you’re going thru (sic) Hell, keep going”. Help is there. Ask. Remember, you are a sick person trying to get well, NOT a bad person trying to get good. Part of the sickness is not knowing that you’re sick. Isolation is the main component of addiction and alcoholism. Zoom meetings are a good place to connect with a community. Hearing others talk can help. You’re not alone. 70,000 people a year die of overdoses in America. How many are sick, but didn’t overdose? A lot. How many are out searching, ignoring isolation rules right this second? A lot. How much money does addiction cost a week? A lot.
Even though your conscious mind is saying, “FUCK this asshole, what do you know about me?” I believe that deep down you’d rather be free of this massive anchor that’s been weighing you down for so long. I know how hard it is. When I had 9 days clean, I told an older sober guy “I haven’t slept in 9 days. I’m losing my mind.” He said, “Luckily no one has ever died of lack of sleep, try writing in your journal.” That was 13 years ago. I sleep now. You’ll struggle. There’s no magic pill. You have to go thru it, not around. But you CAN get off drugs. Forever.”
- Trey Anastasio, April 6, 2020, via Instagram
As shown again by the quote above from his comments on the “Are You There Colleen?” Instagram video, Trey is open about the perils of addiction and clear about his hope for recovery. So, what better way to use his platform than to raise money to help people struggling with drugs and alcohol? On October 2, 2020, Trey made a big announcement: an eight-show weekly run of audience-free concerts at the landmark Beacon Theatre called “The Beacon Jams.”
Although he had earlier expressed ambivalence about playing a live concert without fans, this presented a special opportunity to both keep our spirits up during the ongoing pandemic while also using his music for an important cause. The shows would be broadcast free by the platform Twitch, which allowed a special band/fan interaction, with all donations going to a new foundation founded by Trey, the Divided Sky Fund, in partnership with the Waterwheel Foundation. Learn more about Trey’s foundation here.
The first night opened with a fitting start, 2012’s Traveler’s “Corona.” Trey’s long quarantine hair had been cut, and there was a feeling of excitement and energy as seen by Trey and the band’s heartfelt playing. The band for the first show was a stripped-down, hornless TAB, including Tony Markellis on bass, Russ Lawton on drums, Ray Paczkowski on keys, Cyro Baptista on percussion, and Trey (he plays guitar). It was thrilling to have live music again, even if it was in this context. The production was magnificent and the show felt special.
The Twitch platform allowed us to interact with Trey via a live chat where he could view curated comments on a monitor, via his daughter Eliza who worked behind the scenes. We watched Trey giddy, talking to fans, cracking jokes, and letting loose. Some of the best interactions with the fans were when someone would write in that they were struggling. Trey would respond, speaking at length about his own addiction, and pleading with fans who were struggling to get help. Covid and quarantine isolation were not helpful for addicts, and he did his best to express that there was a way out.
It felt more like a band rehearsal but with the awareness that someone was peeking through a cracked open window. One of the coolest aspects of these shows was the setup of the band. They were turned around to face the back of the stage, providing the empty seats of the Beacon Theatre as the backdrop.
Over the next eight shows, we would see a few different lineups, including all the members of TAB. When reflecting on the Beacon Jams later in the highly recommended four-part Trey solo career review on the Alive Again podcast, this was what Trey always dreamed of for his ultimate band/performance: one that would include horns, strings, and the usual TAB styles of rock, funk, jazz, and big band. It was a mix of familiar bands: TAB with horns, TAB without horns, Ghosts of the Forest, solo acoustic, duets, and a new group of strings players fittingly named “The Rescue Squad,” which brought new and beautiful arrangements by Trey and Don Hart.
We now have special strings versions of classic Phish songs like “Harry Hood,” “Light” and “Slave to the Traffic Light” to add to our personal Phish radios. We heard a lot of Lonely Trip songs make their live debut, as well as a new song “Just A Touch” on the final night, played in the stairwell and onto the stage. We also witnessed a new on-stage collaboration with Trey’s friend Jeff Tanski playing duo versions of “Stash” and “Divided Sky.” Tanksi had previously helped with the arrangements of Trey’s Broadway musical, Hands on a Hardbody, and in 2015, helped Trey prepare for the Fare Thee Well: Celebrating 50 Years of the Grateful Dead concerts in Santa, Clara, CA, and Chicago, IL.
It was confirmed there would be no surprise Phish shows when at the start of the third night, Page came on the screen and told us he was unable to come down and play with Trey. However, Trey and Page were able to meet up before the run at the barn and record a few mellow songs on acoustic guitar and Wurlitzer. This intimate performance with the Vermont landscape as the backdrop was another welcome moment of Phish making music during this confusing time, playing beautiful renditions of Phish classics like “Waste” and new songs like “Evening Song.“ This would inspire them to record their December album.
We did get one additional Phish member to join the fun when Fishman joined for a night of reunion with Ghosts of the Forest, the only other time that group has played since the original tour in 2019. It was later revealed Fish was supposed to do more shows, but had to leave early, leaving Trey to scrap next week’s plans and go back to the drawing board. The results were a fun reduced TAB show adding Jennifer Hartswick, Celisse Henderson, and Jo Lampert on vocals, Jeff Tanski on piano, and The Rescue Squad strings. They opened the night with a fantastic TAB debut of “You Enjoy Myself” where the “man” line was replaced with “WOMAN,” and a beautiful string breakdown with vocal harmonies in lieu of a normal insane vocal jam. Trey debuted a new song “Mercy” as well as many TAB debuts of Phish songs such as “The Moma Dance” and “A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing.”
On October 30, Halloween vibes were in the air and so was Trey, in a special video where he had awoken 43 weeks later in Madison Square Garden still on the raised platform from 12/31/19. As we pan into the empty Garden, a string arrangement of “Rescue Squad” plays, and we watch Trey wake up to a changing world. He finally gets down, with his bag of oranges, searching for human life all along the Garden corridors past Phish references and memes, and finally out into the rainy, empty streets of New York. He walks forty blocks to the Beacon and enters the venue, only to find himself and TAB playing the chilling “In the House - In a Heartbeat” from 28 Days Later. One of the best moments of the run came on the seventh night when a surgical nurse at Maine Medical Center in Maine wrote to Trey and promoted a new improvised song called the “Heather McDougle Song,” leading her to fall off her couch in shock. I think it would be any fan’s dream to have a song named after you, but I can’t imagine a better gift to one of the hospital workers during the pandemic.
The shows finished on November 27 and, like Phish’s Baker’s Dozen, contained no repeats with 151 different songs. Before the final performance of the night featuring the entirety of his band, during Trey’s intros of the band, he mistakenly forgot to name Tony, prompting him to remind Trey. Acknowledging this unusual accidental oversight, Trey starts a big “Tony!” cheer, an apology from Trey, and a ripping version of “First Tube,” a song Trey co-wrote and performed with Tony and drummer Russ Lawton back in the late nineties.
After “First Tube” the band played a final “jam” while Trey walked out of the theater handing out masks to staff and walking through a group of dancers in the lobby to the streets of New York where he gave a mask to a hospital worker in scrubs outside. The eight weeks were now complete, and I felt a void already that I wouldn’t have any new music the following week or in the near future. When I go back and listen to these shows, I am instantly brought back to the feelings of quarantine, which seems so close but also forever ago. All of these songs, each followed by no applause, will always be unique for that reason: the silence of the world, contrasted by the beauty of new music. The complete videos of all of the shows are still on LivePhish, and you can also see a selection on Trey’s YouTube.
Fortunately, the music won’t be the only reason we remember the run. The fan donations were generous through the eight weeks, raising over 1.2 million dollars, intended to open a new 40-bed drug treatment center in Ludlow, Vermont. Trey gave a statement announcing the center, stating:
“Substance use disorders affect people from all walks of life, and the problem is intimately linked with isolation — whether that’s isolation due to the pandemic or for any other reason. The Beacon Jams helped us find a way to connect people and get this project off the ground. To be able to do that together during this difficult year touches my heart.
Like so many people in America and so many in Vermont, I became addicted to opiates. I was extremely lucky to have access to care, and I know how important it is to be part of a recovery community. I’m grateful that we can help provide that opportunity for others.
None of this would be possible without the hard work and generosity of so many people, I want to personally thank Madison Square Garden Entertainment for hosting the shows at the Beacon Theatre, and Twitch for sending The Beacon Jams out across the world. I also want to personally thank all the people who supported the Divided Sky Foundation so generously, and the fans who contributed everything from donations to well wishes. It means so much to me, and it’s going to mean so much to the families that will benefit from this treatment center.”
Sadly, the last night of the Beacon Jams would be Tony’s last live performance with the band, as he would pass away five months later. On Instagram, Trey recalled speaking to Tony hours prior, having no idea it would be the last time they spoke. Trey shared the Beacon Jams version of “First Tube,” a perfect tribute to his best friend and bandmate. I am thankful to have seen Tony for 23 years of music with Trey.
2020 ended with the hope that Phish would do something unique in place of the annual New Year’s run. Throughout the fall, cases predictably rose in the country for another wave, and it became clear playing together was not going to happen. As a result, Phish challenged the fans to a match of chess, to be played twenty-five years to the day after the fans beat Phish in the last matchup, leaving the final score 1-1.
The game would be a virtual chess match alongside a full viewing of their celebrated 12/31/95 concert. The night would be called “Dinner and a Rematch,” offering a twist on both the New Year’s gag and the now regular archival live shows. Phish released an entertaining 30 for 30-like documentary about the history of Phish vs Audience.
Although the evening started with a glitch, apparently from fans crashing the servers, Phish eventually appeared after set one, on a zoom call just like they had at the start of quarantine for the Sigma Oasis announcement. By now, the band and audience were used to this form of communication. As the night went on and the fans got closer to losing, we saw long stretches of Phish hanging out as friends, laughing, and referencing Queen’s Gambit with a giant bottle of green M&M’s.
Meanwhile, Trey also played some improvisational numbers: one about how we should just “smoke weed and concede,” another one about “Rescue Squad” a year after its debut, this time with lyrics about how the fans would be losing the match, as we indeed did. Phish now leads 2-1. As a parting gift, Fishman shaved his quarantine head for bonus entertainment.
All in all, it left a lot to be desired in terms of new music, especially since we were recently spoiled with the Beacon Jams. Luckily, streaming one of the most classic New Year’s Eve shows was a perfect complement to getting destroyed on the chess board, and it was special to feel like we were having a fun night with the band like we normally would be during this week.
“I try not to imagine things in the future because I just don’t know if I’m thinking three months out, or six months out, or 18 months out. Mass gatherings – it’s the thing you can’t do, and it’s the thing that we do. So there will be a vaccine at some point, but it’s just so hard to tell at this point. I do my best to try not to look too far forward, and just try and be present with the kids.” - Page McConnell, Rolling Stone.
The beginning of 2021 was crazy. Following President Trump’s loss to Joseph Biden, it seemed our country was on the precipice in more ways than one. Vaccines had begun to be administered to workers at high risk of exposure following the emergency use authorization of new vaccines in December 2020 and were expected to be available to the rest of the United States in the coming months.
Meanwhile, on January 6, 2021, an angry mob of supporters of the outgoing president attacked the United States Capitol to attempt to stop the formal certification of Biden’s win. The United States had never seemed closer to an insurrection, while also being nearer than ever to a return to an open economy since the pandemic had begun the year before. Vaccines for COVID-19 became widely available in March and April, and millions of Americans eagerly lined up for the jab to do their part to get things back on track.
Obviously, with the world like it was/is, it came as a huge relief when, on May 11, Phish announced the Summer 2020 postponed tour was now rescheduled for the Summer of 2021 while also announcing a Fall tour to close with their standard four-night Vegas Halloween run. The Summer tour was mostly the same venues but in a different order; the tour would now start in the South in Arkansas, move its way up East, and then head out West, before closing at Dick’s during the Labor Day weekend. The shows at Piedmont Park in Atlanta and Giant Center in Hershey were canceled, but in their place were two shows in Alpharetta and two shows at Hershey Park Stadium. For the West Coast Fall Tour, Phish would return to Arizona for the first time since 2003 and Sacramento for the first time since 1996.
Just the week before, Trey announced a return to fan-in-attendance concerts: three solo shows at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. This time it looked a little different, as fans were now required to sit in “pods” to keep social distance in the setting of a concert. The three shows brought back Jeff Tanski, the Rescue Squad, and on the final night, there would be a special guest: the duo of Trey and Page were finally on stage again when he joined for the end of the set and encore.
Trey followed up with two more acoustic shows at the Beacon Theatre, which were a homecoming of sorts but now with crowds. Before these shows, Trey also performed a couple of at-home from the Rubber Jungle concerts on May 14 and June 11 on Sirius and released another song called “Forward People” in March on YouTube.
In my own world, on July 6, 2021, my wife and I returned to live music at the new Westville Music Bowl in New Haven, CT, to see Tedeschi Trucks Band. We had come full circle, as Trucks was a part of the last concert we saw back in March 2020. The band sounded amazing, better than ever, as though the months in quarantine made these already amazing performers somehow even better. Or, perhaps it was just that attending a concert felt so revitalizing. I was happy to see musicians on the road again, happy to dance and smile with strangers, happy vaccines had been rolled out.
I remember the moment a security guard took our picture of us in front of the stage with a rainbow above, highlighting that a rainbow never looks as good in the photo; just experience it and let it go. That sums it up for me. I can’t take live music for granted anymore. As much as the live streams, vinyl purchases, and archived shows kept me feeling connected to the sounds, there is nothing like hearing Derek Trucks and bandmates solo in “Dreams” and hearing Tedeschi sing John Prine’s “Angels In Montgomery” with an added “Sugaree” section, all in tribute to those they had lost during COVID. The next night, I attended another Tedeschi Trucks show, this time bringing my lovely in-laws to their first post-quarantine concert, while my wife stayed home to take care of our baby daughter born only a few months before. Life definitely looked a lot different a year and a half after this all started.
Meanwhile, anticipation was ratcheting up for Phish tour. The months and weeks leading up to the Phish tour felt similar to 2008 leading up to the return and the birth of 3.0. In fact, some fans were even clamoring for a new iterative number to refer to the era, dropping 4.0 casually and certainly, completely ignoring that the previous hiatuses were due solely to internal decisions by the band and not the destructive external force of a worldwide viral pandemic. Once again, the myopia of the Phish community is both cute and wholly absurd. Naturally, Trey fueled the fire by previewing his new guitar and announcing how he was so excited to play it for 4.0. Trey said, “The fact that this new guitar appeared during this downtime gives me hope for a new era of live music. I’ll play it with love and gratitude, from the first notes of the next live shows. “The 4.0” guitar!”
It was not quite the same as when the band returned from their break-up in Hampton, Virginia, and opened with “Fluffhead.” It was less celebratory, even somber. Leading up to the shows, it was a disconcerting time for returning to Phish tour. There would be no bubbles or pods, masks were only encouraged, and vaccinations were not required until the Gorge. Many fans did not feel comfortable leading up to the opening night. Debates filled the online forums and Facebook groups. This was a first for our community, for fans of music all around the world as bands got back on the road, and for everyone else adjusting to the return to public gatherings.
After all, COVID-19 was still a serious problem across the country and especially in the South where the tour would begin, as the Delta variant and vaccine hesitancy were combining to create serious numbers of new cases and increased hospitalizations. It should be remembered that these shows took place while a very contagious variant of the virus was circulating widely. It would be inevitable that many fans would fall ill because they went to shows on this tour. And, many unfortunately did. While we reflect on the positive musical aspects of the year, we want to remember the difficult circumstances we were still facing in the Summer of 2021 and express sincere compassion for everyone who fell ill at any time during the pandemic.
Finally, 521 bewildering days later, Phish returned to the stage on July 28, 2021, in Rogers, Arkansas, their first time ever playing in the state (only Wyoming, the Dakotas, Alaska, and Hawaii remain without Phish shows in these United States of America). The first song was Trey’s Lonely Trip standout and Phish debut of “I Never Needed You Like This Before.” The sentiment was a fact. There was a feeling in the air of sincere gratitude still tinged with uncertainty, captured perfectly in the night’s sludgy “Simple” jam and haphazard performance of “Fuego” that went off the rails only to be salvaged heroically by Trey in a strange, cathartic moment that reminded us we were back together again.
So, the band played on and we were treated to many summer “statement” jams if there ever was such a thing, several in the first few shows of the tour. This includes the longest “Carini” to date (24:59 minutes) at Oak Mountain Amphitheatre in Pelham, Alabama, an exploratory 26-minute long “Chalk Dust Torture” on night one of Alpharetta, and then on night two, an all-time great “Tweezer,” the fifth longest ever (only to be the sixth once another “Tweezer” was played at Shoreline on September 1.) Night two in Nashville featured a second set with all but one jam-charted version. And, the first show of three at Deer Creek featured what would be the phish.net/forum Jam-of-the-Year in a 23-minute “Simple” that encapsulates everything great about the Summer. As the tour moved toward the East Coast, the stoke level was sky-high for Phish’s first run literally on the Atlantic City Beach just off the boardwalk.
Fishman now had a drum pad with samples, first used during the Ghosts of the Forest tour, playing funny/obnoxious sound effects throughout songs and jams. At first, it was a bit distracting, but over time it was just another Phish gimmick that defines this amazing band. Fishman was excited to see how well he could pull off placing a “bad” sound within a Phish song.
The tour continued with no cancellations due to Covid (as would somehow be the case moving forward to the time of this writing), but California, like the year before, was now dealing with raging wildfires, displacing families and ravaging towns, right when Phish was supposed to play Lake Tahoe after three solid shows at the Gorge. Due to the level of smoke coming into Tahoe, the band moved the shows to Shoreline in the Bay Area and donated to Caldor Fire Fund at the El Dorado County Community Foundation via the Waterwheel Foundation.
Phish proceeded to play a couple of classic shows there to a relatively sparse crowd in the huge old amphitheater, including a forty-six-minute “Soul Planet” that exemplified the sound of Phish in 2021. It was dark, abstract, and adventurous, with a feeling that anything could happen. You never knew what would be coming out of Fishman’s new sample pack, Trey’s new guitar and effects that sound like a synthesizer to go along with Page’s expansive rig, and Mike’s bombs and screaming drill.
Chris Kuroda and his teammate Andrew Griffin was also developing new, beautiful lush lighting designs with LED lights. In a 2022 interview with LiveForLiveMusic.com, Chris says of the new rig, “The basic idea behind those LED strips was to show off the shapes that the trusses were in better than we were doing it in the past. We wanted these lines so you could really see the shape. And again, a very simple, organic idea turned into all the tricks we’re doing with them today.”
Throughout the 22-show tour, the band sounded tight, intent, and down to stretch out. For many, Summer 2021 somehow displaced the highs of 2015 even without a big festival. Perhaps, it was simply our collective need for the band, one another, and that nearly forgotten feel of live music. But, even upon re-listening, 2021’s Summer Tour definitely holds up. Although there are many jams to check out from the Summer, I suggest “Everything’s Right” from Dick’s. This end-of-tour version sounded like a band that had settled into this new groove of 2021, showcasing both slow, dark grooves and funky yet blissful rock.
It reminded me of another great version of the same song from the last show before the pandemic in Mexico on February 23, 2020. I would listen to this during quarantine often, dreaming of what future Phish 2020 jams would sound like. Alas, we would never know, but at least we had something we couldn’t have predicted and likely would have never had the same powerful meaning of a return to touring during a pandemic.
[Part IV will conclude the essay soon.]
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