, attached to 2009-10-31

Review by kflinn1

kflinn1 When I think of the Empire Polo Field, home of the Coachella Valley Arts & Music Festival, my mind conjures up images of legions of hipsters patrolling the field, smoking Marlboro reds and trying to decide whether to spend their time yearning for the Cure or lining up a few hundred deep for Daft Punk.

I directly recall the moment I first set foot on the Polo Field's heavenly green grass in May 2004 -  I turned to my longtime tour buddy and said, "This place would be perfect for Phish."

You see, even though I'm a veteran of five Coachellas (and three Stagecoaches), I've also seen Phish 52 times (counting Saturday). That includes three of the band's previous seven festivals, New Year's Eve 1998 and, perhaps most importantly, the last time Phish played on Halloween (also in `98, when the quartet played the Velvet Underground's Loaded in its entirety as its "musical costume").

I honestly never thought I'd actually get to see Phish at the Coachella site; it was mostly just wishful thinking. After braving the elements and withstanding the band's so-called final festival -  the super-sloppy (both weather and music) Coventry, in August 2004 -  I was skeptical that Phish would ever throw another multi-day bash, let alone throw one in my proverbial backyard.

But when rumors about a Halloween festival in Indio began circulating towards the end of June, I couldn't help but get excited. Here was a band on which I'd spent thousands of dollars over the past 13 years, and the possibility that it was going to set up shop some 120 miles from my front door (as opposed to the 2,500 miles I traveled to see Phish's reunion shows in Hampton, Va., this past March) was simply too good to pass up.

You can imagine my delight when the whole thing eventually came to fruition, and as I strolled onto the same grassy lawn where I saw my second Radiohead show in 2004, I could hardly believe how different the site looked -  instead of two main stages and three smaller tents, one big stage stood in the northeast corner of the property (where Coachella's Outdoor Stage usually resides) and a series of oil-rig light stanchions stood guard a few hundred yards away.

Phish's Festival 8 -  the band's eighth major festival -  kicked off Friday with a delightfully crowd-pleasing pair of sets, highlighting material from the band's September release, Joy, as well as a bevy of fan favorites. It was an enjoyable way to kick-start the weekend, but the real treat was Saturday: sandwiched between two sets of Phish would be this year's musical costume, the Rolling Stones' 1972 classic Exile on Main St.

Joining Phish in tackling Exile were a three-piece horn section and two backup singers, the more notable of whom was Sharon Jones, who performed at Coachella 2008 with her funk/soul outfit, the Dap-Kings. Augmenting Phish's usual lineup, the extra five members made the band appear not altogether different from guitarist Trey Anastasio's various solo projects of the past decade, the most notable of which was the nonet with which he recorded his eponymous debut in 2002.

As a precursor to my review of the costume set, it should be noted that Exile on Main St. is undoubtedly my favorite Stones record -  influenced greatly by the fact that before Saturday evening, Phish had performed the album's side-two closer, "Loving Cup," 80-odd times since 1993. It was "Loving Cup" that led me to Exile, which led me to Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, Some Girls -  you could say I owe my Stones fandom to Phish.

So "... my favorite band playing one of my favorite albums in one of the most beautiful concert venues in the United States "... you'd be right to assume that my excitement (as well as that of the other tens of thousands of attendees) ran at an all-time high when the band released its Broadway-spoofing Phishbill (announcing that Exile would indeed comprise the second set) as fans entered the venue Saturday.

This wasn't like 1998, when I walked into UNLV's Thomas & Mack Arena and read about Loaded, thinking, "I know `Sweet Jane,' but that's about it." (I'd come to love Loaded, and Phish would introduce "Rock and Roll" into its repertoire, where it remains a second-set juggernaut to this day).

No, this time I'd know every song, every word, every brassy blast. This was peanut butter and jelly, a perfect musical marriage. Really, the only way Phish could've done any better by me would've been to play the Clash's London Calling or Pavement's Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (both of which were eliminated from the running during the month-long lead-up to Halloween on the band's site).

But Exile it was meant to be, and as Phish launched into the opener "Rocks Off," it became clear the band would show due diligence to an album that all four members have repeatedly cited as a major influence. Anastasio and keyboardist Page McConnell shared vocal duties on most of the songs, with bassist Mike Gordon taking over on "Shake Your Hips" and "All Down the Line" and drummer Jon Fishman stepping outside his usual jokester role for genuine readings of "Sweet Virginia" and "Happy."

While Jones and the horn section lent authenticity (and a great deal more soul) to Phish's rendering of Exile (most notably their subtle, delicate accents on "Sweet Black Angel" and show-stealing, spine-tingling moments in "I Just Want to See His Face"), it was the Phish-only moments that truly stole the show, or at least the set.

During the few songs unadorned by additional personnel, Phish stayed within its comfort zone but stretched the Stones' bluesy song structures, making "Casino Boogie" and "Torn and Frayed" sound like songs that the Vermont foursome could have written at any point its 25-year career -  they escalated the Stones' simplicity into shimmering, glorious peaks while maintaining the originals' feel, which is no small task, especially considering Exile's notoriety.

Three songs in particular, however, defined the Exile set:

* The aforementioned "Loving Cup," in which the audience fired thousands of glow-rings in the air and the horn section added a punchy layer to a song that Phish mastered 15 years prior, when McConnell first brought a grand piano on tour. Watching Anastasio's ear-to-ear grin as he bounced back and forth was a revelation. "What a beautiful buzz" indeed.
* "I Just Want to See His Face," which segued out of "Ventilator Blues" (as it does on the album) and sounded like it could've been the tail end of a drawn-out "Piper" jam, featured Anastasio and Jones in a call-and-response mantra: "Let this music relax your mind." The gospel-tinged number caused more than one member of the audience to throw his hands up and shout a "hallelujah" to the nearly-full October moon. (Note: this song has never been played live by the Stones, who would do well to give Phish's reading their full attention.)
* Exile's penultimate song, the shout-along "Shine a Light," was nothing less than an exercise in redemptive glory for Phish. "May the good Lord / Shine a light on you / Make every song you sing / Your favorite tune," the guitarist sang, and we could almost see the exorcism take place, the personal demons plaguing Anastasio (and the band) since before Phish's 2004 breakup dissipating from his shoulders as he shook off Fishman's attempt to end the song, uncorking a searing solo that served as a proper exclamation point on a personal and professional triumph.

Did I love Phish's Halloween reading of Exile on Main St.? You bet. Am I biased? Certainly. While I would've been happy to see the band take a stab at David Bowie's Hunky Dory or Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland, I feel incredibly lucky to have had the good fortune to see my musical heroes take on a monumental challenge and conquer it with flying colors.

When I step onto the familiar green grass next April, I won't recall Bright Eyes or Belle & Sebastian. My memory will undoubtedly harken back to Halloween 2009, when the proverbial stars aligned and every song was indeed my favorite tune.

In many ways the albums Phish has chosen to cover over the years have reflected the band's mindset and direction at the time. For example "...

The White Album is an ambitious (arguably, over-ambitious) mash-up of wildly divergent songwriting styles, much as 1993-1994 Phish was akin to a hyperactive child with a shiny new toy, often jumping back and forth between musical genres in their trademark devil-may-care style that earned them early accolades (and early scorn from critics who couldn't stand Phish's attention-deficit swings). The sometimes playful/sometimes serious dichotomy of songs on the Beatles' self-titled 1968 release fit the wildly divergent idiosyncrasies of a 10-year-old band entering its prime.

As the band's audiences grew -  in the wake of Jerry Garcia's August '95 passing and the subsequent demise of the Grateful Dead -  Phish was suddenly playing bigger rooms (even arenas with some regularity), and while the band hadn't necessarily changed, it sometimes struggled to maintain the club/theater vibe in a huge hockey stadium. The Who's Quadrophenia, about a young Mod with four distinct personalities, suited Phish's growth spurt perfectly, as the band wrestled with inheriting the Dead's longstanding legacy. Ultimately, by December 1995 (quite possibly the best single month of shows in Phish history, leading up to a New Year's show that Rolling Stone dubbed "one of the greatest concerts of the '90s") Phish had grown comfortable wearing the jam band crown.

Talking Heads' Remain in Light, long cited as a major influence on all four band members, would mark a turning point in Phish's career, leading it from a 1996 that saw the band grow more comfortable headlining arenas and outdoor amphitheaters to a 1997 characterized by a complete musical renaissance. David Byrne & Co.'s striated, synthesizer-laden work laid the groundwork for the "cow-funk" that would permeate Phish's '97 outings, leading to more laid-back, patient grooves from a more grown-up and confident band. Remain in Light's impact was felt almost immediately, as a third-set "Simple" on Halloween '96 stretched into undiscovered funky territory, setting the stage for a monstrous 1997.

As in 1996, the band distributed a Broadway-style Phishbill to fans entering the venue. This essentially gave away the second-set surprise and many fans looked at each other quizzically, wondering why Phish chose the Velvet Underground's Loaded over the heavily-rumored (and heavily-favored) Pink Floyd album The Dark Side of the Moon. That gesture defined the band at this time -  while some of the playfulness that characterized its early years had dissipated, Phish had grown into a group that favored simplicity, and Loaded fits that bill. No horns, no guests, no quirky compositions, just a classic rock record that perfectly reflected the mature, 15-year-old Phish and introduced a number of jam fans to the genius of Lou Reed. (Also of note: three days later, the band performed Dark Side in its entirety to a half-full arena in Salt Lake City, presumably as a make-up gesture for a brilliant-but-bizarre third set on Halloween.)


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