Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Spending the 4th of July with Phish

I had the great fortune of spending 4th of July weekend in lovely Alpharetta, Georgia with my favorite band Phish, who were performing two nights to a sold-out crowd at the beautiful (and new) Verizon Wireless Amphitheater. Phish has been my favorite band since high school, and their endlessly playful stage antics and amazing light show combined with their impeccable musicality and nose for dark and brilliant improvisation make for a live music experience like no other, so when I found out that they would be playing less than an hour from my home on this special weekend, I was obviously thrilled. Phish has been a touring machine for the better part of their career (1986 - current, minus a couple of multi-year breaks), but have only held two 4th of July concerts ever. Both events stand tall in the canon of legendary Phish performances, making the implications of missing these shows something I couldn't bring myself to fathom. After two smoking hot stops in Raleigh and Charlotte, we arrived in Alpharetta with endless excitement and anticipation, wondering what surprises Phish could possibly have in store for us.

The parking lot scene at a Phish show is an event all unto itself. Fans arrive in droves, ticket in hand and ticket-less alike, to mingle and commune and enjoy each others company for hours before any given show starts. Endless seas of vendors set up shop, selling everything from handmade jewelry and clothing and all kinds of food and beer, to stickers, trinkets, and pretty much any mind-altering substance you can think of. This area of the lot is affectionately referred to as "Shakedown", and acts as the primary source of income for those who devote the entirety of their time to travelling with Phish from stop to stop throughout entire tours, an endeavor which, despite my passion for the music, I've not yet had the bravura to take on. You meet all kinds of characters in the lot, and certainly there is a seedy and shady element present, the people only there for the never-ending party aspect of the experience. But I've also met some of the kindest, coolest people in my life at a Phish concert, people intensely passionate about the band and the music, people thriving with a special generosity of spirit and a kind of ceaseless energy towards life that is nothing short of contagious . I've been lucky to run across more of this type than the former in my years of attending Phish concerts, and feel fortunate to count some of them as true friends for life.

Funky Bitch Jewelry, a jewelry stand set up in the lot, named after a Son Seals song that Phish frequently covers:

And then there was this cat, offering up an old school three card monty shell game to everyone in the lot. Whether he was running a hustle or giving a legit gamble I have no idea, but people were getting a big kick out of it, and I saw multiple high-denomination bills being switched around in the roughly 5 minutes I spent watching:

For the first show, we had tickets seated in the pit right in front of the stage. I've never had spots that close before, and it was a hell of a night to have them. While the setlist itself wouldn't bowl over the hardcore Phish nerd (of which I'm one), who generally puts a premium on either the number of songs in any given set (lesser songs in a set generally means higher amounts of improvisation), or the rarity of the songs played (Phish has a catalog of hundreds of original and cover songs that they play live, many of which go years without being performed, resulting in shows where rarer song are played typically being given higher marks), the band clearly meant business and was there to play their asses off.

The first set saw such highlights as a particularly soaring version of "Bathtub Gin", a fan favorite and one of the band's biggest jam vehicles for close to two decades, and a blistering version of "Run Like An Antelope", a partially-composed rock anthem that closed the set in energetic and frantic fashion. The second set opened with an absolutely rocking cover of The Velvet Underground's "Rock and Roll", and found it's way into "Prince Caspian", the end of which saw perhaps the most inspired improvisation from the band over the weekend. This led into the highlight of the night, a pairing of two of the band's most wonderful songs back to back, "Tweezer" and "Slave to the Traffic Light". The Tweezer was a memorable version, arguably the strongest this year to date, alternating between bass driven funk and scorching guitar-led rock, and the Slave was a typically gorgeous version, culminating in a single blissful note held by guitarist Trey for close to a solid minute that seemed to send a wave of awe over the crowd. Despite it being a strong show - and it was, as good as any I saw last year - it left no indication of the insanity that was to occur the following night.

We had lawn seats for the second night, which was perfectly fine by me. You couldn't find a ticket in the lot, at least not one for under $250, so I was thankful to simply be there. The venue only holds 11,000 people, so there's really not a bad seat in the entire place, and it was nice to have a different vantage point for the festivities:

The excitement of everyone in attendance was palpable, and the band appropriately kicked things off in the first set with an acapella version of The Star Spangled Banner. The first surprise of the evening came a couple of songs later, with the appearance of "Col. Forbin's Ascent > Fly Famous Mocking Bird". Previously played only twice in the last decade, this duo of songs comes from frontman Trey Anastasio's college thesis, a prog-rock opera entitled "Gamehendge", and historically is a signifier of a special show. Being a Phish nerd, and never having thought I would actually get to see this combo performed live, I was ecstatic and knew we were in for something really special. Other highlights in the first set were a "My Friend, My Friend" that saw Trey in full on rock-star mode, an always welcomed "David Bowie", with its intricate compositions crisply nailed (although this one still stands in the shadows of the staggering version I saw in Knoxville last year), and a monumental version of "Jibboo" that closed the set and was accompanied by the most impressive light show of the weekend. An impressive set indeed, one that a Phish fan of any sort can be proud of having caught.

The second set was, in short, the craziest and most amazing set of live music I've ever seen. Phish made a statement opening up the set with three consecutive jamming titans back-to-back-to-back: Down With Disease > Piper > Ghost. Jaws were hitting the floor left and right, and with each version clocking in at around ten minutes, the audience was treated to a half hour of top-tier jamming. After a quick breather by way of the melancholy ballad "Waste", Phish then launched into one of their signature songs, "Mike's Song". Mike's Song (named after bass player Mike Gordon) generally comprises the first of a suite of three songs always played together, the other two being the instrumental "I Am Hydrogen" and the funky "Weekapaug Groove". Together the three songs comprise what is known by fans as "Mike's Groove". Tonight, however, Phish had something different in mind. Instead of launching into I Am Hydrogen at the end of Mike's as most expected, the gentle chords of another song entirely rang out: "Tela", another tune off Anastasio's Ganehendge. An extreme rarity in its own right, it was an inspired combination that had fans scratching their heads with delight, wondering what the band was up to.

As the final chords of Tela trailed off, the band launched into yet another epic rarity: "Harpua". Once a live concert staple, Harpua has been played only a handful of times in the previous decade, and once again the people in Alpharetta were treated to something special. Harpua is a multi-part epic that always follows the same basic structure, but every version is different as the middle portion is entirely comprised of a unique narrative, spoken by Anastasio, involving a boy named Jimmy and his cat Poster Nutbag, who is eventually eaten by the fat sweaty bulldog known as Harpua (I know, I know, it sounds ridiculous. Bear with me). In this particular version of Harpua, Trey tells how Jimmy is off in his room, neglecting his cat and rocking out to one of his favorite bands, "The only band other than Phish that won't bullshit you. And it sounds something like this..." The music stopped, and Phish immediately dropped into a cover of Rage Against the Machine's "Killing in the Name Of." It is an understatement when I say that I have never witnessed as much energy and experienced as much pure adrenaline as I did during those 5 and a half minutes. It was an absolutely incredible and surreal moment, the highlight of the weekend, and of my experiences seeing Phish live. If you've never seen 10,000+ hippies moshing like there's no tomorrow, take my word for it, it's something you won't easily forget. Take a look:

After the glorious cover - of which the implications of the song being played on this particular date was not lost on the audience - Harpua was finished in typically epic style, before the band finished up perhaps the most unique and memorable Mike's Groove ever with a soaring Weekapaug Groove. The band took the stage for one last encore, a ripping "First Tube", which turned the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater @ Alpharetta into a patriotic madhouse. People were waving American flags left and right, hundreds of people had sparklers lit, and a couple of brave souls even managed to sneak Roman Candles into the venue, and lit them off. It was a sight to behold.

In many ways I feel like I'm not doing justice to this fantastic weekend - one of the best I've experienced in my 25 years. I kind of banged this entire thing out stream-of-conscious style, and am still recuperating from the craziness, so I don't have the energy to go back and edit, but hopefully I've been able to at least somewhat adequately express the unique magic I experienced this weekend. Needless to say, Phish has taken away a lot of my time for movie watching lately, hence the lack of recent posts. Hopefully I'll get back to viewing soon and have something new up shortly.

I hope everyone's 4th of July was special, and everyone made it out safely!

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