Thursday, June 17, 2010

Phish In Chicago

Just to put this review in perspective, I’ve only seen Phish once, and that was a free show at the Glenn Miller Ballroom in 1990. It was a snowy night and I doubt there were more than a hundred people there. I was into drums at the time, so I spent the whole show standing right by the drummer, watching him work. He was wearing a super hero costume complete with cape and goggles. He kept smiling and nodding at me. I’ll always remember it as one of my life’s supercool rock and roll moments, even though I honestly didn’t care too much for the band. I thought they were kind of goofy, and not exceptionally skilled or talented.

Flash forward 20 years. I’m up against the stage again, looking up at Jon Fishman’s drum kit, but now it’s a soccer stadium in Chicago filled with more than 20,000 Phish freaks for the start of a summer tour. The band takes the stage and whips up a few seconds of cosmic feedback before busting into “Down With Disease,” then “Wolfman’s Brother,” and then “Possum” — all great dance songs, all delivered with a mastery possessed by only the rarest of rock gods. I’ve listened to a lot of their recordings, live and studio, in the weeks and months leading up to the show, so I know they’ve improved considerably. But live I can really see why they’ve amassed such a loyal following, especially during “Possum,” the way they build and build a peak of sonic tension until the crowd’s about to explode, so when they finally break into the main riff whole place just goes crazy, everybody dancing, balloons, beach balls and glow sticks flying everywhere. It’s like they’ve developed a sixth sense of where the energy is in their audience and they can plug right into it and zap it up into a frenzy or mellow it out into a state of bliss, like they do later in the first set with the more ethereal passages in “Reba” and “Divided Sky.”

Speaking of the crowd, the main reason why I steered clear of Phish for so long was to avoid the whole psychedelic vagabond scene, which seemed to get more and more obnoxious throughout the 1990s. I’m happy to report, though, that this crowd at Toyota Park is pleasant to be around, convivial and neighborly, kind of like how I remember the Grateful Dead scene in the mid-80s, right before it got really crazy.

However, about midway through “Boogie On Reggae Woman,” I have a tense little run-in with Snow White. She squeezes in beside me in her blue dress and pig tails and grabs hold of the rail, saying to me, "I'm Snow White," as if this gives her some kind of privilege. Then she proceeds to wave the sign of the horns at the band. She's blitzed out of her gourd. I watch her out of the corner of my eye, kind of irked, kind of amused. But before I realize it, she's got both hands on the rail and I'm totally squeezed out of my spot against the stage. I think about it for a second and I'm like, Hell, no! I baked for two hours under carcinogenic star to get this space. So I work my elbow around her, like I'm Dennis Rodman or something, and I box her out. The security guard in front of us sees me do it and he gives me an approving nod and says, "Right on man." He's one of those strapping skinhead types, so I feel kind of macho, despite the fact that it's a pathetically drunk fairy tale character I've muscled out. Undaunted, she starts caressing my back. I turn to her and snap, "Don't touch me! I'm married!" And I hold up my hand to show her my ring. She apologizes profusely and she vanishes off into the crowd, leaving me with yet another great rock and roll moment to stash away in my archives.

Great as the first set was, it isn’t until the second set that I really get it. I hate to sound like a space cadet, but I have to confess that the first four songs — “Light,” “Maze,” Ghost,” and “Prince Caspian” — transport me far beyond the suburbs of Chicago. The first three are long improvisational vehicles, and the jam passages have a distinctly visual quality for me, partly because of the mesmerizing light show, but mostly because of way the band takes a pattern of rhythms and melody and gradually distorts it, pulling it into new shapes and spaces. It’s at once hypnotic and invigorating. And then, after about forty minutes of shape shifting and trippy lyrics, to emerge onto an anthemic, majestic sea with Prince Caspian. 40,000 hands waving in the air, not a white eye in the place. Man! Worth the 50 bucks. Worth the 500-mile drive. Worth getting molested by a sloppy-drunk Brothers Grimm character. When do I get to see them again?

I’ve heard a number of longtime Phish fans fret that the band’s best days might be behind them. I wasn’t there for the so-called glory days of the late 90s, so I can’t say for sure. But I get the sense that Phish is a band on the brink of something huge. A rock opera, perhaps, or an epic concept album with a corresponding run on Broadway (or, better yet, at the Uptown Theater in K.C.) and Blu-ray DVD. I might be wrong but I see hints of it in “Time Turns Elastic” (which, unfortunately, they didn’t play in Chicago) and in their tight, masterful control of time and space at a stadium concert on a hot, humid night. Their best, I think, is yet to come.

- Joe Miller

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