July 14th, 2014 12:32pm
This Procession Of Unchanging Days
Phish @ Randall’s Island 7/12/2014
AC/DC Bag / 46 Days / Yarmouth Road / Devotion to a Dream / Free / My Sweet One / Back on the Train / Halfway to the Moon / Sparkle / A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing / The Line / Run Like An Antelope // Punch You In the Eye / Carini / Ghost / Wingsuit / Rock & Roll / Harry Hood /// Tube / Joy / New Tube
I’ve known about Phish for most of my life, but had avoided their music up until just recently because I bought into the received wisdom that they weren’t very good, and the whole “jam band” thing was inherently lame. In recent years, I had at least a dim realization that what Phish does isn’t that far off from some bands I really love – Wilco, Malkmus, later Sonic Youth, Neil Young, etc – but still kept a distance, thinking “this isn’t for me.”
Two things happened that made me decide to give Phish a real chance: My friend Bryan became a big fan and got deep into their lore, and their current PR company invited me to watch them tape a special show at David Letterman’s Ed Sullivan Theater. I will go see most any famous artist play for free, so I went for it. It was only going to be an hour – a third of the time they would normally play – so it was as low-risk as it could possibly be. I ended up enjoying that set, and having a nice time. I remember thinking two things: “No one ever tells you that Phish write some good melodies,” and “Why do Phish fans get such a bad rap when they’re such a nice balance of relaxed and enthusiastic?”
A few days later, the same PR company invited me to see one of the band’s three shows at Randall’s Island, and I took them up on it. I enjoyed the studio taping, and was curious what a real show would be like. As it turns out, it was like the taping but on a much, much larger scale. I really can’t emphasize enough how pleasant their audience is – the last time I went to Randall’s Island was for the Governors Ball festival in June, and there were so many asshole bros and miscellaneous tools in that audience that it wrecked the experience for me so much that I’m reticent to go to another festival ever again. The Phish audience, on the other hand, is as mellow and unpretentious as it gets.
The nature of a show like this is such that you don’t feel compelled to pay close attention to every moment of the set, and can really just enjoy the environment as much as the music itself. My friends and I mostly hung out at a picnic table halfway through the park, but we could’ve hung out on a hill, or gone closer, or found a spot with a lot of space further back in the park. One of the best parts of my experience was taking a walk around the back end of the park during “Harry Hood,” and just feeling far more relaxed and physically comfortable than I ever do in day to day life. (I was not high, by the way.)
I really enjoyed just existing in this space, and tapping into the music when it got especially interesting, and just kinda going with the flow once they settled into an instrumental jam. I went into both of these shows only knowing a bit of their catalog, so I could be surprised by a particularly good melody or sound – the Led Zep riffing on “Carini,” the great classic rock-ish hook on “The Line,” the Stevie Wonder-ish funk on “Tube.” The part that really got me in the moment was the first half of “Wingsuit,” which turns out to be a cut from their newest album. It’s a moody ballad anchored by a gorgeous piano part that reminds me specifically of something, but I can’t exactly place it. My instinct is that it’s a krautrock thing maybe, but I still don’t know. It’s a really lovely song, though.
I’m not deep into Phish now and doubt I will be, but I do like them and I’m glad I’ve given them a chance and that I’ve come to know a bunch of their songs. I feel dumb for buying into this conventional wisdom about them, especially since it clearly is rooted in a punk disdain for hippies that I know is total bullshit. Phish is a lot more imaginative, inclusive and open-minded than most bands, and the same is true for their audience. That is almost never true of punk rock, though.