Catching Phish at The Gorge

I’m writing this in case I’m asked why I took nearly a week off to attend a three-day concert all the way on the other side of the country in central Washington. I want something I can send out that satisfies and hopefully inspires people to dig in to learn a little more about this band that drew me there, Phish.

I enjoy improvisational instrumental music. Not anything too rigid such as classical, nor as completely loose as avant-garde jazz. The attraction of jam bands like the Grateful Dead and Phish is that they have set structures that, after multiple listens, lay out the confines so you can appreciate how skillfully the band can diverge, explore, then return to a song’s structure.

While the music is the language of the conversation between the band and its fans, there’s also the atmosphere of a live concert that must be experienced in person to appreciate. I’ve been to many Grateful Dead shows between 1985 and the early-90s but stopped seeing them after the crowds became unwieldy with too many fans showing up for the party scene, less interested in the music or even musicians.

After Jerry Garcia passed away, a friend took me to see Phish play in Sacramento. The music sounded frenetic to my ears so used to the loping strut of so many Dead songs but I was intrigued and could see there was something to explore.

The next time I saw the band live was several years later for two dates in Tokyo. The fans that rolled into Japan brought an energy and joy of life with them that was palpable and infectious. While it was misty during the beginning of an outdoor concert in Hibiya, the clouds later parted and (I’m not making this up) a rainbow appeared.

It’s the lore passed down over the years by the wise elders to the newly arrived that sustain the fan culture. Phish “phans” are refreshingly welcoming and positive about what life sends their way. Yet their philosophy is not blindly optimistic, they know you also need a quirky sense of humor to roll through an unfortunate setback and come out with a good story that finds the silver lining or lesson learned.

The band feeds this quirky sense of humor. What other band would spend Halloween playing entire albums as their costume? Over the years they have covered classics such as the White Album, Quadrophenia, the Talking Heads’ Remain in Light and many more. Then, after that became too routine, the band set up an elaborate Halloween prank by playing a fictional album by a fictional Scandinavian rock band complete with a backstory outlined in a pamphlet handed out at the show, fake music reviews, and fan sites to dupe their audience further.

I’ve only begun to dig into the lyrics of Phish’s music. There’s a lot of play on words, a song’s chorus of “moment ends” transforms into the song’s curious title, Moma Dance. NICU comes from the phrase “and I see you.” Finally there is The Mango Song, which I heard this past weekend. Why is an entire crowd of 30,000 belting out at the top of their lungs, “Your hands and feet are mangos, you’re going to be a genius anyway!” and what the heck is that about? Look it up.

There are so many threads to pull on in their music it’ll take a lifetime to unpack it all. During a 13-night residency at Madison Square Garden, Phish played 237 songs, no repeats. Like the stat nerd baseball fans, there’s an entire stat culture around Phish’s music that goes as deep as you want. Most of it lives on phish.net where the complete setlist of every concert and side project lives in its fan-built database. Register an account and tick off the concerts you attended and you’ll get a complete set of stats showing you how long it’s been since you’ve heard Ocelot or the probability of seeing Bouncing Around the Room at your next show.

During each tour, there’s a fantasy-football type game around trying to guess which songs will open or close out a set and phans post their picks and tally up their totals in a master google doc. While all this existed with pen and paper while I was seeing the Grateful Dead, usenet and basic websites is all we had to exchange information.

There is a robust community of traders who upload and share digital recordings and an app from which to stream the collective archive hosted generously by the Internet Archive. There are song-by-song analysis of each concert in a podcast and even a guy on YouTube having a good time doing the rundown of each night in the style of NBC’s political stats guy, Steve Kornacki.

As for official channels, there is the Live Phish site and its premium version which unlocks the entire soundboard archive. The band also uploads the soundboard recording of every show and gives away to everyone at the show with an individualized download code on each ticket so people can re-live the concert afterwards and the band can register new fans and convert someone who bought a ticket into a fan who starts to explore their music.

As with any experiential business, there are tiers built into their business model. For those that could not afford the time or money to tour to each city the band plays on a tour, you could listen along in the premium Live Phish+ and hear each concert the following day to hear how the band worked through their sets over the course of their tour as they made their way to where I was to see them at The Gorge this past weekend.

Reviewers of the tour spoke of “couch touring” which is, as it sounds” experiencing the tour from the comfort of your home. This is made possible by a package of video streams the band has been teasing on their YouTube channel and making available in full with a special $440 package.

When I asked someone about the lengths you can go to experience the band I learned about annual Mexico dates they started to play a couple years ago down in Cancun. For anywhere from $3000 – $12,000 a head you can spend a week at an all-inclusive resort where waiters will come and deliver your margarita to you as you dance on the beach. And I thought renting an RV and parking in the Gold Lot was bougie!

So back to the original question – why three days and why fly all the way to Seattle? First off, I bought the tickets pre-pandemic when the flight from the Bay Area was just a quick hop. Second, the plan was to meet a couple friends who were flying in from Japan that I hadn’t seen in years. Finally, I’ve heard that the venue, The Gorge, is life-changing and something that needs to be experienced in person to appreciate.

The Gorge at sunset

The journey out here isn’t easy which thins out the crowd to the committed. Most are here for the entire three-day run and experience the rhythms of the days together, as a community. There’s a crowd-sourced online guide to help newbies plan ahead and know what to expect and bring. I’ll add that the walk into the Gorge to swim in the Columbia River is totally worth it and that you should figure out where you want to situate yourself on the first night and return there every night as those around you will become your tour friends.

After a couple of songs on the lawn, where we experienced the fantastic view and lightshow, I found a walkway around behind the soundboard that let out on the left side of the stage where it was relaxed enough to get down in front, just a few rows back. It was a dancing audience so there was not a lot of conversation as the crowd just focused on the music.

The view down front

Occasionally the band would build into a tremendous crescendo of sound like they did with Scents & Subtle Sounds, Bathtub Gin or Saw it Again and banks of lights would descend until they were just over the stage like a giant transformer. While we were too close to fully appreciate it, the upgraded lighting rig has been the talk of the tour and the interplay of LED stripes and real-time adjustment of the rig adds a whole new dimension to what can be done.

CK5, Phish’s fifth member

With the recent passing of Charlie Watts, the band opened with Torn & Frayed on the first day. This band has an on-going conversation with their fans. There is no, “Hello Seattle!” shout out. They know you know who they are so there is no need for frivolous introductions – they are there like an old friend, picking up the conversation where you last left off. This is, after all, a band that had an ongoing chess match during a tour where fans voted on the next move during the gap between each show.

There’s a respect of the audience’s attention that allows the band to dive deep and explore each song, turning it inside out, giving them the courage to try something new every night. During several extended jams, as the tempo of the song completely shifted, I would forget what song was being played until it was brought back, like a wayward spaceship, and landed back onto the original melody.

Because of this relationship, there are moments where the crowd will break out and do something unexpected and wonderful that, if anything, gives you an excuse to start a conversation. So why does everyone throw tortillas in the air when they play Carini and do you really bring a stack of tortillas to each show just in case they play it? The band speaks through its song selection and there are endless conversations around trying to decipher the message in the music of each night.

As with other multi-day festivals such as Burning Man you orient yourself by the campsites around you – the guy with the Japanese fishing flag, the Montana flag we couldn’t make out because we were reading it in reverse, and the family we met at the RV place. This becomes your mental map for the next three days and the people in your neighborhood are there for the same reason so you might as well chat with them.

Japanese fishing flag was our marker on the way home

All this meeting and getting to know new people exercised mental muscles that had atrophied during lockdown so by day three I was tired. I’ve done a weekend of shows before but three nights in a row is something you need to pace yourself for. At one point we realized we had walked over 20kms in the two prior days (maybe that river is further than I realized) so we were ready to take it easy. I was content to drift off while sitting in the shade, eyes closed while the high desert winds blew gently, carrying with it distant and faded conversations, laughter and music.

Charged up after a relaxed day, we headed in for our final night of music. Sunday night seemed more crowded than the previous two so lines were longer to get in. The “still waiting” line from the Talking Heads song Cross-eyed and Painless was a nod by the band to the crowd and the band wove that line into other songs in the set just for kicks.

After saying, “Some people deserve two songs” the band broke out Shine a Light for an encore as another nod to the late Charlie Watts and sent us on a way.

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