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.

For Deadheads Only

When Deadheads try to explain their appreciation for the Grateful Dead, they will probably point you to a concert at Cornell University in 1977, in particular the sequence from Scarlet Begonias to Fire on the Mountain.

YouTuber Michael Palmisano has built up his channel, Guitar Teacher REACTS around the deconstruction of live music jams. To celebrate his 100,000th subscriber, Michael deconstructed Scarlet > Fire from 5/8/77.

I’ve listened to this version many times but following the Guitar Teacher through his hour-long analysis revealed flourishes that I knew all along were there but never fully appreciated or had the vocabulary to explain. From Scarlet’s “mixolidian lick” to Keith’s arpeggiating progressions – he calls out all the shiny bits and holds each one up to the light like its own little gem.

At the transition into Fire at around 21 minutes, Michael breaks down how each musician transitions over “step-by-step” until the band collectively agree it’s time to jump over. Watching him walk you thru the magic, painted in real-time as only a band that plays together, night after night, can do is infectious.

Related:

Listener’s Notes

Live for Live review

Jambase review

If you’re interested in hearing the recording, straight thru, without interruption, here’s a link to the recording.

Celebrating Aretha

Fantasia Barrino kicks off her shoes and belts one out at the funeral service of the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin
Fantasia Barrino kicks off her shoes and belts one out at the funeral service of the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin

Jimi Hendrix & BB King in 1968

One of the pleasures of working from home over the holiday week is that I can to listen to music and explore the depths of an inherited music collection passed on from friends (thanks Alex, thanks Charlie) over the years.

Today I was dipping into the 330+ song Jimi Hendrix section and stumbled across this amazingly soulful version of Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone by Hendrix at an impromptu concert in NYC. Before you press play, let me set the scene.

It’s a few days after the assassination of MLK in Memphis, Tennessee. The nation is in shock. Jimi, who had been spending his days soaking in the New York blues scene, gets together with BB King who was also in town along with Buddy Guy, Al Kooper, Elvin Bishop and Paul Butterfield to put on a memorial concert that will go down as one of the greatest blues jam sessions ever caught on tape.

The entire performance is worth a listen but it is Jimi’s soulful rendition of Dylan’s requiem for the 60’s that is emotionally hair-raising. The performance  features Al Kooper on organ who came up with the riff that became that song’s signature when it was originally recorded.

When Jimi sings we can’t help but feel what Dylan’s biographer called the song’s “loss of innocence and the harshness of experience.” What a night that must have been.

Like a Rolling Stone – Bob Dylan & Jimi Hendrix

Italian Foo Fighters Fans Wishes Granted

1,000 Foo Fighters fans gathered in a field in Cesena, Italy to play Learn to Fly to get the band’s attention and to listen to their plea to play a concert in Italy. Maybe you’ve seen the video which was all over the ‘nets. It’s pretty awesome.

The band noticed, later posting Ci vediamo a presto, Cesena…. xxx Davide from their twitter account. Google Translate tells me it says, “See you soon, Cesena”

Today Dave Grohl, the band’s leader posted this video response in Italian.

In awe.

Radiohead streamed live from Coachella

15 Steps

YouTube is streaming live from Coachella this weekend. I don’t normally watch live concerts on my computer but I was working tonight and had this going on my second screen. As it got late, Radiohead came on and I ended up working less and watching more, captivated by the set which featured a series of LED panels that were playing back camera feeds of the band. These panels moved from song to song and changed colors to accent their light show, giving the effect of shards of a mirror descending on the band.

Karma Police

What was also amazing was the fidelity of the feed. Rarely a buffer dropout, almost no pixalation. The shots I’ve posted here were all screenshots taken off my computer.

Paranoid Android

Every now and then I snap out of my assumptions and recall what it used to be like trying to experience good music. The trips to the record store, trying to record something off a radio broadcast, mix tapes, concert scalpers, sneaking up into the hills behind Red Rocks or the Greek Theatre. . . now this stuff just finds you across the web at your desk!

It never ceases to amaze me how far we’ve come.