Phish for the first time
Since I'm seeing Phish for the first time at Merriweather tonight, I thought it appropriate to share this essay by another first-timer, Teresa O'Keefe. Enjoy:
As a 44-year old attending a Phish concert for the first time, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I felt it was going to be a great night. On June 7, with a full moon bathing one of the first balmy nights of summer in silver, my live-music buddy Travis and I drove from Annapolis to the Susquehanna Bank Center in Camden, N.J., just across from Philadelphia.
I get energized by live music. I see bands two or three times a month, mostly at smaller venues. I recently saw Katy Perry and Lily Allen at the 9:30 Club, Gomez and Josh Ritter at Rams Head Live and the Ting Tings at Sonar in Baltimore.
I’m usually the oldest person at a show, but somehow I missed out on Phish. Most fans first saw the band in college. Travis is 31. He’s been to 58 Phish concerts.
During my senior year in college, the band was still playing private parties and small venues around the University of Vermont, where the core members met. I was starting on a corporate track and going to graduate school at night for the next three years.
Then when the band started getting national recognition, I was traveling. I wasn’t listening to much music. Something happened after the dot-com implosion, though, and suddenly I felt I was missing out. I needed to experience a Phish concert.
We decided the day before to maybe go, then made a game-time decision. It was a Sunday night, a gorgeous boat day in Annapolis and we had no tickets. That never matters with Travis. We almost never have tickets. We just show up and generally find tickets at face value, no more than $20 over.
We paid $55, near face value, for amphitheater seats but at a Phish concert, according to Travis, the lawn is better. The event was over four hours long. That’s one of the best deals you can get in live music ...
The Camden show was the sixth show (played within eight days) of the summer tour. Phish is known for having one of the most rigorous touring schedules of any large band. They reconvened for the first time in five years for three shows in March in Hampton, Virginia, then started the summer tour of more than 30 shows on May 31 in Boston.
It’s pretty well documented that their hiatus was due to exhaustion and, well, illegal substances. I was looking around for the classic jam band dance move called “noodling”, characterized by flailing arms, but saw only a few older noodlers who looked as if they’d perfected their moves at Grateful Dead concerts.
There were definitely hippies. A group of hippie chicks were in front of us. They looked like college students with dreadlocks and hippie dresses over linen pants, barefoot with face piercings and tats. They knew the words to every song.
They’re the core of the fan base that attends dozens of Phish shows a year when they tour. But I thought to myself, if Phish hasn’t toured in five years, how do they know all the words, being so young? Did they go to Phish concerts at 15? Do they listen to nothing but Phish?
Phish plays alone, no opening band, and does two sets and an encore with a half-hour break between sets, which last almost 90 minutes. They select random songs from a 25-year body of work and play a different list at every show so no two shows are alike. That’s different from most staged shows you see today, where the band plays one set with an encore and the whole show lasts 90 minutes or less.
As Phish played the first few notes of each song, Travis would scream “Oh, I can’t believe they’re playing this!” or “I love this song! This is a great set!!” Phish has turned the set list into a game for the audience: What will they play next? It’s one reason people go to 15 or more shows during a tour.
Walking to our car afterwards, we met a guy who’d been to every show of the summer tour. He looked too old for college. Did he have a job? Phish fans called the first set “epic.” He agreed it was almost perfect except that Trey Anastasio, the lead guitarist and singer, butchered the lyrics to "Fee."
“Otherwise it would have been epic,” he said.
At a Phish concert, get prepared for songs that last more than 20 minutes – and you don’t want them to end. Every song sounded familiar. I don’t know where I had heard them but the effect was surreal. Phish carefully constructs its songs. Each has a few quirky lyrics that you find yourself singing along with, not just bobbing your head, which you’re going to do anyway. Phish has a way of making you feel at home, welcoming you into their fabric. During the chorus of each song, a sea of Phans join in. You can’t not sing along.
Travis said he’d never seen a fight at a Phish concert. Also, Phish fans wear T-shirts and jeans, there are no “dig me” fashion wars going on except with high-school kids. Coming from Annapolis, it looked like a convention for students and alumni from St. Johns College -- Mensas on marijuana.
Early in the show, Trey screwed up the lyrics at one point he had to stop. He was giggling and Travis shouted, “Trey is having so much fun! Look at him!” Of course he was. Over our shoulders rose a full moon on a clear, soft night. You could see the band looking beyond the venue, watching it come up. It was amazing to find this enclave with a view of Philly, an immense green lawn and a little city of alcohol vendors tucked away in the middle of a rough industrial area.
So Phish is alive and thriving with everyone from Generation Z to 40-somethings. Even through the five-year hiatus, the following has grown. The summer series is sold out but they are coming to Meriweather-Post Pavilion tonight. Travis and I will be there, cruising for lawn tickets.
(Photos courtesy of Teresa)