Saw Phish's first show of their last tour ever last night. Fortunately for me, I didn't have to pay $35 or more to go stand in the rain in Keyspan park in Brooklyn; they had the show simulcast in Regal Cinema movie theatres nationwide. In NYC, not only did the show sell out, but the first theatre sold out so they added another. I was quite thankful for this since I haven't seen them since I was 18 or something back when they were a rather small-scale act playing at a local university. I was also thankful for several other reasons, which I will get into one by one.
CUSHY CHAIRS - Phish may be a great band to listen to, but they're not the most exciting band to watch from a standing room only situation, even with the over-the-top elaborate stagelights and sheer monstrosity of a huge plot of land filled to capacity. Since they basically just stand like plants, there's nothing really to see from 50 feet away except on the monitors. And then it's mostly just facial expressions and fingers moving. This brings me to my next reason I'm thankful...
AMAZING CAMERAWORK - This had better be released as a DVD (the FULL concert, not just the "best parts" of it). The 3 hours of concert footage I was privaledged to view last night were top-rate and obviously a very expensive production. The band said all of 10 words to the audience and just blew through 3 sets, during which time the cameras caught their hands and fingers playing some of the most impressive music I have actually ever been able to witness in detail. Hearing them play is one thing, but actually being able to SEE what their fingers are doing in order to produce such sounds is something else entirely. By the end of the show, I WAS EXHAUSTED, literally, just from watching them play from the comfort of my cushy theatre chair! I dragged my ass out of the theatre as if I had just danced all night on ecstacy or something and fell asleep on the trainride home.
THE ATTITUDE CAPTURED ON FILM - Besides the smirking attitude of the band, as they laughed about fun little things they'd just done musically, I saw this same attitude reflected in the fans. It was really just about the music and being happy-- not stupid hippy polyanna "everything is groovy, it's all happenning" kind of happy.... just pleasure in small things.
It started out with us (the audience in the theatre) sitting there watching the audience in Keyspan park just waiting for the show to begin. As I looked around the theatre, I saw a perfect mirror of the fans' general attitude. There weren't a lot of filthy hippies. There were just thousands of mature short-haired casual people more or less hanging out as comfortably as if they were in a family barbeque somewhere, hanging out with friends on a beach or something. So much different from your average rock show where people are either trying to "outcool" one another or are obnoxiously "psyched" to be rocking out in a concert venue.
When the band took the stage, a roar filled the audience, as one would expect, but after 15 or 20 minutes into the show, the audience was STILL standing (or sitting) in a civilized manner, just soaking up the music. Nobody in Keyspan seemed to be dancing all over everyone else's shoes or otherwise going "apeshit," which almost shocked me because I had also spotted in the crowd several teenage jocky looking guys. These kids had the typical sullen expressions of rebel kids who enjoy their drugs, but seemed to be willing participants in a peaceful good time. I can't tell you how surprised I was when the group of little hoodlums next to me who had been smoking pot the entire time, took it in stride when I accidentally kicked over their jumbo $6 movie theatre drink! I said, "Oh shit, was that a drink?! I'm sorry..." and was fully expecting them to act as any NY teenage prick would, but to my surprise, one just said casually, "That's alright." They didn't even try to be "magnanimously cool" or anything.
All these 12 year old kids were running to and from the bathroom yelling, "What'd I miss?" and "Did they start the 2nd set yet?" They didn't look drunk or high or even old enough to really be that excited about music. I was thinking, "Shouldn't you be listening to Eminem or something?" When I was 12, I think I would've been bored off my ass by Phish.
However, in contrast, if this was a Regal Cinema simulcast of KISS or Eminem or something, you can bet the general feel of the crowd would be somewhat hostile (remember the fires at Lollapalooza?). During the second set, the crowd peacefully went down the escalators calmly and smoked cigarettes. As I smoked, I was approached by all sorts of people who just wanted to talk to me. It was a gentle give-and-take sort of conversation I had with EVERYONE, talking about nothing in particular. So different from a standard rock show where there's this weird tension in the air and people are afraid to talk to other people... so different from NYC in general, where conversation is all about how witty or interesting you can be in the first 90 seconds in order to grab someone's attention. This left me with the realization that you just can't listen to Phish and not end up being mellow and genuine; they're not a band that's interested in "rocking your balls off" or getting you to join the KISS Army or some shit, so it's just really: "You like this music? That's cool, I do too." Sit back and enjoy it.
A GOOD SHOW, THREE TIGHT SETS - There really wasn' much fucking around with this show. The band just played to their highest standards and walked off the stage. Nothing more fitting for a DVD release than that. Let the music speak for itself. Let the sheer enormity of it all (gigantic stage, monitors, lights, audience, etc.) be a testament to the fact that this music is at the heart of it all. It has been fun for me to watch the reversal of opinion from critics and detractors over the years. Rolling Stone hated Phish in the beginning, but eventually called them "the most important band of the 90's." After all these years, when Phish has REALLY decided to pack it in and call it a day, critics are now complaining that the band is just "paranoid" or 'too idealistic"... suddenly, NOW the critics don't want the band to stop playing. If this show is released on DVD, it will be a great realization for the rest of the stragglers out there who still think Phish suck. They'll be middle-aged men and women somewhere and someone will put in this Phish concert and they'll stop and say, "holy shit, what did I miss? I was actually ALIVE back then and I actually chose to ignore this band..."
And they might feel like I do now. I ignored Phish for most of their glory years.
I bought the new album on the way home from the show and, believe it or not, listening to it this afternoon at work, my eyes started to tear up. The new album, "Undermind," is the most fitting end to Phish I could imagine. There are lots of little references sprinkled throughout the album that this is the end of Phish... maybe they weren't really intentional at the time they wrote them (but maybe they were)... in any case, subconcious thoughts say quite a lot....
THE FINAL REASON I'M THANKFUL - Like I said, when I left this show, I was EXHAUSTED (from doing NOTHING, mind you!) and as I walked away I thought to myself, "I can't believe that they've played shows like that for the past 21 years. I would never choose to work that hard in a band..." and then I remembered that Trey and Page especially have been visibily "drained" for the past 6 years or so, according to all their family and friends, who frequently urged them to stop. Trey threw out his entire CD collection and burned his TV last year (not the actions of a healthy man, regardless of whatever his reasoning may have been at the time). And, as I thought about this, it was not surprising in the least that they didn't say 10 words to the audience all night. They could have gone on and on about their decision to quit the band and become really emotional (like Courtney Love or something), but instead they were visibly enjoying themselves, most likely knowing and feeling what Trey recently said in an interview:
"It will be great to revisit all that old material one last time this summer, but I need something knew. I can't just keep travelling around the world playing 'You Enjoy Myself.' I need something new!"
I would have quit the band probably after the 2nd or 3rd major label release. If James Brown is the "hardest working man in showbiz," Phish is at least that times four.
I suggest everyone buy the new album, "Undermind" ... it's just good. The lyrics... well, they make me cry. Not for myself, but for them. What a struggle, what a life... and for what? Just for our enjoyment... 'You Enjoy Myself' indeed. They managed to release 400 songs and 30-something "official" albums, not to mention the downloads of dozens of shows, they provided free DAT soundboard taping for the fans and they donate the profits from their LIVE PHISH series to charity... what more can be said in favor of ANY band? Oh that's right, they didn't cure cancer.