Phish Tale

Phish Heads, Phish Heads, stoned and tripping Phish Heads. Phish Heads, Phish Heads, having their fun.

My brain's still shrouded in a pleasant purple haze from the Phish show at Compton Terrace on October 11, but I'm happy to report that the Deadhead demographic has apparently made a smooth transition in the wake of Jerry Garcia's mortal-coil shuffle.

Even before the Dead guitarist died (hah, what a phrase), several young turk jam bands were vying for the slot of Grateful Dead heir apparent--Phish, the Spin Doctors and Blues Traveler being the top three contenders. Garcia's demise has sped up the selection process, and the smart money's on Phish. It's the ready-made name, I think. "Phish Head." Perfect.

Walking about the bizarre bazaar in the Terrace's massive parking field, I could've sworn I was outside a Grateful Dead concert (and understand that, while I am not and never was a Dead fan, I went to the University of California-Santa Cruz, where attending at least one Show a year was practically a graduation requirement).

There were the same Merry Prankster school buses with psychedelic paint jobs; the same Gypsy dresses and white boys in dreadlocks; the same drum circles lacing the air with tribal polyrhythms; the same barter economy where marijuana is as good as cash is as good as rice is as good as beadwork; the same sweet tang of sage in the air, enhanced by the homey smell of grilled cheese sandwiches cooked over a camp stove (a Deadhead staple, yours for $2); and an exotic array of oils and incense.

And, of course, ganja smoke.
Fat bowls of green bud were about as easy to score as fat bowls of veggie stir fry (albeit more expensive), and the age-old Dead show tradition of the muttering drug dealer is alive and well in the Phish pond. Those are the guys who fuel their perpetual road trip by slowly weaving through the parking-lot carnival at each stop, plying illegal wares under their breath: Shrooms, doses, kind bud. Shrooms, doses, kind bud. Or, in a fun twist for the Nineties I heard last week: Valium three bucks, Prozac two.

The best high I got at Phish, however, was purely natural--bestowing a miracle. One of the better Grateful Dead customs appropriated by Phish Heads, "miracle tickets" go to devout followers who've come up short on ticket money for that night's show.

Outside every venue, there are dozens of Dead/Phish heads pleading for a miracle. Some of them stand silently with a finger in the air (the universal symbol for "I don't have a ticket and I really, really want one"). Some of them chant the mantra, "I believe in miracles." Some spin around in circles and scream.

I gave away my extra ticket to a flower child who was about ten seconds away from being shit out of luck. The show was about to start, and a cadre of rent-a-cops was clearing the area in front of the gates. She dodged the first of them, but it was obviously only a matter of time.

When I gave her the orange piece of paper, her face lifted from dejection to joy in the space of a second. She pulled me into a hug, held me, whispered, "Oh, thank you," and danced off into the night. It was what you could call "a moment."

Like the Grateful Dead phenomenon that preceded it, the Phish experience is about more than the drugs, the strange sights and smells, or even the songs. It's about the vibe--all of these things rolled up into one rainbow-colored ball of wax.

Between sets at the Compton Terrace show, some joker threw hundreds of tortillas into the crowd. Within seconds, it was snowing flour Frisbees as people hucked the burrito wraps at random. A chaos theorist could have had a field day for the eight minutes the tortilla war lasted (ceasing only because the ammunition gradually fragmented). Hilarious, spontaneous, the tortilla blizzard was a blast. If Mr. Instigator had tried to spark a similar happening at a Rancid concert, however, he probably would have gotten his ass kicked. As that timeworn Deadhead clich goes, It's about more than the music, man.

Since the pretense is always a concert, let's talk about the music anyway.
I'd like to coin a term to describe the Dead/Phish sound. You've heard of acid jazz? Like its forefathers, Phish plays acid bluegrass--nebulous, folky jams that go on so long it's almost startling when they stop. And like the Dead, Phish plays marathon gigs. Last week's concert lasted more than three hours, with one 20-minute set break.

There's one critical difference between the two bands, however: The guys in Phish are better musicians. Far better.

Especially on record, but also in concert, Phish displays an understanding of dynamics, a diversity of styles and a rhythmic complexity that go beyond anything the Grateful Dead ever achieved, or even attempted. It's hippie trip music, but it's the best hippie trip music I've ever heard.

Which isn't saying much. Phish and its ilk define "derivative." The band wears its influences on its sleeve: bluegrass, jazz, blues, folk rock, even barbershop quartet. That's more or less okay--music needs exceptional renderers as well as innovators. But as I listened to the crowd go crazy at Phish's plugged-in bluegrass hoe-down, I wondered if anyone in the audience had ever bothered to check out the real deal--Appalachian pickers like Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, either of whom could smoke Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio like a pack of Lucky Strikes.

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