Go Phish: Hippie Music Is on the Downswing and That Sucks
Fact: Before last weekend, I'd never slept in a tent for rock 'n' roll. I'm not certain if that's a confession or a boast. I've been to countless concerts in my 29 years, and many of those involved traveling, but before traveling to Indio, California, to camp under canvas for Phish's three-day Festival 8 this weekend, I'd always gone with Motel 6, a friend's floor, or the front seat of a 1989 Ford Taurus.
I like to camp — hell, I'm an Eagle Scout — but those shows have never been my thing. And by "those shows," I mean, of course, hippie shit. There are exceptions (Coachella, held annually at the very same polo fields where the Phish fest took place, is one), but chances are, if you're camping out at a concert, you're seeing a jam band. And, as I've stated in this column before, I've never been into jam bands. I have, however, always been amazed by jam bands' ability to rally the dreadlocked masses for marathon shows in remote locations.
So, with Rusted Root (arguably the other biggest jam band of the '90s) coming to Tempe this weekend, I decided to drive to California for Halloween weekend to see just how mind-blowing an experience I could have watching the Vermont four-piece Phish play eight sets over 48 hours, including their first-ever acoustic show and a cover of the Rolling Stones' entire Exile on Main St. album.
It was pretty cool, experience-wise. Sure, the band apparently couldn't fit my favorite Phish song, "Farmhouse," into 16 hours of music, but the vibe was great. The Coachella grounds are an amazing place to host 40,000 people, the media area gushed with an endless torrent of the band's hometown beer, Magic Hat, and the Coachella Valley weather was spectacular. The band sounded tight, the lighting was spectacular, and the fans wore some of the coolest Halloween costumes I've ever seen. Though I'm largely indifferent to most of Phish's catalog, I do love Exile, as well as "Prince Caspian" and "Run Like an Antelope." Good times, as you can see at PHXmusic.com, where I posted a slideshow documenting my adventure.
Here's the thing: By Phish festival standards, this one was ridiculously tame. For me, it was blissful, mostly because I got to play Frisbee with my shoes off. Compared to the band's legendary festivals at Coventry, Big Cypress, and Lemonwheel, though, the one at Coachella was nothing. Or so I hear. I missed the party last time, and I fear I'll be too old to enjoy it the next time it reaches critical mass.
Talking to the pathetically small cadre of tapers gathered behind the soundboard to record a concert — a sizable portion of the audience had already paid for an official soundboard "bootleg" when they bought their ticket — it occurred to me that the fact that Phish's March reunion was met with unbridled enthusiasm and breakneck ticket sales may be more a sign of just how desperate the die-hards are than the mark of a rejuvenated jam band scene.
Yes, Phish is an East Coast band, and this was a West Coast show and, yes, the economy is terrible. But is a Phish festival of this size — combined with the band's cherished Halloween tradition of covering a legendary record in its entirety — really good only for an estimated 40,000 people? Fans called it "intimate." I'd say it was almost disappointingly serene.
It's also totally sustainable: The blueprint for this event is a perfect fit for the band, the venue, and the fans. The torrential rains that ruined Coventry will never hit the Empire Polo Club, which is almost guaranteed to have perfect weather at Halloween. Pot is pretty much legal in California. Halloween is underserved as an occasion for large-scale concerts, which is probably why local hero Roger Clyne, who has a similarly dedicated and well-traveled fan base, booked two shows at the Marquee last weekend. The chaos that came from the band's changing things up for each of its preceding seven festivals — location, theme, even name — has no purpose now. I might be proved wrong here, but I'd bet Phish fans around the country can safely book a flight to L.A. for Halloween 2010.
As the band told the New York Times before its first reunion show, things got out of control before: "Our dream, our manuscript, the architecture of our career was written when we were 18 years old," singer Trey Anastasio said. "We're never going to stop! Three hundred shows a year forever!"
Back then, doing a similar festival twice probably would have felt like a failure. Not now. Phish has grown practical: "We're trying to create a format to keep playing for a long time."
That's cool, I guess. I mean, shit, Phish is the only remaining jam band with enough juice to draw a crowd this large to a three-day festival. The band that started as a straight-up Grateful Dead cover band has achieved its goal of picking up the Dead's dancing-bear flag and charging forward. Actually, Phish is only real hope.
But here's the thing: This isn't really anything to get excited about. We've come through the Wake of the Flood hiatus, but we're standing in the middle of Shakedown Street, watching as the band fine-tunes a new, simpler strategy that's sustainable for another 20 or 30 years. They're career men now.
I'm not naïve enough to think hippie music will ever die. In fact, I'm certain it won't, because there are just too many people out there who don't listen to much else. But, it may be a decade before it gets back to full strength. Sooner or later, we'll get our "Touch of Grey" moment, and a new generation will hop onboard. By that time, the college kids playing Frisbee before the acoustic set will be the couples carrying kids in paisley baby slings, the couples carrying kids in baby swings will be the crusty old hippies in the back, and the crusty old hippies in the back will be gone.
Phish is and will continue to be the most vital jam band in the world — but that title doesn't carry as much water as it used to. They're legends. They even got David Fricke, that citadel of Rolling Stone-type ass-lick rock "criticism," to pen an exultant essay about the band's connection to Exile for the program handed out before Phish donned their musical costume. Tellingly, though, the show did not even get a mention on Pitchfork.com — not even to be mocked mercilessly.
The die-hards are still onboard, obviously, and they will continue to be. I was hoping to see a huge Phish festival akin to the ones I heard about in my college days. Yes, maybe the music is still there, but I didn't sleep in a tent for the music. (If I had to sleep in a tent to hear the sort of music I like, I would have done it long before now.) I slept in a tent to be part of a spectacular scene, and those scenes just aren't around anymore.
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