It’s all I had been thinking about for weeks.
I had downloaded the brand new album ‘Fuego’, I had created a Spotify setlist of my favorite songs, and a setlist of the songs relating to the band’s fabled land of Gamehendge. I pulled up acclaimed full live shows from phishtracks.com and played them as I cleaned the apartment, walked to work or wrote late at night. I read all kinds of Song Histories and creation stories on phish.net and phish.com. I plunged head-first into a beautiful, rich, colorful Phish pond and my excitement built. As the day approached I planned my wardrobe, our food for the tailgate, and other party essentials. It was the kickoff show of their summer tour and #MyFirstPhishShow. More than just a show, it was to be an experience and my hippie soul, full of “memories of being free”, was alive.
I had always been a casual but never a huge Phish fan (or phan, as it’s said) but as will happen with me, I had recently gotten on a serious Phish kick, always a fun pursuit with a band with a long and colorful catalog. My fiancée Sally (all names have been changed to protect the privacy of the innocent) and I were joining her cousin Daisy and her fiancé Nick, both ardent phans and tour-followers (at least in the 3.0 period) along with a few others. Sally and I hit the Great Woods parking lot at 5, unloaded our gear into the shining July sun and we were on our way. Fifty yards away familiar faces greeted us and led us back to the tailgate camp.
“Only one fedora per group, man!”
It was a parking lot feast for kings with burgers, chicken, kielbasa, Sailor Jerry rum and Harpoon Brewery beer. Young concert-goers strode by in an array of attire, some with fingers pointed to the sky, a universal symbol indicating that they did not yet have and were in search of a ticket and from somewhere further down the row “The Squirming Coil” drifted out of a small radio. Entrepreneurial/non-sanctioned vendors walked and hocked their wares – Phish-themed hats and license plate frames. We sat in folding patio chairs, sipping solo cups under our tent while the small charcoal grill filled the air with delicious scents. Conversation soon turned to discussion of the new album and how many and which of the band’s 25 tour stops each of our friends would be going to. Next on the band’s schedule was a three-day stop at SPAC in Saratoga, NY and Daisy was hoping she and Nick would be able to score cheap tickets for the second night. We ate, we laughed, we played a homemade game of Washers (like Cornhole but played with washers) and Simon disappeared into the car about 45 mins before departure to ingest psychedelic mushrooms. At around 7:15 it was time to make our way into the show and Simon told me later that he had planned the timing of his psychedelic adventure perfectly, that the mushrooms began to wash over him right as he entered the concert and the sun and wind sitting in the seats in the middle of Great Woods lawn was fantastic. Right before the music kicked in, though, his brain took a turn for the worse.
“My friends had tickets for a closer section but had decided to come sit in our section with us. They assured me that as it was a Phish show folks pretty much go where they want and all would be well. But as the seats around us filled and our group shifted left or right to make room for new people, in my inebriated brain the volatility of our seating arrangement began my trip ungrounded. I was captured by the idea and ultimately had to take a walk that lasted several songs in order to re-compose myself. Ironically, it was during ‘Get Back on the Train’ that I left and came back to life as ‘Free’ started.”
There’s no other group for whom the album experience pales in comparison to the live concert the way it does with Phish. Known as a (read: the) “jamband”, it’s during their improvised jam sessions within songs that Phish does some of their best and most signature work. No song is truly ever done the same way twice and some are widely different from show to show. Much like the Grateful Dead in their day, Phish is renowned for recordings of their shows being far more popular among phans than the albums themselves. As they normally do, before releasing their 12th studio album ‘Fuego’ in June, they began premiering some of their new material at last year’s Halloween show, with “Wingsuit” notoriously stepping out as the working title track at the time. Before heading into the studio to record for the album, the tracks are worked and refined on the road, pushed and explored in the variety of directions that Phish’s signature style allows without fear of failure. As the kickoff to their summer tour, the Great Woods show had no lack of material from the new album. The title track got the energy going in earnest in the first set (with “Stealing Time from the Faulty Plan” acting as a smoky and sublime introduction, especially for Simon). Also in the first set, “Halfway to the Moon”, “555”, and the fantastic first set closer of “Wingsuit” flowed seamlessly into some of their oldest and most popular material as if they had been there the whole time. It’s something to note about Phish and the way they conceptualize their musical catalog. Their new material is part of a greater whole, songs to fit into the flow of their shows, rather than supplanting what they’ve previously put forth. It’s when you hear the songs of ‘Fuego’ added to the existing catalog that they take on a greater life.
It’s difficult to say where exactly in the first set the bright, hot July afternoon turned to evening and then night but somewhere around “Birds of a Feather” a violet dusk had settled across the concert grounds. Sally and I were venturing back from vending area that I call the Midway and decided a visit to the lawn was in order for a song before heading back into the middle of our section. As we danced at the top corner, re-grooving ourselves, an 8-year-old blonde girl pranced over and offered us each stickers, a serene note in the middle of our concert adventure. We flocked with the rest of the birds and ventured back to our seats during “Wingsuit”, which, though it felt in some ways like a song still being worked into shape had an inspired second instrumental half, ending with Mike Gordon playing his bass guitar with the use of a power drill over the repeated, fading “Time to put your wingsuit on…”. It was a natural end, a calming feeling like a pilot turning off the fasten seatbelt sign once you’ve hit cruising altitude. Fading out into a gradual applause before the band exited into the wings, there was a collective exhale as we turned to one another and said,
“Well that was quite the opening blast! How ‘bout a beer?”
Once it turns to night, the vending area at Great Woods is reminiscent of the Midway at some traveling circus, the eyes of fellow revelers each pointed toward an independent goal, sometimes together, sometimes crashing, some lost in a world of beer lines and folks pissing in the woods. We gathered our refreshments and as the sound of electric guitar once again cracked through the summer air, we hurried back to our seats. This being #MyFirstPhishShow, I’m not versed in all the customs but with the second set’s “Mike’s Groove” into “Simple” and “Weekapaug Groove” pushed further down the line we got a bastardized version of what’s called “Mike’s Groove”. It was a familiar and fun way to kick things off in the second half, providing grounds for some good improvisational wanderings, but it was when “Free” came along as the third song that the crowd (including yours truly) was electrified. An anthem of freedom and an explosive power ballad, “Free” is the band’s most successful chart single (whatever that means for Phish) and for this performance Gordon’s bass seem to have a little extra dose of get-your-ass-in-dancing-gear. Once the crowd was back to grooving in earnest the band dipped into the (bitter)sweet for the final appearance from the new album with “Waiting All Night”. Swept in on a cool and timely nighttime breeze, it served as the final breath before a bass-heavy, funky “Ghost” kicked off the second half’s second half. There’s a note in Trey’s vocals on “Waiting All Night” that resonates, something in its honesty that perhaps makes them ring out a little clearer.
Where one song ends and the next begins is not always easy to tell. The connection between the members of the band allows the jam sections to shift through tones and moods, often landing in unexpected places, on unexpected songs. Some are just “teases”, quick lines from other songs in the set, other Phish songs, or songs completely unrelated (such as “The Munsters theme” that Anastasio teased during “Stash”). Perhaps my favorite groove/jam/transition was the second five minutes of “Ghost”, journeying all over and seguing into a hypnotic “Weekapaug Groove” that had hints of “Run Like an Antelope” bubbling just underneath.
Once we had all sufficiently shared in a booty-shaking “Weekapaug Groove”, it was time for the crowd to make their presence felt. As the low, sythny bass spread out across the amphitheater, the night sky was lit up by thousands of glowsticks being hurled in every direction (another Phish phan tradition), nearly creating a multi-colored dome for “Harry Hood”, an adventurous and sprawling 18-minute improvisation held together by the story and chant of “Harry! Harry! Where do you go when the lights go out?”
“The time has come,
The end is near,
It’s later than you think.
Before you slip into the night
You’ll want something to drink…”
With a note of finality, the somewhat twisted “Cavern” brought the second set to a thundering close before a 10-minute single-song encore of “Julius” encouraged us all to stay and dance in the moment where “your past and your future are precisely divided”.
And then it was over. Our hands red with applause, our sides aching from dancing we high-fived those around us, saluting the musical adventure we had just shared, the amplifiers still buzzing through our brains. We wound through the rows of seats as savvy hunters picked through the remnants of 19,000 revelers. A large, sweaty mass, we made our way like zombified cattle down the stairs, across the Midway, through darkened walkways, out the gates and back to our cars for a much-needed post-show wind-down. We ate cold chicken and guzzled water while Phan fireworks exploded over our heads and pigs on bikes weaved their way through the aisles of the lot, eager to expedite our egress. It seemed to have been a lifetime since we’d first met in the July afternoon sun each with a cooler and our own “bucket full of thoughts”. Somewhere along the way it had become night and we’d abandoned our preconceptions and inhibitions for the simple pursuit of freeing our souls. And then one car at a time we faded away into the Mansfield night, each of us knowing that when the universe called to us through the electric guitar we would once again arrive and dance.