It was the Funky Bitch that kicked it up a notch. Phish tore the tune with a great version; bluesy, tasteful and ripping. It kind of had that feeling to it that we all know – “this is going to be a hell of a night” – but for some folks in the crowd, the cup was already running over. After the song finished, I felt this hand grab my shoulder and as I turned to my right I saw this older Japanese dude staring up at me, crying. I had been speaking to him before the show a bit, and he just looked at me and said simply, “thank you.” As he turned to his right and starting hugging girlfriend, I glanced beyond them at a different girl and realized, she was crying too.
So I know what you are thinking: Some combo of A) Japanese people are very emotional and/or B) these guys got into something that made them cry. At least with the dude next to me, the latter didn’t seem to be the case. The guy I had been talking to only a few minutes earlier was a stone cold sober elementary school teacher and rock fan guitar nut who had read about Phish in a magazine reviewing their previous year’s Fuji Rock show. He was seeing the band that evening on a whim, and he had mentioned a few times shrugging that he didn’t know what to expect – almost prepared to be unimpressed. A few minutes later he was crying.
And as for Japanese being extremely outwardly emotional? Let me go on record: I have some wonderful Japanese friends who are warm, open and sensitive, but it took time before I met those sides of them. It is surely not commonplace in Japan (or anywhere?) to have people sob openly during a rock concert because they were being moved. And while the Japanese that filled the audience represented some of the more forward thinking and open people in the country, publicly showing that kind of open expression is simply unheard of in Japan – for anybody.
I had been in Japan a year and I had become used to the ways of a reserved society. Controlled outward emotion is an essential Japanese characteristic; it was just the way things were. But after about 25 minutes of music, Phish had smashed down barriers, norms and traditions that had been millennia in the making, and they had unleashed the most primal and basic feelings imaginable among that stunned crowd. Phish really was speaking in language that moved beyond words into something so basic and real that some in the crowd seemed to have been completely blindsided. I genuinely believe that multiple Japanese crying, hugging each other and hugging and thanking us was simply the effect of being introduced to half a set of a music they didn’t know could exist.
To complete the set, Phish offered a terrific Moma Dance (complete with Funky Bitch teases, as if they were trying to pick at that poor teacher’s shame scab a bit more), and closed it off with First Tube and a high energy Chalkdust. As the lights came up, the teacher and his girlfriend looked at me grinning and asked, “do you want to go get some drinks?” Shocked, I responded, “Don’t you want to watch the second set?” To which they replied, “there’s more??”
I won’t even try to recount the oddest setbreak and among the craziest cultural exchanges I’ve ever experienced, but as my friend put it best, “I remember quite well the oddity of being tourists on the opposite side of the planet, and yet the locals were taking pictures of us.” Not only was Phish on tour, the Phish phenomenon was on tour, and the Japanese seemed as curious about our group of American fans in the front sporting red, white and blue headbands as they were the band.
The second set exemplified everything that is good about seeing Phish. They were tight, explosive, experimental and flashed trademark playful humor that is best experienced in intimate settings like On Air East. Phish opened the second set with the gem of the show: what I believe is one of the truly great Tweezers ever played. Throughout this 30 minute journey, Phish linked several unique and superb movements – a standard ripper-roaring Tweezer jam, a wade through waist high psychedelia, a subtle and beautifully melodic pit stop, and an energetic major-key crescendo that culminated in Trey unleashing a machine gun, songbird masterclass riff repeated a dozen or so times. No reason to cry after Funky Bitch, but if you needed to shed a tear after Tweezer, I wouldn’t have blinked. The set continued with Bouncin’, the rare Mango Song, Squirming Coil and Gotta Jibboo.
Next came Meatstick. I remember thinking they were going to do a cover when Brad came onto the stage between songs and taped lyrics to their mic stands. That should have been a hint – the lyrics weren’t on the floor (let me just glance down at these to remind me what the first words of the second verse are), they were on the mic stands (I am reading Japanese words I just learned during setbreak that are phonetically spelled out for me, and if I move my eyes away from them, I will be lost forever). Much like they have done in subsequent versions that used the Japanese translation, Phish played Meatstick through a few times in English before they actually went into the Japanese language chorus. And when they did, many Japanese seemed completely stunned. Looking at us and each other with their jaws open wide, it was almost like that was the precise moment they actually realized that you really never can know what to expect when seeing Phish.
And because my friend had inflated the Captain well before the show started and had fielded dozens of questions from gawking Japanese (and American) onlookers, he had actually offered a few classes on the Meatstick dance to curious Japanese fans. So when they busted out the tune, many in the Japanese audience were actually making their way through the accompanying dance with some familiarity. And since I often get a few common questions about seeing this first version with Japanese lyrics, I’ll answer them: Yes, they were reading them off of the paper throughout (they improved as the song went on, but the net was necessary) – Yes, they were laughing and we were laughing, but the Japanese were laughing hard enough to piss themselves – Yes, it was a total mess, and, of course – Yes, I think my buddy Gus deserves some credit for inspiring the Japanese Meatstick.
After ending the second set with Tweezer reprise, Phish encored with YEM. The YEM was exceptional (like many), and the jam was a funky ripper that punished the crowd, almost as if to taunt the Japanese and say – “oh, there’s way more to us than just the last three hours.” As we made our way out of the venue and into the Tokyo night, I walked behind two Japanese discussing whether “Birry Bleeths” or Funky Beech” was their favorite part of the evening, and I asked them what they thought of the night. The advocate for Billy Breathes looked at me and said simply, “You Enjoy Myself? We enjoy myself Phish!” And after a year in Japan, that oddly made complete sense to me.
Check back tomorrow afternoon to find out what happened next during Part Three of Stanch’s four-part series on Phish in Japan.
- 10 Years Later: Phish in Japan Pt. 1