My first Phish show was Fenway. As a music journalist, I am constantly seeing live music, and yet, hours before the show, I was actually nervous. To go to a rock show! I felt like I was intruding on a family reunion, an outsider who didn’t understand the customs and behaviors that 15 years of Phish shows (and decades of the Dead before that) had established. And so I was subdued. I danced minimally, and clammed up whenever a kindly stranger tried to engage me in conversation. It was all fairly intimidating. Sure, I knew things like the Wilson chant and when to clap during Stash, but it all felt inauthentic, like I was an imposter simply going through the motions. I had fun, but not as much fun as others seemed to, and I didn’t understand why.
So I went on the Internet to find out. I endlessly pursued PhantasyTour, constantly refreshing the message boards in an attempt to read online what IT was supposed to be. At this time, the boards were pretty sharply divided over where Phish was going. “Nostalgia act” was a term thrown around regularly, though others were content to bide their time and wait for the band to get up to speed. Arguments broke out in nearly every thread, and the general consensus seemed to be, especially as tour continued with no discernible improvements, that Phish was little more than a shadow of what it once was.
I began to feel almost guilty for enjoying what I’d been hearing in 2009. If the real fans disapproved, who was I to think otherwise? These criticisms stayed in my head as I attended more shows that summer: Trey’s mistakes seemed more significant than they actually were; seven-minute Mike’s Songs went from being groovy and fun to disappointing and uninspired. I kicked myself for missing the opportunity to see the “real” Phish perform back in the day, and couldn’t shake the notion that I was clinging to an ideal that would never again be reached.
Thankfully, Festival 8 happened. Whereas my previous daily ritual had been to download last night’s show, read Mr. Miner’s review, check out what PT had to say, and then actually listen to it, Indio allowed none of this. The only editorials I had were my own experiences and those of others who had been there. It quickly became apparent that one of the fastest ways to diminish the impact of Phish was to read their message board.
For all the good that comes out of that website (fan mixes, tour rumors, the occasional deeply affecting thread), sifting through the waves of negativity almost definitely took its toll. When people are reluctant to admit that they read a certain website, that says something about the real value it has to the community. Free from the shackles of others’ opinions, I was left to form my own entirely subjective opinions without any anxiety about whether I was “supposed” to have them.
Phish has an intimidatingly large library of songs and performances, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of letting other, more experienced fans do the thinking. But the reason the band been so successful is that each fan may form a deeply personal relationship with the music while simultaneously riding the same wavelength as everyone else in the venue. The trick is to cut out all the noise and leave yourself with just the music. Older fans, be grateful that your early experiences with Phish were limited to shows, tapes, and in-person interactions.
Armed with this knowledge, the six months in between tours was time to foster my own relationship with the band. It gave us all time to reflect on 2009, to gauge the musical course Phish was on, and, of course, to build anticipation. Everybody knew 2010 was going to be something special: last year’s output was that of a band that found themselves shouldering a number of responsibilities. Phish had to learn to play together again while the media watched arguably more than ever before. They had to promote a new album and also provide a relatively “easy” Phish experience for all of the new and curious fans entering the fold. 2009 may have been Phish’s most mainstream year yet, which explains the straightforward jams and “best-of” setlists. As the year ended, so did the pressure that had been put on the band. They proved themselves able to go through a tour again, and though there were fewer transcendent moments, there was a palpable feeling of momentum coursing through the New Years run.
When this summer’s dates were announced, one of the notable details was just how easy it would be to travel from show to show, particularly the Hartford > SPAC > Great Woods run. Five shows within four hours of each other, most of which didn’t even sell out until a few weeks after tickets went on sale. No need to overpay scalpers or stress about driving deep into the night. Hotel accommodations in Hartford were easy to find and camping in Saratoga was plentiful.
Having spent the winter consuming, digesting and learning about Phish, I entered Hartford truly believing that I “got it.” Interacting with other fans didn’t feel awkward, like I had no business talking about Phish. Where previously I felt like I wore my “post-Coventry” badge like a scarlet letter, now I knew that Phish wasn’t a numbers game. Nobody really cares how many times you’ve seen Tela or what year your first show was. What’s important is embracing the communal experience – pulling up a lawn chair and smoking a cigarette with the car next to you in the parking lot of a porno store (Hartford), camping next to and sharing a fire with fans almost an hour from the venue (SPAC), joining in the wave of cheers as you push past the turnstile, reaching out your car window for high-fives, turning around during the show and seeing everyone smiling the same smile…need I go on?
Obviously, the music is what keeps this all going, but what’s amazing is how pervasive the Phish community really is. At SPAC I’d been handed an Antelope bumper sticker (you know the one). Days after Great Woods, after picking up some groceries, I came back to my car to find a picture of a fish drawn into the grime of my windshield. On the road in between shows, my traveling companion and I played “who’s going to the show,” exchanging knowing points with vehicles filled with other Phishheads. The Tweezer Reprise-fest was, for many of us, our first true “anything can happen” moment, and for that reason more significant than it may appear at first glance. The entire day leading up to Hartford 2, our crappy Motel 6 was essentially a Phish-themed dorm party, sounds of our favorite quartet wafting through corridors as we sat outside our doors and talked shop with our neighbors. When you’re following Phish, everything else takes place against that backdrop.
Times have certainly changed. The time in between Coventry and Hampton corresponds exactly to the explosion of Web 2.0 culture, and as such it should be no surprise that Phish itself experienced growing pains as it caught up to the rest of the world, both as a band and a fanbase. Expectations can be built higher and faster than before, and information appears in amounts far greater than anything that had been going on in 2004. Instead of listening to a recording and mentally placing yourself in that show, you can read a tweet by a fan as the show is happening. Instead of a slow trickle of new tapes in one’s mailbox, almost every show Phish has ever performed can be easily obtained, which simply means less time will be spent on an individual recording.
Phish never really seemed designed for instant gratification: if anything, a large amount of the experience is anticipating something, be it tour dates, tickets in the mail (less so nowadays), or for the lights to go down. You get about three hours of music a night, and the remaining 21 all revolve around that music.
There is so much more to Phish than simply listening to the music, and perhaps this is why 2010 seems to be going so much better (though undoubtedly the music dramatically improved). The new fans – me included – have had enough time to sift through aspects of the culture, assimilating those that appealed to us, leaving the rest to those who would have them. Phish has always been about constructing your own experience – it’s just a little tougher to do that now with so many more influencing forces out there.