Phish: A Newcomer’s Take on 2010

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.

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29 Responses

  1. This is perfect. So glad that you touched on the negativity of PT. As you said, it is a great place for news, fan mixes, random links and the occasional revelatory Phish conversation, but on the other hand…it is the WORST place, as it seems to be mainly the most negative, selfish Phans around who want Phish to cater to them alone.

    It is sad that listening to the show then forming your own opinion about it has taken a back seat to reading Minor’s horribly one-sided reviews and seeing what the Peanut Gallery on PT has to say.

  2. great post. you really nailed the phish experience on its head. when i first got into the band circa ’95-’96 there was no PT, but we did have online resources like, RMP, and rosemary/benjy’s digest. because the barriers to creating and consuming the information were higher, i think it was easier in those days to “get into it” without the negativity of PT. there were also older heads like dirksen and andy gadiel who were really respected as leaders in the community because they gave their honest impressions of shows, good and bad, and not just fluff like miner (not that i don’t read him, i just wish he could be a little more critical at times).

    but i am glad you were able to see through the fog that surrounds and get to what matters: the people you go to shows with, the people you meet there, the experiences you have, and most of all the music. i had a great time at hershey and camden (camden was exponentially better than hershey, btw) and i am looking forward to the greek!

  3. Fantastic message!!! You have captured the n00b experience so perfectly. Alot of what you said is why I (a Phish vet) disliked ’09 Phish so much, but you really helped me realize why. It WAS mainstream with its almost album-version-like songs… abrupt start to finish with no creativity. The band needed to appeal to all the new fans.

    But did they??? There was nothing wrong with the way the music sounded before the breakup. Hmm….

  4. KYS!! DIAF!! NPA!!

    Just kidding; figured I’d post a typical PT response. Great article, brah. See you somewhere on terr.

  5. That was great! Loved the line, “When you’re following Phish, everything else takes place against that backdrop.” And PT is essentially a cesspool of haters. Not all PTers, and not all threads, but a lot of people on there are moronic and uninformed. They hate shows that they’ve only seen on paper, they troll and bait, and they clearly have nothing better to do with their time then antagonize. I’ve learned to filter most of that, or laugh about it, and find the decent threads that are enjoyable/funny/smart. Phish is slaying it every night, and I’ve had a blast being at or listening to every show.

  6. Thank you. As a 3.0 recruit myself, it’s kind of tough going for some of those reasons. I think you’ve given me permission to relax and enjoy my first shows this August.

  7. great read! thnx for sharing your experiences of a “noob,” though i think that term often has negative connotations. in this case, i think your “newness” to the scene is a positive thing. all the negativity you refer to in the article, i think, is in large part due to a paralysis that seems to have set in among fans of old. what is most needed now is a fresh sense of what suzuki roshi referred to as “beginners mind.” right on! check out our take on that same four show NE stretch (with references to the new stuff) that you talk about here:

  8. Great perspective and great article!

    I’m a noob lover. We were all there once, but I agree that nowadays there’s a lot of noise out there that can take away from your own personal experience with the music if you let it in. You’re on the right track, welcome to the party.

  9. I can relate to you man. I started really getting into Phish when they reunited, but then phantasy tour almost ruined phish for me. I eventually realized that a lot of the people bitching about phish, who i saw as “veterans” and people who really knew the band, really just didn’t get it anymore. Somewhere along the way they forgot about the nature of the band. They wanted phish to jam every night, and bitched that they didn’t. but when phish was doing that in 02-04, PT was bitching that they jammed too much and sounded terrible. phish is all about variety. they are all about mixing it up, not just jamming. phish is not a jam band. they are so much more.

    point made, whenever i get my friends into phish i tell them not to read PT. phish has played 155 different songs in 12 shows this summer. people don’t realize how easy it is for phish to do “type II” jams. its just as easy for them to do that as it is for them to learn a new kick ass song, like i am the walrus. and there are still awesome jams, they just aren’t jamming relentlessly. its perfect. its not some shitty jam band like bisco or moe.


  10. Great review. It’s nice to read such a “fresh” perspective. I remember going to my first show (Red Rocks 93′) and having that same feeling of being in the middle of someone else’ family reunion. That feeling fades quickly as you dive into the deep end.

    I agree with your insight on the negativity of PT and many of the “old timers”. As one of them, i don’t share in the pessimism. We follow this band because the music is still great, the jams can still transport and transcend (see Camden Chalkdust), the band still jokes & surprises (NYE gag, cool covers, endless Tweeprises), and for the great community of friends that we make along the way. Being a Phish phan is an experience that is hard to replicate with any other band or activity in life. Yes…we can still have fun.

  11. that’s one of the better articles i’ve read of what it means to experience Phish on a higer level. Well done! PT is a horrific site as far as reviews or critique of the music goes. I wouldn’t waste your time there. I use it for rumors and the game, that’s it. IT used to be a great message board back in the day.

    I think there’s a difference between the older fans bore the hiatus, and the older fans that joined the fold when they came back in ’03. The older fans I know aren’t as jaded as people are making them to be.

  12. Nicely said – I stopped all things Phish for about 12 months in late 97/early 98 b/c I loathed the “scene” – not just the virtual one but I couldn’t stand to look at the people around me when at a show – people weren’t there for the music – they were there to get fucked up…

    It wasn’t until Vegas 98′ when I got dragged to Halloween that I swore to ignore everything around me and just put myself one on one with the music. As that familar feeling started to course though my veins and that perpetual smile formed on my face I knew that I would never be able to let it all go. I was kind of reborn and from that weekend on it has always been about the music… fuck the haters. As I have always said, Phish on their worst night is better than most bands at their best. Anyone who disagrees is there for the wrong reasons.

  13. Great perspective! It is refreshing to hear from a newcomer to the fold. I think you have figured it out–you discovered Phish in an age of information overload, and sadly the group mind think of the message boards tends to be negative.
    My advice– don’t even go there. Just download the shows, enjoy the music and leave it at that, at least don’t go there daily.
    I am lucky that in the 90s we (or the majority of us) did not get exposed to that. It gave the music and the band a sense of mystery, something you really had to delve into for a months to try and start figuring out the whole mythology of the band. And other bands, for that matter. The internet takes away from the mystery of music. But that is for another time…

  14. A great take indeed. Having been a phan since ’93, I am always urging friends to take in their first Phish show. With the level of playing in the last week, the phanbase is set to expand again.

    With that mind, we as phans, owe it the band and our community to play it cool. Be there for the music, respect the scene. Save your money, get a room, pick up your trash, share in the groove. As we learned with the Dead and Phish (ala red rocks ’95) parasites can ruin it for everyone and put undue pressure on the band and the communities it visits.

    If you’ve grown up with Phish, help the newbies understand they are welcomed and we are all in this together. We all want Phish creating music for a long time to come.

  15. Every year Phish has been a new mold. The scene is always changing, and so are the boys. It always will. To the noob writing this article, there’s nothing wrong with a noob at his first Phish show, just as there is nothing wrong with the veteran. It’s the ones just there to see their friend Molly, those are the ones who are retarded, or noobs, destroying our scene with pharmies and Special K. It’s one thing to dose at a Phish show, or Furthur, but Cat Tranquilizer?? Are you kidding me. Secondly the band….they are always changing. Take the years , 95, 96, and 97 alone. Every year is a complete change of sound. Right after the Clifford Ball we got the funk, after that the covers. I mean not one year is the same. So enjoy what they have to offer now, and enjoy what they gave us then, ( cause it’s all recorded). All we need to do is be decent phans, and they will provide, like Jah………………..2010 = 1999 if there was some comparison…………but there’s not……..hahahaha

  16. Phantasy Tour is straight bunk haterism.

    The antithesis of what Phish is about.

    Stay away.

  17. Noob. You suck at Phish!

    Just kidding. Thanks for writing this as I am pretty much in exactly the same boat. I did see my first show in Boulder in 1990, but did not see my second until MSG 1 last fall. Went to Hershey this summer and you pretty much hit the nail on the head for me.


  18. “Then, before and now once more,” glad you made your way into the flow. Now where’s my walls!!?!?!?!?!!?!? Check out rebadipaladledotcom to hear that hart–>spac run SBD for free in podcast form. Leave us some feed back too!

  19. Very nicely put. I saw my first show on 3/29/91, and most of my shows before 1995. Since then, I’ve seen only a handful of shows, but I have followed them rabidly through tapes, cds, downloads, and now streams. I think they are at their best since about 1994 (IMO, of course). I love the lengthy jams and the free-for-all spirit of their shows. But I love precision playing even more!


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