Hitting The Trunk Road: Phish NYE

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Over the first few years of our existence, we welcomed one of our favorite writers, David Schultz of the Earvolution staff, to contribute features and reviews from time to time. It’s been a while since his last post for Hidden Track, but we’re happy to announce that will change in 2012 as today marks his first every-other-week column for us. David’s column, titled Hitting The Trunk Road, will offer a mix of reviews, opinions, editorializing and the like. For his first piece, David brings some much needed perspective into the conversation about Phish’s New Year’s Run.

To close out 2011, Phish returned to Madison Square Garden for a quickly sold-out set of four shows. Given that you are reading this column on this particular site, you are probably well aware of that fact as Hidden Track has been known to be partial to the boys from Vermont and may have written a few stories about the jamband poster-boys over the last few years. Unlike this fine section of the Web, the mainstream musical press tends to treat Phish, their penchant for selling out arenas on multiple dates and ability to anchor their own festivals with a bemused sense of admiration. They acknowledge the band’s accomplishments while condescendingly mocking its underpinnings. In a world where the music industry seems to have lost its ability to relate to its consumers, what does Phish do that no other band seems capable of doing and why can’t they seem to get any respect outside of its wide circle of friends?

[All Photos by Rob Chapman]

More than most bands, Phish fans draw sustenance from the camaraderie of their brethren, whether at the arena or sitting at home. It’s this devotion that elicits much of the mockery from Williamsburg and other non-Phish loving quarters. Attempts of fans to “review” any show or describe the experience aren’t helping matters…or advancing the field of music criticism. For any band that changes their set list on a daily basis, reviewing a single show tends to have the same effect of describing a snowstorm by writing about one of its snowflakes.

The fact that it’s not a fruitful endeavor doesn’t stop people from trying. If you scour the Internet, for every insightful and objective review of a Phish show, there are fifty that amount to nothing more than glorified diary entries, filled with self-referential dialogue and comparisons of the You Enjoy Myself from that night with another one the writer heard eight years ago. These types of reviews are fine if you happen to know the person, completely useless if they’re a stranger. You never quite hear Deerhunter fans talking about shows in this manner. Then again, when have you ever seen two Deerhunter fans violate the hipster code and talk to each other at a show?

Phish’s fervent following draws inevitable comparisons to that of the Grateful Dead, another band that befuddled the mainstream press. However, it’s rare to find those that followed Jerry Garcia in his prime that savor or foster the association and there’s little intersection between the two fanbases. Where Dead fans skewed towards the inclusive, Phish fans tend to tip towards the exclusive: mention a Run Like An Antelope you saw in Colorado and it’s more likely someone will tell you of a BETTER one they saw in California rather than say “cool.” Subtle differences over egalitarianism aside, those that come to Phish shows find themselves surrounded by people that understand the concert experience. Whether it’s your seat or not, there’s room for everybody (and given the number of people that like the shuffle around to sit with their friends, there usually is room for everybody) and the communal sharing and levels of trust amongst strangers would put Baby Boomers to shame. To a person, Phish fans enjoy the music with an unparalleled enthusiasm. If you don’t think the crowd affects how you walk away from a show, you’ve never been part of a truly exceptional audience.

What prompts this response could probably be traced to the essence of what draws anyone to a specific band or a certain musician. Only cyborgs and WASPs have gone through life without having the experience where a certain chorus, guitar solo, rhythm or melody grabs something in their soul and won’t let go. It can manifest itself in the simple focused head bob or, if alone, a full-blown air guitar freakout or Rerun-quality dance steps.

Like a Na’vi bonding with another entity through their Rasta dreads, once this simpatico is established, it’s pretty much a lifelong bond and the feeling is always susceptible to repetition upon demand. When put into the Phish context, cynics would point out that it’s just a reaction to the drugs. (Presumably, without drugs, Phish fans would be more inclined to Michael Buble or Clap Your Hands Say Yeah). Those cynics may not be wrong; drugs surely do not weaken the connection nor lessen the chances of reviving that rush. What draws all these people to Phish is the band’s ability to consistently deliver this feeling to their fans on a reliable basis. When you hear someone talk about it being a bad show, they likely aren’t talking about the musicianship or the songs, they’re talking about the lack of that connection during the show. When Phish fans staged a mini-uprising after Trey Anastasio released Shine, the howl had as much as to do with the music’s ability to establish that connection as it did with the fact that it wasn’t a Phish album.

Even the most amateur psychoanalyst could dissertate on the attachments anyone has for the music of their youth and it would not be a losing wager to gamble that 95% of the sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden or any other show equates Phish’s music with their younger days, regardless of when they occurred. Ultimately, what makes the relationship between Phish and their fans a sustainable success is that, when not on hiatus, Phish has no qualms about playing the songs their fans love, regardless of their shelf life. If you think that’s just common sense, think back to Kurt Cobain’s abject refusal to play Smells Like Teen Spirit for those who might have enjoyed hearing it. For music cognoscenti, embracing the past, much less succeeding by revisiting it, offends their natural instincts to see music pushed forward and break new ground. With periodic new albums and fresh material, no one could credibly accuse Phish of getting lost in the attics of their vast catalog. By not forgetting that their music possesses meaning for those who listen to it, Phish refuses to neglect the connection they’ve established with their fans. By not unseemly exploiting the relationship, they assure that the connection will last.

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17 thoughts on “Hitting The Trunk Road: Phish NYE

  1. Gary Reply

    Great article, David. Keep’em coming.

  2. Neddy Reply

    Wow, excellent piece. Thanks.

  3. sparky jabrones Reply

    thanks for sharing your opinion. make that 96% of the reviews…

  4. MrCompletely Reply

    Hey, a very nice and thoughtful article. I would differ with you on one specific point that is a sidebar to the main thrust of your article.

    I was a Deadhead starting in ’85 and a Phish fan starting in ’89. In my experience the “headier than thou” phenomenon was absolutely endemic to the Deadhead conversation about music. I would say that there are *more* “uncritical” Deadheads, in the musical sense, as a proportion of the fanbase, compared to Phish fans. But I think that’s actually more true now than it was “back in the day,” and after thinking about it I suspect that the relative difficulty of securing good recordings in a timely fashion made it worse and not better, in the sense that if someone told you they saw a better Shakedown in Philly 5 years ago or something you couldn’t just go right to the tape like you can now.

    The Deadhead social scene was *very* stratified by seniority, a situation which magnified after the “Touch-head” explosion in ’87-88. Every generation of Deadheads was told in no uncertain terms that they had Just Missed It, and that things were All Crappy Now Compared To Back In The Day, and If You Weren’t On Tour When I Was You Don’t Know Crap About The Dead.

    A specific example: a friend of mine got his mind blown at his first show during his junior year in HS. He walked out all glowing and raving, as so many of us have done. Just outside the venue a snobby older fan told him that he didn’t know what he was talking about, the show was total crap, that the Dead had completely sold out and had gone commercial, and that their best years were clearly behind them.

    This occurred at the Fillmore East in April of 1971.

    Since hearing that story I have never taken any such commentary seriously at all, and see it simply as a common minor personality flaw that’s more amusing than anything else.

  5. stealy_fan Reply

    Great stuff…but if it was 10 minutes longer it’d be EPIC 😉

  6. JG Reply

    “Like a Na’vi bonding with another entity through their Rasta dreads”

    damn, that shit cracked me up!

    Welcome aboard Dave 🙂

  7. smoothjd Reply

    great article but the title is a total disservice. i almost didn’t read this because, as the commentary points out, show reviews are a dime-a-dozen and not that informative. not only is this not a reivew (though i admit it doesn’t explicitly say it is), but it’s also NOT about NYE really. change the title and get more eyes!

  8. RJ Reply

    Enjoyable read, despite the esoteric/Dennis Miller-esque references. Looking forward to the next one!! Good work Dave.

  9. Schmitthouse Reply

    It is as though you shared my sentiments with the world. Thanks

  10. jeff c. Reply

    great article – interesting take, i liked it!

  11. eric Reply

    refreshing and great writing… you hit the nail on the head.

  12. watsiyem Reply

    Great read!

  13. jt Reply

    Insightful but Phish doesn’t need someone protecting them. …The NYE 2011 run was neither consummate professionalism nor divine interaction. What better inspiration do you need to start saving your money in 2012 and to start your old band up again??

  14. MightyIcculus Reply

    Sent this article to 10 friends it was so good. Looking forward to more of your work!

  15. rerun kills Reply

    That boy sure can dance!

  16. Ernie Finizio Reply

    Great stuff

  17. Jibboo Reply

    Good article. interesting point about the inclusiveness of deadheads versus the exclusiveness of phishheads. i have thought about that before. perhaps it is caused by external factors such as increased security and overall sketchiness, which makes fans more guarded; in this day and age?

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