I was in Chicago to watch the band Phish perform the last of their three shows at the UIC Pavilion. I must admit that I’m not much of a music fan, except for Bruce Springsteen, which is what kind of led me to check these guys out. See, I love Bruce. Whatever Bruce puts his stamp on, I feel pretty confident that it is worth my time to check out, so after “The Boss” played three songs with Phish* at Bonaroo in 2009, I had an itch to go and see these guys, if for no other reason than to see why so many people seemed obsessed with them, the way I am with Bruce. What I found was shocking to say the least.
*For the love of god do not call them “The” Phish. Phishheads hate that. I’m not sure why exactly, but they really do.
I’ve seen Bruce a whole bunch of times. Each show was great, a little different each time, but enough of a familiarity with songs that I grew up with in Ohio that I can’t imagine going to a Bruce concert and not seeing at least most of those songs. I mean, come on, a Bruce show without Born to Run? Perish the thought. Anyway, as unique as each Bruce show was, that is nothing to what the fans of Phish expect, and it is an expectation wholly embraced by the band. They make it a point not to repeat songs, not too often anyway, so their fans can enjoy a different concert three nights in a row. What’s more is, even if you’ve seen Bathtub Gin ten times, it’s never played the exact same way twice. I’m not even sure how many times I’ve seen Thunder Road, but the guy next to me at the Phish show had seen the aforementioned Gin (that’s Phishhead shorthand) thirteen times and he felt that the one from 8/17/11 was below average, not bad mind you, but compared other versions, especially the 12/6/1997 version he had seen, it just wasn’t as good. Can you imagine? I’ve seen Badlands about 3 or 4 times, but I don’t know which version was my favorite. I even need to look at my ticket stubs to see which dates I saw Bruce. Even so, the guy (a pretty old guy, all things considered) was going to listen to the show later to really critique it, but he was sure that the Gin just wasn’t that great. I have to say, seeing how it was my first I thought it was pretty good.
This leads me to an amazing aspect of Phish: the stats. Oh how these people love their statistics. A set list is one thing, but these folks know what is rare and what has been overplayed. They look up to see how long it has been since a certain song was played, whether a song was new, and share that information immediately over Twitter. The only place where I’ve seen more smart phones being used at a live event is in the press box. These fans cover Phish like the best beat writers in the business. It had been 1,249 shows since Colonel Forbin opened a show 11/3/1989 was the last time that happened. Another song, Weigh, hadn’t been played since last year, a gap of 31 shows. In the second set the band played Sleep, which it hadn’t done in 105 shows, and on and on. If you go over to Phish.net or Phishstats, you can see a listing of every song, every time played. It is just mind boggling to think about. Consider: I saw the 306th playing of a song called “Tweezer” the 387th version of “Run Like an Antelope” and the 434th version of “Golgi Apparatus.” I don’t know why these numbers are so much fun, but I love it.
The other aspect of this concert that really spoke to me really got me where I lived, was its reference to the music of my youth. As many of you know, I grew up in the 1970s and that’s where most of my musical knowledge and appreciation stems. Believe it or not, I’m aware of other musicians besides Bruce and there is something about Phish that reminds me a lot of those bands back then. The trippy light show, the really long songs, even the beards that two of the members have all made me think of the first records I ever owned, things like Nazareth, Bad Company and Triumph.* When they launched into a cover of “No Quarter” I was transported back to my parents basement when songs about warriors and lands unknown meant something to me, I mean really meant something to me, like a bustle in my hedgerow. The other thing about the 1970s early 1980s and Phish that struck me was that it reminded me why I was never cool and am lucky to be doing the job I’m doing and have many fans, actual people who shout at me at airports. Phish played a song I only knew well after it was released, “Crosseyed and Painless” by the Talking Heads. Cool people knew about the Talking Heads, I was lucky to know Queen. See, that’s what musicians and artists do that I never did, they know cool music, cool movies and all of that stuff. I was just obsessive about Duane Kuiper. Throughout the set they kept on quoting “Crosseyed” and that was just a reminder that these guys really got into music much more than I ever got into anything.
* I’ll never understand why more people didn’t get into Triumph, I loved Triumph.
I’ll admit Phish wasn’t my thing. My friend Michael Schur, @kentremendous to all you twitter folks, executive producer of the best show on television, Parks and Recreation, actually laughed at me for going and asked if I was afraid of a random drug test. But I’m glad I went; it was something new, yet it reminded me of so many great old things that I can honestly say I enjoyed myself.