My Sweet Obsession.

This is a blog about Phish.  If you have no interest in such things, I suggest you move on at this point.  Thank you. 

 

 

Ah, summer weather in Chicago and Phish tickets on sale in the same week, a great convergence causing me to think of summer shows and getting closer to the mini-milestone of fifty Phish shows in my concert going career.  I’m well aware that I compared to many Phishheads that isn’t a lot of shows, but I do what I can, when I can.  I’m amazed at how each year I look forward to many of the familiar aspects of going to shows; the drive to Alpine Valley, seeing what folks are doing in the parking lot, and chatting up my fellow fans as we wait patiently (or not so patiently) for the show to begin. 

It’s during these pre-show discussions that I have become a bit self-conscious.  Most of the time we talk about where we’ve come from (I’m always amazed at the amount of heads from Minnesota), where our seats are for the next show, what song we think is going to open the show and what songs we’d really like to see.  It’s this last point that makes me feel like such a dork (like being a Phish fan isn’t a golden ticket to the dork club. Shut up.)  Every time we talk about what we’d like to hear that night my compatriots mention great songs like Mike’s Song or Ghost or Tweezer and on and on about great, jam vehicle songs.  Don’t get me wrong, I want to hear those songs too, especially Mike’s, but if you get right down to it, I have a dirty little secret when it comes to the song I most want to hear.  It’s not one of the more poppy songs like Strange Design or Heavy Things.  It’s not one of the more obscure songs in the catalog that make an appearance every tour here and there like Fuck Your Face or Icculus.  It’s not even a song I particularly like.  No, the song I want to hear may very well be one of the lamest songs in the Phish cannon.  I want to hear My Sweet One.

 My Sweet One is a little bluegrass ditty that appears on the 1990 album, Lawn Boy.  It’s recorded running time is, by Phish standards, a paltry 2 minutes 08 seconds.  There is nothing spectacular or inventive about the song.  It doesn’t launch off into crazy exploratory jams when played live and I would venture to guess that most fans couldn’t care less if it were played at all.  Yet it has become my holy grail.  Since about my thirtieth show or so it has been, according to my personal Phish Stats, the most popular song not played in the amount of shows I’ve seen.  It’s not like many of the songs on my missing list, songs that have been pretty much retired by the band.  Songs like Take the A Train or Big Ball Jam.  Those songs haven’t been played since 1994 when the venues started getting larger and reaching the crowd became harder.  What’s even more frustrating is that they pretty much play it at least once every tour, yet it never finds its way to the few shows I get to each year.    

 I know to many, including many Phishheads this is just a silly concern, “Go to the show, have a good time, don’t think about your stats,” they say and for the most part I do.  Yet in the back of my mind I keep thinking, “come on…just one little song…just My Sweet One and I’ll feel much better.”  If it doesn’t happen in the first set I’m pretty certain that I’ve gone another show without seeing that damn song.  This has led to a couple of embarrassing moments, most recently at Toyota Park in 2009.  I thought when I heard Paul and Silas kick in that it was My Sweet One and of course cheered wildly.  It’ sad really that I would cheer wildly for Sweet One in any case, but the confused looks I got from the folks around me indicated that when my ship finally comes in I will be the only passenger.  I have noticed in recent tours that the band will play songs that fans make signs for like Funky Bitch or Ha Ha Ha.  But those are decidedly better songs than Sweet One (well Funky Bitch anyway) and again the sad fact that I care at all, let alone enough to make a sign for such a lame song is a bridge I just can’t cross…yet. 

 So I go into another tour, excited to see all of my favorites, hopeful to see some breakouts and some new stuff and wait to see a song that only matters to one person in the arena, me.  If you’re at Alpine Valley and My Sweet One gets played, look for the guy who is going a little too crazy for a pretty lame song.  That will be me, feel free to say hi and try not to show too much condescension. 

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A thousand words about #phish by @JPosnanski (UIC Night 3.)

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.

A Phish Concert. By Cormac McCarthy (UIC Night Two.)

He got off the train into the humid twilight. He was on the near west side of his city. The city he called home, the city that worked. No one was working now. The corners were patrolled by cops and vagrants alike, both had malice and disregard in their eyes. The old man made his way past them as quickly as he could. His feet ached from the night before, yet he returned to the pavilion for another night of music, dancing and darkness. He walked into the security line up and waited for his turn.

Raise you arms the guard said.

The old man did as he was told. The guard grabbed him, groped him and pushed him through to the next check point. His ticket was scanned by the blood red light and he entered the arena. It was a desperate place. A girl with vacant, dark eyes crept by asking for molly, acid, anything. She was so desperate she stole a sip from a passer-by’s beer. He slapped her, making her sprawl on the ground, still crying, begging for drugs. The old man walked away.

He slid his way on to the general admission floor. The old man was able to move up close to the stage, getting strange looks from the younger fans, knowing nods from the older ones. A boy in a dress was starting to cry, peaking too soon on the acid he took before the show. Others were drinking, two-fisted, on overpriced Fat Tire Beer and watered down margaritas. One girl with dirty dreadlocks that smelled like earth was vomiting. It took awhile but two guards came over and dragged her away. The old man sat down on the cold floor.

As it got later, the crush of bodies became more and more intense, eventually the old man had to stand or else he would have been crushed.

Pick the Opener? A young man with a beard said.
No, the old man said.

The next forty minutes seemed to last a life time. His feet already hurt. The smell of bodies was strong and the talk and laughter were too loud. The old man desperately wanted the lights to go down and the music start, so he could feel release and forget.

The darkness finally came and the band walked out to an enormous cheer. A blaze of lighters and cloud of smoke rose before one note was struck. The band seemed confused, befuddled by the signs and shouts for songs that they long ago forgot how to play. Then they started; Dinner and a Movie, a simple song from a simpler time. When they played Ha Ha Ha the old man almost felt like it was a joke about how his dating life went; dinner, a movie or show, then laughter, sometime wicked, sometimes pitying, always hurtful. The Chalkdust Torture fit the old man’s mood perfectly, rage, peak, and almost drove him mad. The younger fans were pleased by the choice of Mexican Cousin, but the old man was unmoved. He always found the song to be a cheap Jimmy Buffet knock-off and he’d be damned if he’d cheer for it now. Walls of the Cave did nothing for him. It is a fine song, and was well played but it did nothing for the old man.

The rest of the set was a run through memory for the old man. Runaway Jim and Foam were fast but the next swing in mood was after the stale comedy of I Didn’t Know. Ocelot and Ginseng were paired and mellowed the crowd and the old man. He decided to look back from the stage when the lights shined. All he saw was a sea of sunken eyes, slowly pulsating, desperate. All started moving in a rhythm to the Wedge and then chased the magic of Limb by Limb. The old man tried to dance like he did when he was young. It just made him feel broken tossed with the salad and baled with the hay. The Rolling Stones’ Let It Loose ended the set. Page Mcconnell sounded brilliant. His voice was soulful and almost made the old man weep as he thought of all the past shows, past loves, and past life.

The old man thought about leaving the floor to find a bathroom, but he decided to sit on the floor. People stumbled by him, drunk, stoned and vacant. Balloons fell next to him. No one felt the need to throw them without the music. The old man waited.

The second set opened with Mike Gordon pounding on his bass with fury. Distorted sound erupted and Down with Disease began. It has always been the old man’s favorite song. It often went to a dark place and it did not disappoint. The stage was bathed in red and the music was like a thunderstorm.

Harpua. Harpua, a fan yelled.

The old man slapped him across the mouth. Blood, spit and teeth spilled onto the floor.

Harpua is a myth.

The old man enjoyed Twist and Backwards Down the Number Line, but wished that both went further, deeper, darker. Theme From the Bottom had always been a break within the set for the old man, and he didn’t feel any different now. The cover songs, Golden Age and A Day in the Life were unexpected but welcomed. The Beatles were always welcome. You Enjoy Myself ended the set like it began, though not as dark. The vocal jam haunted the old man. The screams of the band made him think of a lifetime ago, when screaming mattered. When the band came out for the encore and played Heavy Things, the old man knew his time was up. He pushed toward the back of the arena and waited. Slave to the Traffic Light was another favorite, but the old man was already thinking of the real traffic lights, green, yellow and red. He moved closer to the exit. Rocky Top was never for him, though he liked the song. It was just sung for someone else. The old man left. He walked into the darkness, boarded the train. He thought about the concert and realized it was the forty-fifth time he had seen phish. Why?

Well, I Did Call it Lazy.

DON’T CALL IT A COME BACK! Ok, so it’s been awhile. What can I say? I’ve been busy. Nothing too crazy, but I’ve really put in an effort toward the dissertation and progress is slow, but there is definitely movement. It may not seem like much, but I think about the dissertation daily and have put in work almost every day for a month. I wish the amount of work that I’ve put in every day was enough to move the needle further, but as it goes it looks something like this: A huge chapter has been split in two, one of which is completely formatted and done. The other half of mega-chapter is almost done, but I’ll double back to that as soon as I am able. The World War II chapter is almost done, basically I’m bolstering my secondary sources and putting them into the chapter where appropriate. That process is much more tedious than I could have imagined, but it’s moving along. Finally, the last REAL chapter is on deck. My introduction and conclusion will need work, but I’m going with the advice give to a fellow advisee about the conclusion, short and to the point. All things considered, yes I hoped to be done sooner, but I swear I see the end. Of course I thought I would be done years sooner, but that is another story for another time, like never. Honestly, I can’t say I would change anything, the things that slowed my progress down anyway. I’ve been very active in my kids’ lives, I’m working at a job I truly enjoy and I’ve done a number of fun things that, on the balance of things were worthwhile and healthy. Anyway, it is going to happen.

Speaking of the job, probably the biggest surprise that I’ve encountered while working as an advisor is that I really like what I’m doing. I get to have interaction with students, help them, in a way teach them and best of all build relationships with them. The number isn’t great, but there are a few alumni who stay in touch, who I’m getting to see continue on and I feel, in a very, very small way that I helped them achieve their goals. It is a pretty good lot. If I could make one change, one addition, I’d be teaching at least one class a term. That would truly be the icing on an already pretty good cake.

Finally, I have been working on the blog, just behind the scenes. After the summer and the White Sox blogging, a break was inevitable I’m afraid. Having that deadline that impetus to writing something one a regular basis was great for output, but when it was all over I really wasn’t in the mood. Anyway, I feel like I owe my loyal dozen of committed readers a White Sox wrap up, which I kind of already started with my friend AJD. After that I’ve got something Phishy in the works, again something that I actually have been sorta kinda working on and finally before spring training and the turtle’s roar, I’ve got a really fun project for the White Sox again, enough to keep me going anyway.

JoPo, Baseball and Phish; Or the impotance of the rare occurence.

This is a response to a fun piece written by Joe Posnanski. It isn’t a rebuttal per se because I agree with him; rather it is a tiny addendum. * If you didn’t read it, or bother to click the link provided, basically JoPo demonstrates one of the great wonders of baseball. If it happens in the game you’re watching, chances are very good it has happened before. The treat for so many baseball fans is its incredible long history. So when I see a player hit a home run from both sides of the plate in the same inning, it probably happened before. JoPo is right of course, but I think there is more to it than just a connection between two odd events. By bearing witness to a special occasion that has happened in the past, we get connected to that past and it makes the history of the game all the more meaningful. No other American sport holds us in the same way and its why baseball will always matter. It may not get the television ratings of other sports or be the weekly event that football is, but baseball does something very few other cultural events can do it not only makes the past more relevant but it brings us together as well. One of the great joys of talking baseball to my father is hearing about the players I never saw, the stadiums I never visited and the pennant races that are legend. A big reason for this, apart from the revered place baseball history has in our culture, but it also is relatively recognizable to us. Yes, players are bigger, faster, stronger, but they are not the mutated specimens of football or basketball. I’ve encountered athletes from pretty much all sports and the only ones that didn’t make me feel like a child were the baseball players. (Granted I never met the likes of Frank Thomas, but he was also a starting tight end from Auburn.) Also one of the things I hear my dad talk about is how much basketball has changed, how it isn’t the game he once played. Baseball as touchstone also relies on the game itself changing very little over the course of one hundred plus years.

*It’s kind of odd calling a 1,000 word essay ”tiny.” However, compared to JoPo, it truly is a drop in the wordsmith bucket. Also, I find it terribly interesting that I can read an Internet tome from JoPo and be engaged, entertained and informed. Yet I get two paragraphs into a Bill Simmons piece and my eyes glaze over.

I feel that, while it probably has happened before in baseball it still is special. JoPo seems to be discounting that fact and I think he misses a key point.** Yes, there might have been another occurrence of a strange event, like one pitcher starting back-to-back World Series for different teams, or the third baseman loses the ball in his shirt, it is still awesome that I get to see it. The best comparison I can come up with is from the realm of the Grateful Dead and Phish. Among Dead Heads and Phish Heads there is a certain collectors mentality. We love to count the songs we’ve seen, remember the setlists from shows we’ve attended and trade shows that we think are worth sharing. The great thing about all of these activities is that they are very individual pursuits, yet we can all appreciate the significance of a rare moment, or spectacular performance. I am one of the few people to have seen Phish perform Spock’s Brain (Blossom 6/20/95, overall great show but SHITTY Weekepaug Groove), which would be even more awesome if it were actually a good song. It is a great moment in a show when the band plays something that they haven’t played in years, even better than seeing the premiere of a song. Like those episodes from baseball, a song that hasn’t been played in five or ten years makes the fans cheer wildly, congratulate one another and feel a connection between the band and their fellows that I don’t think fans from other bands get to experience. A new song or new moment, doesn’t bring the past with it, it doesn’t have that connection which sparks memory and curiosity. As much as I love Bruce Springsteen, I don’t think a bust out of Mary Queen of Arkansas would make the crowd go wild. More to the point I don’t think many Bruce fans would be know that it had be X amount of performances since he last played it and it was an especially poignant moment in the concert.

** Also, it is probably more accurate to say the JoPo goes WAY OFF into a another line of discussion, and sort of loops back, but well I’m staying here.

And while this is a salient point in most sports, I think because of the frequency of baseball games, the way it becomes a part of every day life throughout the summer, each individual game, each individual play, is unique unto itself. I wrote a while back about this, about how a pretty much nothing game in the middle of the week can still be a special time. Football isn’t played enough to capture that kind of moment and basketball and hockey don’t hold our collective imaginations nor do they get inside that rhythm of life like baseball. Again, Dead and Phish shows are very much like that. (Especially if you’re traveling around the country going to shows night after night.) I’ve seen Phish 44 times and listened to countless Dead shows and yet I never get bored and can point you to a good, great and out of this world version of a number different songs. As the Professor likes to say from the Deadpod, “You wouldn’t know it by the set list, but it is a rocking show.” In much the same way, I’ve seen countless baseball games, yet each one is ultimately its own happening. The game has that historic presence that connects us to the past and yet still provides meaning to us today. Yes, I know it’s just baseball and the meaning I truly gain from it is minuscule compared to so much throughout my life, yet it provides something that I can keep to myself, I share with a friend and pass on to my son and daughter. It provides joy. Or to put it another way: It’s only baseball, but I like it, yes I do.

White Sox Recap: I had a better weekend than the Sox

So that was not what was needed against the Tigers last weekend. Luckily I was getting my groove on with Phish and did not have to watch them slip even further behind the Twins. Didn’t need to see the blown saves or the lack of offense either. Of course, I did catch most of the Twins series, but more on that tomorrow.

Phish Alpine Valley Night Two: Get Up and Move.

I mentioned in the previous review that the crowd was definitely smaller than in years past, and night two at Alpine was noticeably less populated. I arrived kind of late, pulling into the lot at about 6:30. There was absolutely no traffic. Honestly, it was a bit disconcerting. I mentally prepare myself to sit in traffic for the last mile or so getting into Alpine, so not doing so was just weird.

I had AWESOME seats for the second show, center stage row JJ, great sight lines, right in front of the sound booth, so I could not have picked a better place. The folks around me were abuzz about the first night, one guy calling it the best show of the tour. I respectfully dissent. Night one was a good, solid show with bust outs and great playing (I’m listening to the DWD –>What’s the Use right now) but night two was an overall better show. Either way, the folks at Alpine got a great weekend’s worth of music.

What really made this show work for me was the almost playful aspect of the set selection. The band basically teased the crowd through the first set, and just brought the house down with the second set. The Tweezer opener was, pardon the pun, just the beginning. Starting out with such a potential blockbuster definitely got the crowd amped up, well at least me, but it never really took off. It was rather restrained, not like they were holding back, but more like they were just warming up. AC/DC Bag pushed the needle a little further along and for me it brought back memories of epic Bags that launched second sets, but again no take off, it was just a nice jam. The bluesy, southern-tinged On Your Way Down was a nice surprise. I doubt it will gain a spot in the heavy rotation, but a good Page feature and songs like that really show that Trey can do it all; hard rocking solos, improv craziness, and tight blues, good stuff all. Speaking of tight, well executed songs, The Divided Sky came next and as always its one of the few songs I literally enjoy watching more than anything. The skill involved in this song is just amazing. Having said that, I seem to see it at every show I attend so I could go a year or two without. While I enjoyed the balance of the set, especially the Stealing Time from the Faulty Plan, it felt rather disjointed all things being equal. I’m not a big fan of Water in the Sky, basically I think that song should have been retired after the 1999 Big Cypress show, perhaps the only time I cheered that song. Moma Dance is a nice little funky number, but when the rest of the set isn’t really funky, it’s as out of place as Water in the Sky is at most shows. Following up Moma with Farmhouse only highlighted the fact that Moma was conspicuously out of place. The set ended like it began with a potential jam vehicle being relegated to a sharp David Bowie set closer. I usually find my way out to the bathroom during the closer, but not this time. I haven’t seen a Bowie in a long time so I just had to stick around.

The little group around row JJ was going over what we had seen the past couple of nights and thinking back to setlists to other shows and consensus was that the jam of the set was going to be a Ghost. Like the first set, the supposed center piece started the set and we were correct, Ghost started up. It segued nicely into a Theme From the Bottom, but unlike night one’s DWD –>What’s the Use it wasn’t a performance for the ages. The rest of the set, however, was. Starting with Big Black Furry Creature From Mars really until the encore of Oh! Sweet Nuthin’ the set just went for broke. Trey was way out in front for all of it and I saw someone comment that playing While My Guitar Gently Weeps was a perfect fit for the night. Though they didn’t genuinely segue from YEM to Piper to 2001, the songs did work really well together, even if at times it felt like the Piper was going to go off the rails. In what is becoming a more common experience, the encores contain three or four songs and night two at Alpine saw four songs as the encore. Joy was kind of an odd choice, really bringing the high energy down from the second set, especially when we all knew that the Tweezer Reprise was coming to ramp things up at the finish. Reprise of course was the finish, and it felt like the kick at the end of a race, a strong sprint to the finish of a very, very good show.

Overall, it was a great weekend of Phish, with some genuine highlights of the tour. I even got to see the folks at the Phellowship for the first time in a while, definitely an added bonus. I’m so glad that the Phellowship is still going strong and its core really seems to be young. Of course, that’s part of the reason I don’t stop by as much anymore. Being the really old dude at the set break meeting just reminds me of how long I’ve been doing this. Even so, a sober break in the middle of a show is always nice, even if I feel a little ancient and out of place.