Sunday, March 12, 2017

SONG #191: Chalk Dust Torture

Phish, Camden NJ 7-10-99 (Live Phish 08), 1999

I don’t know if there’s a more polarizing band for my generation of music fans than Phish.  For a lot of people, they sound like this:

Part of the problem, of course, is that it’s easy to make fun of the band,  The name is ridiculous, and invites people to think of them as a joke.  I love a band that has a sense of humor, but if you name yourself something silly, then you’ll be working against that name for the rest of your career.  Second, their lyrics are frequently head-cockingly weird, and sometimes unforgivably dumb.  Finally, they represent the “jam-band” moniker more than any band in history, including The Grateful Dead.  They’re wasn’t a “jam-band” scene before Phish— there was the Dead’s traveling roadshow, and that’s it.  Phish’s ascendence after Garcia’s death created an entire sub-genre of music that has spawned some seriously unlistenable groups.  I played at High Sierra Music Festival in 2007, and suffered through some seriously weak sets— Phish was on hiatus at that point, and people were so desperate that Phix, a Phish cover band, had a late night headlining set. 

It’s also way too easy to make fun of the fanbase.  I stopped going to Phish shows because of the people with whom I had to stand in a crowd to listen to them.  Every time I went to Shoreline in the 90s to see them, I spent half the show dealing with jackasses who wanted my ticket stub so they could sneak friends down into the pavilion.  When I said no, they were incredulous; “Dude— I’ll leave my wallet AND my beer as collateral!”  “Dude, what makes you so special that you get to keep your ticket?”  “Dude, don’t be such a dick, dude.”  “Dude!”  You get the idea.  I have lovely friends who are devoted Phish fans, but they're definitely the exception once a whole horde of 'em get together.

I have never been a joiner, and I’m still not one— I don’t wear gear when I go to a sporting event, I don’t wear an old concert t-shirt when I see a band, I don’t have bumper stickers on my car, and so the Phish community never really intrigued me.  Like every community that pretends to be inclusive, Phish phans have created a rigid caste system, hilariously judgmental about things that really shouldn’t matter that much.

A mean, if not inaccurate, portrayal.

So I grant all that, happily. 

But here’s the thing— even with all of the silliness, Phish is simultaneously a really inspiring band if you’re a musician my age.  I first saw Phish in 1989, when I was in college and playing in a campus cover band.  I had been in a really serious band in high school, and was frustrated that I hadn’t found a similar outlet in college, and Phish came and reminded me what real practice and devotion looked like.  I didn’t connect with the trampolines, but I was riveted by how well all four members of the band could play.  They were all only a few years older than me, and they all blew my doors off.  Without Phish, I’m not sure I would have re-dedicated myself to practicing like I did, and I might not have made the move from amateur to professional player.

Phish also has done some impressive growing as a band over the years.  They’re a band with specific phases, especially before its first hiatus, from weirdo college band (1989-1994) to jam band phenomenon (1994-1997) to a much darker, funky band (1997-2000).  They kept practicing and evolving as players, and you can hear the difference in their performances and on their studio records.  Phish has been there, jamming away, through my entire adulthood, as I made the transition from weirdo college kid to darker, funkier adult.

They’re also the first band to understand how to use the internet to archive and make their music available.  One thing I do appreciate about the band fan base is their anal-retentive attention to detail.  If you want to hear a Phish show from the last thirty years, it wouldn’t take you much of a search to find a perfect copy of it, well-annotated.  If only every band took its legacy as seriously as Phish has— only Pearl Jam comes close.

So:  here’s a Phish jam that frequently appears on “must-listen” lists.  It’s a live, extended version of one of their most accessible and iconic songs.  It has everything that a Phish fan likes about the band— great interplay, burning guitar, some risk-taking, a little tongue-in-cheek humor.  If you like this one, then there’s literally a lifetime of listening available to you. (I’d recommend starting with the Clifford Ball shows from 1996.)  If you don’t like this one, then there’s no point in exploring further.  Personally, I dig it, but I understand completely if you don’t.