Do you remember where you were on Friday, March 6? You probably don’t, but I’m guessing you had just finished a long week of classes and decided to head downtown to visit Derek and John Jug for the night, only to be bombarded from all sides as you tried to force your way to the bar to buy a round of steeply overpriced tequila shots. For a small but lucky group of individuals, however, March 6, 2009 will be a day they remember for the rest of their lives. That night, after five long years of waiting, Phish, the jam band that Rolling Stone called the most important band of the ’90s, reunited for a three night stand in Hampton, Virginia. Although 99.9 percent of the world’s population was completely oblivious to this epic night in music history, the other 0.1 percent was completely oblivious to the rest of the world, lost in the alternate universe that is a Phish show.
“For people in hard times, we can play long shows of pure physical pleasure. They come to dance and forget their troubles,”the band’s guitarist Trey Anastasio said on their return to the music scene. With the economy in the toilet and the ongoing quagmire in Iraq, music fans were longing for a release from their strife. While the Jug suffices for Hamilton, New York, Phish was the answer for many fans around the country.
The band kicked off the weekend with the fan favorite, “Fluffhead.” The song tells the tale of a man looking to settle his woes by popping some pills. While many could claim that the band played the song because it had not been played since 2000, as well as because nobody saw it coming and Phish is notorious for doing the unexpected, it is impossible to argue that it was not a reference to Anastasio’s struggle with drug addiction. Anastasio’s lackadaisical and sloppy play, a result of his dependence on drugs, was likely the reason the band broke up in 2004. This addiction culminated in 2006 when the guitar virtuoso was arrested in Upstate New York for a DWI, driving with a suspended license and posession of a plethora of prescription drugs not prescribed to him. After a stint in rehab and a year of house arrest, a sober Anastasio enabled Phish to reunite, beginning with this three-show stand in Virginia.
The band opened the second night with the song, “Back on the Train,” a reference to Trey’s current sobriety. This song provided a reassuring message to the Phish community as it stated that the band was back, clean and ready to rock venues all across America. The third night opened with “Sanity,” completing the message of the weekend with the lyrics, “I lost my mind just a couple of times, yes I did!” Trey’s acknowledgment of his drug problem allowed for the clear reference that the band is taking refuge in playing music again, as shown by the song “Rock and Roll,” a Velvet Underground cover which states, “You know her life was saved by rock ‘n’ roll.”
While the lyrics of the songs certainly sent the message that the band was ready to rock again, the music provided added reassurance to the fans. Phish certainly brought everything but the kitchen sink that weekend in early March. Their tight, improvisational playing rocked the Hampton Coliseum all three nights. One of Phish’s best qualities is that they truly are a band. During a long jam, any one of the members may be leading the way, but all four musicians are always on the same page, conversing with each other through the magic of music. At the culmination of “David Bowie,” as Trey and Page McConnell, the keyboard player, were driving the direction of the song, Mike Gordon was complementing their melodies with his grooving bass lines. As Jon Fishman, the drummer, picked up on Gordon’s objective, he sped up the pace and led the band to an emphatic climax. As Fishman stated, regarding the “Bowie” jam in a Rolling Stone article reviewing the weekend, “If you don’t like this, then you don’t like this band.”
Throughout the weekend dance party, Phish provided the fans with many of their favorite songs including, “Mike’s Song>I Am Hydrogen>Weekapaug Groove,” “Moma Dance,” “Tweezer,” “Stash,” “Harry Hood,” “Split Open and Melt,” “Slave to the Traffic Light,” “Reba,” “You Enjoy Myself” and an extended “Down With Disease.” They also pulled out many of their famous cover songs. The encore of the second night brought about “A Day in the Life,” one of the Beatles’ signature songs. “Frankenstein,” by the Edgar Winter Group, ended the first set of night one, featuring McConnell on the funky keytar, and “Loving Cup” by the Rolling Stones ended the first night. The second set of the final performance included the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” in which Anastasio’s guitar was certainly bursting with emotion.
Overall, the weekend was an extraordinary success. While the band kept most of their songs concise, a few extensive jams provided a sign of things to come in the summer tour, which consists of twenty-six shows around the country. Although many people are reluctant to give Phish a chance, claiming that the music is too obscure and that their jams seem to go on forever, it is definitely worthwhile to attend one of the shows this summer. There have been many initially apprehensive listeners converted by a Phish performance. The psychedelic light show and the overwhelming dance party complement the music extraordinarily well, adding to the sense of community in the Phish scene.
Providing a release from the monotony of everyday life, Phish urges people to enjoy the music and to live in the moment. As the song “Chalkdust Torture” asks, “Can’t I Live While I’m Young?” Phish encourages us to take advantage of our youth and enjoy life for what it is, a beautiful thing.