As Phish announces the dates for their Fall Tour, I’m still recovering from the last show of their Summer Tour. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a PhishHead (is that even what they call themselves?), but I am something of a recent convert to the Church of Chalkdust (that’s definitely not what they call themselves). My journey from Chicago punk rock haunts like the Fireside Bowl and Off the Alley to the lot scene at last month’s Sleep Train show is a long one, and one I never thought I’d take, but it’s one worth relating. In my opinion anyways.
My first encounters with Phish were the few songs they’d spin on 93XRT, an alt-rock station in Chicago, back in the day. Maybe a “Down With Disease” here or a “Bouncing” there, but the tunes were usually just relegated to background noise. Music I would tolerate while being driven to and from school or swim practice or wherever in my folks’ car. From there, I didn’t really dip my toe into the deep end of the jam rock pool until after college.
Sure, I had my copy of Dave’s Under the Table and Dreaming I’d worn out along with Blues Traveler’s Four, but I also had an aversion to lengthy jams at live shows. In fact, it was a Blues Traveler show at the Aragon or maybe the Riv, but definitely one of those two, that cemented my disdain for extensive noodling and the resulting extended songs. A young me was ready to rock out to peppy four-minute versions of “Runaround” or “Hook”, not sway serenely while John Popper and Co. played an unending song that segued from one tune to another, never stopping for longer than it took for John to pull a new harmonica from the bandolier slung around his neck.
But, that’s what I got. When I ultimately left the show, which was still going strong after it’s third hour, I was unsure if I’d heard any of the songs I’d gone to see since they’d been so distorted and twisted by jamming. I was sure I had no love for the jam and was more than happy to go back to listening to my CD booklet filled with bands off either an Epitaph or Reckless Records sampler. For years after, the jammiest I got was maybe a Matt Freeman bass solo or some horn breakdown on one ska song or another.
My next encounter with the world of jam bands came after I assembled my own ragtag group of Bad News Chicago Bears Fans. While our sound was more Springsteen’s “Incident on 57th Street” than Stringcheese Incident, we ran in the same musical circles as Midwest jam band stalwarts Umphrey’s McGee, the Carpet Thieves, Subplane, and a number of Phish/Dead tribute acts. Now, I don’t know if it was my musical maturity or the fact that my actual maturity now allowed me to enjoy frosty brews while at the shows, but I began to soften on my dislike of jammed out tunes. I began to dig songs I’d later find were Phish covers and I’d even find myself lost in a groove here and there.
But, after reaching the pinnacle of musical success and stringing together a slew of number one hits, my band and I decided to walk away from it all. Or we basically just fizzled out and lost touch, I forget. Either way, I’d venture out to see the occasional show played by friends and former scene mates, but my level of exposure to raw Phish was significantly lowered. That was until I discovered the world of comedy podcasts.
For the uninitiated, comedy podcasts and Phish may not seem to have much an overlap. There was one podcast, however, that masterfully combined the two and created an enduring work that both celebrates and denigrates Phish and the culture it has spawned. Said podcast was entitled “Analyze Phish” and it is still available for download from the Earwolf Network. “Analyze Phish” was premised upon writer and comedian Harris Wittels (Parks and Recreation, The Sarah Silverman Program, HumbleBrag) guiding listeners on a tour through the cosmos (sorry) while attempting to convince writer and host of Comedy Bang! Bang! Scott Aukerman that Phish was actually a decent band.
The resulting run of episodes is indisputably hilarious. Wittels’ love and devotion to the band really shines through and the snippets of songs played on the show began to worm themselves into my ear more and more. I’d find myself whistling “Wilson” or humming “You Enjoy Myself” or actually listening to “Character Zero” while I went about my day and I realized that while Harris was having a hard time convincing Scott of the virtues of Phish, he was selling me on it hook, line, and “Tweezer”.
While “Analyze Phish” will always be overshadowed by the untimely overdose and loss of Harris Wittels, it will also always exist as a sunny, funny look into a subculture often ignored by the mainstream. It will also likely continue to serve as a primer and introduction to the world of Phish for the uninitiated as it did for me. And for that, I am truly grateful, for without “Analyze Phish” I likely would not have said yes to tagging along to the last show of Summer Tour down in Chula Vista, CA.
While the lot scene in Chula left a lot to be desired (not a “goo ball” or bootleg piece of merch in sight), once inside it was precisely what I had hoped for and expected. After a brief delay behind a lady attempting to gain entry using a Padres ticket, I quickly made my way to my seat while the opening strains of “Farmhouse” played. It was a fitting tune to open the concert because the vibe of both was one of welcoming inclusion.
As the concert went on, I was struck by the unabashed dancing and participation of the audience. If you’re looking for an inspiring quote, I’d say forget dancing like nobody’s watching and instead dance like you’re at a Phish show because it is honestly some of the truest and most beautiful movements set to music I’ve ever seen. It was a crowd of people moving in unison as individuals to music that would rise and fall while taking everyone along with it.
I must also add that I finally understood why Chris Kuroda is in fact the fifth member of Phish. While that became a running joke on “Analyze Phish”, the reality of the situation is that Kuroda simply is a part of the band’s performance. The lights do not merely complement the show, they become an instrument of their own as they cut through the sky and illustrate aural ideas in ways I had never before experienced. The syncopation and rhythm of the lights became a percussive melody all its own and I must commend the band and Chris on a show that was a feast for the senses.
As a new fan I can’t vouch for the quality of every show or every song the band will be playing on Fall Tour. The show I saw, while very enjoyable, had its ups and downs in my opinion as a layfan (What’s up with all this “Ass Handed” business? They’re actuallyjamming out “Tube” again!?!). What I can say, however, is that I understand why many would be hesitant to see a band that carries with them a number of preconceived notions that keep many at bay. But I also now understand why there are some things we must experience for ourselves instead of taking my word, or the word of a band or scene’s reputation, for it. I believe music is ultimately at its best when it unites and inspires us, when it moves us, and when it takes us to new places. These are things personally believe Phish does very well at their live shows and as such I’d recommend anyone take a chance on the band if they’re able.
“Analyze Phish” is available for download from Earwolf and features the aforementioned Harris Wittels and Scott Aukerman as well as appearances by Adam Scott, Tom Scharpling, Paul F. Tompkins, Kulap Vilaysack, Howard Kremer, Mike Hanford, and Mike Mitchell. The subject of conversion to Phish fandom has also been explored, in much greater detail and with 100% more juggalos, in Nathan Rabin’s book “You Don’t Know Me but You Don’t Like Me: Phish, Insane Clown Posse, and My Misadventures with Two of Music’s Most Maligned Tribes” available now at Amazon and wherever finer books about music subcultures are sold.
PHISH FALL TOUR 2016
10/14 North Charleston Coliseum, North Charleston, SC
10/15 North Charleston Coliseum, North Charleston, SC
10/16 Veterans Memorial Arena, Jacksonville, FL
10/18 Ascend Amphitheater, Nashville, TN
10/19 Ascend Amphitheater, Nashville, TN
10/21 Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre at Encore Park, Alpharetta, GA
10/22 Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre at Encore Park, Alpharetta, GA
10/24 Verizon Theatre at Grand Prairie, Grand Prairie, TX
10/25 Verizon Theatre at Grand Prairie, Grand Prairie, TX
10/28 MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas, NV
10/29 MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas, NV
10/30 MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas, NV
10/31 MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas, NV