Vibrating with Phish (no drugs required)
Phish performs during the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn., Sunday, June 10, 2012. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)
My son, Max, turned 30 on July 4. For his birthday, he invited my husband, Paul, and me to join him and his friend, Janet, at a Phish concert. I gulped and said yes.
For those of you who never wore tie-dye shirts (or skirts, in my case), Phish is a jam band styled after the Grateful Dead. The key similarities are legions of devoted fans (spelled Phans on the Phish website), and long improvisational forays within each song, a ticket to ride your own trip. Unlike the psychedelic drug users of the ’70s, Phish phans are friendly pot and cigarette smokers. The air in the outdoor theater was thick with both. To breathe was to inhale.
I never went to a Grateful Dead concert. I didn’t like pot or crowds or overused port-a-potties. I still don’t, but Phish with Max and Janet was a unique experience I am glad I didn’t miss.
Phish is a phenomenon. With almost no radio play, the band has sold more than 8 million albums and DVDs worldwide. A Phish concert is a happening, a community, a traveling economy and, most importantly, a mesmerizing musical performance. There is no warm-up band. Phish plays for three hours with a brief intermission. Everyone stands for the whole concert. Actually, they bob and weave and dance for the whole concert, cellularly connected to each song.
According to Max and Janet, who are die-hard Phish fans, Phish concerts draw young traveling hippies; “bros” who come to drink beer and bond; Phish nerds who have seen the band forever; tapers who “tape” every show; and merchants who migrate from show to show, setting up a portable market outside the venue known as Shakedown Street. Outside the gates, extra tickets are sold, bartered or given away to fans desperate not to miss a single show. Inside, on a sweaty, summer evening, we bobbed happily, one with the great unwashed.
I was enthralled with both the music and the rapt, bouncing reverence with which the audience listened. Begun in 1983, Phish has taken the rock jamming of the Grateful Dead in expanded directions. Their music incorporates elements from rock, jazz, funk, bluegrass, folk, country and blues.
Phish devotees await each jam eager to hear what Trey Anastasio, the fleet-fingered guitarist, and Page McConnell, who plays multiple keyboards, will do this time. They don’t disappoint. Along with Mike Gordon on bass and Jon Fishman on drums, Phish has played thousands of hours together, listening and experimenting.
Jazz is the genre known for performance improvisation. It is rare for major rock bands to take nightly musical risks before 25,000 fans. A signature Phish jam is an extended blues riff anchored by the rhythm of a rocking chair, over which the soloist explores the story of the song. It combines brilliant musicianship and a cohesion of jam decision-making, which lead us slowly and inevitably to a series of expected climaxes. When the musical peaks finally arrive, the audience flings colored glow sticks into the air, whooping their approval. Before a backdrop of heat lightning, we had our own fireworks.
Max, who grew up listening exclusively to heavy metal, says part of the attraction of Phish is following the thread of musical stories that the musicians consciously weave through each song. It’s like Where’s Waldo for music. Phish creates a narrative arc within a jam, within a song, within an overall concert, within a three-night stand, and connecting the entire tour. This internal story gives the audience an opportunity to go on their own journey. Regardless of tempo or musical genre, the music is all easy-going with no angry edges. We just rocked and rolled into the night.
Beyond the specific songs and the clever musical devices Phish uses to hook its audience, there is something more rewarding going on. Three hours of vibrating together, having every cell in our bodies entrained to the rocking rhythm of the music, transported the audience beyond our individual skins. We became one human pie. No drugs were required. The vibrations of the aural journey gave me the experience of my energy expanding beyond my body to encompass the whole body of the audience, the musicians and the stars in the summer sky. I was not alone. Through the music, we became one with the universe. That blissful connected feeling left me floating into the night long after the last note faded.
Walking out afterward, I overheard a young man talk about bringing his mother to the next night’s concert. His companion was incredulous. “Really? Will she want to come?” I felt smug and happy that I had stepped outside my middle-aged comfort zone and shared this experience with Max. For that, I am profoundly grateful.
(Peggo Horstmann Hodes of Concord is a singer, performer, voice teacher and conductor.)