Into the Light 2009: A Phish Story

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On May 26, 2004, Trey Anastasio appeared on PBS’s Charlie Rose show, giddily shucking and jiving questions about the end of an era. In between the lines about inertia, gravity, and the like, a concession was being made that the magic of Phish had long since disappeared. Trey’s muttered talk was masked behind a gaunt, bleak shell and what we now know to be a painful state of spirit. By saying things in the Rose interview such as “it got too big” and “Phish cannot be the focal point of our attention anymore,” it’s clear he was making an admission that narrowly focused minds couldn’t perceive at the time due to a yearning for what once was, what we knew could surely be again.

phish1.jpgHowever, one thing was resoundingly clear in this interview: Y2K eve in South Florida’s Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation was the “pinnacle.” On that run, 80,000 gathered, danced, twisted, and sang. We didn’t care if the whole world exploded.

After this, even amongst its faithful, the vibe that flowed so freely within the community that had sprung forth from our fabulous four slowly dissipated. This is not to say that anyone was ready to wave the white flag and give up the search party for the sound. Far and wide we searched, and then, just like that, Phish was no more.

On that infamous and portentous day in 2004, throngs proclaimed that Trey was in fact “Wilson” and by the power vested in him by the people of Prussia, he had cast us out as peasants. Denial set in. “The boys outdid themselves this time with this stunt” we sickly thought. Anger reared its ugly little head. “Bastards,” we proclaimed.

But there was hope. Surely Page McConnell and Jon Fishman would show up at one of the GRAB (Mike Gordon, Joe Russo, Trey Anastasio, & Marco Benevento) shows. “Did you hear that Mike is going to be at Jazz Festival,” one fan would say. “Trey is slated as well,” another would reply. “This is it,” they would say to each other, only to be disappointed. We couldn’t stop wading in our velvet sea, the one Page was supposed to nail had he only been able to get through the words at Coventry.

phish2.jpgThen a feeling settled in: acceptance. There would never be Phish again, and it was okay. We no longer cared. Naturally there were fond memories and even fonder embellished stories shared amongst tour comrades, but these stories were now being shared with wives, husbands, children or co-workers who may or may not have ever even experienced Phish. The world of dirty laundry that was once a source of much dreadlocked trepidation was now the very thing by which tour “kids” were now being fulfilled.

The zeal for live music didn’t die. Bands like Disco Biscuits and STS9 rose to a new level. Outfits like Perpetual Groove and Lotus sprung forth from the literal taproot that was the dissolution of Phish. There was Wakarusa, Langerado, and the like. Life was good, and Phish was no longer a requisite.

From Big Cypress, fast forward to nearly a decade later. The boys stood on stage, raging through a four-night run in front of the 30,000 gathered in that same region of cypress and palm-silhouetted skies with a similar fervor of yesteryear and one that only Phish can bring. Our boys were back and in a way in which they had never been before.

phish6.jpgPhish had found their individual selves. Fishman was on Jam Cruise, for Henrietta’s sake! Page had claimed his status as a viable solo artist and had toured with Porter, Batiste, & Stoltz. Mike had his Green Sparrow and had toured briefly as the third member of a Duo. Riddle me that!

And finally, and probably most importantly, Trey had gotten sober after “hanging on by a thread” as he coined it following an arrest. He had revisited his inventive and musically intricate side by crafting a symphonic magnum opus, Time Turns Elastic. On the night it was debuted Fishman was there, and like a dad swollen with pride, he watched his cohort gratefully grin on that small Ryman Auditorium stage.

It was obvious that a new epoch had been entered and joy had re-established itself within the ranks of the band. It was clear the band would revisit Phish soon, and the residents of Prussia would receive a complimentary upgrade to first class.

Sure enough, it happened and it did so triumphantly. Let’s face it, 2009 was cause to celebrate in our world. {mospagebreak}

3.0

“Hell born elfchild road hog mountain fortune hunter man beheaded her” the crowd chanted, as though they had never left tour, on March 8, 2009. From the opening note of “Fluffhead” at Hampton Coliseum to the first Musical Costume since 1998 at Festival 8 for Halloween, we fell in love with Phish all over again.

It was a year of firsts and no-holds-barred Phish. This was not the band that shied away from “Icculus.” It was a bust-out fiasco, with some songs being played for their first time in 625 shows and more. It came with what many have called the best album since Junta in Joy. Certainly all eras of Phish have their unique qualities. The argument can turn into "the chicken and the egg" if one is not careful.

phish5.jpgHowever, this was 3.0. The patrons in Miami were ready to party, celebrate, spot old friends, and rally with new ones. The feeling that we were in our former years of reckless abandon and back on the reservation pulsated through American Airlines Arena. It is worth noting that musically, the full and blue mooned night of December 31 wasn’t the prime cut of the run. However, this was mainly due to the vested interest Phish placed in its trickery. It was a run that needs to be heard collectively. However, New Years Eve was no laughing matter.

Scratch that…it was precisely a laughing matter. The night began with those familiar notes. Mr. Palmer would be allowed to be taken before its Prussian citizens for judgment. It is safe to say that we gave him a reprieve and the show was on the road with "AC/DC Bag" with a particular and noticeably hard closing progressive riff. Oh yes this was going to be a treat. It came complete with "Auld Lang Syne" teases just in case anybody forgot what day it was, a trend that would continue during "Ghost" some 17 songs later.

phish9.jpgFittingly the crowd would be taken for a stroll down memory lane as the Everglades were filtered in "Water in the Sky." This song holds a special place in the hearts of Big Cypress alumni for obvious reasons, but this year it took on a whole new meaning when Trey, at Carnegie Hall, heartily devoted this gem to the loving memory of his sister who passed on after a courageous battle with cancer. The song had a lighter feel and it is clear that when this is in a set, the presence for higher energy is being beckoned and channeled.

As things progressed the boys belted out what many had called for as the opener, "Punch You in the Eye." The set included a serenading Page receiving a rose from a fan during "Lawn Boy" as he perused the stage with a Barry White twinkle in his eye, and closed with a concise and perfectly played eight minute "Julius."

If the first set was not enough, grab your pens because the second set was worth writing mama about. Complete with a legendary "Piper," one we’ll tell our children and grandchildren about. This rendition encompassed all that is loved about jam. It was spacey, edgy, funky, and speedy. It was Phish and it segued flawlessly into "Simple" to boot.

phish7.jpgThe venue was ablaze in spite of the random musical hiccup, mistakes nobody noticed. Alright, they noticed. We’re Phish fans after all, but we didn’t care. Remember, reprieves had been given at the onset. What’s interesting about Phish 3.0 as an era is that, when a mistake is made, the boys are comfortable enough in their own skin that they do not feel the need to hide it anymore. Rather, somebody will accentuate the blunder with some mind-blowing solo and laughter will ensue. Phish fans took themselves way too seriously for too long and just simply isn’t the case any more.

The set closed with a personal favorite, "Suzy Greenberg," in which all took a lead at times. Mike’s bass thumped, Page’s ivories danced, Trey’s guitar wailed, and Fish’s beat held it down so as to not let anybody go too far astray. And just as it was when I was a skinny adolescent punk, the aisle again became a hopscotch court. As a closer it worked because it had enough hysteria for what was about to come from our fearless little tricky leaders.

phish8.jpgThe first Phish set of 2010 was complete with disco ball cannon balls, a cannon, and a disappearing Jonathan Fishman. The disco ball served as Phish’s version of the ball in Times Square. It descended to the countdown and in typical New Year’s fashion, "Auld Lang Syne" was played and balloons were everywhere. However, this was only the beginning of the story.

"Down with Disease" followed, fitting for a year in which the recovery from a disease (addiction) had played such a large role in the band’s success. Then out came a cannon – of course Fishman would be shot out of it. Why wouldn’t he?

He was loaded into the giant disco ball and the disco ball was loaded into the cannon. Trey took over the drums and then it happened. An explosion of massive proportions shook the venue’s foundation. But there was no cannon disco ball in the net. “What the fuck?,” one neighbor said to another. With no Fishman in the net, there was officially no drummer. A searchlight went through the crowd like a ghetto bird in search of Eazy-E while the remaining three walked around with these doofus “what’s going on here, eh?” looks on their faces.

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There was only one things left to do: recruit “Sarah from Pittsburgh” to play the drums. Sure she had only played for six months but she “loved Trey” (in a sorostitute voice) and this was obviously good enough for Phish. They sprang into the sloppiest "Fluffhead" since your boy snagged up the Rock Band Phish downloads and tried to play them on expert level.

Slowly but surely, Sarah got damned good. One fan was overheard saying that “Meg White must have donned a costume.” The gag continued and Fishman was never seen again. Meg “Sarah” White from Pittsburgh continued on the drums and save for a few orchestrated miscues, the show went on.

phish3.jpgPost-show the news spread like wildfire. It had been Fishman the entire time, except for when the band bowed.

It has been said that the grief process never truly ends. Outside the venue sat a totaled car with Vermont plates, surrounded by caution tape with the disco ball on top of it.

Yes, they are the one, the only, often imitated but never duplicated, Phish. In a year filled with uncertainty, Phish helped many of us healthily defocus. In a divided world, unity was found within the confines of each setting of which we were fortunate enough to be a part. There was no shortage of smiles, hugs, or laughter.

They left us with a “see ya soon” and completely satiated. 2010 is going to be sweet!

And if the world explodes, we won’t care!

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