The Greek Theater Los Angeles, CA 9/29/95
Concert Review By Steve Roeser
I've been going to rock concerts since the '70s, and there's a first time for everything. So, this is the year I found out something about Phish, the New-England -originated band that has a grassroots following like no other. I had heard about Phish before 1995, which is to be expected since they've been around for more than a decade and they now record for a major label, Elektra. But until around the time that Jerry Garcia passed away, I had no firsthand experience of this very entertaining group. I know that they've done some time on previous HORDE tours with Blues Traveler and the Spin Doctors, and I knew that my niece and nephews in Morristown, New Jersey dug them, but hardly anything else.
I welcomes the chance to "catch Phish " live for my very first time on their recent West Coast tour. When they hit L.A. in late September, after having played San Diego, their Greek show proved to be a hot ticket. The approximately 7,000-capacity venue was sold out, and the ad in the local weekly urged those without tickets to please not come. (The ad also warned fans to be wary of getting burned with counterfeit tickets and the risks of dealing with scalpers.) Nevertheless, as my lovely friend Kristy and I walked up the hill to the outdoor theater, she told me we would see a number of people attempting to "score a miracle," and we did. We passed this and that person with his/her finger in the air as cars headed toward the parking area, and if it was their lucky night, they may have ended up with a free pass to a Phish show.
We already had our tickets, and after having to get "phrisked" on the way in, we found our seats shortly before the band was prepared to go on. This was preceded by a brief conversation struck up by the guy to my right, who told me he had been to see the Neville Brothers the night before, and that this was his sixth Phish show. He planned to see them at least once more before they were done with their latest swing through California, and then he said he's be too broke to go to any more concerts for awhile.
Forgive me, avid Phish followers, but this review will not mention much in the way of specific original material the band is known for. I had listened to their studio albums, A Picture of Nectar and Hoist before going to the show, but as many people know, Phish will often perform a 21/2- to 3-hour show without touching a large part of what has come out on their albums. Listening later to their double-CD '95 release, A Live One, I realized that the song they opened with was probably "Chalkdust Torture," though I couldn't swear to it. But I was quite impressed with that opening number, seeing as it was the first thing I'd ever heard Phish perform live.
I could not remember the last time I had been to a large outdoor concert like that where the audience was so totally into what the band was doing. The phenomenon of the relationship between Phish and its concert audience is really something to behold. It was a Friday night after all, and you could see joints lighting up in the dark (I also stumbles on a hash pipe in a storage case on the way out of our aisle), but the enthusiasm was real and overwhelming. Actual it was real overwhelming.
One of the first things I noticed during their opening set (which lasted about 90 minutes, followed by about a half-hour intermission) was that the drummer Fishman was not set up in the back, the way most rock bands are presented. He was to the right (audience POV), in an equal line with his other three bandmates, and I took this as a statement that Phish sees itself as a democratically conceived unit, in which no individual member's importance supersedes that of the others. Guitarist Trey Anastasio, who writes a great deal of Phish's music, may be perceived with Garcia-like distinction at this point, but it might be a mistake to regard him as the band's key member. For all intents and purposes, these four guys have always been the band, and many Phish-watchers would surely argue that there is no primary member of the band. It's what they do as a unit that counts most.
To Fishman's right was bass player Mike Gordon; to Gordon's right, Trey A., to his right, keyboard player extraordinaire Page McConnell. I didn't recognize the songs during the first set, though almost everyone else in the place certainly did and seemed quite pleased, but I liked what I was hearing. Here were four guys who have now played together for as long as the Beatles ever did, totally in sync with one another, and jamming their n--s off. The trampolines came out at one point (as Kristy said they did for Phish's L.A. Wilton Theater show on a previous tour) and Trey and Mike bounced as they played--looks easy, but have you ever tried it?--spinning and turning in time together.
Second set: If memory serves, it opened with Page noodling out the familiar strains of the "Theme from 2001," and it remained interesting from that point on. The four of them convened around a mike stand at one point (this might have been during the first set) for a barbershop quartet rendition of "Sweet Adeline." Everyone could get a good look at Fishman's "coverall," or whatever that thing is that he wears. The last time I was in Morristown, Erica said that Fishman is known to "get naked" during a show (see A Live One booklet), so I half expected him to whip the thing off and run across the stage before the show ended, but this didn't happen.
Fishman did come out for his customary turn at the front of the band, with Anastasio taking over on drums, carrying a piece of paper with some lyrics on it. Saying something like, "Knowing the lyrics is not the point," the band then went into a rendition of Aerosmith's "Cryin'" (or one of those interchangeable ballads of theirs) that was every bit as squalid as the original. Yes, Fishman did have "Tyler scarves" tied around his mike stand, and even with the paper in front of him, he still forgot the lyrics. It was one of the highlights of the evening.
The mention of the Beatles in this little piece might be considered inapplicable (if not inexplicable) were it not for the fact that Phish did, in fact, perform the entire White Album during one of their 1994 concerts. This is something I'd like to find out more about, and something I'd love to hear them do myself. But on this night, we had to settle for a very faithful cover of "A Day in the Life," with Page doing the Lennon vocal part, Trey the McCartney. That was a pretty cool thing.
Oh, yes, I enjoyed seeing Phish for the first time. An I look
forward to seeing them again, especially because no two shows
of theirs are even exactly alike, so they say. I know I'll enjoy
the band again, even more so if Kristy comes with me.