Diving in Blind: Here's What One Critic Learned From Her First Phish Concert

Trey Anastasio of Phish at Madison Square GardenEXPAND
Trey Anastasio of Phish at Madison Square Garden
Jason Speakman for the Village Voice

I now “get” Phish. (Cue me, looking around, waiting for the sky to fall.) I can’t say that I will use “ph” in every phsentence. But following three-and-something hours-ish of my first-ever show, I would call myself a fan. Just not a phan.

I think I may become that most rare species of Phish admirer — NOT a fanatic. I’m not going to download sets after shows I’ve attended, nor travel and camp out to see three gigs in a weekend. I’m not likely to buy a Phish album (they give so much away, no need to) or purchase a T-shirt. I may never go to another Phish concert — though I’d like to — but I will never, ever roll my eyes at anyone who does. I’ve seen the light, and it was psychedelic. In fact, I’m writing by the light of my green glowstick now. (I also learned, from someone who has attended fifty shows to date, that there was a famous “glowstick war” gig.) Upon further research, I happened upon results such as “Look at the Epic Tweespian from Magnaball.” It’s Greek to me.

Additionally, I may or may not have Googled “what to wear at a Phish concert” before heading to Madison Square Garden for the fourth night of their four-night stand that carried us from 2015 into 2016. I didn’t know Phish went on hiatus (twice). I didn’t know Trey Anastasio once had drug issues. I went to the concert cold, with only my stupidly snobby ignorance and curiosity to lead the way, not knowing a single song. I was doubtful, but hopeful and open. I emerged convinced, though not converted.

Like with Bruce Springsteen...I now get it. I went to one Springsteen concert in the Eighties, and I don’t know if I'll ever go to another. But I “got” his power as a performer. It’s undeniable even if it’s not your bag, and the same goes for Phish: Your preference doesn't undo their prowess.

Many of the jams and improvs, the things detractors seem to find the most snooze-worthy about Phish, were escalating, ecstatic affairs. Other musical movements — but few — allowed me to space out enough (and apparently be, er, stoned enough — hey, it’s decriminalized in New York, and medical marijuana goes on sale this month) to write a “joke” while contemplating keyboard player Page McConnell. (My seat was located stage right: “Page side, rage side.”) My not-clever-the-next-day-musings: "I wish I were a piano player named Sesame. And then when I overplayed, my headline would be 'Sesame Noodles.' " So yeah, there was time in my own head. Clearly, not well spent.

The day after my first Phish concert, I’m writing this with the band on shuffle on Spotify. I’m enjoying the tune on now: It’s “Simple,” from the Amsterdam album (excuse me, actually an eight-CD box set from 1997 shows at the Paradiso!). Now into something reggae-ish, not my favorite groove. (Apparently “Soul Shakedown.”) Likewise at the concert last night. And now I’m eighteen minutes into a jam during “AC/DC Bag” that’s not enthralling me, though I super-adored the live version at MSG. Now “Harpua,” which sounds Zappa-esque.

Scanning through my reporter’s notebook, looking at the jottings I’ve made at concerts: Mastadon, Ghost, Aerosmith, X, Five Finger Death Punch, Sturgill Simpson, etc. I’m looking for my notes on Phish, which are difficult to find, and the fact that virtually no one at the concert had their phones out had everything to do with it. No one was texting or taking tons of photos...they were simply enjoying the music. And dancing. I can’t recall the last time I saw that at a concert. (Of course, that may be due to the aforementioned list of concerts I’ve reviewed.) I took a cue from the crowd, and my scant notes reflect as much: I just wanted to absorb.

The crowd watching Phish at Madison Square GardenEXPAND
The crowd watching Phish at Madison Square Garden
Jason Speakman for the Village Voice

In my openness and innocence, I didn’t even try to write down the setlist; the lines I jotted down were just a few notes and general impressions. I stood still for a moment to feel the buoyant bounce of the floor beneath my seats. When you join in the bouncing, with 18,000 likeminded listeners, you have to be in time, or, well, it feels awkward, like you might throw your back out. So you bounce as one.

My notes included the following: “a sea of happy bright faces and dancing, no black clothing, no one seated, no one still, so unlike New York.” Songs I loved: “Suzy Greenberg” (what a wacky, fun one!), “Julius,” and “Divided Sky.” Again, as a newbie and non-jam-band-follower (and not a Deadhead), I found Phish embodied many of the best “jammy” moments of the Allman Brothers, or Skynyrd during “Freebird,” rather than the less likable or self-indulgent moments of either act. (On this night, at least, the jams and improvs served the songs, not the players.) I had no clue why trampolines were brought onstage, nor did I know what was up when the band stood still as statues as the audience went increasingly wild, literally rapture to the rafters. It was fascinating, compelling, emotional. You’d have to be a grinch not to feel something. Plus, Phish never repeat a song during a multi-show stand — in other words, every night they played a fresh set, and that unexpectedness (at nearly every concert you know the band/artist is going to play the hits, and probably up front and then for the encore) lends an anticipatory excitement.

The low moments were few: the guy puking next to me (overheard: “He must have eaten some bad shit”); the couple on the other side on hands and knees looking for something, finally emerging triumphant with a tiny bag of brown powder, which caused me to Google “Can you snort Molly?” But you’d see the same — or worse, and certainly more annoying, aggro people — at any rock show. I’m not an apologist, and there should be nothing to defend about Phish. They’re a terrific band; their crowd of phanatics doesn’t appear “weirder” than any other band’s; it was clear from the members' beaming faces and onstage demeanor how much they appreciate their audience. It’s a love fest.

The point of reviewing Phish's concert was to see what all the fuss is about; the perk was that the strength of their performance forced me to put aside all preconceived notions and prejudices going into it. You don't have to like Phish; now, post–dive into the Phish tank, I have chosen the path of Phish in small doses. When I broke down and did post-concert online Phish research, the amount of archival fandom is overwhelming. Truly. It’s a rabbit hole I don’t want — or have the time — to go down. I’m not going to dig deep; I’m just going to dig. I think Phish fans will be OK with just letting me visit their world, one where phans leave their phones in their pockets and check their judgment at the door. 


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