Bust-Out: Phish at the Billy Graham

IMG_7630Phish opened their concert – the first in a three night series in SF – by all swapping instruments and jamming to a song they haven’t played since 2010. The drummer (Jon Fishman) played the bass, the bassist (Mike Gordon) took the guitar, the guitarist (Trey Anastasio) rocked the keyboard, while the keyboardist (Page McConnell) smashed the drums. “Walfredo” was written by the band in 1997 with this shuffle originally intended. It has only been played live seven times since then, and it didn’t sound too great.

While the “Walfredo” opening didn’t set the tone musically for two sharp and wildly energetic sets in the Billy Graham Civic Auditorium, it certainly demonstrated Phish’s intimate relationship with their cult following of fans. Phish is a jam band known far more for their live performances than their studio albums. They’ve never played the same song in two consecutive shows and have an unparalleled ability to tweak, reinvent, and recombine their whole library.

You can find every set list, updated live, on phish.net, a site created and maintained entirely by “phans.” The site, which catalogs the time, place, and history of every song ever played live, demonstrates the ferocious dedication of Phish’s following. Phish fandom’s famous love for drugs, facial hair, and weirdness is matched (at least partially) by its love for statistics and history and history of the band. When Phish whips out a song for the first time in a while (a “bust-out”), a large portion of the crowd is knowledgeable enough to turn to each other in excitement for the rare treat.

The energetic buildup to the opening consisted of ‘WHOOT-WHOOT’s that spread through the venue and its bathrooms like wildfire through Blackwater Bay. A few fans would make the noise – which is quick and close together, unlike the rhythmic, EDM ‘whoot-whoot’– and it would then be carried along the hallways in both directions before shortly echoing back again. This charged vibe was only briefly interrupted by the offbeat “Walfredo” before Phish launched into a sharp first set highlighted by “Ocelot>Camelwalk,” “Maze,” and “Party Time.” “Maze” is a pretty good representative of Phish’s music – chill jams punctuated by pairs of sharp, discordant chords accompanied by similarly frenetic pulses of light. During that set, I was repeatedly reminded of Phish’s ability to perfectly blend predictability and irregularity in their rhythms, melodies, and overall pacing. Their syncopated grooves usually take a few bars to settle in to, and the strong chords sprinkled throughout their jams sound off for the brief period until you start eagerly anticipating them. Most fans have listened to these songs so many times, though, that the unpredictability lies purely in the band’s live improvisation, and not in the basic structure of its songs.

During “Maze,”a trio of women in front of me, dressed as some cross between mermaids, bees, and generic hippies spazzed sharply towards each other every time one of these discordant notes hit. Eventually, once I was confident with the timing (which, as I said, isn’t too easy with Phish’s music), I popped right in the middle of them, performed one of my dorky Jewish wiggles, and promptly popped right back out. They turned around laughing, we exchanged weird dance moves for a few bars, and then turned back to face the band. These goofy, platonic, nonverbal interactions are what make these kinds of shows special.

The second set began with “Sand” into “Birds of a Feather.” During “Birds of a Feather,” my friend pointed out the silhouette of a Moses-looking man dancing in the upper-deck doorway. There was something ritualistic about his groove, like he was a shaman trying to conjure the spirits of the Phishheads below him. No doubt he’s been dancing like this at shows since Lake Lag had water and the Grateful Dead were at Frost. I was so mesmerized that I carefully and deliberately checked each other upper-story doorway to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating. I found his doorway again and, reassured, I remained spellbound for the rest of the song.

Next came my personal favorite, “2001,” also known as “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” “2001” is a cover of the iconically catchy melody in the soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It showcases Phish’s balance between tension building jams and euphoric climaxes. They’ll jam for a few minutes, seem to build up to the chorus that everyone knows and loves, before settling back into a slightly different groove. As I bopped around in this state, engrossed simultaneously by anticipation and relaxation, it struck how much we’ve lost in this EDM era by only partying to music that consists of continuously building drops that lead only to more drops. I love EDM concerts, too, but watching a band whose identity is defined by their improvisational skills and the variability of their shows made me realize how different these experiences really are. Dismissing raves for the lack of live musicianship is naïve – that was never the point, and anyone who has had fun at a rave doesn’t complain when Tiesto presses play and then claps is hands. I instead resent that people feel the need to decide which experience they prefer when they are so different and fun in such profoundly different ways.

I also want to emphasize that that difference is a function of the music and the complexion of the crowd, not of different drug usage. People like to compare molly-fueled raves to hallucinogenic-fueled jam shows, but the difference in vibes follows from the difference in crowd makeup, as does the preference in drugs. At the Phish show, my friends and I were easily the youngest in a crowd dominated by fans in their late 20’s and early 30’s, with a significant contingent who could be my parents. You see lots of tie-dye, cargo shorts, headbands, and facial hair. At the big name EDM shows I’ve been to, I’m already starting to feel old, and am often afraid to dance on girls dressed as bunnies who I fear might be 15. If you could replace mushrooms and acid with molly (or neither) at a Phish concert, it would still feel like a Phish concert. On the other hand, I think that the large-scale success of EDM festivals I’ve been to – like Beyond Wonderland and DadaLand – is specifically dependent on molly.

Phish encored with “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” (as an ode to the Giants) into “Winterqueen” and the Beatles’ classic “A Day in the Life.” I left Billy Graham enraptured by the electrical atmosphere that Phish shows are known for. Billy Graham is a great venue for them – the general admission floor space gives the crowd a lot of room to groove and the size of the arena allows the show to remain fairly intimate while echoing the energy created by the 7,000 fans it houses. You can find a live recording of the show (and all others) here: http://www.livephish.com/browse/music/0,896/Phish-mp3-flac-download-10-27-2014-Bill-Graham-Civic-Auditorium-San-Francisco-CA, and I promise that their music will only grow on you with every listen.

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