Phish: Just Phill In The Blanks
Dave Balter & Beth Curran
Yes, this is another Phish article. In the wake of the hugely successful Lemonwheel, is this so surprising? Having formed a decidedly enormous fan-base and a live show that stands head and shoulders above most other touring acts, their name in print shouldn't suprise anyone. Yet, I for one am having a major problem lately with what actually ends up in print about this band. (I'm going to get a little philosophical here for a moment, so bear with me.) It seems that writing anything about Phish - at this point in their career - is almost futile, bordering on (dare I say it) trite. Phish is a four-man phenomenon dedicated to continuous change. So much change, in fact, that most articles you encounter discuss the band's growth and continuous change--and nothing else. Let's just ponder that irony for a
moment: a band that mutates so often that every article written about them invariably focuses on that self-same quality. And there lies the root of this particular author's dilemma.
Having been asked to write another article on Phish, I considered many different approaches, some in more familiar territory than others. Seeing as how my assignment was to write a review of Phishs end-of-tour show held in Limestone, Maine, I had perfect fodder for the regulation article. If I had decided to stick with the standard format, I'd bore the hell out of you with some meaningless opening paragraph which would probably go something like this:
"Phish has done it again. Succeeding at what few other bands can do in their entire careers, Phish has pulled off no less than a triumphant hat-trick of summer musical festivals. This year's Lemonwheel, the Summer Tour's annual last hurrah in Limestone, Maine was a get together of some sixty-thousand rabid fans for a long weekend of listening to music, camping and, well, partying. The event went off without a hitch; ecstatic fans had their fill of the music, the vibe, the candle-making, and then, when the festivities drew to a close, piled into their cars to join the legendary traffic jam without a frown in sight!"
Sound familiar? Note that you may have read the exact same thing at about
this time last year. As any attendee of both Summer festivals could tell you, this year's event was hardly a repeat performance, but any review would come off as such. Striving for the elusive unique approach, it occurred to me that a typical Phish review also has a few other standards. For example, most reviewers feel a burning necessity to give themselves credence by establishing their devotion, and connected-ness to the band. Usually this is achieved by embedding some in-the-know fact into an otherwise innocuous statement:
"Who would've thought that this band I enjoyed at my local watering hole in 1989 would now be staging a festival that necessitated 10,000 port-o-john's. On Amy's Farm (a free concert held in 1991, just after the Giant Country Horns Tour (this was before the Wetlands show in the fall where they debuted such standards as Stash & Landlady (Landlady, by the way, was actually a piece of the song Punch You In The Eye, but was dropped after 1989 (Interestingly, Landlady was mostly dropped from the rotation when Punch You in The Eye returned in 1993.)))) there wasn't even a line for the few port-o-john's scattered around the half empty farm. While this year's bathroom scene was much improved over last year's, Mike Allagretto, the official "campsite mayor" summed up the potty predicament best: "we could double these for next year, and still be short a few."
So sorry for jumping ahead of myself there. Please note that while I may be conscious of the standard Phish-article pitfalls, I too have trouble avoiding them. What you've just witnessed is my inability to avoid throwing random quotes around, regardless of their actual relevance. To take that one step further down the path of un-enlightenment, some authors feel such an overwhelming need to add a quote, that they sacrifice its significance. I love Mike A. like a brother, but quoting him doesn't really shed light on the musical experience of The Lemonwheel.
There are - of course - many quote source possibilities. The tone of an article can often be set by who's being quoted for what. Do you resort to the die-hard fan remarking about the "best Destiny Unbound chant yet", or do you attempt to find some music industry resource who is so cool he's a caricature of himself? If you do resort to the music industry resource, you might as well place your interview in some cool environment, like backstage
at a concert, such as:
I managed to set up a meeting with Dan Smalls, the talent buyer for Great Northeast Productions, a Boston based company which co-produces the festival with Phish each summer. GNP also produces over 70 other shows each year; and Phish fits right into their philosophy of preferring to work with career artists as opposed to the less-substantive flashes in the pan. I was able to get a moment with Dan backstage at a Third Eye Blind show: "It's gotten better each year because we know the fans, we know what they want and need...we know how to build a city." (Insert question here.) "No comment." (Insert re-tooled question here.) "Don't ask me that question. A festival of this size only works when it's artist-driven. Producers can't make an idea work without the band - it's the band's idea, our job is to make it a reality. I mean, we made a full scale elephant come alive this year. How's that for reality?" When prodded about the backstage atmosphere Dan replied, "It's not Xanadu backstage. It's just people doing their jobs to make this event special. I can't think of one person who slept for more than three hours a night for two weeks."
Our interview was cut short as Third Eye Blind was launching into an explosive encore of Dan's a good guy. Maybe that wasnt the exact title, but really, he is. Anyway, now that I've established that I know someone in the industry, I should talk a little about The Lemonwheel itself. Whether the shows were good or bad really doesn't matter - Phish manages to pull off great shows regardless of the cirmcumstances. Granted, obsessive fans seem to think that because a show is somewhere out of the ordinary or takes place on some incredible date (the moon was eclipsed, and Trey brought his dog!) that the show will somehow be better. I will admit that in previous articles I have itemized setlists, remarked on cool gags/tricks, or discussed band commentary before. This, while interesting to the tapers and other setlist fanatics, bores the hell out of most readers. To keep everyone reading involved, I choose to list such items as Virginia Woolf would. Those who really care will understand. Those who don't, just skip this part:
8/15/98 12 Song First Set Trey screws with lyrics during Cities Wedge for
Limestone Sanity Trey forgets words during NICU Feedback Jam Trey messes
around during Halley's Comet glowstick war Ambient Jam Fourth Set 8/16/98 First set best of 2-day run Fishman introduces band during Sexual Healing destiny unbound chant Sabotage Mango Song WMGGW (ha!) glowstick war band lights joint Baby Elephant Walk last played 12/1/92 giant elephant moves sprays people people get mad it's cool but not that cool.
And of course there is the inevitable issue--avoid or not to avoid the Grateful Dead comparison, that is really the question. Shakespeare obviously had a more hard-nosed editor than myself. Either way, here's where I make the argument that Phish is a completely different band who may not have been around had it not been for the Dead, but who has taken the music to a new level. That said, they did play Terrapin Station this tour, confusing the hell out of those of us attempting to state that Phish isn't emulating the Dead. I prefer to avoid this point entirely.
In closing, I'd usually throw in some commentary regarding the great and grand evolution of this band. Yet they've changed so much that this article, by its very nature, is obsolete. You get the idea. Just as you undoubtedly are, I'm pretty tired of the same old format. We need to find some other way to detail Phish's musical prowess and development. So in the name of this tenuous relationship between stagnation and change, I'm putting forth the humble suggestion that someone invent a standardized fill-in-the-blank Phish form, which will serve as the only article ever printed on the band from this point forward. If someone wants to write an article on the band, they will download the form on-line, fill in the year, the show, switch around some song titles, and send it right back. And if you're having trouble with the title, or the closing sentence for that matter, you can always revert to the campy and ever-popular "ph" substitution for "f" such as "Phish's Third Ephort Phails to Phall Phlat".Phun stuff, eh?