Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Phish Essay...

I spent three and a half days at Phish’s Festival 8, a three day camping festival held two hours southeast of Los Angeles. An estimated 40,000 people came to see the band perform 8 sets over those three days. I met up with friends who came from Georgia, Massachusetts, Colorado, and Illinois, among others. The festival was the band’s first such festival since 2004, and its first Halloween performance since 1998.

The festival grounds were divided into eight campgrounds, each named after one of the albums remaining on a list of 99 posted by the band as potential “musical costumes.” For their 1994, 1995, 1996, and 1998 Halloween shows, the band covered a complete album in their second set. Surrounding the concert grounds were campgrounds for the 35,000 people who camped for four nights, complete with showers, water stations, portalets , sanctioned vendors, and multiple general stores. There was also one strip of unsanctioned vendors, called “Shakedown” by fans- a reference to the Grateful Dead song “Shakedown St.”The majority of these vendors sell their food outside every Phish concert, and some have done so since the 1990’s. Inside the concert fields, which opened about two hours before each day’s first set, there were dozens of beer vendors and bartenders, food tents, merchandise tables, and other stores selling goods geared particularly towards Phish fans.

The seven traditional sets included almost exclusively songs written in the 1980’s and 1990’s and songs from their most recent album. Of the seventy eight songs performed during these sets, about eight were written in the last year, two were covers, and sixty-five were written before the year 2000. Most fans seemed disinclined to categorize the style of music, “you can’t describe it, and that’s why we love them.” Influences include rock, jazz, bluegrass, and funk, with extensive composed portions juxtaposed with extended tension-and-release jams. Jams usually see guitar and piano work backed up by bass which tends to walk and stay focused in a much more jazz than rock-like approach, and more meandering drum play than is common for rock music. After particular sets or songs, fans tend to get excited about “the cow funk” (a reference to the band’s Vermont origins), guitarist Trey Anastasio’s prowess, and bassist Mike Gordon’s calm, funky bass work. They would regularly compare and rate songs and sets to the others they had seen or listened to- Phish, like many other “jam” bands encourages fans to record and trade their concerts as a way of gaining and exciting fans. The band generally avoids playing songs written during the years of their excessive narcotic abuse, as much for themselves as for the fans. Furthermore, some older songs whose lyrics contain drug references were performed with revised or left out lyrics. During “Run Like an Antelope” for example, the word “spike” in the line “been you to have any spike, man?” was omitted.
Their fourth set of the weekend was a complete performance of the Rolling Stones record “Exile on Main Street.” Horns and back-up vocalists, including Sharon Jones, contributed to about half of the songs, including “Loving Cup” which had been a commonly covered Phish song since they began touring with a grand piano in the 1990’s. The encore that night also featured horns and back-up vocals during original “Suzy Greenberg”. By all accounts, the accompaniment was well-received, and the band’s excitement about the opportunity was visible. Upon entrance to the concert grounds, fans were handed a mock PlayBill, the “PhishBill”, which included an essay by rock journalist David Fricke. Fricke suggests that Phish “are telling through these songs their own stories about ecstasy, madness and survival.” As with the Festival itself, the album choice was another way of communicating with and projecting to their fans with more honesty than any traditional concert could allow.
Given the tens of thousands in attendance, reasons for coming were widespread. Many are drawn by the stereotype, which is grounded in truth and in some way self-fulfilling, of Phish concerts being parties. Certainly, Festival 8 was no exception. I spoke with and observed a significant number of people who were unfamiliar with Phish’s music, and were very open about being there “for the party”. Others had been to Phish shows dozens of times, and used them all as a party, or regularly sought to enhance the show with copious consumption of MDMA, LSD, alcohol, and marijuana. However, the crowd was considerably more sedated than those common in the Northeast. A considerably lower proportion of attendees were strictly chasing the party, and while drug dealing was rampant, organized dealers were not present. Furthermore there seemed to be neither supply nor demand for nitrous oxide, a popular dissociative sold by a violent, organized Philadelphia-based syndicate. Several older fans commented that they felt like the scene was much more like the nineties than the current decade in this sense.

Many more, though, were Phish fans who came for the music and for the festival atmosphere. Common small talk questions all involved Phish- when someone started seeing Phish, which other shows they had seen that year, which festivals they had been to. The majority of the crowd was in their twenties or thirties, though some were much older, and some much younger. However, this perspective is skewed because most older fans stayed at off-site hotels, or in FV’s.
Many find Phish shows to be a special kind of community. One fan said, “I’ve never been anywhere that I feel like I have so much in common with everyone around me.” These “like-minded” comments are very common among fans. Generally, Phish festivals come at the end of a long summer tour, though this was a stand-alone event. Guitarist Trey Anastasio said in an interview that he thought it was “a response to what was happening in the 80’s [with music becoming more about how things look than how they sound.]” He also suggested that “the further away we went…. [the more people wanted go].”

The community infrastructure makes a dramatic change between traditional concerts and festivals. At traditional concerts, the community is disparate, brought together briefly in the parking lot, but still functioning within larger cities, occasionally interacting at rest stops or hotel rooms between concerts. Festivals seem to cull out the more transient fans, usually attracting only those who can commit three days, as well as more significant travel time, to the experience.

Then, a small municipality is erected, with infrastructure provided by the band and their representatives. However, even the infrastructure reflects the band and their fan’s sense of humor. Phones placed throughout the grounds were labeled “request line” and visibly not connected. Campgrounds were divided by streets with names like “Ch Ch Ch Changes Avenue”. Even in the frequently asked questions section, the municipal book of laws, fans were told, for example, “do not offer apples or sugar cubes to any law enforcement official, equine or human.” Throughout the grounds was a series of installations, pieces of art and intrigue intended only to amuse and entertain attendees. These included a metal gazebo which piped a dancing propane flame in through the ceiling, and a series of decorated bamboo oil towers which ignited intermittently. Everyday the Festival 8 Express a newspaper was published. It included information about side-events, TV schedules, reviews of the previous night’s show, and both real and parody advertisements.

The band has been very open about their excitement about festivals. In many ways, they see these as a chance to give thanks to their fans. The first unofficial festival was free, and referred to as “a large party for our friends, for our fans” by keyboardist Page McConnell. However, at Festival 8, for the band, there was also a sense of redemption. Coventry, the last festival they put on and their last show before breaking up in 2004, was a rain-soaked disaster. Cars had to be towed in and out by tractors, thousands were turned away, and tens of thousands abandoned their car on the highway and walked in. In addition to this, the band’s performance is considered one of their worst ever, and illustrative of guitarist Trey Anastasio’s drug and alcohol problem. The band very clearly wanted to use Festival 8 as an opportunity to make up for their past mistakes. Anastasio said in an interview, “The first conversation that came up for Festival 8 was about traffic… That was the number-one concern… Coventry was just a nightmare, so I apologize for that.” They were very much successful. I talked to over a dozen fans who had been at Coventry and nearly every one of them, unprovoked, commented on how much better executed Festival 8 was, “I spent 40 hours in traffic for Coventry, and about 40 minutes getting in and out of [Festival] 8. [Phish] was not going to put us through that again.”
Of course, financial motivations should not be overlooked. With ticket prices over $200, charges for camping, as well as vending profits, estimated profits are in the range of a few million dollars. However, it is rare for fans to discuss Phish’ personal financial motivation. I asked several fans what they thought about prices for Phish concerts and for this festival. One answer was indicative of the general sentiment, “not a lot of bands Phish’s size will give fans so much music for the money.” Tickets for the eight set Festival 8 cost $200, or $25 per set. Tickets for normal Phish concerts cost $50 (for a two set performance) but can resell on secondary markets for as high as $1,000. Even in this sense, fans see the band as a benevolent tax collector, only asking for what they must, not what they can, in order to continue providing the services the people want.

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