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Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:03

Learning To Phish: A Review of the Madness

SARATOGA SPRINGS – When Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) announced that the seminal jam band Phish would be playing a weekend-long set this summer, I shrugged it off. After all, Phish has been a constant presence in my life since high school. I didn’t care about it then, why should I now? To say I wasn’t curious what the big deal was would be false, but since I didn’t care for their music, I figured going to see them in concert would simply further my distaste for the group. To that point, I didn’t really know much of what was in store. I’d heard the stories, but I decided it was time to find out for myself


Since Jerry Garcia suddenly died in 1995, neo-hippies and jam band enthusiasts alike decided that Phish would be the band to replace the Grateful Dead at the top of the mountain. The core members of Trey Anastasio, Jon Fishman and Mike Gordon started playing together in 1983, adding their last member, Page McConnell in 1985. Since then, the same four men have been responsible for thousands of sold-out shows that fans flock to in droves, despite almost no commercial hits in that time span.

The three shows Phish played in Saratoga Springs were the last three the band will play until their tour resumes in August. Upon my arrival, it was instantly very clear that the culture surrounding the show is just as much, if not more so, a part of the experience. The people I met in the parking lot were all very friendly and patiently waiting for the show. It should be noted here that everyone had the same excited-yet-puzzled look on their face when I informed them that this was my first Phish concert. In fact, it seemed like everyone I talked to had reached double digits in terms of how many shows they’ve attended.

Before the concert began, I was treated to the free-for-all that is known as “Shakedown Street,” which is a traveling bazaar of vendors, hustlers and amateur pharmacists alike. Shakedown is apparently a fixture at every Phish show, finally explaining what all those people who follow the band around the country do all day. I hope I am not violating some sort of unspoken code, but at this point I’m pretty sure the authorities know what goes on down there. Let’s just say it was a “buyer’s market,” and I am not referring to the honest people trying to sell collectible pins or grilled cheese sandwiches.

After fighting my way through throngs of buzzing Phish phans, I made my way inside the venue. After I found my seat I began chatting with the people around me. Every single one of them was practically glowing (figuratively) at the idea that they were about to see Phish about 100 feet in front of them. I manned up and purchased an $11 tall can of beer (which, by the way SPAC is not cool at all) and settled in for what I thought would be a long night.

Then the show started. What instantly hit me is that I wasn’t just at a concert. I was at a concert with about 25,000 people who were seeing there absolute favorite band in the entire world, which really makes quite a difference. Everyone was singing, dancing and partying like they’d never done so before. I suddenly felt guilty for depriving someone the opportunity to enjoy the seat I had. I got over that pretty quickly when the band got going. Sure there was the requisite wandering eight-minute guitar solo variations on songs I didn’t recognize, but the set list was filled with heavier songs I actually enjoyed. The accompanying light show was certainly impressive, and definitely added to the appeal of the show.

As if I was hit with a ton of bricks, (or a handful of glow sticks which everyone seemed to be flinging without hesitation) I suddenly got it. The music, which to this point had only just started, was secondary to the culture of being a Phish fan. The band could have gone on stage and played “Happy Birthday” over and over for three hours and it wouldn’t have mattered. What seems unique isn’t the fans admiration for the band, but rather the band’s continued admiration for their fans.

While to me the set seemed filled with heavier rock songs, the fans around me said this was pretty par for the course. The second set was peppered with cover songs after my own heart; teasing the Violent Femme’s “Blister in the Sun,” while doing a pretty straight forward cover of TV on the Radio’s “Golden Age.”

The encore for the evening couldn’t have been any better in my opinion, with the band playing the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage,” and dedicating the song to the late Adam “MCA” Yauch who died earlier this summer.

At the end, I was physically and mentally drained. The band had certainly done their best to convert any holdouts like me in the audience. While I won’t be running out and buying any albums or participating in the surprisingly intricate bootlegged performance circuit, I can now say I understand the Phish phenomenon. Perhaps it’s time you experience it for yourself.

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