Go See Phish At Least Once

Incredibly, last Wednesday night’s three-hour-plus Phish extravaganza at Madison Square Garden—the first of their three-night run there, and my first Phish show, period—is not, in fact, the most indulgent, meandering, patience-obliterating concert I have ever experienced. The Mars Volta spring somewhat unhappily to mind. As do, unhappier still, the Allman Brothers. Ween, maybe. But that’s it, in terms of competition. Which is not to say the show was terrible—exhausting, certainly, and nigh-insufferable, occasionally, but, for long stretches, surprisingly vibrant and rousing, too. This is something everyone should probably do once, seeing these boys in action. You might even talk me into doing it again someday. But only after an appreciable recovery period. Say, three to five years.

The best reason to see Phish: their fans. These are extraordinarily devoted gentlemen (and ladies), generous in their enthusiasm and unflagging in their devotion, everyone joyfully and unself-consciously dancing as if trying to amuse a baby. They give louder, longer, lustier between-song ovations than anybody, then rush home to document the source of their elation: It is profoundly admirable, to swing by the fan-generated setlist outpost at a few days later and learn that “Peaches en Regalia” had been performed for the first time since September 24, 1999, in Austin, Texas, unveiled at a paltry 4.94 percent of Phish live shows since 1986—to encounter this level of freely given slavish detail.

For their trouble, disciples gladly suffer various faux-Deadhead stereotype-based indignities, not least those inflicted by the MSG security folks there to both ensure no Phish ticketholder wanders into Cirque du Soleil’s Wintuk by mistake (or vice versa, and I can’t decide who would be more disturbed) and do some overzealous drug-sleuthing besides. “This seems to be the most popular place,” murmurs a bag-checker, digging his fingers invasively into an incoming patron’s pack of cigarettes for presumed contraband. Cliché!

Still, though. Inside, the vibe is . . . relaxed. “Do you have a bowl?” asks a dude sitting behind me. (No.) Sharing, of substances controlled and otherwise, is encouraged in this environment. The guy next to me, a spacey and jovial sort, plies me with gifts: “You wanna hit my Malibu Rum?” he begins (no), before further offering a cigarette (no), a stick of Big Red (no) or Juicy Fruit (yes), and “any chick you’re trying to impress” (??).

Meanwhile, the show has begun. No opener, no particular fanfare. Reconvened this spring after a five-year hiatus, Phish—Trey Anastasio on guitar and lead vocals, Page McConnell on pianos and keyboards and so forth, Mike Gordon on bass, and Jon Fishman on drums—schlump onstage with regal nonchalance, taking up their instruments and thereafter each observing a three-foot radius to which they confine their movement, as if under particularly draconian house arrest. A psychedelic, geometrically sumptuous light show provides all the visual stimulation, often mirroring the chooglin’ & noodlin’ sonic action so precisely you realize all that meandering isn’t so random after all.

These guys have songs, folks. Pop songs. “Chalk Dust Torture” (24.76 percent of live shows) and “Sample in a Jar” (15.64) are both vintage Tom Petty riff-rock burners—the former, a manic sprint; the latter, an affable frat-funk lope—both initially models of concise barroom anthemia that, like a great many Phish tunes, eventually evolve (or devolve, depending on how much of your patience has been obliterated) into an epic Anastasio solo, albeit one with a logical coherent arc, a steady crescendo of guitar-hero hysteria bolstered by both the light show and the crowd, which goes logically and steadily more apeshit in kind. There’s something very intimate about that communion. (The 13th time it happens you’re maybe sick of it, and yet.) Other tunes in the 80-minute first set (!) co-opt the Police’s white-reggae neurosis, some punkish bluegrass, and the Stones in sensitive-ballad mode (the excellent “Brian and Robert,” a rare treat at only 2.4 percent). A huge, booming chorus is occasionally deployed just to make sure nobody zones out.

The second set is lousy with zone-outs. I am not convinced even Phish fans give a shit about new Phish studio albums; this year’s Joy has a sweet, lilting earnestness, but the few languid jams therein deployed tonight go nowhere, and the (relative) crowd indifference is palpable. Slightly older tunes fare no better: “Wading in the Velvet Sea” (3.64) is more of a slog. But even then, there are unexpected jolts of vivacity: “Tweezer” is a deliciously nonsensical Frankenstein-stomp sing-along, murky and bombastic and flamboyantly bizarre—it’d make a great Outkast sample. Still an hour left to go, though. Perhaps if you’ve attended several of the other 356 shows in which “Run Like an Antelope” (24.42) has appeared, its dense, rambling Doobie-Brothers-go-ska tangents will speak to you with zen-like clarity. Or perhaps you will be bone-tired. The baby is no longer amused.

Plus an encore! From the band’s notoriously bottomless well of cover tunes bubbles up “A Day in the Life,” notable in that Neil Young did the exact same encore at MSG a year ago, but with a hostile, atonal, apocalyptic edge that doesn’t exactly jibe with the Phish version, a frivolous and blithely optimistic campfire jam that, perhaps out of deference, doesn’t drag on for 20 minutes, or what feels like it. Then a brief, euphoric reprise of “Tweezer” (13.17, confusingly sometimes performed without the actual normal version of “Tweezer” preceding it), and we are free. The effect is as if you’ve been beaten up by really cheerful, appealing people. I advise you to try it, if only the once. And maybe don’t turn down the hit of Malibu Rum.



‘Herbie Hancock: Possibilities’

Herbie Hancock is looking damn good for a man in his mid sixties, and he’s far from set in his ways—the veteran jazzman proved as much on his 2005 duets album Possibilities, on which he teamed up with Christina Aguilera, Annie Lennox, Trey Anastasio, Wayne Shorter, and Sting, among others. This movie tie-in is considerably less innovative than its subject; with its straightforward track-by-track recording-session clips, it feels like something you’d find on the bonus disc of a deluxe package. Only when Hancock plays with Brian Eno do we get a look back at some of his innovations, like the ’80s hit “Rockit,” which integrated synth sounds in ways most jazz players might find disturbing. This is primarily a film for fans of all involved.


Flops and Monks

Most people come to Carnegie Hall to play their big hits,” Ray Davies said two weeks ago, about halfway through Philip Glass’s annual benefit for Tibet House. “I’m gonna play my flops.” It was that kind of show: loose and funky and marked by the sort of creative peaks and valleys that don’t usually define a musty all-star fundraiser. Indeed, when Glass shuffled onstage to begin the program in his rumpled uniform of black slacks and button-down, he looked as though he’d walked into H&R Block, receipt-stuffed manila envelope tucked beneath his arm.

Yet all evening the composer’s handpicked humanitarians bristled against the expectation of stuffiness. Admitting they’d never had an opening act like the Tibetan monks who preceded them, Black Keys singer Dan Auerbach filled the vast auditorium with ghost-town echo and broken-pickup reverb. Neo-cabaret wild child Nellie McKay, who’s exchanged her fiery Reba McEntire ‘do for a platinum Mighty Aphrodite look, pounded her piano maniacally and spat out words about her dead cat with red-faced glee. Marc Anthony Thompson led a nine-piece band through a set of dour deathbed blues with no shoes on, then allowed ex-Phish frontman Trey Anastasio to rip a fierce ginger-ale guitar solo. (Anastasio’s own set was a bummer of drab string-assisted folk-pop mumbling that not even McKay could rescue during an attempted Gram-and-Emmylou duet of “Flock of Words.”) For his promised flops, Davies played a medley of tunes from The Village Green Preservation Society. His voice withered to a Randy Newman sing-speak as he put all manner of kink into his tales of English “introverts, extroverts, and perverts.”

Lou Reed, disguised as he often is these days as Sally Jessy Raphael, bypassed kink on his way to profundity in an outrageously off-key reading of “Perfect Day” that carefully complemented his pal Antony’s quietly devastating “Hope There’s Someone”—these two are the real new Gram and Emmylou. And Patti Smith is the new Quincy Jones: The punk poetess wrapped up the night by leading the entire company through an awkward if impassioned “People Have the Power.” So, cuter couple: Thompson and Davies, or Auerbach and a monk?


Ska, Jam, Rock, and Reggae Stars Try to Drop Pressure

With “reggae does Dylan” on the horizon, True Love gives roots veteran Toots Hibbert the Sinatra Duets treatment. Toots is deserving, and the impulse not entirely misguided (see Bonnie Raitt and Willie Nelson). Still, we’re saddled with abortive pairings, such as Ryan Adams’s latest lifeless attempt to cotton to a new genre without examining his own self. And yes, it was inevitable that Gwen Stefani would come a-knockin’ (probably in special platinum dread weave ), but pairing old coot with young titty or giving a colored artist the “Hendrix treatment” should mostly be resisted when trying to preserve a legacy.

Other than Bootsy’s great, quickening “Funky Kingston” assisted by the Roots, remakes here—including “Sweet and Dandy” (with Trey Anastasio) and “Pressure Drop” (Clapton couldn’t stay away)—don’t improve on classics. Such worthy collaborators as Marcia Griffiths, Bunny Wailer, and Keith Richards sketch the glory True Love could have been. Remix, keep Keef as the token outsider, and dig deeper to a place we can all feel irie.


Proggy Went A-Jammin’

Progressive rock and metal’s double-clutching, gnat-note precision smashes headlong into the jamband clan’s urge to luxuriate in the never-ending now on Chicago sextet Umphrey’s McGee’s delightfully titled Local Band Does O.K. It’s the jam scene’s sleeper of the year, topping Trey Anastasio‘s artful white-funk affirmative action effort, the Disco Biscuits’ joyously disturbed Señor Boombox, and Lake Trout’s moody, Radiohead-tuned Another One Lost. Despite the Onion-y package (and where do the kids come up with their wacky band names?), false modesty taints only the surface of Umphrey’s fourth self-released album since 1998, following Greatest Hits, Vol. 3; Songs for Older Women; and One Fat Sucka.

Local Band opens with the snarling Aerosmithing riffs of “Andy’s Last Beer,” which quickly downshift into lilting verses. The album draws most of its considerable and unceasing energy from the disjunction of metal and melody. Its most prominent instrumental voice belongs to Jake Cinninger, a demonically fast guitarist of countless ideas capable of turning corners on a dime. Second guitarist Brendan Bayliss is almost as flashy. But the band as a whole rocks like a perpetually recalibrated clock, and Cinninger—who composes most of Umphrey’s material—is their perpetually motivated mainspring.

Zappa, Yes, Phish, and moe.—with their various ratios of raw and cooked, seriosity and humor—seem the most notable touchstones for a group that demystifies complexity for the dancing masses. Worked-out tunes such as “White Man’s Moccassins,” “Prowler,” and “Hurt Bird Bath” alternate with simpler statements such as “Headphones & Snowcones,” with its jazzy marimba and trumpet, and the dubby “Blue Echo.” The album ends with its single “jammed-out” track, “Nothing Too Fancy,” which suggests a speedball take on naive progger Captain Beefheart’s “Alice in Blunderland.” At this point, no one else on the jam scene, with the arguable exception of Garaj Mahal, is doing anything else as ambitiously musical as Umphrey’s McGee. Call it fusion if you want; they’d probably be too polite to correct you.


Look Who Stopped Sucking!

Katie bar the door and Grandma bang the pan! Phish have made a good album. It’s not a grand statement, mind you, but a second live set that’s engrossing in a way they never have been before. This is a woolly pop band who can stretch out, rather than an overgrown music-box simulation of one. The most recent studio recordings show some gain in sinew and glossy sound, but Slip Stitch and Pass is an unforeseen development.

Back in 1988, any number of pop commentators in the Northeast could have looked like prophets if they had testified that the crude, band-distributed Junta cassette with the hick-psychedelic fish logo presaged festival-filling success. Still, it was dreadful stuff, so no regrets. Swarms of comparisons to the Grateful Dead (a fascinating group until their temporary retirement in the ’70s) clung to the band like remoras, but always seemed like sucker fare. Phish had aspects in common with the Dead–dilute vocals, faint drumming, keyboards that drained vitality, rhythm problems throughout–but invariably sounded more like Jethro Tull. One reason the new collection breaks out is that finally outsiders can hear the band has roots.

And Phish might have felt they needed to explain themselves to outsiders. The group is only a midrange curiosity in Europe, and this show took place in front of a relatively tiny school of fans in Hamburg, Germany, so the thrust was Phish revisits the garage. Three cover tunes set up the six originals: Talking Heads’ “Cities,” ZZ Top’s “Jesus Just Left Chicago,” and the barbershop quartet fossil “Hello My Baby.” These diverse numbers belong together only through the group’s affection for them. It would be dazzling if Slip Stitch and Pass drew a line from the breathless new wave of “Cities” to the heaving keyboard flourishes of “Taste,” a mature-phase Phish number. While the linkup doesn’t happen onstage, it’s enough that it happens in the performers’ minds. The sense of the tunes flowing together, even if individual numbers stick together no better than usual, gives the whole album a pleasurable, eccentric contour.

Trey Anastasio’s guitar dominates the first three-quarters of the show; he oozes effortlessly into and around a long pedal-effect workout in “Wolfman.” Partisans will claim the beats get funky around here, as the Wolfman turns into Jesus leaving Chicago. The rhythms do loosen, and Anastasio keeps the road map in front of him, but there’s no hint the groove will swallow the room, as in proper funk. Another sore point between true believers and skeptics, the band’s philosophical profundity or lack of it, is solved by the guest writers. The clear language and meaning of “Cities” and, screwy as this sounds, “Jesus Just Left Chicago” (which sounds like a story in this context) make even the recycled Frank Zappa yocks of “Weigh” feel articulate. And words don’t need to haul hefty loads for the rest of the set.

The off-kilter but inexorable pace retakes command on the previously undocumented, and nicely hard-bitten, “Mike’s Song.” Anastasio’s guitarations hammer phrases to pieces and reassemble them. He’s not the dimensional explorer he strives to be, but he works up a sweat thinking hard here. His accumulated sizzle carries you through korny kwotes from the Doors’ “The End” and Pink Floyd’s “Careful With That Axe, Eugene” as well as a mercifully compact rendition of “Lawn Boy,” another one of Phish’s not-stoned-enough jokes. “Weekapaug Groove” ends with a graceful nod to the Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.” None of which is as instructive as the first encore snippet that follows.

The a cappella “Hello My Baby” is Phish with the flannel cloak of enigma stripped away. “Send me a kiss by wire,” indeed. Clearly the audience thinks wow, what far-out material, but the earnest presentation, right through shaky harmonies, turns Phish into plain folks at last. Slip Stitch and Pass will probably remain an oddball item in the band’s catalogue, since it cuts straight across their mystique. Modest and gawky, this set takes prog-rock satire and psychedelia and heavy blues and turns them into a backyard playlet. This is a bunch of nice fellows from down the block who happen to know how to keep the gang entertained for the afternoon with card tricks and shaggy-dog yarns. Rather like what their name always led you to expect.