Thursday, September 15, 2011

Wake of the Flood: Phish Returns to Vermont


Photo by Dave Vann © Phish 2011

If you've ever been to Burlington and engage in conversation with the locals, it seems that everyone holds the members of Phish in the highest regard, but more importantly, they all seem to know one of the boys personally or professionally. Vermont is a small state and even though it's a college town, Burlington has a small town mentality -- essentially everyone knows everyone. Trey is still called Trey, and even though we regard Trey as a mythical rock star, in this part of the Vermont, Trey is a local hero similar to a high school quarterback in a desolate West Texas town -- he might go onto bigger and better things, but he's still their "home boy."

I made the journey from San Francisco to Burlington via a red eye from Oakland to JFK, where I switched planes to fly to Burlington. At least 85% of my plane were heads and I was seated to one of the few civilians on board. She was a woman in her 50s and we made some small talk as I buckled in. I told her that I was a writer who is flying out to cover Phish's benefit show.

"They are such nice boys for doing this," she gushed. "My husband is a contractor and he once worked on Page's house."

I snickered. She had no idea about the running inside joke from this summer about "Page's house", so I clued her in. I don't think she fully appreciated it, but she smiled anyway.

My cabbie had nothing but amazing things to say about the Burlington music scene. "Phish is the band that put Vermont on the map, but there's plenty of other great (bands) in town. Grace Potter... she's a sweetheart. I know her parents. But Trey and the rest of the band do so much to promote music. Trey's even a part owner of the Higher Ground."

When I checked into my hotel, the pimple-faced kid at the front desk mentioned that his mom and step-dad were Trey's neighbors who lived "about 35 minutes from here."

* * *

I had frequent flier miles on JetBlue that I stashed away for a special occasion like the Vermont show. I got shutout in lottery, but luckily a cool guy from Minnesota named Trent hooked me up with two extras, which meant I could see the show with one of my closest and oldest friends, Senor. We've seen over 50 shows together including the infamous Japan tour in 2000. He's got a wife, mistress, two kids, and a job that requires long hours so he doesn't get to see as many shows as we used to. The last time we saw Phish together was the New England run last October (Providence, Worcester, Manch-Vegas and Amherst). He didn't have time to see the boys this summer, so he was super stoked when I told him I scored tickets.

"Well if you're flying all the way out from San Francisco to see one show," he said, "Then I can make the trek up from Providence!"

I rarely get to see shows with Senor in 3.0 so any time I hang out with Senor I know it's gonna be a raging time. On a more selfish note, I wanted to see Phish in Vermont to help exorcise those haunting Coventry demons. My friend Molly from Texas and I hiked in three miles to see that shit-stained trainwreck of a last waltz during a mud-riddled clusterfuck with Trey super schwasted and Page crying during Velvet Sea. The band walked off stage at Coventry under a cloud of gloom and misery.

Seven years later, Phish an opportunity to avenge the biggest blemish on their storied career, and at the same time, assisting their home state in a time of crisis by helping raise $1 million. Vermont was devastated by Hurricane Irene which caused severe wind damage and massive flooding. While the alphabet news networks focused on the hurricane reaching landfall in the Carolinas and the hysteria surrounding the clamping down of New York City, little old Vermont was barely mentioned by the mainstream media. Phish has always had a history of altruism and community service, so playing a benefit concert in Vermont seemed the appropriate thing to do.

I caught every Phish show since Super Ball IX and the band was en fuego by the time they arrived in Chicago. Toss in the three sizzling shows in Colorado and the band reached their pinnacle of the 3.0 era. The perfectionists in Phish wanted to collectively erase the last time they performed in Vermont. Plus, the gig was going to be at the Essex County fairgrounds, a mere stone's throw from their hometown in Burlington. Back to where it all began.

If you've seen the setlist or watched the stream, then you already know the benefit show fell into a "greatest hits" category. They omitted a couple of heavy hitters that were skipped in Colorado (most notably YEM, Wilson, and Mike's Groove). They played many of their classic songs and kept the far-out jamming to a minimum (with a few exceptions like Gin, DWD, Carini and Wolfman's).

Senor and I arrived at the lots around 6pm. A mini-Shakedown was set up on the far side of the fairgrounds and a fair amount of extras were floating around. We hung out for a bit before we made our way into the show and got stuck in a slow-moving line to get into the venue. That's when we heard Gordo and Vermont's governor greet the crowd. Gov Shumlin remarked about waiting seven years to see Phish play a gig in their home state.

The venue was a little bigger than the Tahoe set up with a massive grandstand opposite of the stage. The floor was cramped during the first few songs. Lots of drunks barreling through once the lights went down for the Chalkdust opener. Fish sported a special "Hurricane" muumuu for the occasion.


Photo courtesy of Gordo

The boys brought the "cow funk" early with Moma Dance in the second slot, followed up by a bubbly NICU. The crowd enthusiastically responded when Trey belted out, "Play it Leoooooooooooo!"

Everything fell into place with Funky Bitch batting cleanup before a crowd sing-along with Sample in a Jar. The guy behind me in a Red Sox hat was screaming the lyrics off key. We were treated to a rare mid-set Cavern (seems like it's been a set closer or deep into the first set as of late). Even Senor noted the early appearance of Cavern, which lacked the frenzied energy if it ended a set.

One of the jamming highlights of the first set included Bathtub Gin, accompanied by a roaring response from the crowd during the "We're all in this together, and we love to take a bath" segment. They lost me a bit with the jam, but Fish managed to pull Trey and the rest of the jam out of a dead end with a spectacular finish.

Alaska popped up and all I could think about were the rumors floating around the internet that Sarah Palin slept with former NBA star Glen Rice when he played at Michigan. It was a bizarre story for sure and as my mind wandered during the jam, I wondered if Palin ever got backstage during a Phish show in 1991 and gave Fishman a handjob at setbreak.

The crowd's energy level dipped with Alaska, but quickly recovered with Possum. It felt weird to hear a Possum non-show-opener, but the crowd soaked it all up. The last two songs -- Wolfman's > Julius -- might have been one of the more magical moments of the show, which punctuated a 90-minute opening set. At one point I had my eyes closed during the juicy Wolfman's jam and when I opened them I saw Senor jumping up and down with his arms in the air. That's one of my favorite moments at any concert -- when you see your friends getting down and rocking out. Senor and his brother used to make fun of me in the late 1990s when I was all wook'd out with a ponytail and a scraggly beard. They often referred to me as the Wolfman, so whenever we hear Wolfman's in 3.0, we always have a big laugh at the olden days.

At setbreak a drunk girl muttered, "When does Dave Matthews come on?"

"He's playing a solo acoustic set behind the port-o-potties right now!" I blurted out.

At the beginning of the second set, Trey noted that they saw lots of old friends in Vermont with the exception of two -- Pete and Tara. Pete was Fish's former drum tech otherwise known as Carini. Yep, you guess it... Carini opened up the second set. I wondered if they would throw us a bone with a Dicky Scotland Reprise?

The stretched-out Carini had a couple of dark moments before I heard a few teases and blustery notes sounding like the intro to Down With Disease, and sure enough, Carini slipped into DWD. On a random note, I recieved an email during DWD offering me a writing assignment to cover a poker tournament in Medellin, Colombia. Seriously. I saw that as an ominous sign!

DWD was left unfinished as Trey sort of rushed the band into Slave to the Traffic Light, which popped up much earlier in the set than expected. Slave usually anchors the back end of a second set, but I wasn't complaining. It's always a good night when your favorite band plays your favorite song. I always think the band plays it especially for me as a "thanks for making the journey with us."

Senor was a little schwilly by Rock and Roll. He became the "woooooooooohooooooo" guy and unleashed one of his trademarked screams every few minutes. Senor's all-time favorite Phish show was Vegas Halloween in 1998 and the musical costume of Velvet Underground's "Loaded." He said Rock and Roll always gives him instant flashbacks to that epic night. Page always shines on covers and he stepped it up, but just when Rock and Roll's jam got cooking, Trey pulled the rip chord during an abrupt seg into Twist. Trey's ADD got the best of him again and they bailed out of Twist in favor of Backwards Down the Number Line. I remember seeing a TAB show at Lupo's Heartbreak Hotel in Providence with Senor right after Phish announced reunion shows at Hampton. Trey played Backwards that night and I remarked that it'll probably be one of the new songs Phish introduced in the 3.0 era.

Gordo unleashed the fight bell at the beginning to Theme from the Bottom. Senor was pumped because he couldn't remember the last time he heard it. During Suzy Greenberg, a couple of Phishy chicks in front of us were doing dippies and jumping up and down. I thought Suzy would end the set because of the rumored 11pm curfew, because if they were going to play a 20+ minute YEM encore, then they needed to end the show immediately after Suzy. Alas, the boys snuck in a reeling Character Zero to close out the second set.

I wondered if Phish was going to go past the 11pm curfew. After all, the Governor was at the show and surely he could bend the elasticity of the rules for Phish, right? Everyone wondered if the benefit show would also feature guest appearances ranging from Jen Hartswick to Grace Potter to the Giant Country Horns. Alas, this gig was 100% pure Phish. No sit ins. No Santana.

The show ended with a single encore song and a cover of the Rolling Stones' Loving Cup. Sadly, no YEM for all of you YEM-maniacs.

Senor walked out of the venue just like everyone else -- all smiles. Even though he recognized the greatest hits theme, he mentioned, "One of the better shows I've seen since Phish returned."

* * *

I thought I saw my 151st and final show in Coventry, Vermont in 2004. At that point, I was done with Phish and the demoralized scene. By the end of 2004, I stumbled into the poker scene and spent the better part of the last seven years as a gambling reporter following around different tournament circuits in Las Vegas and internationally. It's a different type of traveling circus, but I missed being on Phish tour. Every. Single. Day.

Phish returned to the fray in 2009 and I racked up 89 shows since the reunion shows at the Mothership in Hampton. The Vermont benefit show might not stand out musically (or gimmicky) compared to some of the smoking shows from this summer, but this particular show will always have a special spot in my heart.

Phish is a tremendous source of inspiration. The friends that I met through the band give me hope for humanity. Trey is a personal hero because I also struggle with some of the same (pharmaceutical) demons that he dealt with over the last decade or so. It's not easy being Trey, and it's even a thousand times tougher to walk the line of sobriety while feeding the creative beast within you and trying to entertain and show everyone a good time without being redundant. Despite the deviant obstacles, Trey and the rest of the band continue to share their collaborative musical talents with whomever is bold and crazy enough to follow them along for the ride. Phish was born in Vermont in the mid-80s when a bunch of geeky college students decided to form a band. It took 240 attempts, but I'm fortunate that I got to finally see a good show near their birthplace.

Coventry's demons have finally been exorcised.

* * *

Before I go, I have a couple "special thanks" to two people. I called in a huge favor from my project manager at PokerStars (Otis is the man!) and he got me out of a writing assignment/deadline so I could see the benefit show. Also, thanks to Trent B. for finding me a pair of tickets. He's a good dude, so if you enjoyed the tweets from the show, he's responsible for hook up. If you ever see Trent or Otis in the lot, buy them a beer!


Lastly, Vermont is going to be struggling over the next months during their recovery. They still need your support. If you'd like to volunteer and get your hands dirty, check out Vermont Response website to see how you can pitch in. Also, you can still donate money for flood recovery by clicking here.

4 comments:

Kid Dynamite said...

great post, pauly.

Teddy Dellesky said...

Thanks for the post. i always like your take on a show. I've been thinking about the phone-in concerts of this year (i.e. Hollywood, San Fran, and Essex). For all the criticism that they get for the lack of exploratory playing and predictable set lists, the band sure seems relaxed and it shows in their playing. I, for one, am glad that they can just play their greatest hits set for a night every so often without the pressure to push some new boundary or redefine themselves.

Trent said...

Cheers Pauly!
Absolutely love the Carini from this show and they even gave us the video taboot!
-trenthfb

JLF_420 said...

no link ?