Soak On The Wrath That You Didn’t Quite Mask

Everything slips away, eventually. We have lost so much in 2020 that it’s hard to begin to comprehend it just yet. We might never get there. From the as-yet nearly two million deaths related to COVID-19 to the related job losses to the very idea of truth in a truthiness-saturated world, we are collectively losing many more things, and they are losing us, at a much faster rate than any of us living have ever experienced.

Something leaving us at precisely the same rate as it always has, however, is time. An unhuman entity forced us into our homes and away from our loved ones for long stretches; for once, it seemed, there was a problem that throwing federal government-level amounts of money wouldn’t fix[1]. Most of us were forced to adapt; some didn’t, and died; others did, and died anyway. Time kept on slipping, in all its finite utility.

Under the circumstances, and with nowhere to go, it was up to us to spend a lot of time with ourselves. Election-year news cycles are Ringling Brothers productions gone awry in normal times, but taking in the news, even in the simple pursuit of attempting to stay anything like informed, was an especially depressing exercise in 2020.

All of which, of course, returns us to the band Phish. A thing I was supposed to do this year, the flight voucher for which I’m never sure I’ll be able to redeem: go to the Gorge Ampitheatre in Washington state, a world-renowned outdoor venue about a little closer to Spokane than to Seattle in driving distance, to see the Vermont-based group.

As you may have guessed, that didn’t happen. Phish cancelled their summer tour on May 1, about two weeks after the United States had its largest single-day death pandemic death total so far. At that point, it seemed miniscule, just another suspicion confirmed in a year that already seemed over.

Already, though, Phish had adapted. After all, it’s what they do best. Starting in late March, the band had begun weekly broadcasts that eventually turned monthly of archival shows. Calling it “Dinner And A Movie,” Phish did its best to retain the sense of community it had worked for nearly forty years to cultivate, to the tune of 27 virtual installments so far. They even included accompanying, usually thematically-related recipes.

In the meantime, they rushed to release an album, one of their strongest studio efforts ever[2]. Phish guitarist and de-facto leader Trey Anastasio began recording new songs from his home, even using wine glasses and spoons as percussive accompaniment, eventually culminating in an eight-week virtual concert series from the Beacon Theatre with his own band[3].

For a band so dependent upon the live experience, Phish has done a startlingly bang-up a job of keeping the spirits of their fans alive. One of the best aspects of being a Phish fan[4], or a fan of any musical act currently working, is the guessing game. With Phish in particular, phans concoct any multitude of hypotheticals, from show and setlist openers to whether a song not played in twenty years may make a mighty return.

To their credit, Phish has always been more than happy to match the creative urges of phans with their own. Every Dinner And A Movie gave more seasoned phans the chance to re-live favorite moments, while extending the less experienced sect the opportunity to see things they had perhaps only heard on or Phish’s SiriusXM radio station[5].

The anticipation of the announcements waned a bit with the reduction in regularity, but every phan had their own bets on how the band would treat New Year’s Eve this year. Typically, they likely would be in the middle of a four-night run at Madison Square Garden, where they have played 64 times so far in their career.

Recently, I was in a conversation with my oldest, not older, brother about the band, probably at my behest being that it’s every phan’s God-given duty to speak loudly and incessantly about how, you know, there’s something in it for everyone if you’ve got the patience[6].

Eventually, a key question among phans came up: what is the one show you would have a non-phan listen to get them into the band? It’s something that, like Deadheads before them, phans think about only once they’re far enough in. For the record – I do not consider myself a Phish scholar by any means[7], but I know enough to have my own favorites and have listened to many of the shows phans typically rank among the best[8].

A go-to answer for many, however, is the New Year’s Eve 1995 show, only the third time Phish had ever played the Garden and the first on the final night of the year. Long an official audio release but one whose video has been partial and mostly crude, the band and its fans consider the show among the best. Incidentally, it will also be the Dinner And A Movie showing on Thursday night.

For the new listener who wants a taste of everything Phish has to offer, from the ferocious musicality to the culture, you can certainly do worse. From original staples like “Punch You In The Eye” and “Chalk Dust Torture” to covers of The Who, Howard and Emerson, Edgar Winter and Chuck Berry, the band’s diverse portfolio is on display.

There is a much-beloved version of “You Enjoy Myself,” a song complete with a Robert Fripp-plays-Bach section, four intelligible lyrics, a trampoline-based dance routine and the closest white guys from Vermont ever got to sounding like Mothership Connection­-era Parliament-Funkadelic. Visually, it is stunning; musically, it makes the visuals appear prosaic[9].

That was also the final night of a 1995-specific tradition that Phish is planning to resurrect: a game of chess against the audience. The band will make chess moves throughout the night, with phans voting on where their piece will go. If you’re not ready for the full Gamehendge experience but loved The Queen’s Gambit, this night is for you.

As Lexus commercials and unsolicited emails from Task Rabbit are now prone to reminding us, none of us know what the future holds, even as we’re losing so much of the present. What little many of us have left, we must hold on to for dear life, at times quite literally.

I suspect that on some brighter, or at least less-bleak, day, it will be the small joys and delights that got us through. What made us smile will have been the failed sourdough starters and fostered pets. Phish may not be for everybody, but in 2020, their collective efforts have helped me and a lot of others cope. They never stopped trying and never want you to, either. Maybe that will end up being how we were all in this together.

[1] There are plenty of societal issues that throwing that kind of money at would fix and that we simply haven’t chosen to throw, of course, but I digress.

[2] In AllMusic critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine’s estimation, this is because it is “the rare Phish studio set that feels as effortless as a Phish concert.” Granted, the ill-timed lyric “Take off your mask/the fear’s an illusion, so don’t even ask” sparked some unrest among, uhh, particular segments of the fanbase, but anyway—

[3] For Anastasio in particular, the effort comes with a particular motivation. A former opiate addict, Anastasio went sober following a traffic stop in 2006 and subsequent stint in drug court. He has long been vocal about people sliding into troubling places. Cognizant of the emotional toll that extreme isolation hoists upon people, particularly those prone to addiction and/or struggling with their mental health, Anastasio wanted to give people something to look forward to apart from the sound of a clock ticking. I certainly haven’t been at my emotional or mental best since March. The Beacon Jams helped raise money for the Divided Sky Fund, a Phish-related philanthropic pursuit that aims to build a drug treatment center in Vermont.

[4] Phan, as it were.

[5] Couched six spots after the Grateful Dead’s and one spot ahead of Dave Matthews Band’s on the dial.

[6] The brother in between us regards Phish as hippie bullshit, which: okay, to some degree, fair. But also not! In this essay, I am currently—

[7] Thanks to my high school bandmates and a bit of digging, my way in ended up being through one of their Halloween costume shows, during which they play a full-length cover of a popular record. That’s easy for a fan of, say, Talking Heads or the Velvet Underground, both of which have ended up in Halloween shows and in individual covers since. Another way might be to just be constantly playing Phish in your dorm room, which will not only make you instantly and wildly popular but will also eventually get someone to ask just what the fuck it is we’re all listening to (I did not do this – I promise! – but know someone who did and eventually converted one (1) person. God’s plan). If you want to absolutely ensure that somebody finds something, play them the second set from Phish’s turn of the Millennium show at Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida, the largest concert on earth from that night. At seven-and-a-half hours in length, go ahead: I dare you.

[8] Not for nothing, my Spotify Wrapped this year reflected that.

[9] Phish themselves have disavowed themselves of the idea that they are or ever were a funk band, instead preferring “cow-funk” for what they do and have done in the past, but there remains a cultural barrier. In a lot of respects, the people that view Phish as an extremely white-, extremely male-driven entity aren’t exactly wrong, but outside of the 1.0/2.0/3.0 generational gaps that manifest themselves on message boards concerning shows from 1989 or whatever, I stand by a long-held notion that phans are among the friendliest all-around communities in music. The best way to get anybody into Phish is to take them to a show, but hosting shows for everyone to watch at home simultaneously if they so choose seems like the next-best option.


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