Everyone’s Gone Phishin’

Photo Courtesy of Steph Port Photography.

For the uninitiated, getting high does not have to include the use of drugs. Sure, smoking a few joints or taking a couple of dabs is a fast and easy way to get there. But the truth of the matter is that there are many ways to achieve the coveted blissful state of happiness and contentment.

Children do it unknowingly at young ages, spinning in circles until their hearts race with an eruption of giggles. Whirling dervishes, hula hoopers and many forms of dancing follow the same idea of arriving at that blissful state with repeated movement or sound. Even the repetition of running can provide the very same high, known simply as a “runners high.” Chanting and song can also bring this same sense of higher enlightenment and bliss. 

One of the greatest examples of that can be found at Madison Square Garden for the past two weeks: Phish’s historic Bakers Dozen, 13 nights of exquisite music brought to you by four maestros of music—Trey Anastasio, Page McConnell, Mike Gordon and Jon Fishman.

Each night, a new and fresh interpretation of their music, played with nary a repeat and even includes a few new cover songs in a playful manner that is purely Phish. A game with its audience based on the flavor of doughnut sponsored for that day, which foretells what songs they will cover. Double chocolate gave us a raucous, funk filled “You Sexy Thing” by Hot Chocolate off their album Hot Chocolate. Get there early enough and you may even get to sample a doughnut provided by the band—just be wary; the band warns to be careful of the brown doughnuts, a tongue in cheek reference to the infamous Woodstock brown acid incident of 1969.    

If you’re looking for a show where every single note is played without mistake or misstep, then you’ve come to Phish for the wrong reason.

Taking risks, pushing boundaries and not settling for the same exact thing each time is what’s on the table here. Evolving the music and creating sounds based on the energy in the room at that precise moment is exactly what these guys are brilliant at. Not only does it allow for songs to be fresh and new each time you hear them, it also allows the people seeing the concert to participate in a unique way by providing a stream of energy that these four band mates can then interpret into sound.

Therein lies the tricky part.

How do you play 250+ songs in 13 days, each done uniquely each night and not fluster in mistakes? How do you keep the music so tight and powerful?

That’s where these guys truly are masterful. Having played together for over 30 years (the final member, Page joined in 1985) without any members changing within this idea of open jam music has honed their mind-meld abilities to near perfection. You know how couples that have been together for 15-20 years can finish each other’s sentences? Imagine these four fine gentleman doing that, but with their instruments and with great intent. Truly something special.

How many bands have existed for 30 years with the same members and played with such regularity? The Who, Rolling Stones and a few others, but the truth is (not to demean any of these bands as they are all amazing in their own right) these bands generally play their songs in a very similar fashion. The allure of going to a Stones show is that I get to hear “Gimme Shelter” the way we all know and love it. Their risks and evolution are more evident in the new songs and albums they create, rather than created in front of an audience live. Phish goes out on limb after limb and takes risks that result in custom songs grown specifically for that audience.

Let’s not forget the fifth member of the band—light designer Chris Kuroda, who has been with the band since the late ’80s. He undoubtedly is instrumental in helping immerse the audience in a sea of lights and energy that mesmerizes and hypnotizes right alongside the sweet stream of music. Flawlessly matching to the rhythm and energy of the music, the lighting serves as an integral theatric aspect that quite literally is second to none on the music scene. A true ringer.

Now by no means am I saying that a Phish show is full of sober people getting high off music. But for every person getting high off of their choice of substance, there’s a person standing next to them basking in the power of the music to uplift them in chemical sobriety, running off pure dopamine and serotonin.

In my 30+ years of going to live shows, never before have I seen so many people bringing their parents to a “rock” concert. In fact, the quality of the audience is something quite special too. Respectful of their neighbors on the floor is status quo. When the energy of your surrounding community is so paramount to your shows experience, becoming friendly and caring provides a safe haven for all involved and serves to create an atmosphere that fuels the bands tank.

Swimming in a sea of people with similar energy, intent and passion provides a certain sense of comfort, belonging and camaraderie. So whether or not you partake in the Kool-Aid, indulge in some kind or bask in the energy of loved ones, let the music play and do what those four boys do—surrender to the flow.

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