I have technically been a Phish fan since my early teens, when a dreadlocked summer camp counselor played the song “Fee” each morning to rouse a cadre of young adolescents from their slumber and get them ready for the day.
My devotion grew over the years, and by now I consider myself a Phish “head”. At this stage in my fan arc, I wholeheartedly believe that what keeps me coming back for more is the community built between the band and it’s fans.
On Friday night (April 30th) at the Hazard Center Ultrastar Theatre, there was a love fest going on that most people never get to experience in a movie theater. The best part: someone stumbling in off the street would have thought they had walked into a full-on concert, complete with clouds of smoke and a room full of clapping, dancing, laughing hippies having a grand ole time.
To give a little background info, Phish has officially broken up twice in their history. The first hiatus occurred ten years ago, and they were reincarnated as what many people call Phish 2.0 in late 2002.
Nobody really knows what dragged them down for sure, but it was clear that they were not at the top of their game by the time Phish 2.0 ended. This incarnation of the band culminated with a three day “farewell” festival in Coventry, Vermont in the summer of 2004. The story of Coventry is that of legend: heavy rains had turned the grounds of the festival sight into impassible mud, and on behalf of the band, bassist Mike Gordon sent a tearful message over the radio asking fans not yet in the venue to turn around and go home.
The rain, the mud, the radio message – it didn’t deter most of us. Like tens of thousands of other fans, my crew and I left our vehicle on the side of the Vermont Turnpike and hiked 13 miles into the venue, not worried one bit about it being towed (as the Vermont State Troopers had threatened).
It was a display of affection that very few bands can conjure. Unfortunately, the emotion of the weekend caught up to the band, and the music left something to be desired. It was a fitting end, in hindsight, to what was a strange and difficult incarnation of one of the world’s most beloved bands.
Fortunately for those of us left with a hole in our souls after that time, signs of Phish 3.0 started to pop up a few years ago. All the guys started playing with vigor again on the jam band circuit.
Lead guitarist Trey Anastazio’s solo act had finally started to become a fitting tribute to his days with Phish, and after a DUI and drug possession arrest in upstate New York, he was clean and sober through the help of a local drug court.The message boards on websites like Phantasytour.com started to blow up with rumors of the band getting back together.
And then, suddenly it happened. The band announced that they would be returning in 2009 with a nationwide tour and a new album, “Joy”. It is my opinion that “Joy” is probably among their best studio albums and will add a handful of fan favorites to their live shows in the years to come.
As many people in San Diego now know, Phish inevitably settled on Indio for a Halloween festival, aptly named “8” (it was their eighth festival). The venue choice, the Empire Polo Grounds (the same locale that holds the Coachella music festival each year) was a prophetic choice for a Halloween themed festival with its epic grass fields and spooky desert locale.
Most importantly, for the first time West Coast fans were being prioritized by the band. And on top of it all, we would be treated to another chapter in the band’s legendary repertoire: Phish traditionally covers a classic album by a band or artist that influenced them in their musical development on Halloween. Past shows include covers of the The Who’s “Quadrophenia”, Talking Heads “Remain in Light”, and The Beatle’s “White Album”. The scene was set for a monumental weekend.
Leading up to the festival, OB in particular was energized. I know firsthand of at least 50 people right here in our little neighborhood that attended, and I would gather that’s only a sliver of the actual number. Its hard to describe the excitement. Fans from all over the country were going to be coming into LA, San Diego, and other SoCal destinations for this. It was OUR festival.
I guess the rest is history, in a way. The weekend in Indio was one of the best experiences of my life. The band turned the venue into a playground for adults, complete with interactive art installations, a farmer’s market, beer gardens with brews specifically made for the festival, flying pieces of interactive art for the fans to enjoy, and the most organized music festival campground setup I’ve ever seen. It was clear they put a good chunk of the ticket sale money right back into the venue.
For a few weeks leading up to the event, the band had started a Halloween-themed game on their website meant to keep fans guessing as to which album they would cover. By the time the festival started, only three or four albums were considered finalists and fans were literally arguing over which one the band would play. In the end, they chose the Rolling Stones “Exile on Main Street”, a fitting choice considering “Loving Cup” has been a tour mainstay for some time now.
Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings backed the band up, adding a bluesy/R&B element to the show that defined the night as a classic rock and roll event. Phish also chose Indio for their first ever live acoustic set, which remains one of my favorite moments of the weekend.
We knew that the band was filming the entire weekend, because cameras had been strategically placed around the music venue and they were camera cranes reaching out into the crowds during the shows. But I will be the first to admit I never imagined the movie was going to be in 3D, nor did I assume it would be released in theaters across the country.
“Phish 3D” is the final product of the footage from the festival. Announced only a few months ago, and with a limited release, the movie seems to be the band’s way of thanking fans for decades of dedication. With this movie, I think the band is making a statement: they will continue to do whatever they can to connect to fans and give them a great experience – regardless of the media messenger.
For the record, I have mixed feelings about this new technology. For those who have not yet experienced it, the new “Real 3D” is not the traditional style, where you put on red and blue lense glasses and things seemingly fly towards you from the screen. This new 3D is more aptly described as 3D filming. Of course there are moments where things fly out at you (in “Phish 3D”, one of the most endearing aspects were the balloons and glow sticks that popped up in front of the stage and added to the fact that the viewer really felt as if they were at a concert) but it is more about the depth in the filmed subjects than anything else. “Avatar” didn’t exactly enamor me to the technology; I felt as if it would have been just as cool without the 3D. But for a rock concert – its a whole different story.
“Phish 3D” was in many ways, classic Phish. It opened immediately to music, and beside for a short break of footage from Halloween depicting the “scene” (including a hand puppet show that had been put together for families with small children) the movie stayed that way the whole time. No interviews, no fan shout outs, nothing but the guys doing their damn thing.
The footage and music the band chose to use was secondary to the technology; it was more impressive to me to get an in-depth view of the drum set, the guitars, Page’s keyboard setup, the stage view, the crowd shots, facial expressions, and other pieces of the show fans normally don’t get to see. Maybe I feel that way because I attended the festival and thus, didn’t feel like there was a need for the band to document EVERY song they played. But I believe that the production was more about the footage in Real 3D, which is a tenfold improvement over Hi-Definition.
I give Phish credit for doing something that only one other band can claim (U2 produced a similar type of film in Real 3D, but my guess is that it was much more self-serving) but there were some glaring omissions.
For one, the light show was an incredibly important part of the festival and it was not given a fair share of credit in the film. On top of that, there wasn’t much footage of the various art installations that lined the festival site. That was an aspect I really enjoyed, and I would have liked for fans who weren’t able to attend to see that. What left me feeling like I had just had a religious experience, however, was not the film.
The atmosphere at Ultrastar was identical to a concert. Fans dressed up in funky outfits, band t-shirts, and flashing lights. Beers were cracked without an attempt to silence the hiss of the can, and the atmosphere had “PARTY” written all over it. A handful of intrepid souls even indulged in marijuana. Remember – this was a movie theater. But once the doors closed, the combination of the emotional connection to the band and the technology (including the incredible surround sound) turned it into a concert venue. It was sweaty, it was loud, and it was Phish.
I spent most of the movie dancing in the aisle. The only thing I can aptly compare it to is the Rocky Horror Picture Show, but even that is an unfair comparison to both sets of fans.
This was unique to Phish nation, from beginning to end. Because of the extremely limited showing and the fact that only a handful of theaters in each city participated, there was a feeling of unity and timeliness that I will remember forever. Maybe Phish will continue to blow our minds and come up with new ways to spoil their fans. But for now, all I can say is that I’m thankful to be a part of something that is obviously bigger than just music.
In the Phish song, “Lizards” there is a lyric that most appropriately defines this experience: “The trick was to surrender to the flow”. By surrendering to the flow and not conforming, we were able to effectively transform a movie theater from a room full of comfortable seats into a shrine to rock and roll. A Friday night well spent, to say the least.