I park my car along the side of a narrow road at 7:10 Sunday evening, August 4, and begin running up the incline toward Red Rocks, where the Vermont phenom Phish is due to take the stage in less than twenty minutes. My speed and technique certainly don't put Michael Johnson to shame, but as I zig and zag through the unwashed masses, one teen--his grimy hair festooned with beads, his complexion so pale you can practically see his skeleton through it--is impressed enough to hit me with his highest compliment: "Dude!" Closer to the top of the hill, a second young man--this one clad in a once-yellow Cheerios T-shirt that looks as if he'd recently used it to clean up his incontinent grandmother--asks, "Cash for your extra ticket?" When I reply that I don't have any spares, he looks puzzled. "I said cash," he points out.
Actual folding green is indeed in short supply among a sizable percentage of those who've flocked to Red Rocks from across the country for this date; how they've managed to come so far with so little in their pockets is as mysterious as their prejudice against showering. But what matters more to them is that they are here. And if they don't get into the venue tonight, well, there's always tomorrow night. And the night after. And the night after. In a summer notable mainly for low ticket demand, Phish is the exception. Only the Grateful Dead could have sold out four consecutive nights at Red Rocks as quickly--and with that band in the grave, at least for the moment, Phish (featuring guitarist Trey Anastasio, bassist Mike Gordon, keyboardist Page McConnell and drummer Jon Fishman) is the principal act reaping the benefits. The reason why is something I, a live Phish virgin, am hoping to discover--with a little help from some friendly Phish-heads.
Julie Kelly, the editorial administrator for the Houston Press, one of Westword's sister publications, has agreed to act as our guide into the Phish universe. She first caught the group five years ago--long after some of its first supporters, but still early on in what remains a fairly nascent sensation. "When I saw them in Austin in 1992, they were playing a theater that held maybe a thousand people," Julie says. "I even got a chance to meet them when their bus came in; there was nobody around but me. They were really nice guys." She's seen all of the combo's Texas and Louisiana gigs since then, and when she heard about the Red Rocks engagement, she immediately booked a flight to Denver. She's crashing with Bridget McKeever, a Denver-based editorial assistant for Westword's parent company, New Times. Like me and my wife, who's also accompanying us, Bridget has never seen Phish in concert, but she's laid a groundwork for the experience. "One time when I was driving with some friends to Florida," she reveals, "we listened to this one Phish tape for thirteen hours straight."
After hooking up with our party, we're herded onto a stairway, where a crush of attendees is waiting to be searched. A security guard hollers, "Anyone who wants to tape, go to the left. And everyone else should have your backpacks open when you get up there."
"Are they going to smoke what's in it?" wonders a fan.
"Yeah," calls out a shaggy-haired guy peddling "Ticketbastard" T-shirts, amid a chorus of good-natured whoops. "Marijuana to the left, too."
"That's the beauty of it, dude," the first fan responds. "I don't have any marijuana." This earns a big laugh. According to Julie, nitrous oxide, mushrooms and acid are the average Phish-head's music enhancers of choice. But given the fact that my contact high already has me feeling as if my mouth is made of Styrofoam, they're clearly not the only ones.
A moment later, a tie-dye-clad man appears with a stack of papers bearing the moniker "The Pharmer's Almanac Tour Extra." (The two-volume Pharmer's Almanac is devoted to all things Phishy.) "These are European set lists," he announces. "Pass them around--if you don't want one, don't just throw it on the ground." He needn't have added this last reminder; the Phish-heads handle the mimeographs as gingerly as they might the original Magna Carta.
Inside the amphitheater, Julie and Bridget instinctively head down an aisle in the direction of the front segment, even though this portion of Red Rocks is packed tighter than Imelda Marcos's shoe closet. As we move up and down rows, stepping over blankets, purses and the occasional unconscious person, the chances of us finding a place to stand together strike me as considerably more remote than the possibility that Dick Lamm will be the next president of the United States. Moments before the lights go down, though, we manage to wedge ourselves into a spot near the bathrooms. We're cramping someone's space in a big way, but not only does the victim not complain, he doesn't even seem to notice.
If these apostles were any mellower, they'd be on life support, yet the vibe is surprisingly pleasant. The throng is a blend of young, rather straight-looking types and their more hygienically challenged peers. The latest techniques in weaving, bundling and arranging hair so that it needs no shampooing are on display, but not all of them are successful; the chap in front of me has so many lice eggs perched among his follicles that his coiffure resembles a junior high science experiment. When he starts swinging his head from side to side, I back up for fear that the vermin will start flying at me like screws from a pipe bomb.
Such anxieties start to ebb when Phish kicks off "Chalk Dust Torture," from the 1992 album A Picture of Nectar. The tune is straightforward and jaunty, and it puts the lie to the perception that every Phish tune runs over three hours. In this case, the performance is not much more extended than the studio version, which clocks in at 4:35. The listeners know it so well that at several instances, they simultaneously hoot and point their fingers at the players to demonstrate their approval. It's a gesture that's repeated throughout the next song, "Funky Bitch," which also runs about five minutes. There's nothing terribly innovative about these tracks, but they're extremely energetic. The reaction of the crowd calls to mind a mound of gelatin being jolted with electricity.
Julie and Bridget are jumping, too, even though neither of them knows what the ditties are called, nor do they know the handles of any bandmembers other than Anastasio. This is not all that uncommon, Julie insists: "There are a lot of people like that, who know the songs but may not know their names--and may not be able to tell you when one song ends and the next one begins." If that's so, it likely will change as time goes on. An astounding number of Phish-heads jot down the set list at each Phish show they attend; one eventually takes mercy on me and fills in the gaps of my Phish knowledge.
Still, it's "Guyute," the next selection, that really marks the start of my education. The composition begins as something akin to a country shuffle, then segues into a full-blown jazz interlude, complete with a joust between Anastasio and McConnell that's legitimately challenging--an occasionally atonal interlude that has the dancers struggling to keep up with its herky-jerky rhythms. When concertgoers say that you can't grok the appeal of a certain band without seeing it live, they're usually rationalizing away tepid material. On this night, however, "Guyute" proves an exception to the rule. It's more than ten minutes in length, but longer would have been fine.
"Fee," "Split Open the Melt," "Sloth," "Mango Song," "Maze" and "Loving Cup," which rounds out the first set, build on this foundation. A standard Phish song structure calls for an introductory chorus-and-verse tandem that often recalls the Grateful Dead, Little Feat or other Seventies progenitors of the jam-band bracket. But these elements are soon shucked aside in favor of instrumental workouts that frequently eschew the monochromatic wanking associated with lesser outfits. Anastasio reveals himself to be a gifted player with a taste for pastiche and humor that would please Frank Zappa, and McConnell (who's equally adept at Garth Hudson-esque chording or Bill Evans-style fingering) and the flexible, sympathetic rhythm section of Gordon and Fishman keep up with them note for note. Much of this is far more complex than generally presumed, and while it's true that Phish makes it more palatable for its audience by putting an accessible frame around the material, that shouldn't make the achievement any less significant. In a world of Blues Travelers and Widespread Panics, Phish is something more. If a band must seize the Dead's mantle, let it be this one.
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In some ways, the second half of the gig is even better. "Scent of a Mule," for example, initially gives off the aroma of bluegrass, but it ultimately evolves into a stirring cutting contest between Anastasio, who echoes John McLaughlin, and McConnell, in a Keith Jarrett mode. In turn, this musical block gives way to a faux-Russian folk dance, complete with daffy dancing by the otherwise static Anastasio and Gordon, and concludes with a gothic chant. "David Bowie" is just as ambitious--a roaring jazz-fusion scorcher that the performers punctuate with a barbershop-quartet rendition of "Sweet Adeline."
"Slave to the Traffic Light" follows, capped by Anastasio's most conventional, standard-issue solo; he seems to realize that he's pushed the throng to its limits and needs to reel it back in. The tack works perfectly on Julie. After the end of a brief encore, she states, "I think the first set was better. But I cried at the end of the second one. So I don't know."
As we make our way to the exits, the Phish-heads around us eagerly debate the quality of the show; the general consensus is that it was a first-rate outing, but it would have been better if Phish had offered its famed a cappella rendering of "Amazing Grace" and if Fishman had stripped naked (a habit of his). Shortly, we empty into a parking lot bursting with the unlucky, disheveled lot to whom a ticket did not magically come. They're peddling anything they can get their hands on, including cigarettes, beer and Popsicles. One desperate man even tries to sell me a somewhat dusty-looking cheese sandwich.
It would be easy to dismiss this rabble as a pack of morons; after all, they hardly resemble brain surgeons, and their vocabulary doesn't extend far beyond Sean Penn's dialogue in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Moreover, the melee Monday night in Morrison, the town nearest Red Rocks, makes it even simpler for them to be viewed in stereotypical terms. But against all odds, there's something to the music to which they react so strongly. Julie looks at the mob with sympathy. "I feel sorry for them," she says. "But I'm glad I didn't give anyone my ticket.