Hello, my name is Leilani, and I’m a Phishhead.
Before last weekend, I’d seen Phish 82 times, in 16 states and 26 venues. I’ve been following the rock band (known for its extended jams and Deadhead-like devoted followers) since 2003, when I saw my first show and felt the energy of 20,000 people as they collectively held their breath during the mid-song pause of “Divided Sky,” then all together, at the pluck of a single note, let it out in a roar of cheers.
I’ve gone through the typical phases of phandom. In my first flush of love, I tried turning people on to Phish. I’d preach about the scene’s communal vibe, that spirit of “we’re in this together” multiplied by the thousands. But I pulled back after too many explosive arguments with people patronizing me about the band and their fanbase, their judgement based on misconceptions or downright ignorance. Eventually, I arrived at my current state of: You do you, and I’ll do me—discreetly.
This practice became more calculated when I moved to Seattle, an entirely new city, and didn’t want to be summarily judged by friends and colleagues for something that is, frankly, pretty essential to who I am. After becoming a mom last year, I turned Phish off completely. I stopped listening to their music, I stopped following setlists, I stopped watching live video streams of shows on the tour (because Phish does that now—Couch Tour—for those of us who can’t follow them around like we used to). My focus shifted entirely to the babe.
But seeing Mike Gordon, Phish’s bass player, play at the Neptune in February woke me up. I bought Gorge tickets the next day.
Everyone always asks why. Why follow Phish? What is it about this band that has made me dedicate so much time and energy into seeing them, into continuing to see them?
First, the music—how four incredibly talented players (guitarist Trey Anastasio, keysman Page McConnell, bassist Mike Gordon, and drummer-percussionist Jon Fishman) can turn out poignant balladry and accessible prog-rock compositions just as breezily as heady funk grooves or anthemic barn-burners or cheeky pop ditties or bluegrass stompers or island-vibing rays-kissed bumpers. They can get down and dirty and fuzzed-out dissonant eeevil, or turn up the sublime melody-drenched sweetness, or stretch out the psychedelia to peak stimulation, or turn into one giant techno-tronic machine ready to lift off to outer space and take you along for the ride. Sure, they “jam,” but it’s not aimless noodling, more in the vein of jazz improvisation; it has focus, it has teeth, and it will go places you don’t expect and will probably love.
There is, of course, the unexpected quality of any given show, which is what keeps us ’heads returning; the guesswork of figuring out what they might play (setlists change every night, as the Phish catalog encompasses upwards of 350 originals and patented covers), where a song might go (it's never the same journey twice), how they’ll get there, how far they’ll stretch it, and what comes next. And the dancing—if you look around at the crowd enjoying a Phish show, everyone is moving: head-bobbing, swaying, grooving, getting down with their bad selves, while others seem musically possessed, bodies jerking in uncontrollable spasms, arms raised in near religious supplication. It’s unfettered and unabashed movement that’s as much fun to watch as it is to take part in.
“It’s not an experience unless you bring someone along,” Trey sings in “Birds of a Feather,” and it rings so true. One of the best parts of going on tour is finding out who else is going, then planning out the logistics of making it happen together. A new Phish tour announcement prompts unhinged excitement because it gives me a chance to reunite with my extended Phamily—yes, Phamily: people I rarely get to see because they are scattered all across the country and up into Canada. Taking a trip with dear friends, then experiencing a performance by your favorite band surrounded by your favorite people, people you love, people who get it, is one of the most satisfying feelings ever.
As for those friends who aren’t your ride-or-die crew for the show or the run, you can at least meet up, maybe share a beer, a dance, or a whole set together. Even seeing these buds for only a few minutes and getting in a good hug is better than missing them completely, although it’s comforting just knowing they’re somewhere in the venue getting down just as hard as you.
Friday night at the Gorge, my first night back in nearly two years, standing in the lower bowl, closer than I usually ever get to see the band, I started worrying again that I’d lost that old feeling. That when the band came out, I wouldn’t get the same thrill and experience that full body smile, goosebumps springing up all over my skin. Did I forget my dance moves? Would the music even move me? Would I still love it like I did the 82 shows before? (I have never seen a bad show.**)
But once I found my groove legs, it was like riding a bicycle. It took a few songs to warm up, but three deep, when they launched into the fine-spun melodies of one of my favorite existential ballads, “Roggae,” I felt a swell of appreciation and shed a few tears. I must repeat a line from that song a few times a week: “If life were easy, and not so fast, I wouldn’t think about the past.”
Over the next few days, the Gorge kicked my ass. It’s an epic venue, like being in a painting. But it can be treacherous to navigate, with its steeply sloping lawn, rocky spots, black asphalt. You have to climb up or down no matter where you’re going, and meeting up with friends between sets is a virtual impossibility.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the assaults that happened on Saturday night. I found out about them after returning home, first in a rush of social media rumors, then in official reports that came out on Tuesday confirming their authenticity. Two separate concertgoers were assaulted at the tail end of the second set, smashed in the head with rocks, in different parts of the venue but at around the same time. Both ended up in the hospital. Both are currently recovering, and have GoFundMe campaigns to help defray their respective medical costs (donate here and here).
Neither victim remembers their attackers because one was hit from behind, while the other was hit in the mouth and knocked out. If you witnessed either of the assaults first-hand, call Grant County Sheriff's Office at 509-762-1160, or send tips to firstname.lastname@example.org; they’re still looking for the people who did this.
I’ve never dealt with violence at a Phish show, and these assaults are disturbing on so many levels. For these two fans, an environment that has traditionally been safe and accepting, and an experience that has always been an enjoyable one, was ruined by a moment of violence. It’s mind-boggling, but it goes to show you how fucked up this country is right now, that even at a Phish show, some sort of ugliness can break out.
Over those two days of shows (four sets total—I most regretfully had to miss Sunday night’s scorcher), the band delivered a little bit of everything I wanted, from the bouncing, bright “Simple,” a song that has always felt so essentially Phish to me with its catchy low-chiming guitar riff and fun sing-along choruses, to the howling rock n’ roll drama of “Fuego,” an obvious comment on the fires that had been burning nearby, which caused a strip of I-90 to be shut down for more than 24 hours. There was the stretched-out funky-psychedelic oozing instrumental odyssey that came out of a cover of TV on the Radio’s “Golden Age,” and their usually intoxicating take on Velvet Underground’s “Rock n’ Roll." Plus, an old school explosive second-set-ender in “Run Like an Antelope,” which I’ve always taken as an order to get the fuck down. (“Run like an antelope, out of control!!!”) There was plenty of the mind-bending meat and potatoes that ’heads love so much—stretching, improvising, type-two jamming. I asked my friend “what was this song again?” at least twice, which is always a good sign.
As the Saturday night’s show came to a close, I realized once and for all that I couldn’t give up Phish, that I did, indeed, still get the feeling of healing at the run’s end, that I needed that feeling. This admission of ’headiness isn’t me coming out, per se, as much as it is me coming back out. It was a homecoming, a family reunion, a musical soul-cleansing, and a re-awakening of my appreciation of the universe, but especially the sounds and the people sharing them together on this particular rock within it.
Until the next show.
**Actually, if I had to pick one bad show, it’d be Coventry, the festival that preceded their five-year break-up; it was messy, depressing, and a disaster of mud and broken expectations. But they returned with such vigor and so refreshed five years later, that it’s only a dark blip on a mostly sunny horizon. And for those of you piping up about the whole of the 2003-04 post-hiatus reunion tours being sub-par, those were my first shows, assholes, and there were plenty of fantastic moments.