‘Just As Long As The Guitar Plays’: Phish, The Stones, And The Spirit(ual)

Fortunate are those who find their spirits lifted, have their souls touched deep down to the core. When the source of the spiritual-religious experience is music, it’s a special kind of communion. And when that music is rock and roll – the greatest of all American contributions to the world – it’s a particularly powerful cast of the mystical. I know I had one of those experiences this past fall, during Phish’s Halloween Set at Festival 8, held last fall in the Palm Springs area desert.

This recollection comes as a lot of us are ready to re-visit—or visit for the first time—the sounds and sights of Festival 8.  Starting tomorrow, phans will enjoy Phish 3D, the band’s first foray into cinematic three-dimensionality.

Come showtime on Halloween, the festive mood was palpable. A huge costume party of like-minded revelers had convened from their campsites. Smiles were not scarce. The air was thick with anticipation. A widely distributed Phishbill had announced that the band would be joined by a horn section and two backup singers, one of them being Sharon Jones, one of the most highly regarded exponents of the new soul movement currently afoot, for a performance of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St.

The pre-show music was cut and the lights went dark. The unmistakable grooves of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” were heard, loud and clear. Thriller, after all, had been widely discussed by phans as an apt, and oh-so-fun, possible choice for Phish; as much for its inviting rhythms as for its timeliness in the year that the King of Pop had moved from Neverland to Foreverland. But, weren’t we hearing Exile On Main St.?!

We quickly figured it out, thanks to two giant screens flanking the stage. “Thriller” faded, and there was Michael’s face, from the song’s famous video. Michael leans down off camera and returns into the frame as a ghoul. His girlfriend screams.  Then, for the next five-plus minutes, we get a masterfully edited barrage of images and sounds – a quick sensory-overload history of rock and roll. Those 99 teaser albums on the Festival 8 website? They flew by right in front of us. The Ramones gettin’ down to a funk beat and accompanied by Miles Davis’s sublime trumpet. The Beastie Boys MC’ing while Aerosmith laid down the groove. Jerry Garcia playing guitar over Bootsy Collins’s shoulder. Bits of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” intercut with bits of Metallica hammering. Rush backing up Leonard Cohen. The multifarious sounds of the last 40 years or so conjoining to form a multimedia remix, an edited-together mash-up made up of so much wonderful musical history.

The gods of rock had been summoned.

Then: black-and-white images of the Rolling Stones circa 1972.  Mick Jagger: shirtless, sexy, spaced-out. Keith Richards:  dropping a TV set off a hotel rooftop. The band and an overweight cop: navigating a backstage maze, making its way out to the stage. Fade to black. Then: Phish. The band arrives onstage in full flesh and color, circa late-2009.

They rip into the first song on Exile, “Rocks Off.” It’s been some 37 years since Exile was recorded in the south of France. A debauched set of chord strums, a snare snap. Repeat twice. Then fire up the whole band. The song doesn’t just get things going – it launches us. Amid a swirl of dizzy blues riffs and deep-soul horn blasts, we’re off and running. The song chronicles, with no lead-in pussyfooting, the pure raunch the Stones were living to the hilt at that time: “Headed for the overload/ Splattered on the dirty road/ Kick me like you’ve kicked before/ I can’t even feel the pain no more.”

Phish’s choice to cover Exile was fraught. The reason 2009 was a glorious reunion year was that they had broken up five years earlier. And one of the main reasons they’d decided to part ways in 2004 was that the addictions and dysfunctions of the preceding years had exacted a toll too high to ignore. So, to delve into this material was no mere exercise. No. They were here to exorcise. As Rolling Stone‘s David Fricke had noted in his Phishbill essay: “What Phish are doing tonight is more than covering a record. They are telling, through these songs, their own stories about ecstasy, madness, and survival.”

The next truly significant moment came a few songs later. We’d already heard a kickin’ version of the Stones’ version of Slim Harpo’s slow-roil blues boogie, “Shake Your Hips.” And the album’s only well-known hit, “Tumbling Dice” was way better than I had previously realized. It was the eighth song, however, that had juice I just didn’t see coming. Even after many listens to Exile, I’d never paid much attention to “Torn and Frayed.” Silly me. Turns out the song is the absolute heart of the album. It starts off innocently enough as a pleasant country-blues ditty that takes the listener through a musician’s natural habitat of “ballrooms and smelly bordellos/ And dressing rooms filled with parasites.” Fricke notes that the song paints a “portrait of the artist as a mess but never more than one great lick away from redemption.”  This was the first song, and one of only a few in the whole set, that the band took for an improvisational ride and jammed out. And they did so gorgeously.  Trey Anastasio coaxed sweet, superlative soloing out of his instrument. And the redemption was practically palpable – for all of us. Building and peaking, the song’s deceptively simple chord structure was used a vehicle for the sort of emotional playing that lies at the heart of great soloing. As I danced my little heart out, I smiled big, chills and tingles abundant.

The church vibe was undeniable.I felt connected. And not just connected to my fellow audience members and the band – though I definitely did feel that. But, laughable as it may sound, I was feeling connected all the way back, into some deep stuff. I’m not a big rah-rah America booster. In fact, I’ve got issues with facile patriotism. But, I swear we were tapped into the root stock of America, digging into its history and grist, the stuff that really does make this a great country indeed. The rock and the roll. The blues. The struggling. The overcoming. The wild West. The frontier. The brothers and sisters. The partying. The living it. The persevering and prevailing. The wacky sheer joy of it all. It was all there. And we were all there taking our holy rock-and-roll communion, righteous and reverent.

After “Torn And Frayed,” we didn’t just catch our breath; we breathed deep. Way deep. “Sweet Black Angel” could not have been better placed in our collective trajectory. A loving rallying cry of a ballad for troubled black activist Angela Davis. The Stones sure had some nerve thinking they could speak on behalf of a cause that was a whole ocean and skin color removed from their own lives. But they did, and they did so beautifully. It is possible to engage the Other – and to do it, no less, by appropriating their idiomatic expressions, both linguistic and musical – and be, in the end, nothing but respectful. This is an odd mix of awarenesses to hold in your head and heart at a rock show in the middle of the desert. But there I was and there they were. The loving respect and the good fight? Somehow still very much alive and well, thank you very much.

The next song, “Loving Cup,” was the only Exile tune Phish had laid fingers on before. This well-loved staple on their covers roster was being heard for the first time in its original habitat – accompanied by a glowstick war. Somehow, as a collective consciousness, the audience decides – knows– when to unleash a glowstick war. And unleash one they did. It still gives me chills to close my eyes and picture it. There must have been thousands upon thousands of them flying through the desert air in a literal explosion of light. It was a high-energy visual manifestation of a high-energy point in the show.  Both band and audience knew what was going down. Phish played the hell out of every moment of “Loving Cup.” The song’s chorus tonight more than just a cutesy metaphor about drinking from the loving cup of one’s romantic partner. It was a perfectly accurate, hugely meaningful, deeply felt proclamation about the primacy of the moment we were all ensconced in: “What a beautiful buzzWhat a beautiful buzz.”

The brilliance of Exile is how the Stones manage to take what appears incongruous and link them up quite beautifully. They make the case that there’s no way to understand American music – maybe even America itself – without holding the sacred and the profane in our consciousness, simultaneously. Self-righteous moralizers may not like it, but it’s true: raunch and religion go hand-in-hand. The best way to dial up the Holy Spirit is to get to know some demons. The best party has to have both Apollo and Dionysus on the guest list. The best way to come together – with your self, with others – is to fall apart. You can’t ascend without first gettin’ down.

Which is exactly what happened about two-thirds of the way through the album. The absolute high point for me was a pairing of two very different pieces of music. First, we got dirty. “Ventilator Blues” is a grunge-blues blast. The opening riff is almost unbelievable, somewhere between a moan and a whine; an unequivocal “don’t-you-dare-mess-with-me.” The song’s narrative persona, he doesn’t beat around the bush, either, while sharing – no, witnessing – his messed-up life:  “”Spine is cracking and your hands, they shake/ Heart is bursting, and your butt’s gonna break/ Woman’s cussing, you can hear her scream/ Feel like murder in the first degree.” Then, after listing further existential murks, he comes to the realization that “Everybody gonna need some kind of ventilator, some kind of ventilator.”

The song is sung with deep soul by Phish’s keys man, Page McConnell, who tuned into its fighting-frustrated spirit. He is committed to the growls and yowls of the song and its phrasing. Throughout the verses and chorus, the horns provided a series of sharp accents that only served to underscore the punchy situation.  The last words McConnell intoned come in the form a repeated question: “What you gonna do?” The backup singers responded with either “Gonna fight it” or “Don’t fight it.” A fitting indeterminacy. It’s a blues mantra if ever there were one. The band keeps the groove going. The gospel choir keeps up its fighting credo. McConnell tosses off piano figures.  Anastasio drops into soloing mode. The horns keep vamping. The whole thing is a swirl to get way lost in, for dizzying minutes. Then the band starts landing on a heavy, heavy chord, transitioning us into a very intriguing state of suspension. They hit it several times, Anastasio pulling the chord down, way down, with each successive hit. It’s as if the ventilator is running out of steam, grinding to a halt. The band shifts gears into the next song ever so smoothly. It is a gorgeous segue, all the more striking for where we end up.

“I Just Want To See His Face” is proof positive that Mick Jagger and Co. – and Phish—did their homework. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better example of white boys doing gospel. It’s the perfect counterpart – the answer – to the down-dirty place we’d just been. It’s a look to the skies above after being way, way down. A lilting, major-key piece of music, with soft mallet rolls on the drums, sweet chords from the piano and guitar, and a buoyant bass line. A time to redeem and atone. This was the gospel of sweet-and-true, and we needed it, lapped it up.

“Let this music relax your mindLet this music relax your mind.” This becomes the mantra as Anastasio and the backing singers repeat the phrase over and over. They gradually drop the line, but the singers keep humming it. A soulful meditation. They keep the vamp going softly, hypnotically. “Stand up and be countedCan I get a witness?/ Sometimes you need somebodyNeed somebody to love.” The vamp continues softly, hypnotically. “You want somebody to loveWant somebody to love.” They swell it a bit, with some guttural shout-outs from the choir. Then, back down. Softly, hypnotically. “Let this music relax your mindLet this music relax your mind.” The crowd gets a hand clap going. The vamp continues. Anastasio whispers: “Don’t want to walk and talk about JesusJust want to see his face.” Repeat. “Just want to see his face.” Repeat, repeat. Sharon Jones wails now, as only she can, calling out and up to the heavens. “I just want to see his face.”. Then back down. “So let this music relax your mind.” Down, further. “Relax your mind.” Softening, to a whisper. “Relax your mind.” The chord held in suspension. Release(d).

“Classic” is one of those words that, through careless overuse, has lost its meaning moorings. Rock and roll may be no Greek poetic odyssey, no Roman sculpture of perfection. But, as a reflection of the consciousness of an era, as an expression of a people’s minds and hearts, it’s hard to beat for power and influence. Phish’s Halloween set oozed classic.  At a time when rock feels more than a bit disconnected from its African-American roots – more interested in ego than groove, more invested in cool front than in hot Soul – hearing Exile on Main St. so lovingly performed was a real treat. Few current bands, I dare say, would close an album with this sentiment from “Shine a Light”: “May the Good Lord shine a light on youMake every song you sing your favorite tuneMay the Good Lord shine a light on youWarm like the evening sun.”

It’s not at all a matter of being rooted in Christianity. The lyrics, after all, are more a nod to the spirit(ual) at the core of rock’s roots than an actual expression of religious affiliation. But make no mistake, it is about faith. It’s about seeking, always and fervently.  The Search reigns supreme – even if it leads you into situations and behaviors that, in the eyes of others happy to judge from their outside perspective, appear banal, reprehensible, or sinful. Plenty of people would condemn the behavior and choices of these two bands. Never mind them. If there is any moral to the story here, it’s in the music itself. Mind your own path, your own bliss, your own self. It’s your music, friend.

For 40,000 or so souls last November, congregated in the California desert, that is exactly what – and how – it went down. We communed. We felt it. We relished IT. And we affirmed our faith in the awesome power of a great rock-and-roll show, as well as in the convoluted beauty of the human condition. As though the two could ever be separated.

Tell your friends!