Phish Does Not Forget The Motor City

Less than a month after the "Joy" that was Festival 8, Phish returned to the stage for their fall tour opener in Detroit, Michigan. Cobo Arena is located on the Detroit River adjacent to General Motors headquarters, Joe Louis's monumental fist, and the big bronze "Spirit of Detroit."

The city was alive with energy as the vibrant, animated fans entered the show. The downtown area around Cobo was upbeat, friendly, and raucous, filled with thousands of elated concertgoers. Few people were thinking that Detroit, once the fourth largest city in the nation and with a legacy of innovation, ambition, and soul, was at a pivotal moment in its history. The band's momentous return to the stage was juxtaposed against the setting of a city in relative free fall.

Over nearly five decades, Cobo Arena has provided the stage for performances by legendary artists including Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, Journey, Madonna, Kiss, and the Doors. In October 2008, Jay Z held a free concert at Cobo in support of then Senator Barack Obama.

Phish’s performance at the venue was uplifting but bittersweet. The band's first visit to this famed house of rock was rumored to be the last show before the building is demolished. In place of Cobo Arena, Governor Jennifer Granholm and local officials have planned a $300 million dollar Cobo Hall expansion. The convention center is home to the North American International Auto Show. Judging by the plight of Detroit and the auto industry, who knows how much longer auto executives will want to fly to Detroit to conduct business?

At this point, the automotive industrial lifeblood of Detroit has been largely dismantled and sent offshore. Skilled industrial workers have been left without adequate opportunities to maintain their quality of life and have been forced to look elsewhere for employment. Now the eleventh largest city in the nation, Detroit lacks such institutions as solid public schools, well-equipped and -staffed police and fire departments, and adequate and accessible health and human services. At the same time, the national recession and political turmoil in the city have contributed to an unemployment rate of nearly 30%. It doesn’t take more than five minutes of driving around to find neighborhoods of abandoned and burned homes. Scores of empty offices and closed showrooms line the wide, once bustling commercial thoroughfares. Many neighborhoods are so noticeably vacant that a lifelong resident would feel uncomfortable walking down the street in broad daylight.

Maybe hope for Detroit lies in newly elected political officials. Former NBA star and successful entrepreneur Dave Bing, for example, replaced Kwame Kilpatrick, whose political career was embroiled in scandal. Bing's focus is reinvestment in Detroit. He speaks extensively about public safety, health and human services, and education. Judging by the depth of Detroit’s problems, however, the city could take decades to stabilize. One thing is for certain. In a city with such a wealth of registered historic landmarks, it is a tragedy to lose a venue that so deeply woven into the fabric of modern music history.

As it turns out, Phish probably did not play Cobo Arena's swan song. Slayer, Megadeth, and Testament are now scheduled to play there February 6 as part of the bands' American Carnage Tour. And while the future of both Detroit and the arena remain uncertain, the music will continue. Let's hope whomever takes Detroit's helm possesses both an understanding of the past and a vision for the future.

[Trey Anastasio in Detroit by Michael Stein.]