This American Phish

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Forget about Phish 3.0. For a long time I reckoned there were only two Phish eras: the Clinton years and the Bush years.

Having seen the band all three nights at Madison Square Garden last week, however, I’m forced to update that notion. Phish has now fully entered their – and our – Obama phase.

Of course the band actually gestated during the first Bush administration. Phish released their first album the same year Bush entered office, and they established the rudiments of their groove while the “pragmatic caretaker” president floundered in the wake of Reagan administration’s huge deficit. The country entered a recession as Phish began making headway as a touring band. These simmering upstarts were then a creative alternative to another widely inspiring, yet ultimately bloated and frail, California institution: the Grateful Dead.

Phish truly flourished, however, during the Clinton administration. Their most fully developed album to date, Rift, arrived shortly after Bill Clinton took office. His tenure wasn’t an American utopia by a long shot, but it was a time of relative peace and prosperity and remarkable technological advances. By now Phish was a fully established concern, the apotheosis of smart and talented middle- and upper-middle-class suburban white guys ready to take the world by storm. They were the Steve Jobs and Bill Gates of rock acts. Acid, education, indulgent families, and a newly prosperous society had all conspired to launch them into an amazing and amazingly profitable adventure. The band simply got better and better over the course of the decade, peaking, perhaps, in 1998.

I don’t mean to draw any direct parallels with these arguably off-the-wall comparisons. And yet: Clinton left office with a 66% approval rating, higher than any president since World War II. Personable, articulate, and a hard-working policy wonk, he had a weakness for women and was probably a victim of his own charisma. The economy was growing fast, probably too fast, and dark forces nibbled about the outskirts of the White House. Was Phish likewise “undermined” from within and without during the late nineties, as were the Clintons? Draw your own conclusions. (That particular album, perhaps their most underrated, didn’t come out until 2004.) Suffice to say that in relative retrospect, the nineties now feel like golden years to many Americans – not to mention Phish fans of a certain age.

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The group began its hiatus in October 2000, only three months before the shit really began hitting the fans. Fine shows were played in 2003 and 2004 as the country went to war and the bottom dropped out of the economy yet again, but it was becoming apparent to nearly everyone with half a brain that things were spinning out of control in more ways than one. As citizens, it sometimes felt as though we were only safely ourselves when we were online. Real life was becoming increasingly terrifying. And of course Phish reached its nadir as a band almost exactly midway through the increasingly dreary Bush-Cheney years, at Coventry in August 2004. More personal calamities, and redemptions, would follow.

So once again Phish enters an important new phase in tandem with a fresh administration. Obama had barely gotten used to his new parking spot when the band returned to Hampton in March. Summer felt like a period of mutual discovery, a tentative second date when we were still getting used to this new fling we really, really wanted to like but simply didn’t know well enough yet to commit to. The online profile and videos seemed almost too good to be true, but we’d been burned before and the wounds were still fresh. Hope, nevertheless, springs eternal.

So we found ourselves committed to a three-night date with Phish during a brisk New York December. Unlike Obama, who announced his Afghanistan escalation the night before the MSG run, Phish did not give the rug of our expectations a big yank. From Wednesday’s “AC/DC Bag” opener to Friday’s “Shine a Light” encore, Phish played with the solid vitality, commitment, and, yes, spirit of compromise exhibited by our 44th president. In a certain sense, attending Phish shows in 2009 is like the aging comedian’s chestnut about being happy anywhere. Here we were once again, among old friends, digging a favorite group on a brisk late-fall evening. Like the song says, Phish wants us to be happy. Ah, if it were only so simple.

The shows’ focus, as expected, was on relatively concise, high-energy playing (and lighting!) And yet, I think many of us Phish “progressives” sensed an improvisational reserve we hadn’t anticipated. Musically, Phish has never progressed in anything resembling a smooth arc. They fake left and right, veer back into the past, and then return to the future as though they’d never left it. Wednesday began with five songs that almost, yet not quite, marched chronologically from Phish ’86 to Phish ’09, and each was played with just as much verve and skill as the last. The inclusion of “Sample,” “Sparkle,” “Slave,” and “Suzy” lent the impression of a beginner’s guide to Phish courtesy of the letter S. Climaxes came fast and furiously, and my newbie plus-one seemed on the verge of whiplash from the severe disparity of styles on display.

If anything was missing, besides extended improvisations (who would ever have imagined that the evening’s aesthetic highlight would be provided by Chris Kuroda’s lights during “Divided Sky”?), it was a sense of intimacy. I’m not saying the band was anything close to mercenary. But was I the only person to note that the most personal acknowledgment of the group’s presence in this city at this time was Jon Fishman’s “Watch out, New York!” aside during “Suzy Greenberg”? Do you really have to be a naked jerk to get any recognition from these guys in 2009?

The music, of course, takes care of all the usual pleasantries and then some. It spoke loud and proud during “Antelope,” the following night’s “Down With Disease”>”Piper” epiphany, the last half of Friday’s first set, “Scents and Subtle…Seven Below,” and during many other beautiful YouTube-able moments as well. Mike Gordon, a virtual force of bass nature, is now the band’s most musically inventive co-pilot. Fishman drifted in and out of the mix like the ghost of Tony Williams, carrying the music forward on an ever-so-smooth rhythmic wave while busily adding countless filigrees. Page McConnell bounded in and out of focus like a romping St. Bernard, but I wish he’d head outside a little more assertively and a little more often. I found myself missing other things as well: the pranks, the jokes, the electronica, the scary darkness of a sonic cavern without walls.

Trey Anastasio, like Barack Obama, seems to have everything under control – although you can only imagine what’s really going on under that confidently effusive exterior. Do you really want to know everything the President of the United States knows about life on Earth? Me neither. Both Trey and Barry seem like type-A personalities deeply committed to garnering the approval of virtually everyone. They relish consensus and are willing to make the sacrifices necessary to attain it. Being a politician in America today is a lot like being a rock star – or any other celebrity for that matter. Used to be you only had to worry about the working press. Now you’re being judged constantly by an naked guy with a Twitter account. That’s an extraordinary amount of pressure should you pay attention to it.

Personally, I like both these friendly yet ultimately distant figures just fine. But I yearn to see them wail without compromise from their respective bully pulpits. Please deliver us a single-payer health system and keep us out of Afghanistan, Mr. Obama. Please let down your guard and head for the invisible landscapes of your most experimental collective improvisations, Mr. Anastasio. Consider me nearly as reluctant to march against the former (although I would) as to remove my clothing just to elicit a good musical moment from the latter (no, I wouldn’t).

What a disappointment if Obama-era Phish turns out to be a crypto-conservative good-time outfit satisfied merely to deliver quality entertainment without the fearlessness of yore. Or perhaps they, like many of us, are just happy to be here in one piece after everything that’s transpired over the last few years. Consider me cautiously optimistic. Over three nights I experienced enough moments of that old-fashioned ecstatic urgency to keep me believing for many a show to come. But one thing I know for sure: Time isn’t elastic. Time is tight.

(MSG photos by OpenEye via Flickr Creative Commons.)

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