Phish: 3

In Pittsburgh, Vermont on June 19, 2009 at 11:01 pm

Phish Show 014

At the gate, a squat female security guard tells me to raise my shirt. I pulled up my shirt, revealing pale skin beneath. When she asks about my bulging pockets, I pull out a folded hat and some bundled napkins. “I can unfold the napkins, if you want,” I offer.

“Nah,” she says, sighing. “Not like it even matters with this crowd.”

As we migrate into the undulating ocean of Phish fans, the thousands of heads shaded violet in the setting sun, I see what the guard meant: Stoners are pulling on joints and fingering bowls and sucking one-hitters. They’re exhaling great clouds of marijuana, or chomping marijuana cookies or talking loudly about marijuana: “DUDE!” cries a bearded guy on the beach-blanket below us. “I AM SO FUCKED UP! BUT YOU GUYS KNOW! YOU KNOW!”

I don’t really know — instead of ‘shrooms and tabs, I settle for a 22-oz. cup of Coors Light, purchased for an astonishing $11 at a bar that looks like a Slushee stand. But Phish fans require alchemy; the music is designed for disordered minds, and without some kind of chemical enhancement, the music is simply off. So Coors Light it is.

When the musicians walk on-stage, the audience erupts — screaming, hopping, punching at the air with fists. But even as the first song begins, and the enormous speakers project animated chords into the sweaty air, I’m transfixed by the Glow Sticks. I’ve seen crowds full of glow-in-the-dark chachke, but I’ve never seen them hurled. Each stick is flung into the air like a tomahawk; they arc beautifully before splashing into the crowd. But a dozen sticks are firing at once, a great synchronicity of projectiles, like wordless neon messages curried by pitching arms and gravity.

The songs unfold gradually, great tidepools of rhythm and circular harmonies, shifting tempos and entropic optimism. The silhouettes around me sway and stagger; migrants part the crowds in search of lost friends. Everyone is dancing, and even I am dancing, imitating the electro-shock gyrations that hippies favor. I bop my head and try to abandon all pretentions; the songs are long and tedious, and when dancing no longer seems worthwhile, I sit in the dewy grass and just listen, letting the siege of bodies envelop me. Because even if Phish isn’t “my” kind of music; even if I’ve eschewed the one ingredient that will make it “meaningful”; I can enjoy the company of a dozen friends and ten thousand eccentric strangers, sharing a sloped lawn in the middle of the night, whipped by strobe-lights and swaying to a playful beat.

Then something magical happens: A song winds down, and the instruments stop. The music becomes an arrangement of voices, nonsense syllables, switchbacks of speed and pitch, bleeping in the dark like a coven of deranged robots. It’s as if all the previous songs have been inside-jokes, and now they’re proving just how masterful their musicianship is. In this one, purely vocal moment, Phish is revealing its true prestige, like the magician who has piddled with card-tricks and is now effortlessly escaping from his eel-tank.

The guitarists also manage to play their instruments while bouncing on trampolines, shifting direction in choreographed swivels. They sing a snatch of four-part harmony, and Fishman even performs the greatest party-trick of all time: playing an ordinary vacuum cleaner. The range of sound that passes through Fishman’s face is spellbinding — not only as a novelty act of weird noises, but as an ode to Vaudeville tomfoolery; the skills that seem impossible. I think of the Vermont I once knew — the Vermont of buskers and craft fairs and wacky hitchhikers. I think of the New Age boutiques and teenagers selling hemp-necklaces on the sidewalks; I think of the Wicca ritual I attended in the basement of a Unitarian church, and the old men who smoked pipes on the porches of their antique shops; I think of Bread & Puppet Theatre and Circus Smirkus; and as Fishman blows fat notes through his vacuum tube, everything clears away, and my mind trascends to simpler strangenesses, and I hear and see what other people come here to hear and see.


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