Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Ten Shows: Part V

Holy-long-gap-between-posts, Batman! I'll try not to let it happen again. Well, here's the 2nd-to-last post for the Top 10 shows I've attended series. This went on way longer and is much more verbose than I intended. I should have taken Faulkner's advice. Oh well...

Phish, Irvine Meadows Amphitheater, Irvine, CA 9-19-1999
As I’ve stated in a previous blog, I never quite got the whole anti-Phish sentiment that a lot of Deadheads maintain. It’s funny, because from an outside perspective, had you walked the parking lot of a Dead show in the early-mid 1990’s or a Phish show from 1995-on, well, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the two as far as the look and feel goes. Many Phish fans branched off and dropped the Dead scene due to the overwhelming popularity of the Grateful Dead and the massiveness of their shows. Phish was more intimate and was still the fans band in a way.
That all changed. Even more so after the Grateful Dead was no more.
Although I’ve never researched any exact numbers (nor do I plan to,) there was a huge spike in Phish show attendance after Garcia’s death and the demise of the Dead: this likely led to some of the conflict. I’m sure the “old-school” Phish fans resented the influx of Deadheads. The first time I saw Phish I recall a couple of hippies arguing over who was the bigger fan.
“Well I saw them back in ninety-four at” such-and-such venue.
“Yeah, well, I was going to shows in ninety-three…”
Ridiculous, really, but that’s not what this post is about.
I saw Phish for the first time in the summer of 1999. My wife and I had been anticipating the show for some time—we had been going to as many of the post-Jerry incarnations of the Dead as we could manage yet were ready to experience something new. I had a grasp on their repertoire by then as I had collected a fair amount of bootleg shows in addition to their studio releases. Like the Grateful Dead and many other jam bands, Phish allowed taping at their concerts so long as they were not used for commercial profit.
Irvine Meadows was a short distance from where we were living at the time. As we tooled south on the 405, the freeway became thick with vehicles sporting the “Phish” emblem. The logo was a clever take on their name designed in such a way it resembled the outline of an actual fish:
As we approached the exit for the amphitheater and made for the parking area I noticed no discernible difference between this lot-scene and that of a Dead show.  Drum circles were pounding away, every 10th head was a mop of dreads, marijuana smoke wafted about, mixing in with sage, patchouli, and grilled cheese. Vehicles ranged from wildly painted school buses to brand-new SUVs. Everywhere you looked were hippies on skateboards and bikes, college kids partying, and the occasional dog wandering that may have been named Cassidy or Althea (or Trey?)  It really was just like a Dead show.
 Yet upon settling in and walking the lot for a bit the differences became more apparent. The crowd was generally much younger; not as many crusty hippies left over from the 60’s lurked about. The general mood of the fans wasn’t quite as “peace, love, and happiness” either. Being as how Phish first gained traction close to their roots in Vermont, a large contingent of their fan base was East Coast. And with that came a more stand-offish attitude. I’d come to find out (or heard) that East-coast Phish fans selling stuff in the lot were much more apt to rip you off.
Regardless, the general mood was still festive—generous amounts of drugs and alcohol changed hands and everyone was partying. We got primed for a couple of hours and filtered into the amphitheater to find our seats, stage right, just a section or two in front of the general admission lawn. The sun was disappearing behind the hills to our back as the venue lights came up and then dimmed again. The sell-out crowd was building with an intense anticipation I hadn’t experienced since seeing the Dead for the last time almost 5 years previous. As Trey and the band stepped out, the crowd absolutely erupted and was sent into a frenzy of whirling, wild dancing as the band opened with the song NICU.
As the late summer California day fell dark, a strange thing happened. The band launched into the 3rd song, an instrumental called First Tube, which has an awesomely complicated polyrhythmic structure to it. At the same time a car dealership down the hill and across the freeway lit up their huge spotlights to attract would-be buyers to their lot. The spotlights shifted across the sky and fell into rhythm (a polyrhythm mind you) with the song. It was as if the entire city, as well as the venue, was pulsating and became one with the band—the energy surged and suddenly everything in our extended space was absolutely electric and alive and was in tune and rhythm with the music.
A hippie to my right turned and said:
“Can you feel it, man? Can you feel it?”
Yes, as a matter of fact I could.
The band played on for two sets and an encore which totaled over two hours of music. As the band built into an intense jam during the second set droves of fans began twirling glow necklaces and bracelets—the kind you get at the fair or around Halloween. As the song reached its zenith, the band and crowd entwined in a rapid crescendo, everyone began throwing the glowing jewelry, the stadium exploding into a psychedelic glow-stick battle that continued for most of the rest of the concert.  The band truly played to the crowd and the crowd to the band. There was a oneness at that show that was unlike anything I’d experienced before.
I understood then why so many Deadheads jumped ship for Phish. Being a Phish fan in the 90’s could be likened to seeing the Dead in the 70’s. You were a part of an exclusive subculture that was still somewhat new and unique that the world hadn’t yet fully discovered or understood.
I was absolutely enthralled with Phish after that show and saw them several more times through the years, including a recent solo show by Trey Anastasio here in Portland (which almost made this list actually.) Phish is a fantastically talented band, and although I never grew to love them as much as the Dead, they are among one of my favorite bands and are one of the torchbearers from that fire on the mountain the Grateful Dead ignited so long ago.

Wilco, Les Schwab Amphitheater, Bend, OR 8/23/2008
Someone burned me a couple of Wilco CDs back in 2001 or 2002. I gave them each a partial listen without too much interest and they were shuffled into my CD collection, perhaps never to see the laser on my CD player again. It doesn’t surprise me, really. I was pretty snobbish about what I listened to then. The reasons are ridiculous in hindsight—I was very centric to jam bands then and was trying to make it as a musician myself. For a time I was fairly narrow-minded music-wise, listening only to those I wanted to emulate.
I came to my senses eventually—I should have much sooner, especially in regards to Wilco.
It wasn’t until 2005 that I realized what a great band Wilco is. A friend I worked with at the time mentioned them once. I recall telling him I had a few CDs. He asked if I had heard their live stuff. No, I hadn’t. Well, they are all about their live stuff.
And that’s when I got Wilco—after listening to Kicking Television, a live recording they did at the Fox Theater in Chicago.
I hadn’t had an album grab me like that since listening to American Beauty and Wake of the Flood by you-know-who. I was a Wilco fan overnight. I found my copies of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born. The albums lay dormant under a stack of garage demos by bands you’ve never heard of like Television Child and 2 Tone Turtle. Within a month I had bought just about everything in Wilco’s small catalog and soon discovered they allowed taping at their shows—just like the jam bands—and  that there was a fair amount of bootleg material out there for free trading on music swapping sites.
My first opportunity to see Wilco got nixed. They played McMenamin’s Edgefield just outside of Portland in the summer of 2007, and due to a last minute babysitting debacle we had to cancel. The following summer they came to Bend, Oregon and with a bit more planning time ahead of us we were able to go. We arrived in Bend just in time to have a late lunch and catch Wilco’s sound check from the patio of the hotel restaurant. In fact, after checking in, we realized we wouldn’t have needed tickets at all. Our balcony looked directly over the amphitheater, and was likely a better seat than some of the concerts I’d been to with nosebleed tickets.
But of course we were going to be on the grass for this show. We got to the amphitheater just as the opener— Fleet Foxes—came on stage. We found a clear spot on the field just to the left of the soundboard. The day was warm, the crowd mellow, and the booze cheap. In fact, they sold wine by the bottle. Ah yes… by the bottle.
Wilco fans are not hippies, nor are they hipsters. They seemed to be just an average lot of late 20 through 40-somethings. There were lots of families but it didn’t have that Oregon Zoo Concert Series feel to it where you expect the Wiggles to come on stage instead of Matisyahu.
Wilco’s heart and soul, Jeff Tweedy, engages, occasionally teases, and even taunts audience members—especially if they are drunk. He’s a very interactive performer yet is sometimes moody and even gets surly on occasion. That night he commented on the amount of marijuana smoke wafting his way “oh yea… we’re in Oregon.” Cranking out tunes that lay somewhere between Americana, alternative, and a bit of psychedelia, Wilco’s sound is unique—it has elements of pop without being shallow or trite—the songs are well-crafted and engaging yet not overly preachy on any particular subject. Tweedy writes about life—simple things that catch his attention or musings on relationships or his kids.
Wilco pays homage to their forbears without sounding like someone else’s song.
That night we danced and drank and sang along and laughed and had the most fun we had had in years—period. Wilco rolled through their repertoire, 2 sets and an encore that included members of the Fleet Foxes coming out to do a cover of Dylan’s I Shall Be Released, Tweedy even indulging in a falsetto for the last verse.
As the concert wrapped we stumbled back towards the hotel and collapsed under a tree for a time as one of our friends went shopping for a concert shirt near the exit. The night was warm; my head buzzed from the music and wine. The crowd hummed and laughed and chatted as they went their respective ways.
Wilco is just a damn good band.  They write great songs, put on an entertaining and energetic concert, and I really believe I caught that first show at an opportune time in my life. I was a fairly new parent and had moved well beyond the desire to follow bands up and down the state or across the country. I was becoming much more grounded in many ways. I finished college just a week previous (I didn’t start until I was 28) and was ramping up for a new career and essentially, a new life. I was in a good place that summer weekend, and Wilco provided a proper soundtrack to what was really a turning point in my life.