There was a quote I had read years ago that seemed to clarify some of the biggest differences between the Grateful Dead and Phish that fans of both bands have tried to convince each other of over the last 30 or so years. While they are two completely different bands, its impossible to compare Phish without the mantle of the Grateful Dead, and the overlapping venn-diagram between the two as America’s most well known Jam Bands. The quote, which i’ve been unable to find since then, essentially summed the band up in two ways:
If the Grateful Dead is a band where you feel in on the joke, Phish makes you feel like you’re the joke.
As someone who doesn’t particularly like being made fun of, perhaps that’s why I’ve kept Phish at a distance. Ive neven been a big fan of a band that likes to fuck with their audience. At least until I came to the conclusion that acts like Father John Misty and Phish have a lot in common when it comes to making an album of jokes. So it makes sense that, if I can drive in my car and happily listen to the ashes-to-ashes-we-all-fall-down songs sad indie musicians like Misty, who makes examples out of people like me, I can learn to take a joke for once, and think about how Im being fucked with during a 20 minute Phish guitar solo. But personal feelings aside, I decided to go see Phish because, like the Grateful Dead, it felt like a right of passage in being able to understand their music, and maybe just life in general. You cant tell stories if you don’t make them, and perhaps there’s no better storied venue in the midwest than Alpine Valley.
Ask any midwest jam band fan in college 1985 and 2000, and they’ll have a story about Alpine Valley. They’ll name years and bands off like championship sports teams. “ I saw Dave Matthews here back in 97’, Best time of my life.” “I was here for Phish in 99’ but I felt like their 02’ show here was a top 5 all time show.” They’ll tell tales of camping with friends, or when their car broke down on the way here and they hitchhiked. Or the time their buddy got arrested, or when they got so high they saw the audience as a lake and thought they were drowning. Everyone has an alpine story or two to tell, and even though ive been here before, It feels great to be part of this weird cross between a circus and family reunion of people at these shows.
One of the things that stuck out to me with this lot scene however, is that Phish seemed to be a rich-man’s jam band. Tailgating from my car, I watched streams of BMW’s and Porsche Caymans bump through the grass into their designated parking spaces. Fans tailgated from limos in VIP areas, and the converted campervans and schoolbusses I saw during Dead & Co. were hard to find between the Prevost and Mercedes Sprintervans that took their place. Unlike the dead, Phish is not deeply rooted in the nostalgic Jack Kerouac americana that requires Westfalias and peace signs to be part of their image. While there is still the vendor market scene (Grilled cheese and a bootleg tee, anyone?) They don’t seem to be fighting for sales just to make it to the next show if theyre selling grilled cheese’s out of lifted Jeep Gladiators. Based on the type of fans wearing polos with Phish’s signature doughnuts on them, official tour tees, and actual fishing gear, Phish seemed to be for the white collar worker who still knows where to find weed than it was for the struggling, dusty lot wook who’ll ask anyone they see for a nug or help with a flat tire. Is that a good thing?
It did mean that Phish was a more family friendly band, at least when I got inside the venue, and started making my way down the hill to the stage. The amount of kiddos running uphill, rolling down, playing frisbee, and making friends, was much more than I had recalled seeing before. It meant that it was a safe enough environment for someone to Clark Griswald their family from Chicago to tailgate and watch their favorite band play, just like they did with their buddies in college 20 years ago. Here, there were no fears of some drugged out hippie having a meltdown during The Other One that could scar their kids for life. That’s not to say there wasn’t drugs, however. The band probably did not need a fog machine with the amount of weed being smuggled in and smoked. The amount of haze billowing out of the center overhang from the stage was almost comical.
Alpine was just as packed for Phish as it was for Dead and Co 4 years ago, if not moreso. Throughout the night, the hillside became absolutely crammed with people. Fans threw hundreds of glowsticks into the crowd during song peaks. One man brought in a bubble machine, and filled the massive awnings with bubbles during songs. Balloons and beach balls were bopped through the crowd. People did their own thing to make the show special to them, as well as for others. As much fun as it is to poke fun at their community, its hard to find any fault in the inclusivity of Phish’s community.
It didnt take long in their set for me to understand that being made fun of was just as fun -If not more fun- than being in on the joke. The third song of the night, Twist, had the vast majority of the audience turn around during multiple parts of the song. From the back of the crowd, having nearly thirty five thousand people turn around all at once without much notice (I’m new to these songs, okay?) made me laugh out loud with how surreal, yet harmless it felt. Getting hit in the back of the head with glowsticks wasn’t as annoying after the first time. And with Phish’s nonsensical songwriting, I didn’t have to pay too much attention to the lyrics unless the crowd started singing along. Unlike Dead and Co, Phish has wider boundaries to explore their own songs when jamming. They felt much less constrained here, which meant that slip-ups were more common. To me, that’s actually pretty great. Sometimes you cant have these climatic peaks in guitar solos without going backwards on the roller coaster for a second to wind up.
If you like Phish for the music, the pit was the place to be. Standing just a couple rows back, this was probably the most active, dancy pit ive seen at a show. It didnt look like there was a single person there not paying attention. But if you like Phish for the scene, the hill made more sense. There too, people were dancing, but it was much more calm. Many sat on their picnic blankets and watched the supermoon shine through the clouds, or kept an eye on their kids. While the hillside was a bit more talkative, There were still the same amount of glowsticks and beach balls getting tossed around there than there was under the massive overhangs, too.
I wont go too in depth on the actual setlist here, since Phish fans know where to find and listen to the show already. But, I will mention some of the highlights. They opened their second set with Ass Handed with a brief introduction from drummer Jon Fishman, who said “Well it happened. It happened today, and it’s been happening all week. This may look like a glamorous lifestyle, but every damn day…Im sure its happened to you too. So we’re going to sing about it.” Jon also sung some of the lyrics to Ass Handed at the end of Ghost, nearly 45 minutes later. I think in the jam-band industry, they call that a tease. Ghost also featured one of the wilder guitar solos from Trey Anistasio for the night, who used an octave pedal on his guitar rig to change the high pitched tone of his guitar feeding back to sound like (what I would call) a falling spaceship. It sent the crowd wild, which meant that most were actively listening to every guitar note Trey put out.
Throughout the night, I was confidently telling fans that this was my first Phish show at Alpine Valley, but kept the fact that this was my first ever introduction to Phish’s music to myself. If I learned anything from Dead and Co a few years back, it’s that telling someone you’re unfamiliar with [Insert Jam Band name here] will make them set some sort of weird goal to guide you through the music for the rest of the night. It was like telling a youth pastor you’re unfamiliar with Jesus while at church for the first time, As if they’ve now tasked themselves with ensuring you fully “get” the experience. Unlike church, this typically meant that I was offered drugs. However, it was important for me to make my own decisions here, guided by a sober mind. Do I like Phish now?
Production wise, The sound was clear, and didn’t seem overly loud by any means from anywhere in the venue. In fact, it was likely one of the best sonically sounding shows i’ve been to. There was no expense spared when it came to their PA and lighting rig, which helps with the overall experience from the hill to the stage, especially in a place as massive as Alpine Valley, where the hill extends over 700 feet back from the stage.
The end of the first night came after a fifteen minute encore, wrapping up nearly three hours of music from the band. Fans didnt seem like the party was over though, with most likely returning to the Saturday night and Sunday night shows. An entire weekend spent Phishing, perhaps at the behest of their wives, if they haven’t been dragged along already.
Fans cheered for the opening of songs, and runs of guitar solos by Trey Anistasio just as loud as they would have if their favorite football team made a big, wide open catch, and ran for the goal line. The comparison to a sports team is something I kept coming back to over and over again throughout the night. Fans don the same apparel, talk about shows the same way they do about divisional title games, and cheer for songs the same way they do big plays. The biggest difference between the two is that the band won’t ever let you down. You don’t ever leave these shows feeling like you lost. As a Vikings fan, I know this feeling. But as a newfound Phish fan, I know what it feels like to walk out of a show and feel like you’ve won. That’s why they’ll continue to fill arenas and amphitheaters for years to come. You can never feel like you were on the losing team at the end of the game.