Verizon Theatre, Grand Prairie
Wednesday, July 29, 2015
Last night at Verizon Theatre, Phish inspired some of the worst dancing I have ever seen. Limbs flailing everywhere, arrhythmic hops and gesticulations, strangely aggressive at times, with a noticeable disregard for others’ personal space — all features of a time spent in the trenches with Phish, cult leaders of a strangely benign variety. America's foremost jam band spent the evening doing what they always do: They made a monolith of intricately interplayed, often improvised, occasionally groovy noise, which we pretended formed songs. Imagine the opening clashes of “Baba O’Riley” stomping on a human face, forever.
Trying to glean some enjoyment from a Phish concert if you haven't drunk the Kool-Aid is a desperate search for subtleties unseen. Maybe on some level it's good for you, like eating your vegetables. It's not unlike a game of "Where's Waldo?" in audio form. The essential difference is that you're not listening for something specific so much as any possible avenue of appreciation — a turn of phrase is unlikely, but maybe a guitar lick that stands out from the thousands of notes offered during the course of the evening, or a brief moment that might sort of resemble a chorus. As is bound to happen in a three-hour-plus set, appreciable items weren’t completely absent on Wednesday, but these pleasurable surges came and went quickly and quietly in a wave of vapid chord-play. At least these fellas are self-aware enough to have an intermission.
For the most part, Phish "songs" are identifiable by their segmented pieces, structured a bit like the most popular forms of classical music. To oversimplify, there are sections A, B and C, which are then revisited in different orders, with various improvised solos set on top of each separate bit of groove as if to break up the monotony. They avoid heavy riffs; instead, they fiddle with white funk and reggae, with flashes of country and Grateful Dead folk noticeably peeking through, along with some rockabilly. The vocals are almost always an afterthought. From time to time, they take an opportunity to do some extended piano-pounding, the least interesting of all their modes.
Once you've heard one of the more intricately fashioned Phish arrangements, it’s enough to get the formula, and in some sense you’ve heard them all. That sounds like an insult; but to fans, as far as I can tell, that's part of the appeal. These virtuoso instrumentalists combine their individual outputs in predictably (and, to be technical, unpredictably) varying layers — it’s minimalist as an overall experience but maximalist in the particulars. Occasionally, there's a familiar tidbit where they throw half a cover in the mix, or they hit a bit of catchy repetition, but it never really feels like anything ends either way; endings and beginnings aren't what Phish is about. Getting lost in the middle is what's expected.
As last night's concert made clear, it's not really Phish themselves who deserve blame if you find their music as inexpressive as I do; it’s supply and demand, desire and fulfillment, an audience and its expectations. And even when they mercifully changed up the formula, it wasn't always an improvement. About an hour into their set, they broke out an unusual vocal-harmony-led number that had plenty of room for noise making: The drummer took a break from his time-keeping to make mysterious sounds into a microphone, an event I'm sure a super-fan could helpfully provide context for. But judging by the facial expressions around me, and the brief lack of dancing, I wasn't the only one bored by the whole thing.
As an outsider to the cult, my main takeaways were more sociological than musical. Across a sea of sweaty white people in varying stages of intoxication — half of them dressed like they were at Bonnaroo — Phish wailed on their guitars and keyboards and bass and whatnot in their customary fashion. The impressive space of the Verizon was filled with awkwardly bouncing people, almost all of them on their feet throughout, a good percentage of them younger than the upper-middle-aged prog-rock crowd I was expecting.
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Admittedly, bad dancing is just bad dancing, and who am I to judge? But in this case, it betrayed the almost profound meaninglessness of all this musical diddling — empty motions of bodies, the virtuoso’s version of a mosh pit. Even emotions were mostly a blur in the void of this constant buzzing, noodling and instrumental interplay. Each added bit of nuance was as inconsequential as the last.
This band is a big reason why I can't use "jam" as a compliment without cringing, the inverse of how Mad Men made "soap opera" less of a knee-jerk derogatory designation. The best you can say about Phish is that they create a musical canvas without defined structures; there's no coloring in the lines. The worst is that it’s insufferably mind-numbing. Last night wasn't like eating healthy vegetables; it was more like consuming overcooked meat.