Ascend Amphitheater; Nashville, TN
Well friends, it has been a ridiculously crazy week or so for the crew here at No Country. In case you somehow haven’t heard, there’s a brand spankin’ new 6,500 + person capacity, outdoor venue in the heart of downtown Nashville. On Tuesday Aug. 4th, the masters of jam, Phish took their performance and all in attendance at Ascend Amphitheater to new heights. The blog was there in numbers, with two writers, and a photographer on the beat. With this in mind, we’ve decided to bring you two different points of view from the blazing two set bonanza.
After the jump you’ll hear from a “newb”, in terms of experience in the world of Phish (2 shows), and a relatively seasoned veteran (35 shows), in hopes of bringing you the most rounded review of what is sure to be one of the top shows in Music City for all of 2015. While you’re taking some time to fall down the Phish rabbit hole, be sure to enjoy pictures from contributing photographer Brendan Donohue too.
Jacob Ryan [JR]– Even for the most seasoned show hounds, myself included, there really isn’t anything quite like Phish. Sure, there are other traveling jam band scenes, but not since the passing of the legendary Jerry Garcia, the patron saint of jam, has a band taken their traveling circus/carnival of fans to Grateful Dead levels the way Phish has. It truly is a subculture on to itself.
Of course I’m no expert. This endeavor was only the second time I’d ever seen them live, the first time I’d ever been to an official Phish show (I also saw them at Bonnaroo ’09). I own none of their records, or the countless bootlegs of their live shows, but I can say unequivocally they’re one of the best live bands I have ever seen, and the dance party they facilitate is rivaled by no one else. Despite how much I enjoyed seeing them perform, I felt at a bit of a disadvantage compared to my roommate, Jess, and some of his deep-scene integrated Phish loving brethren. Jess is OG for sure, having been to over 100 shows, and touring with the band for three years in the late ‘90s. Of the crew we pregamed with, there was another OGer (100 plus shows) in our midst, and the rest were scattered somewhere between myself and the most experienced. After drinks at home, we headed out and I got a good taste of the legendary lot culture; sharing beers, cigs, bowls etc with complete strangers all around us … who were all also swapping Phish stories.
“This one time in ’96,” one would start, before launching into an excruciatingly detailed story about one show in particular that stood out in their mind just then … of the hundred or so they could choose from.
Part of Phish’s claim to fame is that they’ve never ever repeated a set list in their twenty-plus year history, and of course the storyteller always knows the mentioned list by heart, which is a huge thing amongst true Phans. To someone who considers themselves a professional appreciator of (almost) all things in music, this is fascinating stuff, no bullshit! Hanging with the fans is almost as captivating as seeing the band jam live and in person.
Julian Ciany [JC]- After years of 6+ hour car rides, days of traveling by plane, and 50 dollar bus tickets, I was finally able to hop on the metro and float into my 35th Phish show last week at the new Ascend Amphitheater. I consider myself a man with a well rounded musical taste, but Phish has always been my favorite band and always will be. Ever since discovering them during my sophomore year of high school when a friend handed me the boxed set of the 1998 Hampton, Virginia shows entitled Hampton Comes Alive, I was hooked. As a musician, I was fascinated with their intricate and seamless ability to communicate on stage. The band could start a song like “Bathtub Gin”, a simple 4/4 groove with a laid back guitar part and minimal textual overtones, just like they would at any other show. But give them fifteen minutes or so, and by listening to each other and being patient with where the improvisation was going, they could find themselves in a place with that song that they would have never thought possible. This is universal across their catalogue. As a teenager, I found this astonishing. I felt late to the party though, seeing as how the band disbanded in 2008 before I was ever able to catch a show. But in a miraculous turn of events, they came back. And just like Jacob, Bonnaroo 2009 was my first show. I have been hooked on catching Phish live ever since. It provides an ultimate escape from reality for me. When I go to a Phish show, I can forget about any problems that might be impacting my life and zone in on nothing but the band and the magic they are creating on stage. This time was no different.
Having just come off of tour with my own band MELK, it was tough assimilating myself back to normal, everyday life. Luckily, Phish was on tour through the South and I could disregard the real world for just a little bit longer. After attending their two night stand in Atlanta, I was beyond excited to catch them in my own town. One of the most vivid adventures of all-time though, was a show of theirs I caught in Utica, NY, 2010, where Phish put on an incredible and fun performance full of silly transitions and effective and stunning improvisation in a small 5000 seat venue. As I walked by Ascend and through Shakedown street, a spot in the parking lot where all the vendors set up and everyone looks for tickets, I smiled at all the familiar faces and beamed in anticipation of the upcoming opportunity to witness something similar in size and intimacy here in Nashville.
[JR] After three hours in a football stadium parking lot, that had been converted into a mini Burning Man Festival barter economy, it was time to head in. We’d all had our fair share of pre-show fun, so we were in the right frame of mind to get down with the greatest jam band of all time, rivaled only by The Dead. The heat had been brutal the entire day, and even taking cover in the precious shade of a tree, the sun had taken it’s toll. I’d end up drinking more water than beer once we were inside the venue.
I stumbled around a bit, in pure awe of the truly fucking bad ass Ascend Amphitheater, before we found a good place on the lawn to form our base of operations. Phish’s entire first set was a blur: continuous rhythmic dancing from 9o% of the capacity crowd, everyone dripping with sweat from the heat, natty dreaded men playing with their children while moms nursed ear-protection-headphone wearing infants, everyone smiling with joy, glow sticks, and LED hula hoops dotting the hillside. During the break between their two sets, we all laid down to catch our breath. We were only half-way there.
A song or two into the second set, I had zoned in on bassist Mike Gordon pretty much exclusively, and would remain that way for the remainder of the show. It had cooled off dramatically by then, and we could smell the cool, wet mist coming off the Cumberland River. I danced around like a seizuring epileptic on fire, loving every second of it, and when it was finally over it felt like only minutes had passed, not hours. It was obvious no one ever wanted it to end.
I’ve never traded somebody five grilled cheeses for a “live from ‘97” cassette, and as I’ve mentioned before, I don’t own any of their music. I can’t name each jam, or predict what they’ll slide into next. I’ve never been on tour, never worn patchouli, or printed bootleg t-shirts to sell for gas money. However, I feel I have a unique perspective, looking in from the outside, because regardless of my experience level, I can say I love seeing Phish play, and I’ll be jumping at my next opportunity to do so. Because Phish is much more than all the neo-hippie stereotypes. More than wooks or weekend warriors. They’re more than the drugs, more than the number of times you’ve seen them live, and more than I can really put into words. They are that feeling you get when you’re dancing to the music, lost in the moment, your worries ten thousand miles away.
Phish fans. Photo by Brendan Donohue.
[JC] This band is great when they play around with convention. And by opening up a show with “Free”, a song that rarely opens a Phish show, they told us Nashvillians that that is exactly what they planned on doing. Mike Gordon and Jon Fishman immediately brought the bounce that so many of us Phish fans love to hear. After letting his bandmates take control of the groove, Trey Anastasio came in with a roaring guitar solo to take the song home. Next up was “No Men in No Man’s Land”, a new song that highlighted keyboardist Page McConnells clavichord skills and the bands ultimate ability to keep us all dancing in a short but very effective jam. A big-time crowd pleaser, “Wolfman’s Brother”, came next. When the lyrical portion of the song was finished the band brought everything down, signifying that they were going to take this to a new level. More heat from Page McConnel on the clavichord, combined with Gordon’s booming bass tone made way for a very funky groove that Anastasio layered a burning solo over.
Our ‘new to Phish’ writer Jacob says that he was zoned in on Mike Gordon the entire night. And to that, I say it was for very justifiable reasons. Many of us “phans” like to go into a show and decide who is the MVP of the night. And when the band sandwiched the hit “Birds of a Feather” in between two songs sung by Mike called “555” and “Funky Bitch”, a tune written by Son Seals, it was clear that it was going to be a Mike night. The bass player shined with these two selections, showcasing his ultimate ability to walk around the instrument all the while still hitting the root notes and staying true to the groove. After the intense dance party that was brought on by “Funky Bitch” (and the whole set up to this point for that matter) the band knew that it was time to slow it down for a song. Sometimes the band doesn’t do the best job of slipping ballads into a set. They can be a real bummer in the middle of an all out frenzy. But here, their choice to cover the Los Lobos song “When The Circus Comes To Town” was lush and exemplary. Predicting songs before hand is a big thing for most big fans, and for this show, I just knew they were going to play one of my favorite songs, “Stash”. Sure enough, just as the first set was getting closer and closer to its end, the band launched into it. The intense compositional part of the tune featured an ornate and detailed guitar part from Anastasio that was supported by McConnell and audience handclaps, an element of crowd participation that happens every time they play this song. Once completed, the band launched into another jam that gave way for Anastasio to take the wheel after doing such an amazing job of holding back and letting the rest of the band shine the entire night. After “Stash”, the band brought it down once again. This time in a light and fun manner with the classic “Lawn Boy”, a song that allows Page McConnell to get up from the keyboard and play frontman for a silly lounge jazz number evoking pastoral imagery with the innate sense of smell. “I get so overwhelmed by olfactory hues” sings McConnell in the refrain. The second praise of Ascend Ampitheater came as McConnell remarked how beautiful he thought the venue was and how grateful he was to be here. Once “Lawn Boy” was done, Page went back to the piano to start “Walls of the Cave”, a clear indication that this heavy and pleasing first set was coming to an end.
I layed down on the lawn with the group of friends I had just made at the show to review everything we had just witnessed. Before we knew it the band was back on, ready to squeeze another set before Ascend’s 11pm curfew. Covers can sometimes be an important component of Phish shows. And sometimes they can be great jam vehicles. Phish’s cover of the TV on the Radio song “Golden Age” is a perfect example of this. The second set of the night started with this as everyone rose up from their setbreak rest to start dancing again. After a ten minute period of improvisation that featured exceptional syncopated interplay between Gordon and Fishman, Anastasio started playing the chords to “Light”, a song from their comeback album, Joy. When this album first came out, many veteran Phish fans weren’t impressed with a chunk of the songs on it. However, “Light” has always been a favorite. It has continuously given way to some of the best Phish 3.0 jams. Tonight’s was no exception. Anastasio shined in this section while McConnell did a standup job on filling in his blank spots, a sign that the band was really focused on what everyone else was playing. After a new ballad entitled “Shade”, Anastasio started the chords to “Mikes Song”. I looked at the person next to me whom I had told earlier that tonight would be a Mike night, and we gave each other a high five. The ever popular Mike’s Groove often features one of my favorites to get in to the flow of at a show. Here, the band launched into a heavy hitting jam that saw Anastasio giving us a fierce solo section and also taking time to let Gordon’s resonating bass licks shine.
One of the most pleasing experiences in a Phish show is when you can tell that the band is having the time of their lives onstage. When they decided to tease the audience by faking out the end of Mike’s song and giving us “Mikes Song Pt 2” instead of moving on, this was clearly evident. The jam wasn’t done, and neither were we. After an extended Mike’s Groove, Phish went into an aggressive “Piper” followed by the second cover of the night; a chance for drummer Jon Fishman to shine with the Talking Heads classic “Crosseyed and Painless”. While this cover sometimes gives way to extended jams, tonight’s was kept short as the end of the Mike’s sandwich came about with “Weekapaug Groove” The transitions in this second set were beyond impressive. They were seamless and groovy. As the band was finishing up “Crosseyed and Painless”, they eased their way into a major key and drifted into “Weekapaug Groove”, signifying the end of the second set. Again, bass player Mike Gordon shined in this song with his ferocious slap bass part that carries this song. Phish took this one to some amazing places, dropping the tempo, slipping in “Crosseyed and Painless” lyrics, and dancing around with complete and utter joy. I looked around at the crowd, at all the smiling faces, and I wished I could remain in this world. When Phish is on, the crowd is on and vice versa. Their return to Nashville was a perfect example of that. The band was locked in. They were focusing on each other, the notes that were played, and even those that weren’t. This gave off such an enormous amount of energy, I’m not sure if any other show I have attended can ever compare.
After “Weekapaug Groove”, the band took a bow and left the stage. But we knew an encore was coming. They came back and started “Slave to the Traffic Light”, a popular closing song that ended the night on a serene and gorgeous tone. Phish plans to record their next album here in Nashville. I can only hope that this show was the first of many more at our city’s newest claim to fame.