Tuesday, August 9, 2011
Phish @ The Gorge
Editor's note: I realize there are many awkward sentences, a severe repetition of "completely" and many switches from past to present tense in the post below. I also think every 2nd or 3rd sentence is a run-on. But, I'm going to leave it un-edited this time because the experience was fairly raw and I think it's OK if the description of it is similarly raw.
August 2011 marked 7 years since I saw Phish with Kelly at the Alpine Valley Music Theater in Wisconsin. At the time, the trip felt indulgent and surreal, as if it were inhabiting someone else's body and I was just along for the ride. It was my first time seeing two shows on consecutive nights and that alone felt extreme. I worried that I might not appreciate both nights individually and I wasn't convinced I deserved to enjoy myself for such an extended period of time. Somehow I was able to let the guilt go, to embrace this concert experience as my first real exposure to the lifestyle that so many dirty hippies find appealing.
My memories of Alpine Valley are indelible: the smell of the grass, tailgating, staying up late, sleeping in, eating less nutritious food, the Amish people nearby, an overturned car on the drive back, breakfast at Denny's, and far too much second hand smoke. It was my only non-race oriented travel of 2004, and it was so different than everything else in my life around that time that it stands out as a landmark memory. As for the music, wow, it blew me away. To see Phish in an outdoor amphitheater is a very special experience. They are the only band that I can completely lose myself in for the duration of the set, the absorption is effortless. While the indoor concerts are fantastic as well, there is something far more natural and appropriate about being outdoors to see Phish. It also helps me manage all the smoking and general funky smells going on, my eyes really tear up at an indoor venue because I'm just not used to all of the smoke. Watching the sun set, sometimes accompanied by the song, The Divided Sky, slips into dusk and momentum builds towards the midnight encore. For me, that show at Alpine transcended the moment and opened a new dimension of music appreciation. I know enough lyrics to sing along to 9 out of 10 songs, I know the rifts well enough to predict 6 or 7 out of 10 on the first few notes, but I've only seen a handful of shows so it's still very fresh and new and I like keeping it that way.
In that 7 year interim, the band took a 4 year break, released a new album, and returned to touring. I have to admit that during that 4 year break, I lost a little interest. Ironically, what drove me to Alpine in 2004 was the fear that it was over, and indeed it seemed that way for quite some time. When Phish started touring again in 2009, I felt a bit like a scorned lover, like a bandwagon fan who had jumped off. Life was just moving full speed ahead in 2009, it was a tornado and hurricane all at the same time and there was no room for music, certainly no time to travel to a concert. And then, as the storm subsided and life slowed down a bit, I was able to rekindle some of the joy I remembered from that trip to Alpine at two local shows with Trey and Mike's solo bands. I knew it was time to see them again, and it didn't take much effort to get back on the bandwagon, this time with both Kelly and Mike, for a two night trip to The Gorge in Washington. It still felt guilty booking a flight for pure pleasure, unnecessary and indulgent, but something I genuinely looked forward to, a small reward for the hard work I attempted to put in earlier in the year.
I flew in Thursday night and was able to navigate easily through the airport to the train. Ironically, my dad had sent me some of his electric train set that week (I'll cover that in my next post) so I felt obligated to travel on rail whenever possible. Plus trains are just plain cooler than busses. Something just seems right about taking the train to/from an airport. I met up with the Mundells at the hotel and we headed out for a beer to cap off the night. Then we wandered off to a different bar that had 160 beers on tap and had a 2nd beer and let our enthusiasm for tomorrow build.
The next morning we sought out coffee (which is not very difficult to find in Seattle) and headed East on I90 before the road closures for the Blue Angels. During that drive I was reminded of how beautiful and green things are on the West side of the Cascade mountains. I was also surprised at how dramatic the difference felt by the time we reached Ellensburg which was windy, hot, and dry. We had enough time to take a quick dip in the deep blue clear Columbia river to cool off before heading out to the parking lot. And here's where I really started to notice how old I am. When we tailgated at Alpine Valley, we were in the mix of it all, there was just one big parking lot and all of the associated mayhem all around us. This time we opted for the "family friendly" parking area which was much more chill, and though we did have a few beers and listen to some tunes on the ipad, it was overall very mellow by comparison. All of the real tailgating was taking place in a different lot, a fair ways away.
So the three of us roll in to the Gorge properly lubricated, well rested, adequately caffeinated, and ready to soak it all in. Getting a bracelet from the ID check was perhaps the only tricky part of the day as the poor guy was dizzying himself with a counterclockwise rotation around a swarm of hippies thrusting driver's licenses at him. I paid homage to the "two hands, two beers" rule that I instituted at Alpine with Kelly and we walked down to the top of the grass to sit and watch the sun set. We pick a spot just behind a double stroller, since the stroller serves as a nice visual landmark to navigate by as we get progressively more inebriated.
Now, normally, I tend to dislike all the stinky hippies that go to Phish concerts. I feel disgustingly high maintenance by comparison and that is probably part of what annoys me, but I dislike the overabundance of hair, the drugged out stares, and the general lack of concern for others that pervades many of these types of concerts. It was a welcome relief to wind up right behind one of the most beautiful families I've seen. Dad and mom were fit, young, athletic, and full of joy, meanwhile the son and daughter were curious, well behaved, and seemed to genuinely enjoy the experience that they surely could not completely comprehend. What a perfect example of not giving up the things you enjoy in life in order to have a family. Now, lest you think these are irresponsible parents, they were all wearing earplugs and they had plenty of snacks, a blanket, and some glow in the dark necklaces for their two kiddies. And did I mention how adorable they all were, especially together? I took a photo of them all together on their phone and caught one of the two kiddies as they were packing up towards the end of the first set. Being around them really just put me in a great mood.
I don't really have words to describe how great the music was. I could start with soul-filling, but that sounds trite. When you go see your favorite band playing, when they've amassed a career's worth of work since the time you were very young with songs you remember hearing in college and throughout your adult life, the quality and relevance emanates throughout every song. One highlight of that first set was "My Friend, My Friend" as it reminded me of a friend from college, also a huge Phish fan, who I hadn't talked to in years. We used to recite the lyrics back and forth to each other while doing our engineering problem sets, and continued to do so through the years even if it meant IM or email. Roses are free was similarly excellent, even though I'm not a Dead fan, wow it was sharp. Couple in a new venue that is wonderful, beautiful, and natural, with views of the columbia river snaking it's way down through a cut in the rocks, warm and dry summer air, and the ease of a Friday evening and it's just perfect. I couldn't have asked for anything better and I loved every minute of it.
During the set break, we wandered down, closer to the stage and as soon as the 2nd set started, I bolted into the crowd, I just couldn't control myself. Probably because the opener to the 2nd set was "Backwards down the Number Line". That song sums up some of the history the band has gone through and it's one of the ones which hits me strong as well as I reach closer towards my dreaded 40th birthday and look back at some of the decisions I've made along the way. I was really hoping for "Joy" as it's one of their most touching songs, but alas, they saved it for their show in Los Angeles on Monday night. I wound up singing/dancing next to a set of identical twins, which was very hallas-esque (to steal from Breaking Bad's episode titled "Kafkaesque".)
Somehow we made it back to the hotel (don't ask me how b/c I was incoherent in the back seat) and after a long, slothlike slumber in between the two big boys on the floor with a pillow and a blanket, and some office-space style beating of the alarm clock that just wouldn't quit, we roused ourselves for the 2nd day. We took a short trip through Ellensburg which doesn't have a whole lot to offer a summertime visitor (perhaps it is more of a college town?) and wound up back at the river park/beach. I had enough time for a run, so while I went out to desiccate myself, the Mundell boys set up camp under a tree with the ipad, last night's show, and a cooler. I returned and after another dip in the river we were off, fully prepared, for night #2. My tailgating proved muted after the run, I was more interested in water than beer, but once we got through the gate my enthusiasm quickly built. After 10 minutes on the grass watching the sun set again, I decided I wanted to be in the thick of things, so I wandered down, front and center, and immersed myself in dirty stinky hippies. Now to establish and hold ground in the middle of the center of a phish concert, you have to give up a few things. You're not going to get drinks, it's just not possible to navigate out and back in, so whatever you come in with is all you get. You're also not going to be able to pee, so you don't want to be drinking anyway. Other than the endless cigarettes and pot smoking, it seemed clear that at least half of the crowd was on some sort of drug, and most carried either a camelbak or gallon jug of water to ensure their bodies didn't shut down. Some were barefoot, some shirtless, mostly in large groups and almost everyone younger than me. I decided to accept that and let it be, even though it's not my crowd, not my peers, not really my scene.
That first set blew me away. Partly because it was so fun to be so close on such a great night, even though the beach balls, glow sticks, and smoke invaded every minute of it. It was cool to see the sign language interpreter's reactions and facial expressions as she translated the words of the songs, especially "Birds of a Feather". I thoroughly enjoyed "Limb by Limb" as I think my tendency is to love the slower, mellower, more lyrical songs. And to top it off, that first set ended with the elusive "Fluffhead" which Kelly has been talking about for years and which I've never seen live. Wow. I think we were all in shock at how awesome that first set of Saturday night was. I was feeling the fatigue from the run and the over-exertion of the more energetic mass crowd, and wondering if the 2nd set would be a letdown. If anything, it was even better, though I think the tendency is to spend more time on jam songs on the 2nd sets. Both "Waste" and "Run like an Antelope" were surreal and completely captivated me. By the end of the encore, after a completely unexpected "Sanity" and a completely predictable "Tweezer Reprise" I was completely satiated. Despite being completely sober by that point, it took me a long time and a few texts and phone calls to find the car, I was that stunned and blown away.
I could easily get used to the life of concert-going. Who doesn't like being entertained? Other than the crowds and the smoke, it's all pure pleasure. But it's also not real, at least not real life, and for some strange reason I think I appreciate it so much because I don't overindulge. So, while the boys flew off to Tahoe for tonight's and tomorrow night's concerts, I stayed in Seattle to get some sun, watch the Blue Angels, and swim in a 50m saltwater pool. I think I needed that afternoon to make the transition back to the real world, where work and exercise dominate my time. But, I certainly have enjoyed listening to the concerts and reliving the experience over the last two days, one of the many great things about Phish is that everyone with a ticket gets a free download of the songs from that night.
So, anyway, yeah, I'm a bit of a Phan I guess. I can live with that. I'm not ashamed to say I'm a bit gay for Trey. And heck, Tom Marshall, without that guy, my mind wouldn't feel quite so colorful. Wow.