All words: Jeb Gavin
I know people who don’t like music. That is to say, I know there are people who aren’t fans of any music. They don’t go around breaking boomboxes, blasting air horns to drown out car radios, but they don’t enjoy music of any variety or genre. That’s OK. It’s taken me a long time, almost my entire life to understand: some people just don’t get it and nothing will change that. What’s more important, it’s not my job, not my mission, not my calling to make them love music. It’s just a connection within them that does not exist. Reading is how we connect vision and pattern recognition to cognition; smell is how we connect biochemical analysis to memory formation and recall; music is actual energy in the form of vibrations transformed by the power of our brains into emotion. Even if it is a skill one could acquire, you have to want it. No one goes around angry because music makes them feel emotions, frustrated they can’t simply ignore it.
There are of course others; we don’t live in binary. There are plenty of folks who claim to love music, and then immediately start reeling off all the things they won’t listen to–jazz, country (but not classic country,) rap (excepting pop radio-friendly rap and stuff from the mid ’90s,) classical, dance music… jam bands. In being so broadly exclusionary, they’re not explaining their love of music, they’re simply indicating they like the things they like, and some of those things happen to be songs. Again, there is nothing wrong with this. It kills me, eats me up inside, but I am not responsible for the narrowness of another person’s aesthetic appreciation.
Then there are the music lovers- and there are so many varieties of music lovers out there.
You’ve got record collectors chasing the perfect sound; the eclecticists leaping genres in entire bounds or looking for that one absurd fusion track; the dancers turning vibrational energy into emotion back into mechanical energy; composers like theoretical mathematicians exploring new conceptual space; DJs and sound engineers desperately cobbling mixes together to whatever end they see fit; the evangelists who just want you to fall in love with music, any and all music. And those are just a few examples, no one’s bound by some code of honor to love music for any one reason or in any one particularly way. So long as you can connect to organized sound on an emotional level and respect others for doing the same, you love music. So long as you can say earnestly there is music you don’t like, and that’s OK because while there may objectively be good or bad or mediocre music you are not the omnipotent arbiter thereof, you love music. So long as you want to hear something interesting and good and do not fear silence or noise (allowing for both silence and noise to be music given the right circumstances) then you love music. My point being, if you love music- really enjoy it, you can’t hate
Sure, there’s plenty of things going on at their performances that can annoy the shit out of you, and all were out in full effect Saturday night at Merriweather Post Pavilion. Some, myself included, find the parking lot atmosphere grating. I’m not buying a poorly constructed poem, or an even more poorly constructed veggie burrito, thanks. Nitrous tanks (and the littered, spent balloons that come with them) feel like a shipping mistake on the part of a chemical supply company rather than party favors. The pervading odor of weed- good (grapefruit,) bad (skunk,) or otherwise (teriyaki sweat sock?) gives way to the overwhelming smell of cigarettes to extend the high. Rainstorm during the show?
Well, nothing you can do about that, but the kids experiencing balance issues who decide to run up a muddy slope, fall, and then slide down said hill knocking people over, that I do not abide. But if you can get past the minor annoyances most of which could be categorized as “other people,” (the same kind of “other people” you’d find anywhere, though Phish concerts tend to concentrate the density of their numbers) you get to experience the music. The music is worth the trouble.
OK, I hear you muttering, “jams” aren’t your thing. Fine, no worries. So don’t listen to the jams. Yes, plenty of songs meander, especially live, but no one’s holding a gun to your head forcing you to be aware of every note. In the proper setting, for example a really good concert, you’re there to be wholly subsumed into the experience, most of which is music (and in the case of Saturday night- a bitchin’ light show.) You don’t have to follow the noodling, hanging on every dissonant chord. You like a little bluegrass boogie? Perk up your ears during the verses of “Kill Devil Falls.” Really love reggae drums? You’re going to want to listen to the fills in “Harry Hood.” Just want to rock? They closed with a blistering encore of Led Zeppelin’s “Good Times, Bad Times.”
The menagerie of sounds Phish brings to their show comes from two places: skill and a love of music. Drummer Jon Fishman is an octopus with a metronome heart. Mike Gordon so nimbly handles his bass you’d think he wasn’t playing at all- which is fascinating given how important the bass is in music like this. It’s salt to cooking- you think you’d never miss it, but it’s the essence of everything good happening. Keyboardist Page McConnell is as close as we’re ever going to see to the second coming of Richard Manuel- as high a compliment as I can bestow on a multi-instrumentalist piano player. And Trey Anastasio out front, well you should need no further proof of the proficiency of an act when they have one of the world’s best guitarists and he’s not even close to the best musician in the game.
But again, none of this functions without a deep and abiding love of music. The genre (and occasionally instrument) swapping, it’s all in service to the sound. The jams are an exploration of what’s possible in rhythm and melody and it’s done live for your amusement with an impressive array of lights timed to the waves of sound rolling out of the pavilion and up the hill and out into the world.
It’s why these guys play together every night. It’s why people drive or fly thousands of miles to see them time and time again. It’s why when the first song I ever learned to play on guitar opened their encore, I felt my heart beating. I love music. Love it. Phish makes good music, and if you love music, you should listen.
NOTE: It’s not hard to find a show online, Phish actually records them live and posts them on their website. Really, go give it a listen, and hear whatever it is you want to hear.
Thumbnail image by Jeff Martin via our Atlantic City Phish review.