The big question among Phish fans in 2009 is how different the experience is now as opposed to what it was like seeing the band in earlier parts of their career. I’ve been mostly arguing that outside of Fall 95, 1997, Summer 2003, and June 2004, Phish’s improvisation has been in line with most of their career. Most tours had a bunch of fun shows and then two or three that transcended the normal rules. It’s just that we tend to listen to the big jams more than the more normal shows so our impression gets skewed.
Having said that, there does seem to be a difference of sorts. Shows that might have been tempting in 2004 were much easier to blow off this year. It’s not that Phish have really changed though; it’s me that’s different.
Specifically, it was the 5-year break that changed everything. With no Phish and no band that really demanded dropping everything to go see them, vacations were different. We went to Alaska and to national parks and on multiple Jam Cruises to the tropics. Frequently the music was there, but it was there to enhance the vacation, not to be the vacation. Tea Leaf Green was the perfect band in that sense. They’d play Arcadia or the Midwest or somewhere that we’d been thinking about going for a while and we’d time it so we’d get a show out of it too; we nicknamed the band, “The Excuse to Travel Band.”
Once you get in that mindset, it can be hard to think of seeing music any other way. As the Phish fan base ages – and it’s becoming obvious that the older fans are not (at least yet) being replaced by newer ones in the same numbers that have happened in the past – location becomes more important. Sleeping in rest stops, doing anything to see a show, letting yourself prioritize music over food and rest, those are all young people’s games.
The fact is that seeing more than 15-20 shows a year of any band is usually going to produce burnout no matter how good of a year they’re having . There were some pretty average shows even in June 1994 that everyone has forgotten about. My wish for 2010 is that everyone who is not enjoying Phish 3.0 as much as they have past years takes a step or two back. Go to the local shows and then find some that are in a place that you’ve always wanted to visit. My trips this year were to Indio, Asheville, Fenway Park, the Bay Area (and therefore Yosemite), and Hampton, so even when the shows weren’t amazing, the side trips were. Limit yourself to cool trips to great places with good people, and it’s amazing how rejuvenating this whole music travel thing can be.
…and now off to the airport for a tropical New Year’s Eve!
 In this case I do practice what I preach. I’ve seen Phish in 16 different years and in only three of them did I see more than 20 shows. It’s all about the pacing – ok, that’s an obsessive kind of pacing but it is pacing.
David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capital Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at http://www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html and he’s on the board of directors for The Mockingbird Foundation