All in the Phish phamily

Dancing under the rainbow in Hibiya Park

At first, I felt sorry for the Americans who followed Phish across the Pacific for the band’s Japan tour. I live here, and even I find the prices intolerable and the infrastructure unforgiving.

And then there was the rain.

The National Meteorological Agency announced the start of the rainy season on June 8, the day before the band’s first show at Shibuya ON AIR East. The rain wasn’t a problem then or at the Zepp show in Odaiba the following night, but the centerpiece of the tour was the June 11 afternoon concert at the outdoor amphitheater in Hibiya Park.

It was coming down pretty heavy by the time I reached the venue Sunday afternoon. Matt from Ohio was standing under a tree outside the gate talking to another pilgrim. Bearded and amiable, with the glitter on his cheek that identified him as a card-carrying member of the Phamily, he asked me if I thought the rain would stop soon. I said I had no idea.

He was staying at a hotel in Shibuya for “$150 a night, but for the rest of the tour the hotels are about $100 or $110, which isn’t too bad.” At the band’s request, the promoter, Smash, had set aside a bunch of tickets for the Phamily and sold them through their Web site. Accommodations and rail passes were arranged through JTB, also over the Net.

According to Smash, approximately 150 overseas phans bought tickets for all seven sold-out shows (Tokyo, Nagoya, Fukuoka, Osaka). Matt said the audience for the ON AIR gig was 50 percent Phamily. “There were a lot more Japanese at the Zepp show, probably because it was added later.”

There were a lot more Japanese in the amphitheater as well, but whenever you put Americans and Japanese together in such a situation, the Americans tend to dominate even if in this case they were outnumbered 11-to-1. It wasn’t Woodstock; more like a big college keg party in the rain, with the Americans making an effort to expand their interpersonal network regardless of nationality and the Japanese clearly enjoying the attention. Some visitors had brought weed, and I saw not a few Japanese souls partaking eagerly when it was proffered.

John from Denver put it into perspective when I asked him if it wasn’t a huge monetary setback to come to Japan just to see a band he had already seen dozens of times before: “But this is the perfect excuse to visit Japan and meet people.” It was the farthest he’d ever traveled for a Phish concert, though his pal Aaron from Albuquerque said he’s followed the band all the way to Italy. Aaron commented approvingly that Japan had more hippies than any other country he’d been to, an observation that was more acute than he realized.

Many of the Americans had the accouterments of hippies — long hair, beards, natural fiber clothing — but they were mostly in their 20s and seemed to occupy a comfortable niche within America’s triumphant capitalist design. Everyone I talked to had full-time, obviously secure jobs, mostly in the computer and technical fields. The Japanese that Aaron was referring to not only looked like real hippies, they were as old as real hippies, which means they probably had less conventional occupations than their younger American counterparts, and doubtless couldn’t afford to follow their favorite band around the world.

The caravan thing is what gets Phish-heads constantly compared to Deadheads. As John was quick to point out when I made mention of the scene, “It’s mainly about the music,” and, in the end, it is the music that separates Phish from the Grateful Dead. Sure, the band’s claim to fame is its jams, Trey Anastasio’s guitar sounds uncannily like Jerry Garcia’s on occasion, and both bands share a distaste for the prerogatives of corporate rock (thus, the special area set aside for tapers at every show).

But Phish is far wittier and more experimental than the Dead ever were, and I would say their fans are actually looser and more open-minded. I should know. I lived with three Deadheads for a time in San Francisco. It was an experience I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemies.

Phish is also preternaturally upbeat. I’ve been to Dead shows where the band looked decidedly ungrateful, but after 17 years as a pro, Trey Anastasio still acts like a college kid who can’t believe he’s getting paid to do this. He and the band walked out at 3:45, smiling broadly at the cheering horde, and without saying anything fell into the tricky Middle Eastern pattern that fuels the funky instrumental “First Tube.” Bouncing fitfully on the balls of his feet, with the other members whacking out a steady one-two-one-two, Anastasio couldn’t quite keep the syncopation in sync, but that seemed to be the point. He worked the single-note pattern in and out of the off-rhythms, the grin never leaving his face, as the song built and built.

The crowd, American and Japanese alike, anticipated every note, and as the band segued seamlessly into the fast-talking fusoid “Punch You in the Eye,” and the slower, more rock-centered “Horn,” everyone was mouthing the words and moving their bodies in unison to the changes. During the chorus of “Stash,” the audience did this double-time handclap thing that is apparently something phans do automatically, like knowing when to throw rice during the “Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

I didn’t care for the bluegrassy country songs like “Ginseng Sullivan,” “Beauty of My Dreams,” and “Possum” (which, according to a review on a phan Web site, is also available in a “psychedelic version”), but the group’s jazz capabilities surprised me. Page McConnell’s McCoy Tynerish piano solo at the end of “Punch” was sleek and melodic, and the freaky time signatures of “It’s Ice” recalled the extraterrestrial jive of Sun Ra.

After nine songs in 90 minutes, they took a long break. As testament to the performance’s intensity, I hadn’t even noticed that the rain had let up. The crowd was energized in more ways than one, and the dogged security staff was having trouble keeping ticket-holders in their designated seating blocks. One tall, drunk foreign woman was making a point of walking wherever she pleased and bringing newfound Japanese friends along with her, whether they wanted to go or not.

One of the Phish legends is that the group never goes on stage with a set list, but simply moves from song to song based on inspiration and interactive intuition. The Dead had the same legend, but the Dead’s inspiration was limited to the people on stage. Phish, on the other hand, clearly works with the audience, which is all the more interesting given the fact that during the entire three-hour performance the band didn’t say one word to them.

The best song of the afternoon was “Free.” With its loopy introduction and long, loose-limbed solos, it comes about as close as you can get to a Dead song without actually having Robert Hunter listed on the songwriting credit. But it’s better since Anastasio, having become a musician after punk left its permanent stain on pop, has a more delicate and dramatic command of dynamics than Garcia ever did.

Another crowd-pleaser was “David Bowie,” which, according to a phan within earshot, is an early song that the band only whips out on special occasions. Hilariously unserious and crazily complex, the song kept changing gears in startling ways before finally slipping into a comfortable jam that lasted the better part of 20 minutes.

By the time they got to the closer, the reggae-like “Harry Hood,” patches of blue could be seen overhead. Various items (including what looked like iridescent worms) were being tossed around the amphitheater, and with the security staff completely defeated, people were running and dancing wherever they fancied. Hands flew up in the air on cue. A roaring cheer met every chorus of “Thank you, Mr. Minor,” and as the song kept building, the entire audience churned and churned until it was a big flapping mass of hemp-covered flesh.

For their one and only encore, Phish played “Character Zero,” which features at least one line with the word “rainbow” in it, and in case anyone missed the connection (no one did), Anastasio kept looking up at the sky, which indeed contained a rainbow. I’m not sure who arranged that (Smash told me they had nothing to do with it), but the magic of the moment, combined with another climactic jam, sent the audience into a paroxysm that didn’t subside until 30 minutes after the band had left the stage and the crew was hauling away equipment.

The aforementioned Web site critic, who has seen more than a hundred Phish concerts, said it was one of the best. “Get these tapes!” he wrote. By all means, but if ever there was a case of “you had to be there,” this was it. Come to think of it, isn’t that what Phish is all about?

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.
Coronavirus banner