BURGETTSTOWN, Pa. - What do miniature trampolines, an antique Electrolux vacuum cleaner and a short man clad in an grey-with-orange-donut-pattern muumuu dress have in common?
If you don't already know, you weren't at First Niagara Pavilion in Burgettstown, Pa. last weekend. And if you weren't there, you may never know what you're missing.
Along with guitars, drums, amplifiers and other essential cargo taken over the road on their concert tours, renowned jam band Phish never forgets to pack the above mentioned items as well.
If you have a chance to catch them live, you're in for a treat, but you never know exactly what you're going to get. Will drummer John Fishman be wearing his trademark musical dress made of playable cassette tape woven into the fabric? Yes. Will guitarist Trey Anastasio and bassist Mike Gordon do synchronized turns while jumping on trampolines during a performance? Maybe. Will Fishman step away from his drum kit to perform a bizarre solo on the Electrolux or - even better - on his dress using tape-head gloves? Only if you're really lucky.
Phish is a band that not only boasts four world-class musicians and a rabid fan following, it's a band that consistently delivers a unique experience at every show they play. Much like the Grateful Dead's set lists, a Phish set list differs drastically from any other show before it. Not only is the selection of songs different, the mood of the night is different. It may be an extremely up-tempo show, or it may be a laid-back show, or even a quirky, fun show. No two shows are ever the same.
That's part of the reason why die-hard Phish fans not only go to the local tour stop to see their favorite band, they go on tour - following the band for multiple stops. Some drop out of society and do the entire tour, or maybe hit a group of East Coast dates. Others plan their vacations around the regional stops and hit tour dates in the Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus and Indiana areas, for example. The fans are indeed that dedicated, and for good reason. The band makes each show a special treat for them.
It's a great thing in an era of cookie-cutter commercial acts. Probably 95 percent of the touring artists out there have a pre-fabbed "show" - set up much like a theater performance of a play - that is the same almost every night. Aside from maybe eliminating a song or two from their set because of time constraints or throwing in a different encore song, almost every major band touring today plays the same show night after night. This formula must become boring for the bands, and it most likely eliminates any desire for even the most dedicated fans to see more than one of their shows.
Even concert lighting and supporting video footage are pre-programmed as part of most bands' touring "show." On the other hand, it's been reported that the members of Phish have no idea what songs they're going to play until they step onto the stage and Anastasio suggests a tune ... then they go from there and simply follow the mood of the night. How can they put on a show with such impromptu reckless abandon? They're just that good, as is their "fifth member" Chris Kuroda, a veteran lighting technician who is one of the most widely respected and sought-after concert light designers in the industry.
Phish even commissions professional artists to create artwork for posters that are unique for each show. Limited-edition prints from each show are sold at that particular venue. They always sell out, and a $50 poster from any show can almost always be found for sale on eBay the next day for around $200. Unique Phish merit badges are also popular and highly collectible.
Last Saturday night's show was yet another one-of-a-kind experience delivered by the band at First Niagara Pavilion - their first return to the venue in three years. It was a picture-perfect day that led into a picture-perfect night, both weather-wise and otherwise.
The band jammed out danceable songs from their catalogue of songs spanning three decades before shifting into high gear with "Maze." The first set also included an extended version of "The Moma Dance" and a musical duel during "Scent of a Mule" arguably won by keyboard player extraordinaire Paige McConnell, who chimed in with a theremin (Google it ...) The set ended with a crowd-pleasing closer - a lively rendition of "You Enjoy Myself" - complete with Anastasio and Gordon on trampolines.
After a short intermission, Phish returned for a stellar second set kicked off by "Gotta Jibboo" followed by "Mike's Groove" - "Mike's Song" into "Simple" into "Light" into "Weekapaug Groove." The upbeat set got everyone in the capacity crowd bouncing and got glow sticks flying with "Bouncing Around the Room," "Seven Below" and "Julius."
Ending the set with "Slave to the Traffic Light," the band returned for an encore of "The Lizards."
Believe it or not, Phish has been touring for 31 years, and they are surely bound for a spot in the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame. For those who aren't familiar with the band, they may be surprised that Phish nearly sells out every one of their shows and takes legions of fans along with them for a journey across the country every time they tour. Their musicianship is extraordinary and their shows always deliver an unforgettable experience for everyone in the crowd.
There are several layers to the onion when it comes to Phish; the die-hard fans can probably hear a song live and quote you on which date and at which venue it was last performed. But even if you aren't ready to drop out of society, go on tour, sell grilled cheese in the lot and memorize the dynamics of the entire band discography, it's worth any music-lover's time and price of admission to see Phish perform live. You will dance your shoes off, have your eyebrows raised by the incredible light show, be impressed by incomparable musicianship and have an unforgettably fun time.
Ayres can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org