You're Only Half Right
You've probably heard of Phish before. Maybe you think of them in the same vein as The Grateful Dead, or maybe you think of them as a Ben & Jerry's pint of swirled chewy marshmallow and gooey caramel in chocolate ice cream. You might even think of them as a bunch of hippies on drugs. There are plenty of articles online about the band, but many are glib and flippant. Having seen them live over 75 times, I want to give you an idea of what a Phish show is really like. If you've seen Phish before, this article may not be for you, but if you've never been to a Phish show and are even just a little bit curious about the experience, then this will be your very own front row seat.
The first thing to be aware of is that the event starts well before the lights go down and the band takes the stage. For most shows, the experience begins outside of the venue at something called 'Shakedown Street'. Shakedown Street is both a marketplace and a hangout space. It's essentially the concert equivalent of tailgating before a football game. There are designated areas for vendors to sell all kinds of goods ranging from healing stones to vegan burritos. You will also come across cheap drinks, loud music, and a wide selection of 'party favors', also known as drugs.
Whether it's t-shirts or tea leaves, a purchase made on Shakedown Street is commonly referred to as buying something 'on lot'. For the most part, Shakedown Street's vendors and patrons are very friendly people, but it can be an overwhelming environment when you find yourself there for the first time. It's not out of the ordinary for a complete stranger to approach you and ask if you want to buy a pin from their collection or try a 'ganja goo ball'. At the office or grocery store, interactions like this would be highly inappropriate, but in the context of Shakedown Street, they are relatively normal and benign.
At a Phish show, the easiest way to get inside the concert venue is with a ticket. Hopefully you purchased one beforehand, but if not, there's no need to worry. At many shows, it's possible to buy a ticket 'on lot'. It might sound strange, but the fastest and most straightforward way to find a seller is by walking around with your index finger up in the air. This is a standard sight to see, as it is the universal sign at Phish shows that you are looking to purchase a ticket. Nine times out of ten, you will be able to find a ticket within minutes.
Sellers will almost always have one of two types of tickets: TicketMaster or PTBM. The TicketMaster tickets are like any other TicketMaster tickets, except these ones say 'Phish' on them. PTBM tickets are a different story though. PTBM, which stands for Phish Tickets By Mail, are tickets that are purchased via Phish ticket lotteries. These tickets cost the same amount, but instead of being printed on bland card stock, each ticket has artwork unique to the show you are seeing. PTBM tickets are nice collectables, but they are also harder to counterfeit, which makes them the preferred option when buying tickets 'on lot'.
Once your ticket has been secured, the next phase of the Phish experience is the actual concert. Two things of note: First, Phish does not travel with an opening act, meaning you will only be seeing Phish at a Phish show. Second, the band does not take the stage until 40 to 50 minutes after the listed 'showtime' on your ticket, so you'll have plenty of time to get comfortable. This means for a show scheduled to start at 7:30pm, the lights usually go down sometime between 8:10 and 8:20pm. The concert then takes place according to the following structure:
First Set (Music for 70-90 minutes)
Set break (Intermission for 25-40 minutes)
Second Set (Music for 70-90 minutes)
Encore (Music for 5-20 minutes)
An important thing to remember is that Phish is a 'Jam Band'. This means there are long stretches of time where the band is musically improvising with no words. It's not uncommon for an extended jam during a song to last upwards of 20 minutes or longer. This happens throughout the show, but it is much more noticeable during the latter half. While there certainly is 'jamming' during the first set, the longer and more freeform jams usually take place in the second set.
As the show progresses, the band plays music from a wide variety of genres ranging from bluegrass to funk. Regardless of the style, the jams in most songs contain an observable pattern of musical tension and release. The tension comes from a build up of volume and speed, and the release occurs at the climax of the jam, which is known as the 'peak'. Many songs also incorporate a fair amount of crowd involvement through interactive elements like call and response and glow stick wars.
While music is the main attraction, you will notice almost immediately that a Phish concert has a major visual component to it as well. With the ability to create a huge combination of different colors, shapes, and designs, the band's light rig is a show of its own. The color changes and pattern variations sync with transitions in the music, allowing the lights to serve as an enhancement and supplement to the show. The light show can be seen from anywhere in the venue, but in order to appreciate the full extent of its magnitude and scale, a centerstage seat is the best place to be.
Phish fans are extremely receptive to the energy the band puts out musically, and for the most part, everyone is on their feet while the band is playing. There is plenty of opportunity to dance, and the crowd takes full advantage of that. A trance-like swaying or rocking, mixed with head bobbing is visible at all times. It looks silly, but it is the standard 'dance' to see while at a show.
Between all of the music, lights, and dancing, a Phish concert is a true party environment. Because of this, it is wise to be aware of the fact that there is a real chance you might be offered drugs at some point throughout the course of the night. If you feel inclined to partake, be careful and have fun, but there is no pressure to say yes, and no judgement in saying no. The night is yours to have fun in whatever ways you feel comfortable with.
No matter how you enjoy yourself at the show, seeing Phish is a relatively unique live music experience. That's one of the main reasons the Phish fanbase is so loyal to the band and keeps coming back for more.The sights and sounds are truly impressive at times, and while the 75 shows I've seen may seem like a lot, you are almost guaranteed to meet someone that has been to 100 or more.
A Phish concert is long, but it does eventually end. By the time the band is done playing, you will have heard some songs you liked and some you didn't, but whatever your opinion of the music is, you will almost certainly leave the venue saying, 'wow, I've never seen something like that before.'
Once your first Phish show is behind you, you will feel one of three ways:
You will have no desire to ever see them again
You will be open to the possibility of seeing them again
You will definitely want to see them again
If you have no desire to see them again, that's understandable. Phish is not the type of band that appeals to everyone. If you are open to seeing them again at some point, that's awesome. Phish goes on tour every summer and sometimes in the fall as well. If you definitely want to see them again, you might be able to do so the very next day. Phish tends to play concerts in either two, three, or four night 'runs' during their tours, meaning that they perform at the same venue multiple nights in a row. If you do choose to see them on consecutive nights, there's no need to worry about seeing the same show you already saw. No two Phish concerts are the same, and as long as you are seeing them at the same venue, none of the songs you already heard will be repeated. In fact, Phish played 13 shows at Madison Square Garden during the summer of 2017, called the 'Baker's Dozen', and no songs were repeated throughout the entire run.
In any case, hold on to your ticket. All TicketMaster and PTBM tickets come with a code that gives you access to a completely free audio download of the show. Even if you don't want to relive the whole concert, you have the opportunity to listen back to individual songs or jams that you enjoyed.
All in all, this overview should give you a sense of the standard Phish experience. There's a lot more to learn about Phish in general, but hopefully you now have a better idea of what to expect if you ever decide to see the band live for yourself.
- Harry W. Brodsky
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