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No Expectations 045: Ice Fishing
A recovering hater goes to a Phish show for the first time.
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I appreciate all the new sign-ups following last week’s deep dive on Sufjan Stevens. I love doing these album-by-album breakdowns on one artist and I plan on doing more for future newsletters. Because they take time, it might be a few weeks before I land on an act to tackle next and make my way through their entire catalog.
Next Wednesday is my birthday and to give myself a break, I have a Taste Profile interview banked with one of my favorite artists for next week’s main essay. (You’ll still get the weekly playlist and the Chicago show calendar along with the What I read, watched, and listened to sections).
Thanks for being here. If you subscribed because of my writing on under-the-radar indie rock acts or deep dives on bands like Vampire Weekend, please don’t be spooked by this week’s installment on seeing Phish live for the first time—No Expectations won’t become a jam-only music newsletter (yet).
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Teach a Man To Phish
I saw Phish on Sunday and it was my first real experience with the long-running Vermont band. Just 48 hours before, I knew little about them and had no idea they were even in town. On Friday, I tweeted a joke about getting into the Grateful Dead more seriously than I ever have before and how I hoped it wouldn’t turn me into a jam guy. (It was a goof—jam fans are the nicest people you’ll meet in music). When someone replied that Phish was in Chicago this weekend playing a three-night residency at the United Center, I then tweeted that if any mutuals had an extra ticket, I would go with them and experience the band with an open mind.
Here’s a great thing about the internet: You can just manifest things by posting. Years ago, I was early for a flight and wrote, “If anyone is in Terminal 3 at O’Hare and wants to grab a margarita at Chili’s Too, I’ll be there in five minutes.” A couple of people actually showed up and it was a really nice time. Another thing about the internet is that Phish fans are very online and they love finding out a person wants to go to a show. When I woke up Saturday morning, I already had a ticket. Even though I was all set, several Phish fans offered their extras and when I told them I was already going, they invited me to hang out, gave me tips, and a couple even offered me drugs (I was set on basically sticking with light beer).
Before this weekend, I didn’t know much about Phish except that their fans really, really loved them and that other people thought they were the worst band ever. (Jerry Garcia said of the Grateful Dead, “We're like licorice. Not everybody likes licorice, but the people who like licorice really like licorice.” For some reason, licorice feels too palatable to capture the fervor and hate Phish inspires). I was eight years old in 2000 visiting family in Florida over the holidays when I first heard about them. My mom’s cousin joined us for lunch and she talked about how she had just seen Phish with 80,000 other people in the Everglades. The band had played several shows across two days which included a marathon NYE set that ran from around 11 p.m. to sunrise. The cousin talked about traffic jams, conserving food and water, and being stuck in muggy weather for hours with thousands of hippies leaving the festival. Even at eight years old, that sounded like a nightmare to me. (When I brought this up at the Phish show Sunday, without fail almost everyone I talked to responded, “Holy shit, she was at Big Cypress! Legendary show. I was there too.”)
I tried to listen to Phish early on but it didn’t stick. At the time, their music sometimes sounded to me like four musicians playing four different songs simultaneously. The Billy Breathes album art grossed me out and their iconography was personally off-putting (I did like the Ben and Jerry’s ice cream flavor though). To make matters worse, growing up I was a bespectacled blonde kid with shaggy hair so enough Guitar Center employees called me “Trey Anastasio” to make me believe I was getting roasted. During my freshman year of college, an aggressively kind hippie kid who went by his last name and wore Baja hoodie tried to get me into Phish by playing a 16-minute version of “Fluffhead.” When I wasn’t feeling it, he went with their 2001: A Space Odyssey cover “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” I thought that sounded like Trans-Siberian Orchestra nerd stuff, so he put on “Tweezer” and said, “everyone likes ‘Tweezer.’” As soon as the opening line “Won't you step into the freezer / Seize her with a tweezer” hit, I was out.
I never actively hated Phish though. I only joked at their expense a few times over the years (In 2021, I wrote that a press photo of them looked like the band was Larry, Curly, Moe, and Trey Anastasio). It’s more that I thought I wasn’t the band’s target audience as an indie rocker who prefers lean studio albums to sprawling live recordings. Their catalog felt daunting: their fans famously hate Phish’s studio LPs so I would need to devote an ungodly amount of time to live show archives, studying setlists, and perusing message boards to truly get it. (One of my favorite comedy podcasts Analyze Phish was about how hard it is to get someone into the band: the whole series is the late comedian and Phish superfan Harris Wittels playing clips to his jam-skeptic cohost Scott Aukerman). That said, some of their songs I heard in passing like “Harry Hood” or “Divided Sky” were actually pretty good. Plus, reading old takedowns of Phish in the press with headlines as condescending as “Can an intelligent person like Phish?” made me want to love them out of anti-elitist spite.
If I’m honest with myself I have some jam band fan tendencies. I loved that Radiohead never played the same setlist twice and whenever I get into an artist, I need to hear everything they ever released. I realized my newfound appreciation and obsession with the Grateful Dead meant that I was the most open I’ve ever been and ever will be to experience Phish. I’m not saying Phish sound like Grateful Dead, it’s more that as I get older I’ve softened on a lot of things I didn’t understand or wrote off at an early age. When you write about music for work, you have to interrogate your tastes and explore new genres and sounds. I don’t think this is me losing my edge more than allowing myself to be curious and open to new ways of experiencing songs. I also firmly believe that it is more fun to like things than it is to hate them (unless it’s the same two or three acts I razz on constantly). When you approach music wanting to like it, you invite surprise and joy. It keeps things fresh.
My guide Sunday couldn't have been better: it was Rob Mitchum, the longtime music writer who’s behindon Substack. There, he runs thoughtful pieces about every Phish show on its 25th anniversary (he started this newsletter project in 2019 so right now he’s covered every gig from 1994 to this date in 1998 so far). We’d never really met but his writing on Neil Young, Jason Molina, and more for Pitchfork in the 2000s helped kickstart and enrich so many musical obsessions for me. Plus, he’s the cohost of the Grateful Dead podcast I’m listening to right now which made his invitation to join him for the Phish gig feel like kismet. Early on, he told me that like most Phish fans, his absolute favorite thing to do is to take someone to their first show. I felt more than welcome to ask all the neophyte questions I could think up: “Why do Phish fans hate the studio albums so much?” “Why don’t they tour Europe?” “Do Phish fans hate when they’re promoting an album of new material?” “How does Trey’s sobriety mesh with his fans druggy stereotypes?”
Before we met up, I chatted with some fans at the Billy Goat Inn. This wasn’t some journalistic exercise to find sources, it’s just that Phish fans are really friendly and want to talk to strangers. I asked a nice couple from Charlotte how many times they’d seen the band. They responded, “Oh, not many. I’m at 78 right now. I started seeing them in 2009.” When I let slip that tonight was my first time, they were shocked and told what seemed like everyone at the bar. I felt like the kid in high school who had a pack of gum but instead of people trying to grab a piece, they all wanted to give me something. They welcomed me and told stories of their best sets and what to watch out for. At the gig, Rob and I mostly kept to ourselves but that didn’t stop other fans from striking up conversations with us, all offering high fives or joints. One woman who looked familiar in a “wait, is this a politician?” way mentioned to us that she had “two fundraisers in Denver” before flying in to catch Phish.
Since I’m new to the band, I turned on notifications to the @Phish_FTR account that live tweets setlists so I could follow along and know what was happening. Phish never play the same show twice and rarely repeat songs on tour. With a repertoire of almost 300 originals and dozens of covers, no amount of research could familiarize me in time. For their first set, I was honestly pretty enthralled. It’s just four guys on stage with guitarist and lead singer Trey Anastasio, bassist Mike Gordon, keyboardist Page McConnell, and drummer Jon Fishman (plus lighting guy Chris Kuroda who many call “the fifth member of the band”) but seeing them live is more fun than any YouTube video or snippet you can find. On record, their voices aren’t pretty especially when they harmonize—not in a Neil Young or Bob Dylan way but in a normal guy starting a band way. However, inside a 21,000-cap basketball stadium full of Phish obsessives it really works.
For the third song Phish played “Ocelot.” It had a swampy groove that reminded me of the Band before morphing into a knotty, mesmerizing jam. It was totally in my wheelhouse. When I asked Rob if this was a fan favorite, he looked shocked and said, “No.” I loved it though. A few songs later, they lurched into a lowkey track called “Monsters,” a new song they debuted live in June but haven’t officially released. With that new one, the crowd’s energy dissipated in such a hilariously palpable way. One thing about Phish fans is that their devotion is aspirational, not unconditional: They are chasing their own perfect set and if it’s not up to their standards, it’s a betrayal. Phish don’t seem to care and will throw in a low-energy rarity whenever (this push-pull is the most fascinating dynamic). The first song that was lightly grating to me funnily enough was “Stash,” which got the biggest audience response and is a fan favorite. Set one ended with a rowdy tune called “David Bowie.” I assumed I caught Phish at the top of their game. Their most diehard fans however kept telling me, “That was a weird set: pretty low energy.”
Phish returned for set two, which opened with a high-intensity cover of The Who’s “Drowned.” I understood why fans were underwhelmed by the first set seeing how the follow-up built intensity. An extended opening jam went through four tunes culminating in “Simple,” a Phish mainstay anchored by a riff that sounds like Sum 41’s “Fat Lip.” (I know Phish came first). Maybe because I didn’t know the material, I was watching with my arms crossed. It wasn’t a conscious thing to show disinterest—I was just standing naturally. However, this harshed the vibe of the woman next to me, who asked if I was alright because I wasn’t dancing as much as she and her friends. No one’s ever checked on me for crossing my arms at an indie rock gig. I mentioned that it was my first time and then the rest of the gig she made sure I caught the intricacies of the unfolding setlist. When Phish played their closer, a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Loving Cup”—the only song I knew word-for-word—she leaned over to me and made sure I was aware they were covering “Loving Cup.” Incredible vibes.
The band ended with a three-song encore starting with fan favorite “Run Like An Antelope” and finishing with “Tweezer Reprise.” When they performed the final song, the woman said, “My friend is going to tell you that this is the best three and a half minutes in rock history” and sure enough, the guy tapped me on the shoulder and said, “This is the best three and a half minutes in rock history.” I’m not totally convinced but it was a hell of a way to end an almost three-hour show. My friend Tim, the other biggest Phish fan I know who was at the gig, texted me that Sunday was his 96th show. His review of Friday was that it was “in the top 15 he’s ever seen.” His Sunday review was less laudatory: “One of the best “Loving Cups” I've seen them play (and I'm pretty ambivalent on it most of the time). Their cover of Little Feat’s “Spanish Moon” was excellent. I said they were going to open the 2nd set with either “Drowned” or “Rock N Roll” (VU cover). More bones to pick with them regarding a couple of late 2nd set tunes.” If I mentioned that I had a bone to pick with an indie rock band about their setlist, I’d look nuts. With Phish, this is normal and totally understandable.
I don’t know if this is going to ignite a deep, long-lasting obsession with Phish. I do know that I had a blast. I’ll definitely see them again and dive more into their catalog —the first thing I’m going to look up is their one-time “Gold Soundz” cover. I saw a band that treats live shows like a DJ set—they feed off the energy of the crowd and actively mess with them to accomplish the set most gratifying to the four guys onstage. I expected something goofier after hearing stories about choreographed trampoline routines, theme nights, and how much the lighting rig was talked up. But what I saw was a bunch of virtuosic musicians putting on a damn fun show. All around it was pretty tasteful for a band known not for just pushing the envelope on taste, good humor, and cool, but by throwing all expectations out the window. There’s something commendable about a group of musicians who’ve stuck together through ups and downs while performing multiple hours a night and always doing things on their terms. I may not always get it but I respect it. I now have more things to talk about with my dear friends who are Phish fans.
This is not a newsletter about why you should like Phish. The band is not for everyone and that’s their whole thing. I’m not even convinced they’re for me yet despite my newfound appreciation for them. If their popularity drastically increased, their most diehard fans would probably hate it. (The fans like evangelizing on the individual level but any more than that would likely spell disaster). I do know that most people could have fun at a Phish show. In 2013, Steven Hyden wrote a defense of Phish in Grantland (Rob Mitchum was his guide too) where he said, “If you don’t love Phish you must hate Phish, as there is no middle ground.” I think it’s a little more complicated than that: I think there are people who love Phish, people who truly hate Phish, people who think they hate Phish, people who follow them on tour but actually hate Phish, and people who just have never heard of them. If you’re offered a ticket, you’ll at least have a good story.
I wrote a podcast script on Rod Blagojevich for Scamfluencers
Here’s a short plug. This summer, I branched out a bit from music-related freelance work to try writing for podcasts. Wondery’s Scamfluencers, a fun and incisive podcast hosted by Sarah Hagi and Scaachi Koul, needed a writer to piece together a script for their episode on the former Governor of Illinois Rod Blagojevich. With me being based in Chicago, they were kind enough to give me a shot at my first long-form podcast script. If you visited my apartment and saw multiple books on Blago and Illinois politics spread out over the place, this is why. I had a blast writing it and I’m happy that a project I started work on in May is finally out in the world. Link here.
What I listened to:
1. Resavoir, “Sunset”
2. Matched, “Give In”
3. Katie Von Schleicher, “Every Step Is an Ocean”
4. Squirrel Flower, “Stick”
5. Villagerrr, “Knots”
6. Truth Club, “Exit Cycle”
7. Sam Blasucci, “Can You Teach Me”
8. Minor Moon, “Ice Fishing”
9. Super Infinity, “Desert Oracle”
10. Big Head, “the worst is yet to come”
11. Jack Reidy, “Your Timeline”
12. Eyedress and Mac DeMarco, “My Simple Jeep”
13. Rainsticks, “No Time To Reply”
14. Fell, “The Seed”
15. Maple Glider, “You at the Top of the Driveway”
Gig report: Band of Horses, Phosphorescent, Bella White at Salt Shed (10/13)
I ended up at Salt Shed on Friday for Bella White, Phosphorescent, and Band of Horses. While the headliners Band of Horses made some undeniable records over their long career, I was most excited for opener Bella White, a fantastic Canadian roots songwriter, and Phosphorescent, who were playing their first full-band show since the pandemic. I didn’t realize this Phosphorescent gig was a one-off and that they had taken such a long break from touring but you couldn’t tell seeing them play. Across a meaty eight-song set, they were incredibly tight and made you remember why their records, especially 2013’s Muchacho, were some of this century’s best. They were pros. Matthew Houck is such a charismatic frontman who covered both Randy Newman and Robert Earl Keen during the gig. He was backed by the five-piece band that included Jo Schornikow and bassist Jack Lawrence (of the Raconteurs). They all shredded. When “Song For Zula” closed, it was a perfect cap to their first post-COVID gig.
Band of Horses have great songs and were truly great headliners. You know the tunes. They were played loud and well. It was energetic and fun and all you could want from a show like this. I want to give a special shoutout to Bella White, who has a really fantastic LP out this year called Among Other Things. She played to thousands just backed by a upright bassist and fiddle without drums and managed to captivate the entire crowd. It ruled.
What I watched:
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015)
When this documentary came out, I skipped it because I figured it’d be too tough to watch. It’s the story of Kurt Cobain told exclusively through family videos, archival footage, as well as Cobain’s own writings, photos, recordings, and artwork. I had an inkling that having such an intimate and raw look into one of rock music’s most famously embattled figures would feel almost voyeuristic. While the film is a masterclass in artfully done editing, I was right. I’m not a Nirvana expert by any stretch of the imagination so take my opinion here with a grain of salt but I was left feeling a little cold by the final third of the film. It sometimes felt more like a wallowing than a tribute to a life.
What I read:
Is Phish a Great Band? (Steven Hyden, Grantland, 2013)
Musical greatness is typically achieved by two kinds of artists. The first kind (like Jimi Hendrix, Nick Drake, Kurt Cobain, or the Notorious B.I.G.) shine with retina-shredding brightness for a very short period of time and wind up changing music in some tangible way. You almost always have to die to achieve this sort of greatness. If Ian Curtis had recorded Unknown Pleasures and Closer, and then lived to create three decades’ worth of half-assed Joy Division songs that made Unknown Pleasures and Closer seem like flukes, he’d be Rivers Cuomo.
The other kind of greatness derives from never being less than good (and staying connected to a sizable core audience) over many years. U2, R.E.M., Sonic Youth, Metallica, Pearl Jam, Radiohead, and Wilco are the most notable recent examples of this lived-in greatness — and so is Phish, though it rarely gets mentioned in this company. Not only does “greatness” have a different connotation when applied to Phish, so does “good” — Phish has never been conventionally good. For 30 years, Phish’s version of good has been specific to the band (and possibly to bands of its ilk, though none of them are as good at being “good” as Phish is). This “goodness” has been perceived (by non-Phish fans) as a detriment. But now, the gap between good and “good” is smaller than ever. “Good” is actually more relevant to the current music landscape, even if many people don’t think Phish is.
Learning to Love Phish (Ivy Nelson, Pitchfork, 2021)
Shortly thereafter I found myself listening to complete shows. I would even catch myself chuckling during set filler and in-jokes, like their barbershop quartet rendition of “Freebird.” There was no limit to the band’s silliness, and the degree to which I was willing to endure this silliness astonished me. How could this have happened? How could I have gotten obsessed with a band whose appeal so orbited around their live shows (which averaged two and a half hours in length and were rife with nonsense), when I couldn’t see them, let alone anyone else, live? Had I lost all standards of taste when the pandemic swept through, eliminating whatever life I knew before and replacing it with an eternally unstable present?
The Weekly Chicago Show Calendar
Thursday, Oct. 19: Living Hour, The Ophelias, OK Cool at Color Club. Tickets.
Thursday, Oct. 19: Free Range, Sima Cunningham, Hazel City at Empty Bottle. Tickets.
Thursday, Oct. 19: Divino Niño, Victor Internet, Heartgaze at Metro. Tickets.
Thursday, Oct. 19: Subsonic Eye, Cusp at Schubas. Tickets.
Thursday, Oct. 19: Brandy Clark, SistaStrings at Thalia Hall. Tickets.
Friday, Oct 20: Macie Stewart + Orchestra, Damon Locks, Dana Hall at Epiphany. Tickets.
Friday, Oct. 20: Men I Trust, TOPS at Aragon Ballroom. Tickets.
Friday, Oct. 20: Pixel Grip, Body Shop, Cae Monāe at Empty Bottle. Sold out.
Friday, Oct. 20: BCMC (Bill McKay and Cooper Crain), Sam Prekop at Hideout. Tickets.
Friday, Oct. 20: Vagabon, Nourished By Time at Lincoln Hall. Tickets.
Friday, Oct. 20: Erin Rae, She Returns From War at Judson & Moore. Tickets.
Saturday, Oct. 21: Erin Rae, She Returns From War at Judson & Moore. Tickets.
Saturday, Oct. 21: Mk.Gee at Lincoln Hall. Tickets.
Sunday, Oct. 22: Thievery Corporation, DJ Shadow at Radius. Tickets.
Monday, Oct. 23: Stephen Steinbrink, Charlie Reed, Jessica Mindrum at Sleeping Village. Tickets.
Tuesday, Oct. 24: Pelican, Uniform, Upper Wilds at Metro. Tickets.
Tuesday, Oct. 24: Rozwell Kid, Edging, Pretty Pleased at Beat Kitchen. Tickets.
Wednesday, Oct. 25: Old Joy, Anna McClellan, Heirloom Locket at Color Club. Tickets.