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The Boston Phoenix Head Trips

Phish's new "Hampton Comes Alive"

By Robin Rothman

DECEMBER 13, 1999:  Just before midnight on November 19, 1998, I picked my buddy up and headed out of NYC toward the Jersey Turnpike. I had no tickets, nowhere to stay, no idea where my friends were. All I knew was that the Vermont-based jam band Phish were playing a two-night run in Hampton, Virginia, November 20 and 21, and I had to be there.

Hampton shows are legendary to Phish heads. The spaceship shape of Hampton Coliseum is a trippy treat in and of itself. And ever since Phish first played there in December 1995, it's been one of the band's favorite venues, in terms of both the sound quality inside the Coliseum and the scene outside that inevitably accompanies a Phish show. Phish also love Deercreek, a summer-tour venue in Indiana that has (hands down) the best camping but (hands down) the biggest pricks for security, and Nassau Coliseum on Long Island, which has almost no scene but seats so close to the ground and security so loose that even without a general-admission floor seat you can jump down. Hampton, however, has it all: general admission, cool security, a lively scene, and phenomenal sound. And when the band dig the scene, the show will tend to reflect that.

So we hit the road. It was 3 a.m. when we stopped to pay a toll at the Delaware Bridge, and that's when we heard the noise. It was loud. It was hideous. And it was coming from my engine. The sun was up by the time AAA arrived several hours later to tow us back to Morristown, where I parked my car. We returned to NYC just as Phish were beginning the first of two shows of a lifetime back in Virginia.

People who aren't into jam bands can't understand what makes "heads" shun responsibility and personal hygiene to gallivant around the country seeing the same damn group night after night. And heads have a hard time offering an eloquent explanation, falling back on something like: "It's amazing. They segue seamlessly from one song to another, and they never play the same show twice!" Running to the stereo with a stack of their favorite live recordings obtained by obsessive tape or CD-R trading, they'll continue: "See, check this out! Halloween '96. They covered all of the Talking Heads' Remain in Light. And here! New Year's Eve '95 . . . "

Yeah. Nod, smile, and back slowly away from the psycho.

But the truth is that Phish aren't like most bands. If you polled the audience of a random Top 40 act, there'd be general consensus as to what song they're most looking forward to hearing. And more than likely the artist would play it, because most artists tour in support of their most recent album, play a lot of tunes off that album, and promote the single, which is generally the song most people paid to hear.

Phish don't tour in support of their albums. If anything, they record in support of their tours. By the time an album is released, Phans know most, if not all, of the songs already from having heard them played live. Every album has its own identity in the Phish oeuvre: Hoist is the mega-produced, guest-musician album with the Tower of Power horns and Béla Fleck sitting in; Billy Breathes is the stripped-down and straightforward album; Story of the Ghost is the complex album that consists of short but deep-layered versions of familiar songs. But Phish don't have hits. Certain Phans hope for certain songs -- some hope for a particular series of songs -- but there's rarely any consensus. You may be a lawyer in your 30s who catches only two shows a year, or a dreadlocked twentysomething nomad who attempts to deduce which songs will be played on a particular night -- either way Phish will hit you with something unexpected. There's always a dream set that has yet to be played, an old tune the band might dust off for the first time in a decade, or a new song waiting to make its debut. Phish history is history waiting to happen, and diehard tour heads are determined to be there when it does.

Like most jam-band performances, Phish's are characterized by an aura of experimentation that encourages the band to reach beyond the same set list, the same dance steps, the same intros and solos every night. It's a tradeoff between fans and their favorite groups that reflects a conviction on the fans' part that even if a show's not brilliant, it'll still be good. The audience will forgive a little sloppiness in the interest of watching a band push for something more, something extra.

Every so often (and more often than you'd expect), Phish find that something extra and play a show that shines so brightly, it makes other great shows seem like tripe. You can get a sense of this from the two live CDs Phish have released: 1995's A Live One (Elektra) was a representative mishmash of tunes from several shows on a single tour, and Slip Stitch and Pass (Elektra) was an unfortunately edited collection culled from one killer show in Hamburg on March 1, 1997. But the new Hampton Comes Alive (Elektra), a six-CD set taken from those Hampton shows in '98 -- technically tight, lighthearted, humorous, and beyond unpredictable performances -- is the one that makes the others seem like tripe.

Packaged in a special box (there are two front covers, and the CD sleeves and liner notes are little puzzles!), the set may initially seem excessive. But it's neither too large (it's about the size of a two-disc jewel box) nor even too long (over five hours). Most important, with Hampton, what they played is what you get -- two shows completely intact. And these particular nights really captured what makes Phish worth following, from precise musicianship to utter tomfoolery, from artful original tunes to off-the-wall covers.

There's something great about hearing your favorite band cover a familiar song, one that gives you insight into what the band's tastes are. And Phish's are all over the place: country, bluegrass, reggae, rock, funk, metal, rap, and Zappa. But what's special about Phish is that they've trained themselves to perform entire albums note for note, from beginning to end -- albums like Quadrophenia, Dark Side of the Moon, and Loaded. At the same time, Phish like to have fun with covers, and there's often some element of silliness, whether it's an obviously offkey chorus or forgotten lyrics.

Hampton offers all of this and more. The set begins like a championship game, with Gary Glitter's crowd-rousing "Rock 'n' Roll Part Two," and ends with a hilarious version of Chumbawamba's "Tubthumping." When Phans say, "You never know what to expect," this is what they mean. Over the two nights, bassist Mike Gordon tackles Dylan's super sing-along "Quinn the Eskimo," and keyboardist Page McConnell belts out Hendrix's "Bold As Love" while Trey Anastasio wails away on guitar. Anastasio then opens the next set rapping an impressive rendition of the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage," as well as singing Stevie Wonder's "Boogie on Reggae Woman" and the Beatles' "Cry Baby Cry," which is a throwback to Halloween of 1994, when the band covered the entire "White Album." But topping it all is a version of Will Smith's "Gettin' Jiggy wit It" as sung by drummer Jon Fishman, who's reported to have read the lyrics from cue cards, incited wicked arm waving, and gotten downright "jiggy" with a vacuum cleaner. (That's right, he plays the unconventional instrument by mouthing the, uh, shaft tube of a running vacuum and, um, sucking or blowing like a harmonica, changing the sound by varying the air intake).

There are also Phish originals, some of which are available on previous studio albums, a couple even as live recordings. But every gig's different. Take "Mike's Song" and "Weekapaug Groove," which form a fairly accurate microcosm of the larger musical journey that is a Phish show. Known together as "Mike's Groove," the two songs almost always go as a pair, sometimes separated by one song (as on Slip Stitch and Pass), sometimes bookending an entire night, with "Mike's" opening the show and "Weekapaug" closing it two sets later. It's a Phish tradition: when you hear the first notes of the danceable jam that is "Mike's Song," you know you're going to be hearing the bass-poppin' funk of "Weekapaug Groove" -- you just never know when. On Hampton, the "Mike's Groove" combo includes five other songs that make up the rest of an hour-long set.

There are also a few tunes on Hampton that are being officially released for the first time: the playful "NICU," the wacky punk rawker "Big Black Furry Creature from Mars," the short, Zappa-esque "Ha Ha Ha," and "Farmhouse," and a "No Woman No Cry" Bob Marley ripoff ballad sway-along with instant impact.

One word of warning to those who are used to hearing polished live recordings: Phish don't try to cover anything up. What the audience heard is what you hear: soundboard tweaks, missed beats and all. Phish did not perform two nights of immaculate music. But that's the point: Phans don't follow Phish in search of musical perfection -- they're looking for the adventure of an unpredictable live show. And that's what Hampton Comes Alive delivers. This six-CD set won't allow you to see the light show, wander the parking lots, or taste those amazing fish-shaped chocolate-chip pancakes, all of which are part of the Phish experience. But it's the closest any audio recording has come to conveying a sense of what all the hype is about. I mean, it's amazing. They segue seamlessly from one song to another, and they never play the same show twice! See, check this out . . .

Phish play a New Year's celebration at the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation in the Florida Everglades on December 30 and 31. Visit www.phish.com.

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