Phish – Festival 8
10/30-11/01/2009 – Empire Polo Fields: Indio, CA
Words/Photos/Videos by Reverend Justito
I was somewhere near Life On Mars Ave when the news began to take hold. It was Halloween 2009, and I was in the middle of the f’n desert where Phish would be covering Exile on Main St by The Rolling Stones in just a few hours. If my father has taught me anything, it’s that The Rolling Stones are nothing more than a glorified bar band, and out of 99 possible musical costumes, they were pretty low on my list. Briefly disappointed, I did what any 30 year old white collar worker who enjoys journalism as a side hobby would do. I headed back to my camp and began chugging Wild Turkey 101 (part of my Raoul Duke costume for the evening) from a glass bottle in the hot sun. If Phish was going to urinate in my ears, then I had to make sure I was good and ready.
I am not sure when we left for the concert field Saturday afternoon. I know I had enough time for the important things, such as drinking a plastic cup full of Kentucky Bourbon, or getting an eye exam from a sexxxy nurse who was kind enough to allow me to put my purple dinosaur between her thighs. I made it just in time to catch Phish open Set 1 with “Sample in a Jar”. I know many hate this song, but I am not one of those fools. Sure, it does not stretch out to 34 minutes, but it’s a solid rock and roll song, and a perfect way to open a set, besides it was all uphill from there. I got my second “Divided Sky”, and with the sun about to set behind the mountains behind us, I couldn’t think of a better time to hear this classic. The middle pause seemed much longer than usual, and did anyone else notice the first cool breeze of the afternoon during it? We all did.
After a solid version of “Lawn Boy” (with guitarist Trey Anastasio acknowledging the very large lawn we all danced upon) and my first “Kill Devil Falls” the boys really busted loose. “Bathtub Gin” was raging with a solid jam lead by Anastasio. I always chuckle when the dirty crowd all sings the “we love to take a bath” line. Surrounded by mountains all around, and with beautiful palm trees rising tall all around the stage, this was the perfect environment for “The Squirming Coil”. Always a favorite of mine, keyboardist Page McConnell gracefully tore up the end piano solo. On a personal level, we all had a laugh at the 1-2 punch of “Runaway Jim” and “Possum” as they are perhaps the two most hated (after “Julius”) Phish songs from one in our camp. While I have been known to get sick of the later, both were solid version that while somewhat stretched out, never lost focus. The highlight of the ever building set was “Run like an Antelope”. An already tired and dehydrated crowd managed to give it all they had and danced like crazy as Anastasio lead the band through the slow building middle jam that ends in pure carnal chaos. Have any coil, man?
We headed back to camp to poop, nap and get a bit more loaded (in that particular order), but before long, we were headed back in. I have never even heard Exile on Main St. I know all of two songs, and one was because Phish has covered it for years. Despite my ignorance for the record, I was very excited. Phish was doing a Halloween show in my state, and I was blessed enough to see it. Yet standing on the field listening in the moment, I had mixed feelings. I think the hardest part was just not knowing the material. It was a weird vibe to look in any direction, and see some people in pure ecstasy while others were in pure agony. You can’t please em all right? At random, I videotaped “Torn and Frayed”, which upon listening again (and I am glad to see some YouTube comments agree) this could be the one that stays in the Phish catalogue for years to come. Speaking of the Phish catalogue, if there was one thing we could all agree on, it was “Loving Cup”. A staple of live Phish shows for years, the McConnell driven tune went places I didn’t think it could go with backing musicians such as Sharon Jones (of the Dap Kings) on vocals and a three piece horn section. One song that really stuck out for me for whatever reason was the softer “Sweet Black Angel”. Likewise, who can’t love drummer Jon Fishman singing “Sweet Virginia” especially when he gets to the part about California Wine? Towards the end of the set, after taking a nap for a bit to rest up for Set III, I realized I actually recognized “Shine a Light”. Further proving my Stones ignorance, I had no clue it was there song (hey, I’d rather spend my time with other classics like Floyd, Maiden, Yes or Hendrix, so sue me). The set wrapped with “Soul Survivor” and I cannot lie, I was somewhat relieved when Anastasio said “Thanks, we’re The Rolling Stones”.
Set III was just nasty. I rewarded myself for sitting through the Stones set with some food I had purchased earlier. It may have tasted like cow shit, but it sure did the trick. After opening with the new song “Backwards Down The Number Line”, things really took off. I got my first “Fluffhead” which came nicely out of Number Line and brought a huge smile to my face, especially as Fishman sang the lines “life is just a bundle of joy” in a sinister tone. However, it got real funky when the band busted into the predictable, but always welcomed “Ghost”. Wow, when bassist Mike Gordon goes off, he goes off. The bombs he dropped during this jam mixed with the lights made me worry he was dangerously close to the brown note.
After a solid version of the Los Lobos cover “When The Circus Comes To Town”, the Vermont four piece went to town with perhaps the quintessential Phish number – “You Enjoy Myself”. I have heard this song at least 329,208 times, yet still can’t find the proper words to describe it. A crazy musical journey, four words that mean nothing followed by feet and my favorite city in Italy, some trampolines, a jam and if you’re lucky it ends with a vocal jam. For as much as I knew I was back the previous evening, this was the one that brought tears to my eyes, and not just because Anastasio almost fell of the trampoline. If I had to pick, I would say it’s my favorite Phish song, and just to be able to hear it played live again, well yeah what more can a Phish fan want? Plus they had pyros! For years I have joked with my metal head pals who used to come to Phish shows that one day they will have pyros to keep em occupied, and that day had finally come (too bad none of them were there to see it). The mix of the pyros and the LOL end vocal jam mixed with a party now raging on three nights was the climax of the perfect weekend – the high water mark of the entire fucking event.
The band came back for one more song. With the “Exile” horn and backing vocal crew – the nine musicians launched into perhaps the best version of “Suzy Greenberg” ever. With a rich end jam with Sharon Jones taking the lead, it was more soul revival than poppy jam song. It was also the perfect way to end the night. Really, even though I am not a fan of Mick and Keith, I can’t complain with the choice of musical cover. The Stones are legends, and most of the masses loved it. With the band playing where the hipster rock fest Coachella takes place, I had hoped for something more modern such as Kid A or Jane’s Addiction. Perhaps next year at Festival 9? I really expected to be miserable for the costume, but I am glad I listened with an open ear. Who knows maybe one day I will even pick up the original?