Phish – Festival 8
10/30-11/01/2009 – Empire Polo Fields: Indio, CA
Words/Photos/Videos by Reverend Justito
Sunday morning/early afternoon at Festival 8 was nothing short of perfect. I made my way to the venue pretty early in hopes of getting an 8 shaped donut and coffee along with a free scoop of Phish food in exchange for a busted old cell phone. While I managed to get my ice cream, I never made it into the 45 minute line for a free donut and coffee. Why would I when the only NFL game available at Festival 8 just happened to be the undefeated Indianapolis Colts vs. my beloved 49ers? I instead grabbed a Magic Hat brew and enjoyed a solid first half of football that just happened to have my team in the lead.
After getting some highlights at halftime, I headed towards the stage to get a good spot for the acoustic set. Having been lucky enough to see both nights of the 1998 Bridge School concerts (which Phish were apart of) I was excited to see what the boys could do with a full length acoustic set. Shortly after the crack of noon, the band took the stage in reverse stage positions (Page on stage left, Fish on stage right and Trey and Mike standing on their opposite sides) and encouraged the crowd to take a seat. The crowd did not oblige as the band launched into “Water in the Sky”. Somehow, the band managed to tone down the already mellow song. Up next was a song that is not a favorite of mine – “Get Back on the Train”. I must say, in the acoustic format, the song had a lot more twang, and was actually pretty fun.
It was around this time that the band once again asked the crowd to sit, and the masses finally agreed. Front man Anastasio joked that the band would be playing a lot of mellow numbers, and that he had never played to a sitting Phish crowd before. “Brian and Robert” followed Anastasio’s words and basically sounded the same acoustic as it does electric. The next song however was a treat to my ears at least, as I had never heard it before. I assume it is from a Mike Gordon solo record, but “Invisible” was a cool little ditty lead by the band’s bassist. I got my first “Strange Design” next, lead by Page McConnell who pounded upon the keys of his grand piano.
During this time, arguments began to break out in the crowd. Perhaps they couldn’t see because of the height of the stage, or maybe it was the “I got here when gates open and I wanna boogie” mentality, but the first few rows of audience was very upset that they had to sit. As they stood, the crowd behind them who wanted to sit quickly became aggravated. An epic battle of screams of sit down versus screams of stand up broke out during “Mountains in the Mist”. I was hoping to see some fist flies as things started to get ugly between the two mobs, but sadly time didn’t permit. The debate was settled by the next song.
The final song of the bands epic fail last festival known as Coventry, everyone stood up as the Vermont natives busted out an acoustic version of “The Curtain With”. Even stripped down, it’s hard not to shake your rump on this classic, and I stood up with the rest of the crowd (personally I enjoyed sitting as it had been a long weekend of partying/walking and I could take better video footage upon my rump). Musically, this may have been the highlight of the lengthy set. It was at least more impressive than a few of the songs that followed, such as the McConnell lead “Army of One” and Anastasio’s “Sleep Again”.
Things started to pick back up with some more classic Phish jams. While not a stretch to be played acoustic, “My Sweet One” is always fun. Same could be said for the Gordon lead song from 1996’s Billy Breathes – “Train Song”. Two big moments in the set were “Bouncing Around The Room” and “Wilson”. As much as I love “Wilson” the highlight of the song had nothing to do with music, and everything to do with Anastasio’s banter. Before the Whack boom balaba do laba do scream into the guitar solo, Anastasio cut off the rest of the band to confess to the crowd that it was not his idea to have us sit down. Apparently multiple members of management had told Anastasio that the crowd wanted to sit down, and begged him to ask. Being a lil ADHD himself, Anastasio admitted he could no longer sit upon his barstool and launched into guitar solo.
The Gamehendge theme continued with “McGrupp and the Watchful Hosemasters” which while a rare treat for many was actually my third time seeing the song. As folks screamed for the first full Gamehendge in 15 years, many groaned as the band left the stage. Sweating like a pig, I deiced to head back to grab some water as the band to my surprise returned to the stage for an encore. I headed for the very back of the field beyond the towers that had shot fire the night before and found a large section of empty grass to lie down upon. Perhaps the most requested song of the day, “Driver” made many sweaty hippies happy, but I was more stoked about “Talk” which is rarely played during electric sets. In fact, I wish the band had stopped there, but instead they closed with the painful “Secret Smile”. While many joked that it was the best “Secret Smile” ever (and truthfully it probably was), it was a rather lackluster way to close an otherwise beautiful set.
I don’t know why, but I heard many complaints about the acoustic set amongst various phans all day. I heard that it didn’t work, that they didn’t go off and that the song selection sucked. While I agree that some of the songs were not my particular favorite (Secret Smile and Army of One come to mind), how could anyone be upset by the chance to see Phish not only surrounded by beauty in any direction you looked, but hear them stripped and vulnerable? Clearly Phish is an electric band, but to strip songs like “Wilson” and “The Curtain With” down shows that beyond the jams and funk are well crafted songs. Personally, I hope Phish doesn’t wait 11 years to unplug again.