, attached to 1999-12-03

Review by Anonymous

(Published in the second edition of The Phish Companion...)

If we're gonna keep cutting it close like this, you should really consider getting a radar detector," Harold suggested as we sliced down I-71, dodging rain, in a beeline for the Firstar Arena.
"Quiet you fool. Drive the goddamn car," I intoned. The ticket time read 7:00. The question was, would anybody bother to tell the band that show was supposed to begin earlier than usual. Harold stepped on the accelerator. "Go the speed limit," I said, not quite believing myself. I looked at the clock. Quarter after seven. "Shit."
"Where the hell is Cincinnati?" Harold asked. "Is there actually a city?"
"Who knows what these cretins think of as a metropolis." I glanced out the window. "Watch the Lexus," I said, as Harold sped up in order to avoid a potential calamity involving a merging motorist.
We turned a bend in the road, and there it was, stretched out in front of us. We'd driven from just outside of Cleveland, heading south, skirting Columbus by way of a beltway, and on to Cincinnati. The only signs of life we'd seen had been gross suburban sprawl: strip malls, housing developments, rest stops, and gas station after gas station. Suddenly, a city. A very clean-looking skyline, cloaked in a somewhat drizzly night. The buildings were polished, and the lights colorful. It resembled an enormous Las Vegas theme casino, life-size to the point of surreality.
Somewhere in there, near the riverfront supposedly, was the Firstar Arena. Several wrong turns, however, and we'd be in Kentucky. It was a dangerous line to tread but, hey man, no fear. We made a couple, admittedly, and somehow found ourselves in front of the Firstar Arena. No shit. Parking for $10 and it's almost showtime. Up the ramp, up another"...and another. "I've never seen you run before," Harold panted.
"You've never seen me late for a show before," I managed to wheeze in reply. We found ourselves on a walkway, crossing in between Cinergy Field and the Firstar Arena, high above a major street. Seven thirty. Off in the distance, I could see several other skywalks, such as the one we were on, like an architect's design of a futuristic city realized in full. Later, we would learn that one could traverse the majority of downtown Cincinnati by following the path set forth by these walks. We haven't tried it yet, but I wouldn't doubt it.
Rushing through the gates, we made it to our seats just in time for the houselights to go down and the band to take the stage. As Fish and Mike kicked into the intro groove to the still newish "First Tube", the inadequacies of the venue's sound soon made themselves apparent. From where I was, anyway, it was clear that the evening would be a sonic washout. Going into the tour, I was afraid to hear "First Tube". Supposedly, the band has just recorded a version for release on an upcoming studio album. The band's tendency seems to be to water down song arrangements when they record them. Witness the raw power of fall '97's "Black Eyed Katy" wussified into the "Moma Dance", which is fun in its own right, though not nearly as cool.
Thankfully, "First Tube" seems to be an exception to the rule. It raged. Locked into the groove, the band managed to flex the song into something both deeply funky and fist-pumpingly swell. I'm extremely interested in seeing how the new album turns out. Band members have said that the approach on the new disc is something akin to their live performance. Simultaneously, their live performances of late have been demonstrations of live studio creations, both in terms of the layering effects Trey has been using and the careful, spontaneous arrangements the band has focused on. Either way, where the past several studio Phish albums have focused on the difference between Phish as a live band and Phish as a studio band, whatever comes out of Trey's barn come spring 2000 will surely be a skywalk between the extremes.
The Firstar Arena is pretty old, I gather. It wasn't always the Firstar, though. Last fall, when Phish played the same room, it was called the Crown. Twenty years ago, it was called something else. Exactly twenty years ago tonight, The Who played there. Outside the show, there was a riot in which several fans were trampled to death. The brutal fact of this anniversary made its way around the arena this evening in whispered bits and bites, more folk tale than anything else. It was a grim story to hear. "Which Who song will the band cover tonight?" was an unintentionally perverted question on many lips. No Who song ever came, though the song choices were quite open to interpretation.
"It was many years ago, now," Trey sang in "Wolfman's Brother", "though I really can't be sure" -  an unintentional nod to the flying lore, reverberating off of the concrete walls. ""...and the Wolfman's brother came down on me." Something ominous, to be sure: a dark force. What happened to the counterculture? Was the Who riot in 1979 another ending, an alternate Altamonte? Altamonte was one thing: a couple of rowdy Hell's Angels and some illmatic vibes; hundreds of people stomping, stamping, and crashing was another entirely. When did the counterculture become the culture? Was it some mutated revolution, like the broken rotating stage at Woodstock stuck somewhere in limbo as in The Fly? What resulted? This"...?
The night had the potential to go full-on into the black. It didn't. There was a glimpse. Or, at least there was on my part, and perhaps that was more mental than anything else, but the "Wolfman's" jam seemed to lurk on the edge of darkness, before pulling back into a somewhat standard groove, which turned into something slightly new just before the ending. Then, happiness. Happy music. The rest of the set seemed, if not celebratory, than (at the very least) somewhat more open to the possibility of life. The song choices were well made, though the executions of most of the songs was somewhat subpar. Of note were the dialogues between Trey and Page in the "Possum" jam, the new edited ending to "Get Back On the Train", and the entirety of the "Slave to the Traffic Light," which (sadly) got mostly eaten up by the echoes.
During setbreak, we circumnavigated the arena in search of a pay phone. Plastered across every conceivable surface in the venue were advertisements of some ilk. Even the stairs in the arena proper were painted with small logos and shields. A phone company seemed to be a prominent sponsor, with big, colorful displays featured seemingly every twenty feet. As for phones themselves, they seemed to be infinitely more rare. We located one and, once again, made it to our seats just in time for the beginning of the set.
"Sand" was the evening's exercise in a rock-steady bass line and drum beat. The jam had interesting moments but didn't seem to progress to anything greater. "Limb By Limb", on the other hand, was quite another story. Lyrically, it seemed to be the most direct nod to the events of the past: "trampled by lambs and pecked by the doves." The jam crested in much the same way it has for the past two years, though it quickly dropped into something resembling the ending groove. From there, the band moved into ambient territory. The textural jam, on which Trey played keyboards for a good portion of, was quite different from any "Limb by Limb" so far. For twenty or so minutes, the band explored completely fresh spaces, Fish trying out different drumbeats and tempos, settling, and then moving on again. The entire thing was dark and absolutely spine-melting.
Though the jam could've ended logically without it, Trey forced the band back into the ending and they closed the song. A well-executed "Bug" followed, replete with a slightly rearranged chorus. "Piper" raged in a somewhat predictable manner. For the second run through the vocals, Trey was either completely lost or decided to show off the other three parts of the vocal arrangement. Either way, it was enlightening hearing exactly what the rest of the band is singing during the circular vocals.
"Harry Hood" has been a phoenix of late. The song, completely glorious for much of Phish's career, has grown somewhat stagnant in recent years. Over the course of the first half of Fall Tour, though, it's begun to once again show signs of life. Though nowhere near as monumental as the 10/8/99 Nassau version, this rendition was quite enjoyable. The problem with "Harry's" of late is that the band has been running through the chord changes as if they were no more than that. Step one, the song begins to build; step two, Trey begins to go "deedley-deedley""....It is only when the pattern gets shaken up that things begin to get interesting again. The band seems to have found new ways of shaking it up, specifically at the ground level of the jam, where they can build. While the movement into the song's climax was somewhat hurried and consequentially less than satisfactory, it was at least interesting"...which is good.
The encore cover of Velvet Underground's "Rock and Roll" was pure fun. "Despite all the computations / you could just dance to that rock and roll station / it was all right." And it was. Despite any historical heaviness, despite anything Phish has or hasn't been in the past (or is or isn't now), you could just dance. The metaphor of Phish as a DJ can work in many different ways. For one, it describes the way they've come to manipulate their grooves. For the past several years, they've focused on getting good at individual rhythms. When they changed up, it's almost as if they had to pick up the needle and drop it elsewhere on the record. Now, they're getting good at cross-fading between grooves. Likewise, the band also act like DJs in the old radio sense of the word: knowing exactly when to play the right song.
Cries of "Cincinsanity" were heard crossing the skywalk back to the parking garage. While I wouldn't agree with that wholeheartedly, though it certainly works as an amusing piece of wordplay, the show definitely had its moments. The true Cincinsanity began when we invaded the lovely Regal Hotel in downtown Cincinnati. I booked it based on the fact that they quoted me the cheapest price when I called the hotels listed on the flyer the Mail Order people sent out. Right now, there are six heads sprawled out across the beds and floor, plumb tuckered after an evening of fun.
There is, for example, a player piano in the lobby. It's an all-digital operation. While I was checking in, my friend Daisy sat at it and pretended to play, earning stares from many civilians. Later, I sat at it and attempted to jam with it. The machine's repertoire includes standards like the Peanuts theme and "The Dance Of The Sugar Plum Fairies". Adding what bits of piano I knew how to play was ultimately unsuccessful. Finally, I settled on the idea of adding subtle discordance to what was being played. The effect was somewhat disconcerting. The player piano sits next to a large gazebo surrounded by wicker reindeer of varying sizes (a smaller one of which now resides, antler slightly damaged, next to this chair).
After checking in, food became the primary problem. Though it was 12:30 on a Friday night, no place seemed to be open"...anywhere in Cincinnati, including the four restaurants and bars right here in the hotel. Pizza-delivery men were accosted in the lobby by hungry heads demanding eats or the phone number they could call to get some. Nobody picked up on the other end. A posse was sent, with no success, to the Hyatt across the street to try and scrounge something up. A story circulated of a head giving a man $20 at the mere mention of the word "pizza." He was confused and scared when the man walked away from it. I'd all but given up on the idea by the time I settled in to write this.
There was a knock on the door. "Who's there?" I called.
"Your fairy godmother," came the reply. The "Frankenknock" (a knock of the intro to Edgar Winter's "Frankenstein") followed. I got up and opened the door. My friend Davey stood in the doorway, pizza box in hand. "Someone just gave me this," he said. He opened the box to reveal a solitary piece of pizza. "We ate a few"...this one's all yours." I hugged him.
a version of this review first appeared on www.jambands.com


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