Couch (or Desk Chair) Tour

A lot happened between 2004, when Phish “broke up,” and 2009, when they triumphantly reunited. Aside from the major political and social events, a lot happened to me personally. I got a master’s degree, started a Ph.D. (which I’m now working on), got married, got a dog, bought a co-op apartment. Perhaps the biggest realm of advancement is technologically: in the five years of Phish’s breakup, we have seen the invention of YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. Our iPods are phones. Our phones are computers. We can email on an airplane.

And now, Phishheads can stream a show live from their cell phones to you, the at-home viewer. It’s the fulfillment of a dream that every Phishhead has always had, enacted every time you call a buddy with your cell phone in the air during the ending of “David Bowie” or “You Enjoy Myself.” A number of these streams are all collated on, where you can watch crappy video and listen to an extremely low-quality audio of the show, and even chat about it with other random Phishheads on the internet, most of whom seem to delight in the imbecilic identifying of “noobs,” making public statements about their drug use, and talking about how Trey sucks and that this show isn’t nearly as good as UIC Pavilion ’94. In other words, it’s a typical day on the Phish-related internets.

So the aesthetic question: is it better to listen to a low quality audio stream of a show that’s happening live? Or, do you wait until the next day to hear a good recording? Why is it that, as Phishheads, we prize the ability to listen to a horrible-sounding live stream when we can hear an infinitely better recording the next day? The answer seems obvious – as Phishheads, the live show is our most prized musical possession. Part of the fun is wondering what’s going to be played next, and then that moment of recognition when the opening notes of a song hit our ears and we instantly get the adrenaline rush: “Gumbo!” “2001!” “Piper!” We get to re-enact that listening to the live stream.

But do we really? Is there any fun to hearing that which you cannot actually experience? The at-home listening experience is admittedly cool, partly because we’re participating in a technology that is so new that we’re still bristling with excitement at its mere existence. Is this, though, any different from getting text messages from your friend at the show, or hitting the page reload button on over and over again?

Tonight I had some papers to grade, so I decided to check into the stream just to hear what was happening. I’m getting extremely psyched for the Amherst shows this weekend, listening to Phish all week out of excitement, so I figured I’d pop in. Well…wow, the sound quality wasn’t horrible. Bonus. And it sounds like a raging “Bowie” jam (at around 8:45pm). Cool! But wait, this “Bowie” jam just segued into the opening to “Wilson,” and the crowd is chanting, and then they went right back into the end of the facemelting “Bowie” jam!! What the hell is going on?? And is that a “Guyute” tease I hear?

I admit it, I got sucked in. On a night when Phish took its live audience for one of the most wild setlist rides in recent memory, I rode sidecar at home the whole way, listening as the band juxtaposed songs in odd places, busted out rare favorites like “McGrupp” and “Have Mercy,” teased “Guyute” through pretty much the whole show, and created a song sandwich – Split Open and->Have Mercy->Piper->Melt – for the ages.

Yet, there was something unfulfilling about hearing this history as it was being made. I was still sitting at my desk, at home in Brooklyn, with headphones on and grading quizzes. I didn’t get any of the sights, smells, or dancing of a Phish show. Musically, I could follow it, but I wasn’t there. Emotionally, I was invested in the show, getting excited for certain songs and feeling the energy rise as a jam got to a particularly good point. And I shared the whole thing with a good friend who I’ve seen plenty of shows with as we chatted through Gmail.

The moment that really defined the experience for me came midway through the second set, as Phish played the opening riff of “Tela.” It’s my favorite song. I’ll post on this separately at some point, but yes, out of all the hundreds of original Phish songs out there, my single favorite one is “Tela.” It just is. Not that I don’t love a thick 25 minute “Ghost” or a mindblowing “David Bowie.” I’ve never heard “Tela” live, and when they started playing it again after the 2009 comeback, I kept feeling a little bit cheated every time I missed it. “Eventually I’ll hear it,” I keep telling myself. “It’s back now, so I’ll catch it sooner or later.”

Well, I heard it begin tonight, and the moment went like this for me: “they’re playing Tela right now AND I’M NOT THERE!! F@#K!!!” No matter how close you might feel to the music, you’re still not there, you’re still missing it. Streaming Phish gives us the illusion of a visceral experience. Yet really, we’re just kidding ourselves – we’re combining the aesthetic experience of listening to the show the next day with the phenomenological experience of seeing the setlist show up live in a Twitter feed. With Mr. Minor’s No Spoilers recordings, you can recreate the experience of listening to the show without knowing what was played, and being shocked at hearing it. But we still prize the lo-fi experience of doing that in real time, as though we were actually participating in the experience ourselves.

I wonder if Phish will ever officially stream their shows. With this band and fanbase, it doesn’t seem like they would lose ticket revenue from doing so. I loved the high-quality live feed of Festival 8 last year, much for the same reason I enjoyed listening tonight – you feel as though you are participating in the magic when you listen along live. And for a show you really want to catch (like Halloween), it could be a lot of fun. I’ll probably tune into the Hoodstream once or twice again in the next week, even though I’m going to three shows on this fall tour. However, I don’t think I’ll personally invest as much gravity into the show as I did tonight. After all, they could play “Tela” again when I’m not there…

[Post your thoughts on the stream below – have you done it? Why do you do it? Does it replicate the show experience for you, or is it no different than listening to the show the next day?]

[UPDATE 10/21/10]: One other thing not being there, and only listening on the stream, does is it prevents you from seeing things like this:

and now, suddenly, a lot more makes sense. I would have endlessly teased Guyute in every damn first set song if I saw this guy in the front row, too.


~ by Jake on October 21, 2010.

11 Responses to “Couch (or Desk Chair) Tour”

  1. tell me — what is the relation/connection/difference between your response to Phish music, versus to “serious” contemporary classical music? Is it Dionysian versus Apollonian – or is it something else?

    • Richard – I don’t think it’s as much of an Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy for me. In many ways, I have an Apollonian experience of Phish’s music. Because, in many ways, Phish is similar to prog rock in form, there is an easily adaptable intellectual side to listening to Phish. I listen for form, for intricate metrical changes, etc. and especially when they jam, I find myself trying to follow large-scale harmonic directions, hearing how the band is trying to communicate to bring about changes in harmony, and formally lead the jam into new territories.

      Of course, there is certainly a corporeal experience of Phish’s music that I don’t get with contemporary art music – namely the dancing. That being said, I bob my head when I listen to classical music, even classical music that (unlike Reich, e.g.) doesn’t have a strongly defined rhythmic push.

      I think that a large part of it, for me, has been an internalization of classical music to the point where I no longer approach it with the “aesthetic distancing” that someone like Bourdieu insists exists with art music. I think I’ve trained myself to approach both pop/rock and art music as just music. I enjoy both, sometimes in different ways, sometimes in the same way. Granted, if I go to hear a funk band, then the Nietzchian dichotomy comes into play a bit more – it’s pure Dionysian good times. I feel the same when I leave a particularly inspired performance of an Ives symphony as when I leave a good Phish show: like I have to pick my brain up off the floor with a spatula.

      A Phish show has moments that are both Apollonian and Dionysian. Like Zappa said, after intensely composed sections of music, you need improvisation to free you from that highly ordered music. I think there are parts of listening to contemporary art music (or older art music) that are Dionysian for me, in that I react with strong feelings on an affective level, rather than just an intellectual level.

  2. A real-life example: this week I saw three art music concerts in the early part of the week. The first was a trio playing music by Copland and Shostakovich (his heart-wrenching E minor trio No. 2), and the other two were short free concerts featuring chamber works by Copland. This weekend, I’m seeing Phish at the Mullins Center at UMASS-Amherst.

    Going into this week, I was equally excited for both sets of shows, the Copland at the beginning of the week, and the Phish at the end of the week. The type of excitement was the same for me (since Copland is one of my favorite composers, and Phish is one of my favorite bands). It really didn’t feel as though I was getting psyched up to see two wildly different experiences. Rather, just two different expressions of my musical enjoyment, but the same enjoyment.

  3. Good post, FANTASTIC comment afterwards..

    • Thanks Dorn, I appreciate it! As any good teacher must point out, kudos to Richard who prompted me to clarify the aesthetic experience of the music in those Nietzschean terms.

  4. Interesting thoughts all around. Your comments about the live streams (which I’ve tried but really can’t get into because the sound is usually so poor) made me think of the two live simulcasts in 04 – Brooklyn and then Coventry. Seeing them in a movie theater, with a couple hundred other heads, up close and pristine sound, was certainly closer to the real thing… and in some ways even better, since the sound and visuals were likely better than I’d be able to get at almost any location at the show (other than the front row or something). I remember months later I was selecting the list of all the shows I’ve seen for zyzxx’ setlist generator, and started to add Brooklyn… But Wait! I wasn’t there! But it felt like I was. Really, it wasn’t much different then seeing the Fest 8 3d movie… but it was live! All of us in the theater were reacting in the moment it happened, grooving just like at a show, but all our cheering and yelling didn’t reach the bands’ ears (well, maybe it did, energetically).

    Don’t know where I’m going with this, but I’d certainly be for the band streaming live shows. I just hope that didn’t become a way to have an excuse to not go to shows I would have gone to, or if I had crappy seats… The end result of that process is nobody going, no scene, etc. Although it sure hasn’t hurt the sports world having all the games on TV. Even though the televised game is more enjoyable to watch in almost every way except the energy of being there – you get lots of replays, better viewing angles, announcers telling you what’s happening (I was at the Texas-Alabama BCS Championship game in Jan and we didn’t even know Colt McCoy had been injured… needed people w/ cellphones to call or txt their friends at home to find out what was up). But I wouldn’t have traded the experience of being there for anything (well, maybe the Guyutica show 😉

    • Great point about the movie theater simulcasts, I forgot about those because I was actually at both the Brooklyn ’04 show and Coventry. Part of me wishes I had actually done Coventry in the theaters, much more comfortable and less mud for sure! Still, I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. I suppose one of the big differences between the two is that communal experience in the theater, which you lose in the online stream. One of the most fun parts of listening to Utica live last night was chatting with a friend on Gchat throughout the whole thing – having someone to go “Axilla!!” with.

      Also, good point about the sound quality. Listening just to the couple of YouTube clips of last night that have already popped up, it’s clear that as good as I thought the show was on the low sound quality stream, it is worlds better in real life. I can’t wait to hear the soundboards of this one.

      Also, an interesting observation about the sports analogy. With sports, the experience is certainly heightened by the TV as far as actually seeing the game – the plays, replays, closeups, etc. I remember going to my first pro football game, and being shocked at how small the field was! And how difficult it was to ascertain a first down without that yellow line graphic. I wonder, would Phishheads pay $10 for a live HQ video/audio stream of the show? I don’t think anyone who could go to the show wouldn’t because they could see it at home.

  5. “three year old Jonathan conducts Beethoven Symphony #5, 4th movement” — the whole movement. This kid represents how I respond to “art music” -=- metaphysical ecstasy. Any good classical music well performed has traces of ecstasy in it. So does great jazz, although most jazz is too “cool” for my temperament. Micah tells me, Jake, that you’ve loved the Dead and Phish since 7th grade, so your musical brain has evolved along from there. I can enjoy TV, radio shows and music and movies and books from my childhood just as much as I did then, because I am the same person. I still like the Andrews Sisters, an amazing close harmony pop group. Listening to Phish (I bought Tela from 1996) as well as other Phish I have, I cannot get into it.
    Talking Heads and Chili Peppers, yes, but not for hours like mahler or Verdi. A classical pianist who plays Radiohead as piano sonatas (the From The Top host). (More later; gotta shrink some heads..)

  6. Jeke – I pretty much agree with your comments – it’s great to have this technology available if you can’t make it to the show, but at the same time we obviously wish the quality of the streams was better. I was listening to this show as well and thought the stream was actually of better quality than it usually is which was great considering the ridiculousness of this show. It really was “vintage” and exciting to hear that they still have it in them to play these types of shows. The first set was remarkable. Thanks for all your analysis -it’s great reading and (as we’ve discussed many times) a band of this caliber truly does deserve the academic-level analysis that you are providing.

    • Hey Kenny! glad you found me on here – and yes, this show’s sound quality was quite better than some other times that I’ve tuned into the stream. First set WAS remarkable, especially the Bowie and Antelope. That Bowie was out of control, especially with the Wilson teases.

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