Front Page Reviews & AIR
The Live Phish Experience
When my editor gave me the green light to do a beer pairing with the live Phish experience, my heart leapt. My ears were still resounding and eyes a-blazing with the sounds and sights of Phish’s two 2012 tour-ending Denver shows. And malted beverages had been a huge part of this, my second foray to the mile-high city. In the end, it would prove too great a challenge to pick just one beer to pair with my Phish experience, so I decided to pick two from the same brewery. I then paired them up two Phish songs that summed up this phenomenal tour: “Sleeping Monkey” and “Back on the Train.”
Before I even entered the first show, a can of Dale’s Pale Ale was urgently gifted to me by an eager concert-goer who knew that he couldn’t get it in past security. I quickly realized that milling about near the outside of security lines at such a show as this is a sure way to have multiple beers, beverages, and other illicit goods handed to you by well-meaning, happy hippies. Security was tight, and the hippies were both magnanimous and desperate to not see their party favors go to waste, since they’d dragged them across countless yards of parking-lot mayhem. In that amazing, carnival-like atmosphere, I had seen ice chests with cans of Dale’s and Old Chub hawked, for $3 and $4 respectively, by enterprising fans/quasi-merchants, and this certainly factored into my decision to choose these two beers. Plus Dude gave me a Dale’s. And I, also anxious to enter the gate lightly laden, stashed it in the tall grass for later—but no, “Stash” was not among the songs played on either of the two nights I went to Dick’s Sporting Arena in Denver. Although it was played, I remember distinctly, in late 1992 when I took in my first Phish show at the former Boston Garden. Spin Doctors and Jeffrey Gaines were actually the headliners that night and Phish was just a phreaky sideshow. My, how times have changed. Now, with no opening act, they don’t quite sell out the humongous Dick’s soccer stadium, but they came damn close. And thanks to Phish’s band-operated-but-convoluted ticket lottery, even pholks who walked up to the box office to get a ticket might well find themselves in the 10th row right next to those who pre-ordered tickets.
You see, this here is a general admission show, western style. And so instead of matching a beer with the songs they didn’t play on those two nights, I limited myself to songs played in Denver this year. And I had to pair them with that Dale’s Pale can stashed in the tall grass, which accompanied me and my Utah-based phriend on our eternal walk back to our car after Saturday night’s “funk-a-thon” show, as he called it. I must also mention that Old Chub beer—from the same Oskar Blues brewery in Colorado—could be paired with equally satisfying results with either of the Phish songs to follow (or with any sections of Denver shows that you endeavor to download or look up on YouTube).
I also decided not to pick any cover songs to match beers when discussing Phish, so I’m limiting myself to the band’s outstandingly tight original compositions, which contrast nicely with their mind-expanding jams and sound-experimentation. But before moving on I should mention that “Roses are Free” by Ween, “Golden Age” by TV on the Radio, and “No Quarter” by Led Zeppelin were the standout covers of the night. This was my wife’s first ever Phish show, and she was probably happily surprised to hear such a variety of songs and styles. Phish always does some phenomenal live covers, as they have since their first college dorm gigs in 1983.
The two Phish songs I am pairing with the aforementioned Oscar Blues beers are not their most original or strange, but they hold true to a form. And this is what I admire most in the two beers also. Dale’s Pale is a straight-forward, knock-you-over-the-head-in-combination-with-the-elevation type of beer. Then there’s Old Chub. Old Chub makes occasional appearances throughout my memories of Syracuse, NY. In Utah, where I currently live, they actually covet it. It’s a Rocky Mountain imitation of a Scottish “strong ale,” and at about 8 %, that will make you want to ski powder in a kilt. It is, in short, an amazing beer.
I recommend puzzling over the mysteries of Phish’s 1992 song “Sleeping Monkey” while sipping either of the Oskar’s ales. The early 90s were a prolific period for Phish, with albums Picture of Nectar, Rift, and Hoist coming out in rapid succession. However, “Sleeping Monkey” never made it on to any of those albums. Maybe that’s because no one could make heads or tails of this ditty about a monkey that needs to be “revived” but is then suddenly sent “home on a train.” Granted, nobody could really make heads or tails of a great number of Phish lyrics from that era. Some say that there’s a sexual innuendo behind the lyrics, but I believe that the monkey is a metaphor for the slipping away of the concert experience, the parking lot wanderings, the side-effects of your recreation, good times with friends; the fleeting nature of it all. That is why the idea that someone “put my monkey on a train” was such a bittersweet ending to the first night.
I wasn’t aware that Phish had been reviving the “Monkey” on some shows this tour as part of an encore with “Tweezer/Reprise,” and so the song hit me unaware—just like that next great gulp of Dale’s or Old Chub might do to you. For a Phish fan as green as me, each new selection in the set hits me with a great surprise and wonderment. Anyway, I’ll leave it up to the listener to determine if “Sleeping Monkey” has a punch on par with Old Chub.
During the second Denver show, Phish captured the phun pheeling (enough with this, already?) of their whole tour, bolstered by the mid-set song “Back on the Train,” which I’m choosing as the second song that most captured my Phish experience. It’s not really an improv song or jam, but, to my thinking anyway, it describes the wonder of traveling the country and seeing sights and people from the musician’s perspective—passenger—until that moment when he takes up his instrument and then he is utterly in control. “It took me a long time to get back on the train,” sings Trey in a line from the song composed back in 1996, ten years before he got on the proverbial wagon. And so the song also reminded me about Trey’s publicized arrest for drugs and DUI, which was a wakeup call for him that—through hard labor and reforming penitence—helped get him clean for these last six years of Phish reunion tours. So, sadly, no Old Chub for Trey, but that’s OK—more for me.