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Teach a man to Phish and he’ll jam for a lifetime: A Phish tale

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Teach a man to Phish and he’ll jam for a lifetime: A Phish tale (photo courtesy of the artist)

It’s funny how something as ordinary as hearing a new song on the radio can send a person burrowing down a rabbit hole so rich with hidden trails and secret passageways, he’s still there decades later savoring every moment.

Phish is currently on a 26-date summer tour and will soon arrive in Bangor to play back-to-back shows at Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion on Tuesday and Wednesday, June 25 and 26.

Most every fan in attendance will have a different story about what brought them to Phish (insert Volkswagen Minibus joke here). Oh yeah, Phish fans have to put up with a lot of crap. It’s all good, man. We can take it.

The moment I received a message from The Maine Edge’s resident Super Genius assignment editor Allen Adams asking me to share the story of my path to Phish, I began compiling a list of details.

(Editor’s note: I’ve been looking for an excuse to have Mike go long on Phish for years; his passion for the band is palpable. With the band’s return to Bangor, I got what I wanted – and you all are getting something special.)

This is how I came to Phish and why I hope to never leave.

In 1993, I was living in beautiful downtown Lincoln (come for the lakes, stay for the steak bombs) where I worked at a radio station called Hot Mix 106 (WHMX – 105.7 FM). It was a mom-and-pop-owned station with a very unique format that included rock, pop, country and oldies.

Most focus group-driven radio consultants would tell you that a station that plays both Willie Nelson and Stevie Ray Vaughan deserves to be shut down. No listener wants to hear that much variety, they would say. As it turned out, we were shut down … but that’s beside the point.

(By the way, I want those pinhead consultants to know that I just saw Willie Nelson actually perform a song by Stevie Ray Vaughan, and the audience loved it – so put that in your pipe and smoke it. Insert additional Phish joke here.)

People who live in Lincoln and the surrounding area tend to make frequent trips to Bangor for shopping and eating. Or my favorite reasons to make that trip – eating and shopping.

On this particular February 6, 1993 – yes, I actually remember the day – I stopped for a meal at Momma Baldacci’s Italian restaurant on Broadway in Bangor. Man, do I miss that place and the people that worked there.

After lunch, it was time to hit the music stores. I made the rounds to the area’s four or five music outlets hoping to find something new, but nothing jumped out at me that day. Instead, I decided to head for home before dark.

My radio companion for the ride home was Scotty Moore AKA Sco-Mo, afternoon personality on WKIT (100.3 FM). He’s still there today and sounding better than ever.

Scotty and I grew up two houses away from each other in Houlton. Our mothers thought that was very convenient because when one of us missed a day of school because of illness, the other would be responsible for bringing their homework to them after school. We wisely prevented schoolwork from interfering with our friendship.

We actually did our very first radio shows together when we were in the 10th grade at Houlton High School. Our typing teacher had been a radio announcer in the 1960s and was still very passionate about the medium - so much so that he bought the old transmitter, console, turntables and assorted gear that had been part the Ricker College station (WRNE, 89.3 FM) in the ‘60s and ‘70s. He set it up in his basement and applied to the FCC for a license to sign on and operate it as a learning laboratory for prospective broadcasters. We “worked” there (translation: we made a lot of dumb mistakes while having the time of our lives) three nights a week for about 28 months, setting both of us up for a life in broadcasting.

Back to that fateful 1993 ride home to Lincoln. I was just north of the Alton bog when big wet snowflakes began to land on the windshield. I turned on the wipers and remember how they were briefly in-sync with the rhythm of a new song that had just started playing on Scotty’s show. It opened with the sound of cymbals and arpeggio guitar. The male singer had a voice that stood out in an era when many male singers were going for more of a Kurt Cobain or Steven Tyler approach. You could tell that this singer’s voice was very close to his speaking voice. As much I liked the vocals and the lyrics, it was the sound of the guitars that really got me.

The guitarist played with a clean tone, but it was thick and heavy with midrange and compression. It’s still one of my favorite all-time guitar sounds. The guitarist’s style and choice of notes was mightily impressive. It was a magical sound and I had to know who it was and what I was hearing.

The lead singer was joined by other vocalists in the chorus. “It isn’t nearly fast enough for you,” they sang, as the cascading notes of a pedal steel guitar (of all things!) responded around them. I vowed to remember that part just in case Scotty didn’t reveal the name of the artist. But thankfully he did.

“That was Phish, with a P-H,” Scotty said after the song was complete. “A brand-new song called ‘Fast Enough for You’ from the album ‘Rift.’” Thank you, friend.

Ignoring the fact that it was snowing and the fact that I probably should have continued driving north, I turned the car around at the earliest opportunity and took the southbound lane of I-95 back to Bangor to begin my search for this band’s latest release. I lucked out at my first stop: Record Town in the Airport Mall, managed by my friend Cathy.

As I made the trip back to Lincoln while listening to this mysterious new band, I was blown away by what I was hearing. “Rift” – Phish’s fourth studio album – consists of songs that I now consider band standards. Upon first listen, some of the music seemed very carefully structured but there also appeared to be moments of true improvisation.

On “Rift,” progressive rock is blended seamlessly with elements of bluegrass, jazz, pop and humor (in both music and lyrics), painted with a spacious, dreamy soundscape. A number of songs on the album describe various stages of a relationship in trouble. Breaking up has never sounded better than it does on “Rift.” I became smitten by this band in a big way and had to find out more about them.

In those pre-internet days, obtaining information about a new band usually meant going to the library. The earliest Phish-related book was still about four years away, but I managed to find a few mentions of the band in Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly.

More helpful was Phish’s own newsletter, advertised within the booklet accompanying the CD. I filled out the card, mailed it in and soon began receiving six issues per year of the Phish Update (later renamed The Doniac Schvice). Inside were band touring schedules, photos, funny or interesting stories related to Phish and a column from bassist Mike Gordon called “Mike’s Corner” full of random thoughts and surreal humor.

My next step was to find all three of Phish’s previous releases: 1989’s “Junta,” 1990’s “Lawn Boy” and 1992’s “A Picture of Nectar” – the band’s first major label release. After signing Phish and releasing “Nectar,” Elektra reissued the band’s earlier output that had been previously released independently.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but it’s a little unorthodox to become a Phish fan exclusively from listening to the group’s studio albums. The more common route involves seeing a live show. Because of work commitments or other conflicts, my first experience of actually seeing the band in concert was still a few years into the future, despite Phish’s already-warm relationship with Maine.

Having formed at the University of Vermont in 1983, it was only natural for Phish to include Maine in its concert schedule once the band started booking shows outside the Green Mountain state.

When Phish performs the second of two shows at Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion in Bangor, it will mark their 39th appearance in Maine since the band’s first show here at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor on January 20, 1989.

Early Maine appearances from Phish included two shows scheduled exactly one year apart at The Penny Post coffee bar in Old Town (now a Subway restaurant on Main St.), a 1990 show at UMaine in Orono, shows at Bates, Bowdoin and Colby, myriad Portland shows – including eight performances at the old Tree Café on Danforth St. in Portland – and the now-legendary 1991 “Amy’s Farm” show in Auburn, now considered the prototype for Phish’s many festivals, which include the group’s storied appearances at the former Loring Air Force Base in Limestone in 1997, 1998 and 2003).

The band performed three Maine concerts in 1993 – one in Bangor on May 7 (the smoking version of “You Enjoy Myself” from that concert just showed up on the band’s latest edition of “Live Bait,” a free download compilation of past performances in cities the band is visiting in their current tour – it’s available at www.LivePhish.com) and two in Portland, including a December 30 show at Cumberland County Civic Center that routinely shows up on lists of the band’s best-ever performances.

As awareness of the band grew in proportion to the size of the audiences at each successive Maine concert, I continued to discover the band’s music through a series of live tapes traded with other Phish fans around the world.

I spotted a classified ad in the back of an issue of Relix magazine from a fan in New Hampshire looking to trade tapes with other fans. Phish has always maintained a very liberal taping policy at its shows, even going as far as allowing fans to patch decks into the band’s mixing board in the early years.

In exchange for sending some blank cassettes and return postage, I received a copy of Phish’s April 17, 1992 performance at the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco. It may have been several generations removed from the master tape, but it opened up a new world of listening while also presenting me with a new set of questions.

The tape gave me my first taste of the band’s “secret language” – a series of music cues that included random laughter, the theme from “The Simpsons” and what I now know as “all fall down” – a signal for audience members in the know to drop to the floor causing uninitiated fans to look around the room in bewilderment. The secret language experiments lasted for only about one year but fans at those shows wear their participation like a badge of honor.

As I continued to trade shows and meet other fans through the good old U.S. Postal Service, I began exchanging letters and phone calls with fans around the country. Some were Phish veterans only too happy to share stories about the concerts and even what it was like to hang out with the band at certain shows.

They answered all of my questions about the music, including how the band had written so many songs that dozens had yet to appear on an official album but were all in contention to show up in a live setting. To this day, I maintain a friendship with many of these kind people who took me under their wing to make sure I was well taken care of as a fledgling fan. I’ve tried to do the same for a number of people over the years.

One of my favorite aspects of Phish-dom is that the band’s audience is largely a reflection of the band members themselves. They’re nice people. As I write this, I’m reminded of an older lady who was working at a Phish concert in Mansfield, Massachusetts in 2014. Her job was to deliver beverages to fans sitting in box seats at the venue. She needed to pull some change from the pocket of her apron, but her hands were full. I simply offered to hold her tray until she could make change for a customer. “I can’t get over how nice you all are,” she said with seeming astonishment. That’s a Phish crowd.

More than six years after falling hard for the band, I finally saw my first shows – December 7 and 8, 1999, at the old Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland. It was also my first in-person experience with the band’s glorious light show – probably the most impressive of any on the planet thanks to Phish’s lighting director of 30 years, Chris Kuroda (sometimes referred to by fans as CK5 – suggesting that he is the fifth member of Phish, after guitarist Trey Anastasio, drummer Jonathan Fishman, bassist Mike Gordon and keyboardist Page McConnell).

I regret missing out on some legendary early shows, but I’ve tried to make up for it since. The 2003 “IT” festival in Limestone was an unforgettable weekend, marked with excellent performances and even a surprise 2:00 a.m. set from the top of the abandoned air traffic control tower on the base.

I’ve managed to see Phish 26 times since that first 1999 show – a paltry number compared with some, but I cherish the memory of each concert – each of them a unique experience offering a different set of songs. It’s true that there are no two Phish shows exactly alike; it’s one of the reasons why some fans try to catch as many as possible. I’m still chasing a number of songs that I’ve never seen live, including “Harpua,” “Mound” and “The Curtain With.” Maybe I’ll finally get one of them this summer at the Bangor shows or at Fenway Park in Boston on July 5 and 6.

My concert companions at many of these shows have been my niece Kim and one of my very best friends – Race. He actually started an online non-profit radio station devoted largely to the music of Phish. JEMP Radio is a station built for fans by fans and has become an important part of the Phish community since it signed on nearly five years ago at www.JEMPRadio.com. You’ll find me there each Wednesday at 2:00 p.m., hosting a show called “The Other Mike’s Corner.”

My road to Phish probably differs significantly from the path taken by many, but it has led to years of peak musical experiences that I could never have found anyplace else. For that, I am eternally grateful to the band and to the countless kind fans I’ve met along the way.

Last modified on Tuesday, 18 June 2019 22:06

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