One of the most anticipated runs of summer just got a little less intimate, as Phish announced that they will offer official webcasts for all three sold-out shows at San Francisco’s historic Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. No longer will the shows take place behind closed doors for the 7000 lucky souls in the building, but they are now pay-per-view commodities that can be purchased and watched with any Internet connection. When I speak of my distaste for webcasts, the most common retort is, “But what about all the fans who can’t make it to the west coast?” Well, what about all the west coast fans during Atlantic City? What about all southern fans during Deer Creek and Alpine? What about the Midwestern fans during Long Beach? That’s life! The point of a Phish concert has never been to allow as many people as possible to “tune in.” The fact that shows happen in small arenas in random cities across the country, inaccessible to those not in the building, is actually part of the magic! Phish just spent a month touring the east coast and Midwest, and they will provide soundboard downloads within an hour of every show’s conclusion—is that not good enough? Is nothing sacred anymore? The Phish experience once represented a personal quest one had to undertake to reap the spiritual spoils of the live experience. Now anyone can eat Doritos and take bong hits on their couch while watching the first Phish shows in San Francisco since 1994 (less the ‘98 Fillmore show) like a TV sitcom—and that cheapens what Phish is all about. It is one thing to webcast high key shows like the New Year’s Run, Bonnaroo or the Vermont Flood Benefit, but leave the regular tour stops for the fans on tour. What’s next, a month-long subscription where one doesn’t have to leave the confines of his own home to witness what goes down on stage for an entire tour? I sure as hell hope not, even as I face the impending reality of not seeing every show.
Beyond cheapening the Phish experience, webcast shows, more often than not, don’t hold up, musically, to the rest of the shows of tour. Take Leg One as our most recent evidence. Phish webcasted the Portsmouth and Jones Beach shows, and three of those four were among the weakest of tour. Both Portsmouth shows and July 4th illustrated a propensity for a lot of songs and very little jamming. In these three shows—combined—the only out-of the-box improv came in 6/20’s “Hood -> What’s the Use?”, 7/4’s “Twist,” and the very ends of 7/4’s “Tweezer” and 6/20’s “Rock and Roll.” That’s it. Other than those passages, the band cranked out never-ending setlists that did little to engage the psyche of the audience. Was there quality playing and tight, “type I” jamming? Of course! This is 3.0—there is always quality playing and tight, “type I” jamming. But those elements don’t make a show or we’d all be heralding the first night of Portsmouth as the best show of tour.
In webcasts of this era, it’s fair to say that the band has tended towards more more songs and less jamming than other shows of tour. In 2011, the first night of Tahoe and Dick’s stellar three-pack—the ultimate counter-example to any “webcast effect”—appeared to put this theory to rest after it had gained momentum over ’09 and ’10. But with six of the last eight webcast shows being suspect, perhaps the idea bears reexamination. There are often standalone highlights in webcast shows, for example, 7/4’s “Twist,” 12/30/11’s “Piper,” or Alpharetta ’11’s “Disease -> Maze., but more often than not, these uber-public performances pale in comparison to their surrounding shows. I am far beyond the point of trying to figure out why webcast shows don’t always explode, but going on empirical evidence gathered in this era, they usually carry a different vibe.
Yesterday, in an extended, multi-party Twitter debate on this very subject, long-time fan, critic, and Phish.net guru, Charlie Dirksen tweeted: “no doubt that Phish is self-aware that their webcasted gig’s audience is larger than they can ever fully know.” And it’s this enhanced self-awareness—potentially taking the guys out of the moment and altering the course of setlists and shows—that is all I’ve ever hypothesized (and been derided for). Perhaps the guys “play to the webcast,” or maybe they just think about it at times, but something about these shows often feels a little different. In all circumstances, Phish’s music reflects the environment in which it was created, responding to such variables as venue size, weather, location, and crowd vibe. How is a webcast to an unknown audience of thousands not another similar variable?
There is no doubt that webcasts benefit the community by allowing a greater audience to share in the groove—but is that groove diluted? Wouldn’t one rather listen to a mind-numbing show an hour after it ended than watch a mediocre one? Almost every other show of Leg One, besides Portsmouth and July 4th, absolutely smoked. In case you forgot, they included, Worcester, AC, Riverbend, Star Lake, Blossom, Deer Creek, Alpine and SPAC. The one glaring exception? A gimmicky Saturday night affair with virtually no second set jamming at SPAC that was broadcast on Sirius. Is this just another in a long line of coincidences? Maybe so, maybe not.
What is the take away from all this? Who knows, but get your ass to Long Beach at all costs!
Jam of the Day:
“Run Like An Antelope” 7.3 II, Jones Beach
A nugget from the only high-quality, webcast show during Leg One.