Stuck in the Maze

Phish

Allstate Arena - Rosemont, IL

October 3, 1999

First Appeared in The Music Box, November 1999, Volume 6, #11

Written by John Metzger

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Improvisational rock is by nature a hit and miss affair. The success of a band's musical explorations are ultimately the key to the effectiveness of their concerts. When a group's risk-taking endeavors work, the performance can be a breathtaking journey through space and time, a mind-expanding expedition of psychedelic wonder and rebirth, and a contemplative spiritual odyssey that transcends the physical universe. Of course as fans of the genre know all too well, the opposite is also true.

The Grateful Dead were once kings of this world, effortlessly making the necessary connections to multiple dimensions more frequently and consistently than any group before or since. Of the many bands that have followed them, few have truly risen to the task at hand, and none have yet been able to sit at their side.

This really isn't much of a surprise when you get to the heart of the music. Many bands have the necessary skills but fall short of fully utilizing them. The reason lies with the musicians' inabilities to set aside their egos and succumb to the singular entity that they need to become on stage. At times even the Grateful Dead struggled with this, but they had one other key element in their possession the ability to fall back on the strength of their songs. For whatever reason, this is something that has been horribly lacking among the groups that make up the jam-band scene.

Phish offered a glimmer of hope with their excellent 1996 effort Billy Breathes. Since then, both their live shows and their albums have waxed and waned in a frustratingly schizophrenic state of flux. Their August 1997 concert at the New World Music Theatre was a near train-wreck, worsened by the venue's terrible acoustics. On the other hand, the band's three-day appearance at UIC Pavilion last Fall sparkled with energy and innovation.

So, which Phish would appear at the newly renamed Allstate Arena on October 3? Unfortunately, it was a little bit of both and more the former than the latter. First Tube was a monotonous, meandering instrumental, and the group seemed totally bored with quite a few other selections, including the repetitious Carini and the progressive rock excursion Guyute. At times, it seemed like the band had exhausted their ideas and were merely going through the motions in an effort to give the people what they wanted, instead of performing from their hearts.

They fared far better with the funky bluegrass rhythm of Get Back on the Train, which drifted into one of the show's few highlights a monumental and impassioned Maze. Page McConnell gave the song a jazz fusion element as he set it adrift on a sea of swirling organ. Guitarist Trey Anastasio carried the tune further into the cosmos with a soaring solo before gently guiding it back into its labyrinthine chorus.

The band managed to accomplish a little more during the course of their second set, though a general sense of apathy continued to plague their material. Only Possum and David Bowie succeeded in ascending above the mediocrity that has become more the norm than the exception, and neither did so without a modest struggle.

It wasn't until the encore that the band really showed any real sign of life, and they were no doubt spurred on by their special guests for the evening Sugar Blue and Son Seals. Both of the Chicago blues legends took a turn at the vocals, with Seals gruffly handling Funky Bitch and Sugar Blue dashing through Junior Wells' Messin' with the Kid with animated vigor. Seals' staccato guitar solos played perfectly off the more mellow-edged tones of Anastasio, and McConnell wrapped the songs in a loose fervor of pulsating keyboards. Sugar Blue topped everything off nicely with his frenetic, rampaging harp playing and dizzying energy.

In the end, Phish was ultimately upstaged by their guests, who displayed more passion in two songs than the band had in two sets. With the help of Seals and Sugar Blue, the band finally seemed to find some sense of purpose and destination for the music they were creating. Unfortunately, it also helped to highlight the problem with many of Phish's performances. After all these years, they are still missing those overwhelming, emotional highs and lows that make a concert a life-affirming experience.

As for the newly refurbished Allstate Arena (formerly the Rosemont Horizon), it still needs a significant amount of work. The owners are boasting wider aisles and seats as well as improved acoustics, and none of these were in evidence at this show. Even the bathrooms were poorly designed causing traffic jams and lacking in the sanitary necessities of soap dispensers, paper towels, and hand dryers. The icing on the cake was the parking situation. Though security wanted everyone to leave the premises immediately, they made this virtually impossibly by foolishly stacking cars so close to one another that it prohibited any form of simple evacuation from the lot.

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Copyright 1999 The Music Box