Heat and pandemic be damned, Phish offered a ‘temporary reprieve from gravity’ at the Walmart AMP last night

Heat and pandemic be damned, Phish offered a ‘temporary reprieve from gravity’ at the Walmart AMP last night

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It was hot and sticky when Phish took the stage last night at the Walmart AMP in Rogers. I had been doing my best not to check the weather, fearing that a concrete number put to the heat would make it worse somehow. I’d had tickets to see Phish since February of 2020, and I was determined to make it — heat and pandemic be damned.

How to describe a Phish concert to those who haven’t attended one? Well, the best approach is not to explain at all, but to drag your friends or readers through the gates and let them experience it for themselves. 

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But the tour has packed up and moved on down the road by now, so perhaps this brief primer can suffice. Phish is known for teasing out a three-minute composition into an improvised jam that may run longer than your standard sitcom. They have not repeated a single setlist in their 30-odd years of touring, including even their residency at Madison Square Garden in 2017 when they managed to play 13 shows in just over two weeks without repeating a single song. They have inherited some features from the Grateful Dead, touring without an opening act, playing for some three and a half hours with an intermission and encore, and bringing with them a scene of camp followers who post up in the parking lot to sling grilled cheese sandwiches, tour gear and a range of other legally dubious consumables. (“My God, it’s a stoner Diagon Alley,” a friend of mine said when he toured the lot scene for the first time.)

It was the band’s first ever date in Arkansas, which to people like me felt like a kind of personal validation. And it was the band’s first public show since closing out a short run in Mexico in February of 2020. Expectations were running, ah, high among those I met in the queue at the gates and inside on the lawn. The majority of the people I spoke to had come from out of state — principally from Colorado and California. Everyone was very excited for things to begin. Reader: I cried when I heard the band fire off the first notes of their late afternoon soundcheck.  

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Approaching the day of the show, and then approaching the parking lot itself, I felt some ambivalence and even outright irresponsibility about attending. A capacity crowd in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic? Outdoors or no, it’s a shady proposition. Processing those feelings, I came to some empathy for those who just haven’t been able to say “no” to a face-to-face church service or to attending a basketball game — the types of things that my family and I have basically foregone for the past 16 months. Attending a sold-out concert is completely incongruous to the wariness I’ve been exercising, and it gives me some remorse about the judgment I’ve cast on others who maybe see, with total sincerity, certain events as imperatives for a good life. There is a certain desperation that I can empathize with now, is what I’m trying to say.

And the show itself? I find that there’s something completely absurd about writing about music. The word is just incommensurable to music, as Phish often demonstrates with nonsensical lyrics that provide more room for attention to their instruments. The gap between the word and music widens, perhaps, with live performances and with music that one particularly loves. So what to say? I might observe that “Free” is in the key of D. I could recap the setlist, noting personal highlights such as the “Runaway Jim” that melded into “Weekapaug Groove” and back. I might observe that at the AMP Phish played “Down with Disease” for around 15 minutes. The fan-sourced reviews on Phish.net revel in those kinds of reviews, and a range of metrics stuff. 

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But what does any of that mean?

When the band emerged from backstage, I was on the lawn with some of my best people. We danced a bit. We refilled our water bottles frequently. The sets felt like they ran a little shorter than usual, and the jams sounded a little tentative. One had the sense that the band was still gathering itself, even though the music was tight and energetic. 

The closer for the first was a newish number, “Drift While You’re Sleeping.” It’s part of an album that the band’s frontman, Trey Anastasio, wrote after a dear friend had died. I was struck last night by a pair of lyrics: “So I guess that the good times turned out to be/Just a temporary reprieve from gravity.” Last night felt a lot like living in that reprieve.

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