My phirst time

Trey Anastasio might be the world’s greatest hypnotist.

It takes talent to put just one person under a spell. The power of suggestion can sometimes be enough for a stand-up hypnotist to control a small stage full of people. Anastasio can capture the minds of tens of thousands of people at once, and he only needs a guitar to do it.

It’s impossible to understand a Phish concert unless you’ve stood in the sweating, writhing throngs and experienced it yourself. Up until last night, I’d seen Phish videos and listened to more than a few shows from all over the world. I knew I liked the band and would dig it. Then I stepped into the Asheville Civic Center.

We stood ten feet in front of the sound board. The room went black, the temperature rose by ten degrees, and something happened. It took me more than four hours to figure out a way to explain it.

In the meantime, I tracked giant balloons across a ceilinged sky. I watched four men in their forties drive past the description of “rock star” and into one that is impossible to define. It was akin to some Southern Pentecostal church service done to an extreme such that the religious snake handlers would happily and reverently step aside. Some people might even call it a giant cult, except Trey Anastasio is no Jim Jones and the only Kool-Aid anyone is considering is something Tom Wolfe might have written about.

During the first set, I watched the red haired hypnotist force thousands of people to move. The upper deck was one giant mass of movement, like a hive of bees with four-chambered hearts. The closer I looked, though, it wasn’t like bees. The dancing, jumping, and swaying all worked as one, like a single-celled organism with a singular purpose. That was when I figured out Anastasio’s trick. It’s not that he is simultaneously hypnotizing thousands of people. Anastaso is hypnotizing one giant organism and doing it with such efficiency that it seems effortless. If he were evil, the world would be in trouble.

photo by Sandlin Gaither © Phish 2009 via phishfromtheroad

I thought if I figured out the magician’s trick, I might better understand what was happening to me. I might somehow figure out how–at 35 years old and seeing a band for the first time–I was experiencing something so completely foreign and different. I felt like a child who knew way too much at a way too early an age.

Listen, there are a lot of people who build things up to be a lot bigger than they are. Some people do it for profit, some people do it to feel a part of something greater. I told myself going into this show that I refused to come out as some Phish poser. That understood, somewhere in the middle of the second set, I got it. I had a way I could describe the experience to just about anybody.

The revelation hit me after T and I climbed up into the upper deck to watch the show from directly behind the drum kit. From our vantage point, we saw what the band saw. We saw the unmatchable light show from the show’s artificial starscape. The crowd–still moving as one–sat bathed in polka dots, green waves, or purple mist. Then, all at once, a giant flash of white–a blinding nuclear blast–lit the people at once and simultaneously with the band’s ear-piercing punctuation.

That was it. It was that moment–that one that happened more times than I could count–that let me explain it to my wife when I came home. It goes like this:

Imagine walking down the street. You’re happy. You’re listening to something nice on your iPod. You know exactly where you’re going and you don’t have a deadline. You’re content to know you will get there when you get there. Then, without warning, you experience a giant, bone-rattling orgasm.

That is the live Phish experience.


I benefited from a confluence of happy factors. I went with a great crew of longtime fans, including Pauly, The Joker, G-Rob, Ms. Beth, and T. The venue was one of, if not the most intimate on the tour (although still a pretty big show). The fans agreed the Asheville show was one of the best since the late 90s. So, I got pretty lucky, I guess.

Perhaps the only trouble to come out of the whole experience is that I can’t imagine it getting much better than that. After seeing the faces of people who have seen dozens and dozens of shows, I knew I’d witnessed something that was even special to them. This, my first live experience with the band, could very well be the best I ever have. I think of people whose first sex was the best they’d ever experience. Everything afterward stands to be a disappointment.

I guess it goes without saying that–at my advanced age and advanced responsibilities–I couldn’t be truly converted. If I had, I would be in the RV with the rest of last night’s crew as they sit in traffic waiting to get into tonight’s Knoxville show. And maybe that’s for the best. Maybe that was the best Phish will ever be for me.

But, you know, even if I knew sex wouldn’t ever get better, I probably wouldn’t stop having it. That is, maybe that mass hypnotism doesn’t stop when the encore ends. Maybe I’m still under Trey’s spell.

The ease of it is comforting. I don’t have to worry about coming off as a poser, because I don’t have to proselytize. It’s not an experience I can adequately share, so I’m not even going to try. And really, I don’t care if you like the band or not, because–unlike almost any band I’ve ever seen–it’s impossible to understand unless you see a show. What’s more, I’m not going to jump on the tail end of the bandwagon and declare Phish the best thing ever.

To be doubly trite, it simply is what it is, and you had to be there.

Fortunately, I was.


For more from our crew:

Coventry’s Phish Asheville review
Tao of Pauly
A few pre-show photos from T

Have fun at Bonnaroo, you miserable bastards.

Go check out all the great photos from phishfromtheroad

Brad Willis

Brad Willis is a writer based in Greenville, South Carolina. Willis spent a decade as an award-winning broadcast journalist. He has worked as a freelance writer, columnist, and professional blogger since 2005. He has also served as a commentator and guest on a wide variety of television, radio, and internet shows.

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10 Responses

  1. G-Rob says:

    I’m glad you had fun.

  2. gatorphish says:

    What? No mention of Leroy’s ribs. Great review. You nailed it.

  3. Joe says:

    as a long time fan (20 years), i know what i’m talking about. and your review was one of the most cogent descriptions of a show that i’ve ever read. i’m glad that you loved it and that you got it. welcome to the circus.

  4. IG says:

    Awesome write-up Otis you captured the magic of your first show and it osmosed to me. I’m looking forward to my first live Phish in August.

  5. Da Goddess says:

    Glad you had that experience. Whether Phish or any other band was responsible, it’s definitely the sort of experience everyone should have at least once.

  6. Garbiela says:

    I’m still laughing at my “phirst” time..very clever. I have yet to experience a Phish concert. yikes I wish i went to Bonnaroo!! You phish fans might appreciate this. I heard Fuse is airing a special on them tomorrow evening at 4pm! Live from the Clifford Ball! definitely going to tune in and see what songs they performed! see what channel you get Fuse on here..

  7. Lee Jones says:

    Now I’m wishing I paid that guy on Haywood Ave. $200 for a ticket. But I’m really glad you were there, Brad.

    Regards, Lee

  8. Kid Dynamite says:

    very well written, Otis

  9. jennifer mckelvey says:

    Nice! This is all too familiar to read, as it pretty much sums up my feelings when I saw Pink Floyd for the first time in 94′ at Death Valley.

  1. December 29, 2009

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