Or, the only time I have ever enjoyed Ohio
I have been to Ohio a small handful of times in my life. Mostly just driving through. And been bored to tears every time.
Ohio is flat, and the turnpike takes forever. Just to cross Ohio costs around $50 in gas and tolls. Include food if you’re hungry, coffee if you’re tired, or cigarettes if you made that same bad choice that I made long ago, and you are now north of $85-$100. Just for the pleasure of driving through Ohio.
Don’t get me wrong, the Ohio Turnpike is a really nice highway to travel, when there isn’t construction cones and barrels as far as you can see, pushing you one way or the other, sometimes even all the way on the shoulder where you are gliding along the rumble strip for literally several miles, worrying about what this is doing to your suspension and wondering if your tires can take it. And the Ohio police are super friendly to people with license plates that are from another state. They take kindly to people that pay taxes to other states instead of contributing to their personal 401Ks. But, that is neither here nor there.
I didn’t expect to find myself traveling the Ohio Turnpike on a Friday afternoon, when I would normally be working. I mean, the plans were made several days before, but it was a spur of the moment decision. I was sitting at my favorite local Irish Pub with my special lady friend, and we were discussing what was going to happen over the next couple of weeks. Umphrey’s was playing in Indiana, and then in Michigan. There was Rivinia the following week. G. Love was playing Bell’s Brewery. What to do, what to do…
Except, it was my birthday weekend. And I haven’t seen Phish in forever. I saw Trey at SummerCamp last year, and that was cool, but…
So, what does she do? Gets out her fancy pocket computer and buys us tickets to Phish at Blossom Music Center in Ohio, that’s what. Happy birthday to me.
Pavilion was sold out, but she was able to secure lawn tickets. Thanks to Cash or Trade, I was able to secure seats in the pavilion by trading our tickets plus a few bucks. Worth it.
So worth it.
First, Blossom is an absolutely beautiful venue. I had never been there, and images from Google do not do any justice for the place. To understand how amazing that venue is, you have to be there. Anybody who has been there will tell you the same, with very little else to say about it.
Secondly, I picked a hell of a show for my first Phish show since 2009. It was a Friday night, the night after my birthday, but it felt like Throwback Thursday. This was a night of funk and improv, and reminded me of the first shows I had seen back in 1996 and ’97, when I was still too young to understand completely what was going on. Hell, back then I was just there for the jams.
So, let’s start at the beginning. The drive in to Blossom is absolutely amazing. After telling the Ohio Turnpike to fuck off, we arrived in Cuyahoga. Found a little place close to the hotel that had food, since we hadn’t eaten yet, and tossed back a couple Two-Hearteds (props to Bell’s). After that, it was a quick drive to the venue, where trees took over. If you look at an aerial view of Blossom, it looks as if it is situated in the middle of a forest. As if perhaps some elvish musicians, minstrels of some ancient race with an intense comprehension of the universe far beyond normal human understanding, built an amphitheater in this exact spot because they knew exactly how the trees would react to their music. And, once you are actually in Blossom, you are convinced of this.
Lot life was a little different. Instead of a couple large concrete slabs, sprawling all around the amphitheater with little to no foliage, as you might expect from visiting other venues, Blossom has many smaller lots, with trees and walking paths all over the place. With canopies set up near their vehicles, the residents of the lots made them seem more like a bunch of small campgrounds.
There was, of course, the usual hubbub. Things in glass being shared, sometimes liquid, sometimes not. People milling about, running into old friends and making new ones. Other, lesser-known musicians grooving together on instruments of various design. And, of course, lots and lots of smiling faces, the kind that you can only see when everyone is truly happy and looking forward to what is about to happen. Not like the ones you’d see at an ill-advised wedding, perhaps.
After hanging out in the lot for an hour or so, we made our way to the gate. Coming into the venue, over the bridge and up the hill, I finally saw the huge expanse of lawn that led down into the pavilion. And it was packed. I was in text message communication with the other party from Cash or Trade to make the swap for our pavilion tickets, but she hadn’t quite made it in yet. We milled about at the top of the lawn, making casual conversation with a few fellow music lovers, one of whom had brought along a special newcomer for his first show, his father.
Which shows an interesting side of this community. We have all made dozens, even hundreds, of friends, some closer than others, while at shows. But, for a young man (he was in his mid-twenties), who almost certainly had had some argument or other with his father about his life choices, to be able to bridge that gap by having a good time at a show with his father… well, that’s truly something special.
All of a sudden, we heard the crowd scream at the top of their lungs, which only meant that good things were about to start. I still hadn’t met up with my Cash or Trade friend, and was beginning to think that I wasn’t going to be able to get into the pavilion (by legitimate means, anyway), but I wasn’t about to let that ruin my night.
This show was part of the tour that followed Fare The Well and was leading up to Magnaball. They had been practicing live versions of some new material, which inevitably means that an album is forthcoming, but had been going through their old catalog somewhat extensively as well. Some I had spoken with were expressing concerns that they were going to take it easy for the rest of this tour, having started out so explosively and knowing that Magnaball was coming up. Either way, it was a Phish show, so it was still going to be good, right?
Every concern was unfounded. This show was truly a four-star rager.
They started out with “A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing”, that gritty, bluesy, melodic jam vehicle, which they took on with exuberant fervor, and which only meant that there were many promising things to come. And there was no disappointment to be had. After a quick trip through Fishman’s “My Sweet One”, you heard the absolutely unmistakable opening notes that ends up having the entire crowd screaming “WIIIIIIIILLLLLLSOOOOOOOON!” God damn it, I love that song.
This ended up being a show of mostly older material, and I wasn’t complaining. Like I said, it felt like Throwback Thursday, except this sure as fuck wasn’t Instagram. With only a couple of songs played that were written in the 3.0 era, or even in the current century for that matter, I almost felt 17 again.
Rather than bore you with a recap of the entire setlist, which you can find reviews of on Phish.net, or find the actual webcast on YouTube and form your own opinion, I will concentrate on the personal highlights of this night at Blossom. An insanely funky “Moma Dance” kept it going for me, although I felt it was a little short-lived. A “Roses Are Free”, followed by a shoutout to Ween and a plea for them to get back together. But, the real treat of the first set was that crunchy, tasty “Bathtub Gin”. Let it be known, this Gin was a monster. Maybe not of the Worcester variety, but they took the jam that ensued to levels that I think surprised even them, clocking in at just over 13 minutes, with most of that being just pure blissful musical exploration that slid seamlessly from the main feel of the song into an intense and epic sonic assault that had Page making it rain funk all over the stage. And, as the sun had finally gone down, Kuroda could finally get into his proper groove as the fifth member of this quartet.
Second set, as it usually is, was even better than first. From the “Chalkdust” opener into “Tweezer”, and then into “The Lizards”, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Everything was so tight all night long, with only a few flubs here and there that didn’t make a lick of difference. As I kept looking at my clock, my special lady friend asked why I was checking my phone so much. “They’ve been going at it for over half an hour!” I yelled, and went back to letting those closing reptilian notes wash over me. And, seemingly without stopping, they went right into “Makisupa”. I am still unconvinced that there was a break, which would put the first part of the second set at around 45 minutes of nonstop ear candy.
But, I think, even though it is a really tough distinction to make, my personal favorite of the night was “Harry Hood”. After a grimy “Ghost” led into those first notes from Cactus, I felt prickles. I knew this was going to be fire, and I was not let down. With a playful, uplifting, almost childlike melody building up slowly, it was definitely the one that touched me the most out of the entire evening at Blossom.
The entire show was amazing, from beginning to end. Sure, it might have been the fact that I was so stoked to see the boys after so long. Sure, it could have been the fact that the energy from the crowd was so high that it was inevitably infectious. Sure, it could have been the beauty of the venue. In fact, it was all of these things. But, let’s face it, Trey has been riding high since Fare the Well, and listening to any of the performances from this tour, from Bend to Watkins, it shows. He’s mesmerizing, and his influence over the rest of the band is evident. They feed off of him, and he feeds off of them. When he is on, everything just works. Page, where the magic always happens, is that much more magical. Fishman keeps driving the bus, sometimes harder and faster, other times slower and quieter, pushing them through valleys and over mountains. Mike, being the spine, stands up that much straighter, keeping the entire body solid, strong, and ready to fuck all of our faces. These boys lay down the perfect canvas for Trey, and when he is on point, there is nothing they can’t paint together. And for three hours, they threw down some of the sickest auditory graffiti that I have ever had the pleasure of hearing live.
It was a show that made me want to shirk all of my responsibilities and just head to Alpine Valley, not stopping until the train got to Watkins Glen. Alas, as I have grown older, I have obligations to fulfill and I had to return to the real world. But for a brief time, it was my pleasure to visit Ohio, words I never thought I would hear myself speak or see myself type. It was awfully nice to once again “hide in the herd, and float with the flock”.