Get Back On The Train To Bonnaroo, Part One

It's the day before Bonnaroo, but we've got a stop to make before that grand bacchanalia.

We loaded up Wednesday morning, set the GPS (convenient tech takes the ruggedness and romance out of this Road story already) for Thompson-Bolling Arena in Knoxville, TN. Acquired satellites calculated our ETA as Auspicious portents, considering we were on our way to my first experience of Phish 3.0.

News of their reunion made me (and many others) question if my motive for wanting to see them again was nostalgia and if I were capable of keeping an open mind after the sour taste 2.0 (after the hiatus and before the 'breakup') left on my musical/vibrational palate. Hearing the Hampton shows renewed my interest in giving them another chance, but I still didn't know what to expect overall. Expectation breeds disappointment, I've heard, so I learned as we went along to release it.

Example? At we were not raging in the University of Tennessee parking lot. We were crawling and coasting down a steep mountain road in a one-lane construction zone. Rain pouring, we watched out for brake lights, Falling Rocks and Flash Floods. What shuffles up on the iPod? "Foam". Great joke, Universe. It would all be so crystal clear, if it wasn't for the truck in front of us spraying plumes of water at us. I knew that meant Phish would play it that very night. Stick with me, ye of little faith.

We made it there safely and even found some people we know. Nostalgia check number one - what's the Lot scene like now? It looked and smelled the same. What I wanted was how it used to feel. For me, in Knoxville, before the show, it wasn't happening. Some say that's a good thing. We'll find out.

So as not to alienate the one person reading this who knows nothing about Phish, the band consists of Trey Anastasio (why he gotta' be first?) on guitar, Mike Gordon on bass, Page McConnell on keyboards and Jon Fishman on drums. They ruled the jamband scene for years before taking an untimely hiatus, returning in a less-than-illustrious fashion, 'breaking up', and returning again.

The diverse crowd - old phans, new phans, totally clueless fans - made a lot of noise to bring the boys out. Runaway Jim didn't take me with him, so I dissected the song fairly and objectively. They are definitely tighter. Page is twinklier. Mike slunks, warbles and thumps a good bit deeper. The sound and the lights are ON.

Punch You In The Eye sounded like three other songs before it actually started. Nostalgia check number two - would they tease, play with time, build anticipation? Oh, yes.

Anti-Nostalgia check -Did they have to do the Latin choreography for The Landlady part? Mike did not look like he was into it at all.

Ocelot, a new song, seemed like a personal invitation to me. If you know the lyrics you know what I mean which brings us to Nostalgia check number three - would they play the song that I needed at the perfect moment? Check.

Because guess what's next? Foam.  I acknowledged the synchronicity. The experience in the truck on the mountains made it anticlimactic.

Now we stoke some coal. My first live Train Song. It was a dry venue, so we couldn't "drink a little wine" but we yelled for that part anyways.

Undermind ducked right under my mind. Mike's Song - I Am Hydrogen - Weekapaug Groove had it's moments and I stress the SOUND is amazing whatever someone may think about the flow of the song choices. The Squirming Coil got away but I really didn't want it to. I felt like it was close to set break so I swayed my way up through the crowd that had moved from their seats to the stairs (learn the rules, hippies! I kid because I love) to the level where food and facilities would be. But I was taught a month ago to bide my time and take it slow. I stopped midway as Character Zero rocked everyone before we spilled out into the circular hall where people do their Business.

Set Break you see old friends. Nostalgia check number-I-forget-by-this-time - who else is still riding this Train? Some are no surprise. Some are surprising because you never thought they would make it this far. A guy I saw at Big Cypress is still having the same conversation about 'the Force' I had with him way back then. 1999, for the record.

I got to move to a spot on the floor through some ticket stub prestidigitation. The second set pulled out of the station.

Get Back On The Train. I most certainly did. Then Waves crashed what we all wanted to turn into a Tennessee hoe-down. Profound and timely as that song's lyrics can be it went into A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing, which brought us back for David Bowie. Nostalgia check number 23 - songs that used to be rare have been played more times since the reunion than during any two-year period I saw them in from '94-03. If you fact-check that you are waaay too into it.

Reba! Faster, a little more country, taut transitions and a jam (with no whistles?) that made us forget what song we were listening to - more of the good Nostalgia.

Hello My Baby. Really? The Nostalgia pendulum swings the other way. They could have done Row, Row, Row Your Boat barber-shop style instead of a song that's been beaten to death.  Julius was upbeat and gave me hope. Cavern reminds us to take care of our shoes but I can't tell if this is an intentional nod to a common/classic closer or if they're just lazy and then they bust into Harry Hood. A half-hearted glowstick war fizzled quickly but the lights cascading down the bleachers behind the stage (there's people up there!) sucked in everything that wasn't thrown back. YOU know what I mean.

They did the fake "We're leaving"-you-have-to-cheer-us-back-on thing. Mike pulled out a bass carved from flames and Page strapped on a key-tar (that's what I'm calling it). If not for these 'hair band' theatrics I would have written off the whole show because they played Frankenstein, fodder for too many Encores in the past. The key-tar sounded nasty enough to make up for it.

We made it out and sampled more of the 'scene'. Accepting the nitrous-huffing and the hustling is worth it when you get a beer when you want it and a grilled cheese when you need it. Nowness and Nostalgia are balanced.  

From a technical standpoint the show was amazing. It did feel, however, that they were playing it safe. Trey is supposed to mess up the words to Cavern. Yes, their 'job' is to put on the best live show possible and not to supply vibe junkies (like me) with ecstatic experiences or vary their song choice to throw off the stat geeks. They deliver on that account, but something, that magical thing was missing for me. At least at the Knoxville show.

Oh, but the Train doesn't stop there. Keep in mind we are on our way to Bonnaroo and we have Guest passes to The Bridge after-party at the World Grotto. The bossy GPS voice got us there smoothly. The Grotto ; descending the stairs flanked by sand-colored faux boulders is like entering the Earth's womb. Fossils and minerals are embedded in the bar, which faces a trickling waterfall.

The Bridge, from Baltimore, MD, was already bringing their brand of roots-jam-funk-bluegrass to a small yet receptive crowd. With a mandolin player (Kenny Liner) who beat-boxes and a bluesy guitarist (Cris Jacobs) who can make a pedal steel cry like a Nashville session player, The Bridge incorporates these eclectic elements into their own sound, rather than genre-jumping without rhyme or reason in the musically pedantic way some jambands do. I was impressed, even though I can't remember one song they played. They may have covered Phish's Lengthwise, but I think it was really the next band.

And I had no idea there was going to be a next band.

We were hanging out backstage with the fellows from The Bridge , thinking the night was winding down and that the guy and girl on the couch across from us were just two cool people playing around with a melodica.

As it turns out, to my surprise and delight, Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad was about to play a late-night set. Those folks just 'hanging out' were Rachel Orke (Rhodes, melodica) and Michael O'Brian (guitar, vocals). Giant Panda came on at around as the crowd  actually got bigger. Their reggae was tight and disciplined, with songs so honest and catchy that they could get pop radio airplay - until those thick dub explorations kick in. Reverberating snare hits, that spring-in-a-metal-tube sound, staccato organs that stab you with love before swirling up your spine; the magic, the vibe that I wanted - Dub Squad at The World Grotto is where I got it. Because or in spite of the fact I wasn't expecting it.

So, we called it a night and crashed at a motel in Knoxville. Tomorrow we head for Manchester. Join us on this pilgrimage to a field in Tennessee. I know how it all turned out. You'll just have to wait.

- By Larry Martin