October 29, 2021

Pushing Forward: Phish Lights Up Eugene

Phish
Matthew Knight Arena, Eugene
October 19, 2021

The sense of kinship within the Phish fan base — that "we're in this together" feeling — had rarely felt so powerful. 

There was no avoiding the elephant in the room: Phish was performing their first show after the tragedy at their San Francisco concert two days earlier, where a fan plunged to his death from a Chase Center upper deck. And as this evening unfolded, the band seemed to be working through their grief onstage, balancing sadness with duty. 

Everyone's heard that "the show must go on," and "life goes on." Moving forward in this scenario, however, felt like a challenge to everyone in the room. The wound of what happened merely 48 hours earlier was still fresh, and looming like a shadow. Prior to the show, many fans criticized Phish online for not having made any statement, but during the first set, Trey Anastasio, clearly hurt and shaken, did address the incidents (two fans actually fell (separately), with one death and multiple injuries).

And so this Tuesday night in Oregon was weighted with emotion and a potential for serious catharsis. But it was also charged, in an almost electrical sense, with the pre-existing expectation among fans that this two-night Eugene stand, the first Phish stop here in 7 years, was going to be special. And this was a memorable Phish show, indeed  one of those nights where the band showcased a potent, sensational cross-section of everything they do well: lengthy jams (their opening salvo, "Down with Disease," was in fact the longest opening song in the band's history), multiple segues, stage lights-enhanced cosmic journeys, and song selections vintage and new. In sports, commentators talk about "statement wins"; this was a statement concert, and contained everything the gathered, roving faithful could hope for.

As Anastasio, Jon Fishman, Page McConnell and Mike Gordon took this Oregon stage, one had to wonder how they would work through the darkness that had visited them just two nights earlier in California. One clue arrived during "Down With Disease," as Anastasio sung: 

Trying to stop these demons that keep
Dancing in my head

These lyrics came off like an indirect nod to the mental illness that may have stricken the fallen Chase Center fan, about whom reports have indicated jumped intentionally. And the sheer length of this "Disease," with its winding-and-unraveling improvisation, suggested the band was negotiating their grief in real time, distracting themselves in a certain kind of way with meandering handiwork. 

Significantly, a more direct acknowledgement was to come: During "Rift" three songs later, McConnell's singing these lyrics felt so relevant and impactful, as they boldly confronted the tragedy, and summarized the "battle darkness with light" ethos Phish brought to this remarkable evening:

I struggled with destiny upon the ledge
And gasped when defeated he slipped off the edge

And silence contagious in moments like these
Consumed me and strengthened my will to appease

The passion that sparked me one terrible night
And shocked and persuaded my soul to ignite

This was Phish understanding the assignment — shocked, and persuaded to ignite souls. Faced with unthinkable bad fortune, a good-time party band recognized they still had a job to do. What choice did they have but to be resilient? Phish fans ought to feel quite proud of the band's grace, sensitivity and acknowledgments of the late Ryan Prosser and the additional injured persons on this night. 

What happened in Eugene, by any standard, was a real-time evolution of Phish and in so many ways, an emotional turning point that underscored the things humans should never take for granted: love, light, life, family, friends. Anastasio summed all this up so well during the encore of "Drift While You're Sleeping," singing these lines amid an arena full of folks singing them, too:

And we move through stormy weather
We know that our days are few

And we dream and we struggle together
And love will carry us through

And hey, if Phish also wants to churn out a face-melting, mind-bending "Also Sprach Zarathustra" (the theme from the film "2001: A Space Odyssey") and segue that into a knockout version of "Sigma Oasis," all the better. Passion, sparked. Souls, officially ignited.