Is front row for Phish worth the hassle?

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Is front row for Phish worth the hassle?

By Jarrett Bellini | @JarrettBellini | August 27, 2018

You know how people who love the band Phish never seem to shut up about them?

Yeah. I'm one of those people. And this is one of those moments. 

So indulge me.

Because, recently, Phish was in town for a three-night run in Alpharetta, Georgia. It's a suburb of Atlanta where young families move for "good schools" and (with the help of Tito's Vodkaritas at Chili's) to finally extinguish the smoldering embers of their once-vibrant sex lives. 

But it's pleasant. And nice. So I booked myself a room at the Fairfield Inn & Suites near Verizon Wireless Amphitheater. The plan was to (somewhat-responsibly) pollute my vital organs all weekend, but without having to drive 30 miles to and from home each day. 

The conversation went like this:

Me: "Shut up, liver."
My liver: "I didn't even say anything."

Friday and Saturday I was joined by friends. Good company. Covered seats. Comfortable. Plenty of room. Fantastic shows!

And my consumption was morally acceptable by most standards. So long as your standard allows for peeing on a bush when walking back to the Fairfield. 

Say what you want, but the bush was totally into it. Like REALLY into it. Trump with a Russian hooker into it.

On the third night - my 30th show - I went alone. By choice. I just wanted to commemorate this (rather arbitrary and comparatively unimpressive) achievement by having a more personal experience. 

And a sober one.

Free and right-minded, I wouldn't have to worry about anyone but me. And, could, therefore, peacefully endure the slow, boring process of trying to get front row for Phish for the first time. 

And I did.

Here's how it worked. And why I'll never do it again.

Like a true rock-and-roll badass, I pre-gamed the show with a quiet table for one at PF Chang's. Sesame chicken, some pot-stickers, and a ginger ale. Woop! Woop!

After that, I was in my car and waiting outside the parking lot, ready for the gates to swing open at precisely 5pm. I was one of the first fans to drive into Lot A. The fun lot. Where, on this night, I would forego any actual fun. 

I parked and, like a motorist who had been holding a poo since Cincinnati, walked a fast and direct line to the main entrance where a handful of other overachievers were already waiting patiently to accomplish the same goal. We made small talk.

"Phish, am I right?"
"Yeah, man. Phish."

The doors were scheduled to open at 6:30pm. And I was standing first in my respective line. But I wasn't REALLY first ... or second ... or ninety-ninth. Because there's a catch: The special people.

So, apparently, a little earlier in the day (at a designated time) you can actually show up at the entrance to partake in some sort of lottery system. From this, if you're among the lucky 100 or 200 or whatever, you get a special, sequentially numbered early-entry wristband. 

It's kind of like flying Southwest. But instead of sitting next to somebody's emotional support dog, you get to spend the next five hours up front with Jenny and her gross white-girl dreads. 

So, it's kind of the same.

I'm still not 100% sure how it works, but I've just described the basic idea. Give or take a fact or two. Whatever. Truth isn't truth. 

But those with the Willy Wonka wristband got to enter the venue about 15-minutes before the rest of us who were standing in the loser line. I'm assuming this limited lottery system is done for matters of safety. Perhaps the idea is to let a controlled handful of people get front and center in a somewhat orderly fashion, thus preemptively staving off an elbow-swinging stampede from the proletariat.

It sort of makes sense. I guess. 

At 6:30pm the venue finally opened for gen-pop, and it was a polite speed-walking competition to the next road block in the process. The line for a pit wristband.

Before entering the orchestra - the pit - they check your ticket again to make sure you have the right one. Some nice person with authority marks your stub so it can't be used again, and then gives you a wristband (a second one, now, for the special people) which allows you to sally forth into this uncharted land to plant your proverbial flag.

I promptly claimed two square feet at the front. Audience left. Stage right. Or as we say in Phish-landia: Page Side. 

Page McConnell is the keyboard player. He has nice shirts and likes sandwiches.

Speaking of shirts, I was wearing my brightest (most horrifically ugly) orange Phoenix Suns shirt so I could maybe spot myself in photos or on the webcast.

Which was pointless.

You won't find me. I'm short. And was too far off-center. Though, my hat did make a least one cameo.

Far from center as I may have been, I was still on the rail. Front row for Phish ... where I quickly learned that über-fans become somewhat territorial.

"Excuse me, but that's our spot."
"What do you mean? There was literally nobody here. It's empty."
"Yeah, but we need that room for dancing."

Jesus Christ. 

I kept the spot.

"You'll be fine," I replied back.

And we were. All of us. Because of course we were.

At this point it's nearing 6:45pm. The band would go on shortly after 8pm. So, I still had a good hour and fifteen minutes to entertain myself. Which was easy.

I'm basically a child. 

And I'm also a nerd for logistics. I genuinely enjoy seeing how events come together, witnessing what all the people with CREW badges actually do. The little things. Running wires. Adjusting lights. Tuning instruments. And from this vantage point I could see it all.

For instance, I never realized that somebody tapes the venue's curfew time to the floor. It's nothing to get excited about. But I was.

When the show finally started, things blasted off with a really fun cover of "You Sexy Thing" by Hot Chocolate. And it was completely infectious to be this close to the band, seeing their smiles as they clearly enjoyed their own ridiculousness. 

But, beyond that initial excitement, the right-up-front experience was nothing noteworthy. I'm sure it's much better when you get closer to center. Obviously. But I was near enough to get the basic feel.

And it's ... fine. 

The sound is better than I expected, and you're a little closer to the band. But it's not life changing. 

Again, what I enjoyed was the logistics. Now, as they pertained to the band. Trying to lip-read Trey as he mouthed his choice for next song to Page, before turning to Jon, who then relayed it to Mike.

At one point I remember thinking, "He definitely just said 'Fuego.'"

And then they played 'Fuego.'

Which is wildly uninteresting. Unless you are me.

I mean ... it's kinda fun. And there are little details you don't normally get to enjoy from further back. Like the wood grain of Trey's guitar. Or a glimpse of the rotation from his Leslie speaker. Or, from my positioning, Page's feet.

What? We all have our fetishes.

At the tail end of the show, I finally decided to bid farewell to the rail and venture back into a seat. Read: Somebody's seat. Nobody really sits where they're supposed to.

I was ready for a breather, and I also wanted to compare the experience. 

And I have to say. I think I like the seats better. Or at least being somewhat away from the stage.

Besides the obvious advantage of having a place for your butt during set break, I found the sound to be just as good. And the personal space to be slightly more in line with Delta Comfort+.

But the real advantage is being able to enjoy a wider view of the overall experience. Seeing the stage as a whole. And, just as importantly, the audience as an extension of the band. Because the lights don't end at the mic stands. And the energy cascades outward like a wave.

You don't see all that from up front.

To allow these qualities to come together amidst the music is, for me, the heart of the experience. And the best seat (or standing spot) in the house, is probably somewhere in the middle near the soundboard.

Really, though, it doesn't matter. Just go. And take it all in.

Because that is the beauty of Phish. It's a band. It's a light show. It's a gathering. And a good performance is a perfect culmination of all these elements. 

Plus the parking lot. 

I can say, now, without reservation, that I would much rather walk up and down Shakedown Street, looking at t-shirts, amusing at the guy trying to sell me rocks (MINERALS!), and basking in the aroma of questionably-sanitary veggie burritos than I would foregoing all that to wait in line just to ride the rail.

But that's just me. Either way it's going to be great.

Phish, am I right?


Jarrett Bellini said...

* Just a quick note for those who are completely confused as to why somebody would even go see the same band three nights in a row ... because a lot of people tend to ask.

The answer is simple. Every show is different.

Each night, Phish plays roughly two hours and forty-five minutes. And that's for only about 18 songs. Which comes out to something like nine minutes per song. Give or take.

No hits. Just whatever the band feels like playing.

The best example of the musical diversity of Phish came last year when they played a 13-night residency at New York City's Madison Square Garden. They called it the "Baker's Dozen," and throughout that run the band didn't repeat a single song. In fact, they played 237 different tunes amounting to nearly 35 unique hours of combined, unscripted insanity.

Thus, I was all in for just three nights of the same in Alpharetta.

Unknown said...

Nice review. I've never really had the desire to spend the time to get right up front, and I agree that you're missing a lot if you're in the very front row, the crowd, the lights, etc. Will be at Dick's for the run this weekend, most likely way back on the field.

Max Powers said...

Agree completely. Would much rather be in the back

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