Tales of Mental Tangle: Signs

The Skinny
Song-request signs have been part of Phish concerts ever since the band outgrew venues where you could just tell them what you wanted to hear. And the band has a history of honoring these requests, as at 12/14/95, when they closed out that historic show with Bold As Love because a fan had a sign for it. But as Trey said to a guy holding a sign for a different song, “We can’t play every sign.”

In the last year, the double-edged sword of honoring sign requests has been unsheathed: honor one sign, and ten fans will make their own signs in the hope that you’ll honor theirs, too. From the Stage Banter sign that led to Trey’s introduction of the Ocedoc at the Greek last year, to the Manteca sign at MSG, to the several signs Trey held up this summer, the band has been providing all kinds of positive reinforcement to sign holders.

What are the implications of this? Are signs a purely good thing for the Phish experience? What could go wrong? We decided to give these questions the Tales of Mental Tangle treatment. Read on, then vote in our poll and add your own thoughts.

The Mental Tanglers
Arguing in favor of signs: The Relentless Communicator, Aaron Hawley. Aaron has never held a sign up himself, but has enjoyed the work of others. He is also said to be a secret lover of Ace of Base’s classic, “The Sign.”

Arguing in the negative: Guy Forget. I’m the guy that held up the Jennifer Dances sign, which Trey took from me and held up for the crowd, at Darien Lake Performing Arts Center this summer.


Guy Forget
Guy ForgetHow is it that the guy with the first sign Trey took from an audience member this summer–arguably one of the people who bears the most responsibility for any negative sign-induced moments that might come to pass–can have the gall to suggest that fans should take it easy with the signs? Simple: pure, blatant, unabashed hypocrisy.

But my hypocrisy comes from a place of real concern, both for the fans and the band. As I see it, there are a couple main issues. Most importantly, the messages on the signs. They’re fine when they’re songs: I don’t care if you’re a vet who’s been chasing Highway to Hell or a newb who’s jonesing for your first Possum; you have a right to wish for what you want. They’re fine when they’re benign messages, like the famous “Thank you” sign from Cypress, or the “Stage banter” sign that @TweeterReprise rocked (and Trey honored) at the Greek last year. But as the many glowsticks that have been pegged at the band prove, some fans would rather ruin the groove than share in it. And while a glowstick won’t do any real damage, I believe that a “Poor Sue” sign — which has been suggested on Phantasy Tour as a reference to Trey’s rumored marital transgressions — would.

A less major, but still important point, has to do with visibility. This video says it all. Put simply, I pay $70 to see the band, not the back of your sign.

So there you have it. I feel a bit like Einstein, who paved the way for harnessing nuclear energy before decrying its weaponization. Which leaves just one question: when am I getting my Nobel for my Jennifer Dances sign?

Aaron Hawley
Signs, signs, everywhere there’s signs… and it’s a damn good thing too! Look, some of the complaints about signs are justified…. until you watch a whole show and realize that the signs hardly come out in the course of a three hour show. Your YouTube link would serve to back up your point… if the band had been playing. Honestly, if someone is complaining that their view of the walk-on was obstructed, then that person just needs to loosen up a little bit. Almost all of these signs get lowered the second the band starts playing, so the idea of “signs blocking the show” is a little bit of a hypothetical situation. The truth is, as with anything that anyone might do at a Phish show, from smoking to singing to talking to texting to hooping or hollering, it has to be done with respect for the folks around you. That said, I don’t consider your aisle-mate asking you to move slightly so they can go get a beer to be a gross violation of your space, so I don’t think you holding a sign for the first ninety seconds of a show should be considered a violation of theirs.

It amazes me there’s any backlash to signs at all, because, to be honest, this is what makes Phish great. If you think Phish is the best band on the planet because of the songs, you’re wrong. If you think Phish is the best band on the planet because of the jams, you’re wrong again. If you think Phish is the best band on the planet because they have a drummer in a dress who plays the vacuum, you’re wrong for a third time. Phish is the best band on the planet because of the connection they have with their fans. Face it, the band just isn’t that special and neither are the fans. However, when the two connect, there’s a circuit created that crackles with energy. The band and the fans respond to each other, and that’s where the magic happens. So that’s why you won’t find me decrying anything that strengthens that bond between band and audience, because when I go to a show, that’s what I’m really going to see.

Finally, the signs have a positive effect on both the band and the audience. For the audience, they feel like they’re a bigger part of the show than ever. Just reading one woman’s birthday experience at Portsmouth is evidence of that. Additionally, it benefits the band. While Phish has very few weaknesses, one of their mortal failings is the sometimes falling into a rut, song-selection wise. We all know that they have their old standbys that they fall back on, and signs help combat that. Would you rather see a Buried Alive or Nellie Kane opener over another AC/DC Bag? Make a sign. They just might play it.

Guy ForgetI see your point about the lowering of signs once the show starts. It’s not as if your show is going to be ruined just because the rest of the audience found out what shirt Page was wearing a few seconds before you. On the other hand, I think of a fan seeing his or her first show, with boundless excitement, and their first moment with the band is obstructed by the back of a sign. It’s not a tragedy, but it’s a shame.

But your broader point, I think, is extremely important: that we all have a responsibility to keep our neighbors in mind and avoid doing anything–whether it’s shouting “Maze” over and over during Lifeboy, shining a laser pointer in someone’s eye, or opting to relieve yourself on the guy in front of you so you don’t have to spend a couple minutes of Bowie in the bathroom. And for sure, common sense is the guide of what’s respectful and what’s not.

The trouble is that some Phish fans out there are a little lacking in the common sense department. And while I agree with you that the energy between the band and fans is a huge part of what makes the Phish experience so great, superempowered fans do have the ability to upset that energy. In December of 2005, someone threw a cup at Trey in San Francisco, and he cursed the guy out. (Actually, he cursed the guy next to him out, then realized his mistake.) I wasn’t at the show, so I can’t speak to the energy in the room before that incident, but I have a good feeling about what it was like after. I don’t want anything like that to happen at a Phish show. And when a wave like this builds, and some of the less upright fans are riding it, the whole thing can come crashing down in an instant.

I’m with you 100% on how great the sign thing has been so far. I thought picking show openers based on signs was awesome. The Manteca?/Manteca! sign at MSG was one of the coolest things I’ve seen a group of fans pull off. And having Trey hold up my Jennifer Dances sign and pump his fist is a moment I’ll never forget. I’m just worried about what could happen. Look, I’m not going to try to tell people how to have fun. I’m just trying to say, make sure you keep it fun for everyone.

See, I just don’t see any threat by the proliferation of signs. The people who complain about them blocking their view need to loosen up. I mean, these folks are almost entirely in the pit sections up front. They have the best view in the house for the whole show, and I’m supposed to think that their show is ruined when a guy holds a sign up for ninety seconds before Trey’s even plugged in? Please. Besides, those same fans have a right to politely ask the folks in front of them to move to the aisle with their sign. Before they do that, one can only assume that they’re as crazy about signs as everyone else.

You ask about that kid who is at their first show who really wanted to see the walk on, saying his experience is being diminished. As if that same kid wouldn’t trade that for a unique once in a lifetime moment when the band picks the song being held up on the sign next to him. Trey’s reaching into the crowd to pick a sign and then revealing the sign like some whacked out gameshow host was one of the highlights of the Merriweather run. I’m encouraging signs because it makes the band better. Remember the “IPod Show” from Star Lake in 2003? That show was a well needed infusion of tunes the band had been ignoring all year. That show was needed desperately, at the time. Now, the phans keep the band on their toes by requesting the tunes they want to hear that the band may have forgotten. Unlike glowsticks, hula hoops, excessive singing, clapping, smoking or texting, phans’ obsession with signs actively makes the band better. You can’t say that about most things.

I agree, obviously, that all behavior at a Phish show (or, hell, any public place) shouldn’t infringe on the enjoyment of those around you. What I vehemently disagree with is the idea that this could get out of hand. There won’t ever be a Phish show where 100% of the crowd shows up with signs in tow. Won’t happen. Until then, I think we should stop worrying and learn to embrace the sign. Want people to stop bringing signs? Slap that message on some posterboard and bring it to the show, maybe the band will pick yours.

What are your feelings on signs?

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