Tales of Mental Tangle: Webcasts

The Skinny

The announcement of Phish’s webcast being brought back for the two-night Tahoe run has unleashed a heated debate within the Phish community.  While some are thrilled to have another opportunity to see the frantic four in their living rooms this summer, others feel that the band plays far better without the added pressure of entertaining fans seated at home in their underwear.  We at OPT like our debates the same way we like our guitarist’ hair–red hot.  That’s why we brought the esteemed Eric Wyman in to throw down with our own Zim in an epic battle of webcast worthiness!

The Mental Tanglers
Zim is best known for his Thought Out on the Page column that can be found right here on OPT.  While Zim is a Northeast phan at heart, he is currently enjoying the band from the West Coast after recently moving to LA.  Zim is an important asset to OPT as he not only works on his own column but also Phish-related news and reviews from time to time.

Eric Wyman is a staff member at Phish Net and is a frequent contributor to Hidden Track and TypeIICast. He lives in New Hampshire with his wife and two sons where he think Jennifer Dances is an amazing treasure and Possum should go on hiatus.


When I first heard about the webcast for Tahoe, I’ll admit I was pissed. For months I’d been geeked about these two shows nearly as much as I am for the Hollywood Bowl (which is saying something). Intimate confines, an enchanted lakeside view, a resort-like atmosphere and a casino taboot–I was drooling . The webcast, me of two days ago thought, could very well shatter that spell of specialness that I was anticipating with the blunt hammer of Alpharetta-like mediocrity. Somehow, I wasn’t as excited anymore.

My grandmother had a word for the way I was feeling two days ago–douche bag. She was a salty old gal. Wishing to deprive others of an experience because it may indirectly lower the value of your own experience is a sentiment to be shared by monarchs and landed gentry, not by Phish fans. There are few rules to this whole fan thing, but the one I think we should all be able to agree on is that more Phish is always better than less.

But what about the deeper argument, that the band’s playing, or more pointedly Trey’s playing, is affected by all those extra eyeballs? This does, at first glance, appear to make logical sense. SobrieTrey has been noticeably tighter and more anxious at times than in past years. He’s been known to be, as the song says, “a bag of nerves on first nights”.  Just look at Alpharetta: Those shows featured more abortions than the first Sunday after prom. Not to mention, Alpharetta also had strikingly similar circumstances to Tahoe–two night run, small venue, highly anticipated “destination show” and early sell outs. This all added up to huge disappointment.

But can we really blame the webcast? I say no. The only real trend that has followed each tour of Phish 3.0 is that past behavior does not in any way dictate future behavior.   Anytime someone tries to point to a specific pattern, like Phish plays better in remote settings with small venues, a Telluride pops up to throw everything out of whack again. I guess what I’m saying is Tahoe might be great or it might be less-than-great, but either way the webcasts will have nothing to do with it. Your move Eric.

Way back in 2010, Phish (read: Trey) spent an entire tour learning and practicing a song so that they could play this song as the punchline of a joke. A minuscule detail that could just have easily been covered quickly in the rehearsal room. In 1998 the band would whip out brand new covers on a nightly basis. But that was then. Gone are the days of hey-hole jams that wander through improvisation as science. Gone are the days of pressing on through stagnant sections to find amazing new territory. Now it’s all about planning. From the tour to the webcast to the songs there is an air of let’s lay down the lay before we go out there that permeates every facet of the presentation. But underneath it all is an primal emotion that Trey can’t shake…he wants EVERYONE to have a good time. When things aren’t progressing, next song. When a song misses, skip that one next time. Thousands of eyes, peering with judging gaze and now he’s got to entertain someone in their living room? It would affect you too.

It’s not that I disagree about Trey’s tightness–although it is interesting that he chose the word “loose” to describe the band in the Rolling Stones interview–I just don’t think we have any way of knowing what causes it. Let us not forget that Trey is a rock star. Sure he’s different from most rock stars, he’s our rock star, but, as this video of Trey proposistioning wome in the audience shows, he is most definitely a rock star (1:20 mark of video below). I honestly believe there are more pressing issues weighing on him than the audience and the cameras.

According to zzyzx, the band has played 1376 shows to this point. That’s about 5,000 hours on stage, not including solo projects and soundchecks. You do anything for 5,000 hours and it becomes, not just second nature, but a part of you. I think we’re perhaps underselling one of the most successful touring artists of all time to suggest something like a webcast could throw him off his game.

Not to mention the fact that this band is very used to having cameras fixed on them constantly. They’ve been doing it, at a professional level, since Clifford Ball. Do you really think Trey is looking at those same cameras and thinking he’d better play even tighter than usual because this time people are streaming the shows live as opposed to watching the clips on vimeo the following morning? Would such a difference really disturb a person who has spent his whole adult life entertaining people on stage?

The last point I’ll make, before throwing it back to you, is that while the evidence on your side is pretty thin–the two shows at Alpharetta–there is plenty of evidence on my side to suggest webcasts make no difference. First there’s MSG, which featured arguably two of the ten best sets in 3.0. Then there’s the earlier webcasts in the band’s career, which are admitedly hit-or-miss but feature one of the greatest of the great summer ’98 shows (the aforementioned 8/1/98). Finally, there’s all the audio streams, most recently Super Ball IX. Why should a video stream effect the band’s playing but not audio? Trey doesn’t care how he looks, he cares about how he sounds.  What say you, phanner?

That particular rock star you cite is no longer here. He is still a superstar, but one with faults and flaws and insecurities. The audience that stares back at him may drive his process in far different ways than it did back in those days.

There’s not a large sample size when it comes to webcasts, period. But, what there is tremendous history on is the effect that intimate surroundings has on a show. Throughout the band’s history amazing things happen in quiet places. Bomb Factory, E Center, Municipal Auditorium, even Augusta and Manchester last fall. Sure MSG was good for 3.0, but even it’s highlights lacked the real punch of yesteryear. Each of the shows listed here are examples of under the radar dates with no bright lights and the band has always shown that they play best when completely relaxed. The webcast and everything that accompanies it is the epitome of relaxed.

Zim’s conclusion
I’d argue that the Big Show highlights over the band’s career are just as impressive as the one you mentioned, but that’s best saved for another debate. And I won’t disagree with your psycho-analysis of Trey. But I’ll just wrap up my side by reiterating that we, as fans, know far less about the four members of Phish than we like to think we do. This has always been true but it is exponentially moreso these days. Trying to predict what will happen with Phish today is a fool’s game. Better to just wipe your mind from one show to the next and hope for the best.

Eric’s conclusion

When Phish has a “big show” and it’s live on a webcast I’ll concede the point, but until then I’ll maintain that when you go through the list of shows that have been webcast they are overwhelmingly sub-par shows.

But they’re fantastic, they’re great for fans who can’t be in attendance. They should keep doing them. If only to fuel future blog posts laced with unjust criticism on how webcasts ruin shows.

Does webcasting a show affect its quality?

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