How I spent my summer vacation: Catching a lot of Phish, concerts - The Buffalo News
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How I spent my summer vacation: Catching a lot of Phish, concerts

Theoretically, when you go on vacation, you’re supposed to take the opportunity to do some of the things you can’t do when you’re working all the time. You’re not supposed to do the same things you do for a living, minus the paycheck.

This is a lesson I have, to date, failed to learn. And the odds are strongly against me ever learning it. I’m kinda stubborn that way.

So I spent the days between July 3 and 21 not on a beach in some lovely tropical clime, not hiking in the Adirondacks, not even taking the oft-delayed trip to Ireland I’ve been promising myself ever since I was old enough to understand that I come from Irish ancestry.

Nope. I went to concerts, mostly in the immediate area. And even though this is ostensibly what I do for a living when I’m not on vacation, I found the whole experience rather liberating.

Why? Well, for one, this is what I love to do, and have loved to do since I saw my first concert as a barely-teen. (That would be Rush at the Palace Theatre in Albany, on Jan. 22, 1980, when I was 13, if you’re at all curious.)

More specifically, there is a distinct difference between going to a concert for pure pleasure, and going to a show with a critic’s hat on, the black cloud of looming deadlines and potential remote equipment failures ever threatening to blot out the sun. It’s still fun, still exhilarating, still feels significant to me. But it’s work, by definition. Watching a show without feeling the demand to Tweet minutiae as the concert proceeds strikes me as a huge relief these days. It allows one to focus on the music.

So I planned my vacation around shows I wanted to take in purely for the pleasure. I’ve always said that, if the day ever comes when I no longer feel the thrill of it all – no longer feel that tingle of excitement when I walk into a venue before the show starts; no longer crane my neck to see the equipment being set up on the stage; no longer experience that rush of euphoria as the lights go down and the band ambles onto the boards– then I should hang it up and find something else to do.

My experience during my vacation proved to me that such a day remains in the far distant future. I still love it, more than anything aside from my family.

First up: Three nights of Phish at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. I spent my teen years in that area, worked at SPAC during the summers through my college years, and took in some game-changing concerts at the beautiful partially covered amphitheater located in a bucolic state park minutes from downtown Saratoga. The place feels like home to me. I brought my son along for his first Phish show, (he loved it) and met family and friends in town. Saratoga, naturally, had been taken over by fans of the band, who had traveled from all over the country for the three-night run, which was a sell-out. It looked, felt and smelled like the circus had come to town.

Phish killed it, too. The first night at SPAC was the second date of the band’s summer tour, behind the outstanding just released “Fuego” album. By the end of the three-night SPAC run, all the cobwebs had been shaken off, and Phish was playing better than it has played since the late 1990s. Interestingly, this band has spent the last 25 years flying beneath the radar while simultaneously commanding one of the largest live followings in the business. Watching the quartet at SPAC, it was easy to understand why. Phish is a singular band. Fans of music with a strong improvisational element should find the group’s marriage of funk, progressive rock, fusion, pop, Latin themes, Zappa-esque complexity, the grooves of Little Feat and Talking Heads, and that transcendent quality that can occur when deeply talented musicians subvert their individual egos for the collective good should find the band impossible to resist. For my money, there is no finer band currently touring. There is certainly no braver one.

Back home. I caught Music is Art’s Battle of the High School Bands at the Buffalo Iron Works, and was duly impressed with all the performers. Kids from area high school formed bands of widely divergent stylistic natures – there was modern alternative pop, heavy metal, funk and fusion, old-timey country, classic rock, prog rock and punk-pop on display. The winner was an uber-tight band representing St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute and Grand Island high schools, the Blink 182/Green Day-inspired Worse Than Yesterday. Runners-up Diamond Revolver (classic rock) and Frozen Funk (jazz-funk fusion) will join Worse Than Yesterday as performers at this year’s Music is Art Festival in September.

I managed to catch another Battle of the Bands on my break, this one taking place at Canalside, with a host of alternative rock bands competing for the opportunity to open for Girl Talk at Canalside later in the summer. This one came down to a tie-breaker, with the David Nolf Band and CrashFuse duking it out in a “sudden death” situation. CrashFuse won, but for the first time in Canalside’s “Battle of the Bands” series, the runner-up also won a prize: The David Nolf Band was awarded a slot at this year’s Music is Art Festival.

Hope for the future is a rare and precious commodity these days, but all the bands at these two battles offered me plenty. They seemed to have both a sense of history and a desire to forge something new for their own generation, in the process putting the lie to the oft-repeated curmudgeonly notion that “kids today missed out on all the good music.” Such a notion makes for good bumper sticker fodder, but happily, reality does not back it up.

I wasn’t finished yet, naturally. Boston at Artpark proved to be a rather stunning show, immaculately performed and well-received by a full house.

Having been blown away by Phish at SPAC, I traveled to Canandaigua to catch the band’s performance at CMAC, and was once again floored. I sat alone and fully immersed myself in twin sets totaling more than three hours of music. It took me a few days afterward to wipe the smile from my face.

It’s often said that a man for whom work and pleasure are one and the same is the luckiest of men. My vacation made me feel pretty lucky.


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