Monday, October 27, 2008

Regarding Aliens, Pyramids, Music, and Transcendence

So I watched Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull the other day, and it was entertaining and fun. The ending to the movie was completely over the top though, even for Indiana Jones. And however ridiculous it was, it still got me thinking about Steven Spielberg's obsession with aliens, specifically good, wise aliens that inspire awe and admiration in the humans they interact with. This in turn got me thinking about a specific and reoccurring view that pop culture often puts forth of aliens and pyramids.

(Spoiler Alert!) In the film, Indy's crew ends up at an ancient hidden city in the Amazon, which they find by listening to to the crystal skull's messages - it tells them things telepathically. This city has an ancient temple-pyramid, which they enter into, and soon discover that it houses the aliens' inner sanctum. The aliens were treated as Gods by ancient Mayan civilization, and provided the Mayan society with technology to grow food and thrive. There are 12 crystal alien skeletons in the chamber, and once the stray and final skull is returned to its body, the aliens awaken, and offer universal knowledge and wisdom to the humans as thanks for making them whole again. This opportunity is lost, however, as everything disintegrates and crumbles as the aliens take off back to their dimension in their spaceship. Indy and his friends of course escape being destroyed in the nick of time.

This absurd plot treats the pyramid/spaceship as a vessel that inspires holiness and wonder in people. Such an approach to the pyramid figure is not new. This concept has recently been taken to the next level by the electronic act Daft Punk's live show. When Daft Punk toured in 2007, their stage centerpiece was a futuristic pyramid, equipped with an incredible light show. Perched atop the pyramid were the two members of Daft Punk, decked out in their robot-spacesuits. With their block-rockin' beats, their show turned them into alien/god-like figures. The stage was set to present Daft Punk as the master of ceremonies for a night of transcendence through light and music before a glowing pyramid. Check out some footage of this awesome spectacle here.

The concept of musical pyramid worship that this stage show suggests also reminds me of an epic trip that the Grateful Dead took in 1978. In what turned out to be a massive undertaking, the band arranged a set of shows to be played at an amphitheater at the foot of the Great Pyramids and Sphinx. The highlights from these shows were recently released on CD and DVD, and further add to the mystical and timeless tradition of celebration before the pyramid. In recounts from members of the Dead and their audience, those shows were imbued with an otherworldly feel, taking on a holy aura. Playing under a lunar eclipse at the World's Most Ancient Temple, the Dead sounded like they never had, before or after – something about the setting gives this music an extra transcendent and spiritual quality. Imagine, a worship of the gods, a celebration of life through the Grateful Dead. In the words of Bob Weir: “I got to a point where the head of the Sphinx was lined up with the top of the Great Pyramid, all lit up. All of a sudden, I went to this timeless place. The sounds from the stage – they could have been from any time. It was as if I went into eternity.” What a fucking scene.

Now to tie all these disparate concepts together, I'm reminded of another Spielberg alien film – Close Encounters of the Third Kind. For those who haven't seen it, this movie treats aliens in a similar way as Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull – they are peaceful, wise, and reach out to humanity, offering their wisdom to us. They do not have a pyramid, but instead arrive in a huge spaceship that offers us a spectacle of beautiful music and color. In this sense, the aliens' spaceship has more in common with the Daft Punk stage show than it does with any other Spielberg film. The movie climaxes with a blissful interaction with the aliens - the moment of contact. The aliens take our musical beacon, and respond by creating a symphony of sound and color out of it. The look on the people's faces during this scene is one of bliss and euphoria, not unlike one would feel at an excellent concert. (Watch this awesome scene here) The aliens are presented as God-like in this film, offering an ultimate answer to life's banal existence. And when Richard Dreyfuss' character is taken aboard the ship in the final scene, it can be viewed as his spiritual journey fulfilled, with the aliens providing transcendence. This is very similar to the end of Indiana Jones in this sense.

I suppose the bottom line is that we all crave to feel and be moved by something that's bigger and grander than we are, and the pyramid is an excellent symbol for this. It is stolid, immobile, and seemingly eternal. It is also mysterious in its grandiose majesty, seemingly not of this earth. Spielberg touches upon a similar sense of unknown desire in his alien films, and uses music to deliver his vision. Live music and the celebrations that arise from these gatherings are an ethereal way to reach toward these spiritual places we crave, and when pyramids and all they stand for are thrown into the mix, things can get pretty surreal. I hope I've gotten across what I've tried to convey regarding our pop culture's perspective of the role of pyramids, aliens and transcendence.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

PHiSH Reunite! - My all-time top PHiSH shows

This morning's momentous news that Phish is reuniting spread through the online world like wildfire. Text messages were sent, and status messages were updated to spread the almighty word to all that "Phish is back!!!" As I write this, message boards everywhere are filling with speculation about Summer tour dates, setlists, and what color shirt Mike will be wearing.

I'm sure many of us have weaned ourselves off of the Phish somewhat over the past few years as our lives have progressed and changed, but now seems to be the time to revisit this collective obsession and embrace it for all its worth. As tribute to this renewed fervor of Phish-maina, here are my all-time top Phish shows, in order of utter sickness factor: (click on links to download the shows via BitTorrent)

1. February 28, 2003 - Nassau Coliseum - The best concert experience of my entire life. The magic-hose-mojo was everywhere this night. This show is most known for the re-emergence of the song "Destiny Unbound," which hadn't been played since 1991, but that was nothin' compared to the jamz that abounded. The band rolls along, exploring uncharted musical avenues with complete and utter synergy. "Get Back on the Train" and "Bathtub Gin" in the first set were journeys, then the time-stopping, 30 min. "Tweezer" to start the second set, which is really one long jam, all the way to the final notes of "Harry Hood." A three-song Encore is icing on the cake.

2. December 31, 1993 - Worcester Centrum - A no-holds-barred barrage of face-melting, shredding, celebratory music. I like this show better than the more popular MSG NYE show from 1995. It just rages, and every single song is pushed to an old-school bliss-out climax, with Trey flexing his then-impeccable chops. Favorite moments include Auld Lang Syne> Down With Disease Jam (First time played)> Split Open and Melt, and my all-time favorite "Harry Hood," complete with an "Auld Lang Syne" tease thrown in there.

3. December 31, 1999 - Big Cypress - It's hard to beat a six-hour, midnite-to-sunrise continuous set. Not much needs to be said for this one. The band itself has said that it was the peak of Phish. Too many highlights to list here, but the "After Midnight," as well as the Drowned> After Midnight Reprise are rage-tastic.

4. December 30, 1997 - Madison Square Garden - A cow-funk-heavy party of a show that has something for everyone. Amazing setlist, plenty of spacious arena-funk, lots of jamming, and a Harpua thrown in ta-boot before a 30 min. encore caps it off. This show contains every disparate musical element that makes Phish amazing.

5. June 18, 1994 - UIC Pavillion, Chicago, IL - In a year as amazing as 1994, this show really stands out as simply perfect. Every song is flawlessly executed with red-hot intensity, and there is some really ferocious Trey-action going on here. Mind Left Body Jam> David Bowie is raunchy. Listening to the tapes, it sounds like an extremely sweaty time. This is the show where Trey says he had a mystical experience during the pause in "Divided Sky." In Trey's own words:

"I had a really incredible experience once when we were playing in Chicago. It was a really special night, and I was envisioning the music flying around the room. You know the concept of being the tube, and the music is flowing through you? I was really open, we were doing "Divided Sky," and I felt like the music was these sheets that were zinging across the air in front of my ace. All I had to do to play was jump on one, and let it do the playing. I got to that section of "Divided Sky" where we usually do a pause, and I realized that just because I wasn't playing notes with my hands didn't mean I couldn't still be a vehicle for this music that was there. I decided I was going to have the same feeling the music going through me and coming out through the guitar, but without making any noticeable sound. I started imagining the music zipping out through the middle of my chest into the audience, and right when I started doing that, the place erupted. No joke. It was the wildest thing. We were standing up there for 45 seconds, motionless, with no sound, and I realized I could continue jamming in silence. I did it, and the place went, "RAHHH." It was the coolest. I was writing in my journal about it for a week."

6. June 19 and 20, 2004 - SPAC - Saratoga Springs, NY - When I met Mike on his golfcart at Coventry, I asked him what he thought the best shows he ever played were. He replied that in recent memory, it was the shows at SPAC, notably the second night. For some reason, I did not attend these, which I will regret forever, as my friends have been raving about them since. There was obviously crazy energy going on, due to the farewell tour. But these shows were jammed to perfection, with Trey holding back enough to give everyone in the band a chance to lead the jams into new places. The collective group mind, the absolute telepathy between these musicians is astounding at these shows. Check out the Piper> Gotta Jiboo from the 19th, and the Drowned Jam and the entire 2nd set from the 20th, which Mike owns. This is the band jamming as four equal parts of a whole, and the results sound like nothing the band had ever played.

7. July 1 and 2, 1997 - Paradiso - Amsterdam, Netherlands - Probably the most psychedelic and out-there shows the band has ever played. The first night has a five-song 2nd set, the second night's 2nd set has three songs. And as a thematic thread, trey keeps yelling "You're on the back of the worm!" during freaky jams. In Trey's words from a High Times interview, here is the story behind that:

"When we were in Amsterdam, me and a friend took a couple of hits of acid and a hit of Ecstasy later on that night. We were walking around and I started imagining I was riding on this giant sandworm, because the roads kind of go up and down. I was picturing these huge sandworms, diving up out of the canals. That's where the phrase 'Back of the Worm' came from. The next night in the middle of this crazy jam... I think I was yelling that and people started saying 'Back of the worm!' soon as I'm on stage I start trying to play the guitar like that... I probably started using effects in a different way the night after that, because I wanted the music to be able to
do it."

So these shows are obviously influenced by substances, and they are seriously tripped out due to this fact. The "Ghost" from the first set first night is the perfect place to start, as it rages hard and long. The other highlights are the Bathtub Gin> Jam> Cities from the first night, with a perfect transition, and the uber-weird "Stash" from the second night. Strange, amazing music.