Photos by Nick Bengivengo

The following piece originally appeared in the Friday edition of the Festival 8 Express.

LOVING the music of a band for decades is a blessing and a curse. Caring too much about what you perceive to be the integrity of your favorite band’s music makes the refrain of “Wilson” — “Can you still have any fun !?” — a sincere question. One can miss the beauty in a moment while yearning for “the best.” And when you compare the song that you’re listening to with the most recent performances of it, or the versions performed many years ago, do you fully appreciate that THEY ARE BACK, playing for you and your friends again, right now? Are you as inspired in your listening, as the band is in their playing?

Twenty years ago, Phish performed a show on Halloween at Goddard College to benefit its sculpture building. Boxes of mac and cheese were passed out before the second set, so that fans could shake them during the hi-hat intro of “David Bowie.” The “Bowie” turned out to be one of the longest, most improvisational versions performed before November 1994. It therefore may not surprise you that many fans who first saw Phish play in the 1980’s are still showing up and paying attention today. The music has changed, the band has changed, and we’ve changed. But it is a testament to Phish’s power and passion as a rock band that having seen them in a small club in the infancy of their career is not much different than seeing them perform twenty years later on an enormous outdoor stage before tens of thousands. Yes, we are several decades and around 2900 miles from seeing Phish in a bar in Burlington or Boston, but this illusorily substantial difference in time and space is only one of degree. The boxes of mac and cheese may be gone, but the spectacle has expanded exponentially.

Phish’s basic instrumentation hasn’t changed. The sincerity of the music and the intimacy between the band and its fans is still present, as is the excitement for the next set opener, the next song, the next encore. Even the vacuum and trampolines still participate in making a Phish show unique and memorable, whether it’s your first — or two hundredth — show. And no matter how many shows you’ve seen and heard, which have made your Phish experience what it is, remember that the band has played them all. But they continue to perform with intensity and with love, as the highlights of their most recent tour demonstrated.

Phish kicked off their late Summer 2009 tour with four memorable shows at Red Rocks in Morrison, Colorado. On July 30, the first set contained the longest and most daring “Stash” of the year, while the second set’s “Ghost” jam featured some teasing of Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You” from Page and Trey and, later, some heavy “Windy City” teasing from Mike — even though “Windy City” didn’t debut as a song until Toyota Park in the windy city on August 11.

The July 31 show’s first set closed with a ferocious “Split Open and Melt” that swayed and twisted and soared with the swirling, roaring downpour. Although fans were soaked during the set break, they were rewarded with one of the best second sets of the year: a hose-everyone-down “Drowned” -> “Crosseyed & Painless,” followed by a precious “Joy,” a short-but-sweet “Tweezer” featuring a bit of the old dying-out-of-the-main-theme ending from versions of old, a good “Backwards Down the Number Line,” and a well-played “Fluffhead” with a “Dave’s Energy Guide” tease before “Piper” segued out of it.

The August 1 show, considered by some to be the weakest of the Red Rocks run, was nevertheless very entertaining overall. Trey used hand signals to communicate the name of the next song during much of the first set, even joking after “Jibboo” that “We do everything by hand signals now. There’s no more talking.” The second set opened with an excellent “Rock & Roll” -> “Down With Disease,” which included a brief tease of The Doors’ “L.A. Woman” by Trey. “Esther,” which hadn’t been performed since September 30, 2000, in Vegas, also returned to the relief of many fans. The fourth and final Red Rocks show on August 2 was one of the most expertly-played shows of the year. If it is highlights you seek, check out the second-set-opening “Boogie On Reggae Woman,” which has a very powerful jam, the fierce “Undermind” and fantastic “Character Zero,” both with the Grateful Dead’s Bill Kreutzmann on drums, and the sweet, show-closing “Slave.” But get the whole show from LivePhish if you like the setlist, because everything on that unforgettably gorgeous, moonlit night was cleanly performed.

Having had days off on either side of their Shoreline August 5 show, Phish played pretty loose. Despite a setlist that included crowd-favorites like “Halley’s Comet,” “Yamar,” “Cities” and “Bold As Love,” not to mention “Bowie,” “Mike’s Groove,” and the first “Oh! Sweet Nothin’” since Halloween 1998, this show was nevertheless not played as well as your average Phish show — which is, of course, nevertheless GREAT. It didn’t take long for Phish to make up for it, though, with two marvelous shows at the Gorge.

Pages:Next Page »