c. taylor crothers © phish 2009

Festival 8’s opening day had a relaxed feeling, a leisurely vibe, as opposed to the more dramatically subdued Coventry atmosphere at Phish’s last ill-fated festival. In fact, the long tradition of geographic conquests and mileage accumulated whilst either driving, or stuck in traffic for hours on end while waiting to hit a Phish fest entrance, seemed circumvented. The band had found a way to put on the perfect festival, in the perfect location, and all they needed was an audience. Indeed, if you build it, they will come.

And so they did. Slowly, at first, as the location began to fill its grounds after the 4pm entrance gates opened. The de rigueur Phish ferris wheel is present on the Indio grounds, but there are also numerous art installations, which appear to be randomly placed throughout, but instead offer a unique experience for festival attendees. One could walk past a giant curled snake-like dragon (or is that visa versa?), which also seemed to double as a medieval castle. Within its environs was an ‘eye surgery’ factory, next to a giant metal sculpture that appeared to be made of old musical equipment.

Elsewhere, one could wander past fire-breathing objects, burgundy lounges with encased mannequins dressed in Halloween costumes, sprawled fans watching the Boston Celtics on a giant T.V. screen (installation, or art imitating sports imitating life?). Elsewhere, everywhere, there was a sense of community, experimentation, and, well, just plain fun.

Everything from the eight wood-sculpted light towers to the lighting design-enhanced palm trees surrounding the festival grounds looked fresh. And that may be the key phrase to define not only the rejuvenated jam kings in 2009, but the festival’s overwhelming sense of providing an exciting environment for all fans to explore their inner Phish. With the various differing color motifs displayed at Festival 8, even the legendary work of Phish lighting designer Chris Kuroda appeared to have a renewed artistic spin on things.

But what also made opening day of Festival 8 appear like a special event was the feeling that this was an occasion for old friends to renew bonds in a very different environment. At last, the West is the Best in a Phish equation, if only for a fleeting yet poignant 2009 moment. And to be sure, despite its often-heralded tag as America’s Best Live Band, the thought is that the average fan lives in an East Coast vision of the Phish world. However, that alleged bias has been handled with a refreshing new perspective by the group itself.

Indeed, there was one festival constant as even the reliably warm western weather plunged several degrees as night fell on the Halloween-transformed Phish community. None of that seemed to matter to the thousands in the audience as premature roars erupted from time to time about an hour before the show began. As if on cue, Phish lyricist Tom Marshall appeared on the festival concert grounds, somehow symbolically uniting the old way of viewing the Vermont Quartet with the new vision of Phish.

That feeling certainly carried over into the start of the show as the band began the first set, and the opening night of Festival 8, with a rousing version of “Party Time,” the title track of the bonus CD included in the new Joy box set. Quickly following up on this
momentum, guitarist and frontman Trey Anastasio led the band through an incendiary version of “Chalkdust Torture,” which contained the first dark jam of the weekend, before the band shifted gears into late 90s-era funk (“Moma Dance”), and old school energy (“NICU”) with a new humorous twist as evidenced by the crowd response to the lyric sung by a post-rehab Anastasio (“I look back at those days when my life was a haze”).

The rest of the first set seemed to be a balance between Phish classic kitchen sink stylings and the new songs that have appeared on their latest release, Joy. The quartet segued from more confessional 2009 tunes (“Stealin’ Time from the Faulty Plan”), into traditional jam platforms (“Stash”), and comic relief moments (drummer Jon Fishman playing the vacuum cleaner on “I Didn’t Know,” which provoked an Anastasio quip: “Henrietta is sucking and blowing for the first time in the shape of a figure 8”), before continuing their look back at their eclectic past ( the fast bluegrass strut on “Poor Heart,” and the slow, rollicking stomp on “Cavern”). Phish then finished off the set with three recent songs (“Beauty of a Broken Heart,” from Page McConnell’s 2007 solo debut, and two songs from their new album, “Ocelot” and “Time Turns Elastic”) that served as the current dichotomy between their old catalogue and the new inroads the band has taken.

In the second set, Phish began with the always energetic “Punch You in the Eye,” which also appears to be a guaranteed festival crowd pleaser. From there, the band finally veered off the map into the more experimental improvisational terrain that they helped pioneer over the last 25 years. “Down With Disease,” an early favorite for most exploratory song of the year based on its frequent live detours, did not disappoint as Anastasio led the group into a mysterious and ambient realm, along with Mike Gordon on bass, and an adventurous McConnell on keyboards. However, the band segued rather abruptly into a more accessible region on “Prince Caspian,” before moving right back into deep space on solid versions of “Wolfman’s Brother” and “Piper”—a pair that were also played back-to-back at the last Halloween gig in Las Vegas in 1998.

Phish played what could become their resonant theme song in 2009, the title track from their new album Joy, which appears to also be somewhat of a thematic twin with its partner, “Party Time,” and a nice symbolic bookend for the evening. Continuing the classic jam feel to the set, the quartet ended the show with three powerful pieces that helped solidify the notion that Phish had brought their A-game to California: “David Bowie,” “Harry Hood,” and a boisterous “Golgi Appartus.”

The satisfied opening day Festival 8 attendees were sent back to their RVs, tents, and hotels with a rocking version of “Character Zero,” that was rather ironic in a way. For decades, Phish has been known as geeky connoisseur of just about any type of music. In 2009, the band appears to have found its purpose by combining the best of both worlds—classic rock motifs with songs that have lyrical and compositional resonance, and a thirst for improvisation that seeks a new and fresh direction, but never appears to lose its course. And with Festival 8, that may be the highest compliment—an environment that is
free to roam, but safe enough so one can always find their way back home.