Phish – Live at the Legendary Alpine Valley Music Theatre
Phish – Coral Sky
Two recent DVD releases from the Phish vaults offer solid and resonating images of the quartet from two completely different points of view. And, to be sure, it is a fascinating game to catalogue and define the variances along the multiple tangents within the Phish frame, whether it is a band about ready to explore its deepest regions in the Great Unknown, or, as is the case with one of the releases, showcase a band refining its chops.
Coral Sky features the Vermont Quartet on November 2, 1996, two nights after their historic Halloween show which showcased the band covering Talking Heads’ Remain in Light. It was a pivotal album at a key transitional point for Phish to attempt to canvas, and the dynamic and rhythmic minimalist textures paved the way for the dawn of their funk era. On this night, in their only outdoor gig of the fall campaign, at Coral Sky Amphitheatre in West Palm Beach, Florida, one can already get a glimpse into that new beginning as the band straddles two points in time in one warm and inviting location. With former Santana percussionist Karl Perazzo on percussion throughout the entire show as he had been during that Halloween Heads set, and two other shows during this run, Phish was able to add another sonic color to their changing audio mix.
The first set features a combination of high energy motifs (“Ya Mar,” “Julius,” “Cavern,” and “Johnny B. Goode”) paired with well-crafted compositions with occasional moments of improvisation (“Fee>Taste,” “Stash,” and “The Lizards”), which had served to cement the band’s reputation in the early-to-mid 1990s. The second set is where the exploration really begins to take shape as Phish immediately returns to the Heads-via-Vermont motif with an exhilarating and soul shakedown reading of “Crosseyed and Painless,” which spans over 20 minutes, as the band develops a groove, and rides upon it into multi-textured terrain before it finally segues into a vigorous version of “Run Like an Antelope.” It is a tremendous sequence, and the DVD delivers a competent visual of a band switching its creative grooves and identifying several of the key aspects which would free up their music over the next few years. A beautiful “Harry Hood>A Day in the Life” follows a bit later, while even more fun awaits in the encore sequence as Allman Brothers Band drummer Butch Trucks joins for a rather raucous romp through “Funky Bitch” with Phish as a six-member beast with three heads—ummm, Heads, Allman and Phish-y influences all rolled into one.
The Alpine four-disc set features the band in a peak performance from this past summer tour on August 14, 2010, with bonus tracks from August 15. Also included is a two-CD set from August 14, a dual DVD/CD feature which one hopes the Phish camp continues. Phish in 2010 is not a band out to explore its inner African rhythm to its fullest extent, nor a band seeking to break away from aspects of its past as it appeared to be in 1996. Instead, the band appears to be embracing the fabrics of all of its diverse eras, and
focusing their live performances on songs from their large grab bag of non-hits. Therefore, one gets “Tube” next to “The Oh Kee Pa Ceremony,” and “Fuck Your Face” and “Alaska” following a poignant “Reba.” Elsewhere, in the lengthy first set, the band jumps “Back on the Train,” acknowledges the Alpine vibe and fan base with “When the Circus Comes,” detours into a Vegas nightclub with “Lawn Boy,” and finishes off the first set with the meaty warhorse “Run Like an Antelope.” The second set features the band letting go and embracing their deep, dark improvisational past on a sublime rendition of “Down With Disease,” but Phish seems anxious to delve into “What’s The Use,” a seldom-played track from The Siket Disc, and while their transition into the smoky instrumental melody is flawless, it cut off the potential full development of the “Disease”’d exploration, which is the one polarizing issue dividing what Phish once was—a band willing to seek and conquer vast quadrants of the Great Unknown—and what they are now—a band exploring a bit of familiar aspects of outer space in a very precise manner, but not quite ready to venture too deep, thereby risking getting lost in the sonic vacuum, while playing from setlists which also offer clever and rare song choices. Phish plays songs now. In the past, the music played them.
The rest of the set and the DVD is an excellent example of the depth and whimsy of modern-era Phish (3.0 seems a bit trite as there were at least three versions of Phish in the 1990s alone). The band formerly known as the Vermont Quartet breaks up its classic “Mike’s Song>I Am Hydrogen>”Weekapaug Groove” trio, and inserts “Dirt” and “Sneakin’ Sally Thru the Alley” between “Mike’s” and “’paug” to excellent effect. “Quinn the Eskimo” is offered as the encore, and the classic Dylan-penned track features Phish as a classic All American Band, which they most certainly are not, but if that is the angle that they seek in 2010, well, then, that is, indeed, something new and fresh, eh?