Photo by Dustin Weiss
I pulled into the parking lot a little after 5:15 on Tuesday to the unfamiliar sight of ticketless fans lining the orange traffic coned entrance to the east parking lot. Traditionally those fans, their solitary finger raised in the air in search of an extra, don’t make an appearance until you reach the concession stand at Zach’s bay but I guess they were being aggressive at the point of attack, or entrance in this case. This was just the first of many unfamiliar bordering on bizarre events that stood out in stark contrast with the four well played sets that would unfold over the next two nights. It was a paradox of a run.
Musically speaking the two night stand was superb. The band seems to be shedding most of the remnants of their post retirement rust, ripping off the most consistent four sets I have seen them play since returning last year. There were some flubs here and there, but they were earnest and never took away from the energy and passion that they were obviously pouring into their performance for the duration of the two shows. Trey Anastasio appeared to have lost some speed off of his fastball after returning last year but on the evidence presented over the past two nights it was temporary, he’s off the disabled list. Mike Gordon is in the midst of career peak, his assertive, bell-clear playing is one of the major reasons to get excited about the musical future of the band. Jon Fishman has regained some of the swagger of his pre-retirement days while Page McConnell is the rock he always has been.
The problem is there is a whole part of the experience to seeing a Phish concert that takes place outside of the cocoon of each set. The traveling circus that has followed the band from town to town and the scene they generate is integral to the experience of taking in a show, for better or for worse. At their best the fan base is the most loyal in rock and roll, a passionate audience that goes he extra mile for a band that has always reciprocated for them over the course of their career. At their worst they generate an undercurrent of unsavory behavior that sometimes threatens to overshadow the performance of the band. And every now and then they succeed. Simply put, what’s the first thing your coworker/friend/lover/parent asked you about when you came to on Thursday? I guarantee not too many people were talking about the wonderful music that they just witnessed and that’s a shame.
I made my way into the venue around 7:30, my brother Brian would be my cohort for the next two nights. Together we’ve seen, talked about, listened to and generally consumed an inordinate amount of Phish since I first heard about them around 1993 or so. In all of the shows we’ve attended we had, however, never been propositioned for some vicodin by a security guard before. As we reached the entrance for the customary pat down one of the yellow shirted event staffers was grumbling to all who passed through in muddled tones “c’mon guys who’s got some vicodin for me. I know somebody’s got to have it.” It was funny and sad in equal measures and the only other thought that struck me was that maybe he was trying to stockpile for the Jonas Brothers concert that was coming next week.
The band came on stage around ten after eight and launched into the first “Fluffhead” opener since the iconic version from last years Hampton, Virginia reunion shows. It wasn’t note perfect but still it was a powerful statement of intent about what to expect over the course of the next two nights. I can’t really comment on “Kill Devil Falls” as I spent the better part of the song trying to avoid being set on fire, someone a few rows back had the good idea to light up a large Japanese lantern/balloon type thing that never quite achieved take off. After narrowly averting a flaming disaster I re-centered myself to take in a nice, compact version of “Cities.” This version and well as the “Wolfman’s Brother” later in the set are good examples of the style the band seems to be operating in, trying to reel off sometimes funky, sometimes wailing vignettes, that evoke the spirit of different times earlier in the career while avoiding some of the meandering that became problematic later on. “Wilson” was fun, Anastasio playing a toy guitar during the solo slot and again at the end brought a little levity to the raging nature of the tune.
The mid set “Reba” was a little predictable but welcome nonetheless. I consider myself eastern Long Island’s foremost “Reba” expert, having listened to almost every conceivable version of this song since it became my two and a half year old son Jack’s favorite a little over a year ago. I can’t get in the car with him with out a request to listen to the “tag it song” and have done my best to supply an ample array of different versions for him. Bearing in mind that I am suffering from a little “Reba” fatigue I can’t help but feel that this song has lost its edge a little since the band returned. There have been some satisfying versions but nothing I would classify as transcendent and this one was no different. “Walk Away” was decidedly not predictable and featured some excellent work from Anastasio, almost mirroring his soloing in “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at times. “Possum” has become ubiquitous since the band returned and little tired too, part of its charm was that it always seemed to come out of left field from the late nineties on and its predictability these days takes away from that.
The second set opened in unexpected fashion with a short “Lengthwise” for the song chasers in the crowd before segueing quickly into “Maze.” Watching Anastasio reel off a library’s worth of jazz chords underneath McConnell’s excellent soloing was an early highlight of the set. “Halley’s Comet” was short and sweet, the song has become a sing-along again after spending some time as an unlikely jam vehicle in the late nineties and early aughts. “Mike’s Song” followed, this version showing some teeth with a fiery, dissonant jam that harkened back to the tension and release days of the mid nineties. Starting with “Simple” straight through to the “Loving Cup” closer the band simply caught fire. The coda to “Simple” dissipated into some full band improv that was sublime, all four members establishing textures that were unique without overshadowing each other. It is worth mentioning here that Mike Gordon is simply playing out of his head right now. His increased assertiveness and evolving creativity are one of the gifts of the post retirement Phish. His leads, wrapped around Anastasio’s loops and the ethereal keyboard of McConnell made the last three minutes of the outro to “Simple” a soundscape to behold. Since last year’s fall tour Gordon is playing as well as he has ever played throughout the history of the band.
“Backwards Down The Number Line,” an unlikely jam vehicle if there ever was one, provided the first real long form improvisation of the night. The band broke away from the confines of the song proper under the guidance of McConnell’s Fender Rhodes. The jam soared, with Anastasio finally figuring out how to use the whammy pedal in a way that enhances his playing rather than coming off as an over used crutch.
After the soft landing of “Prince Caspian,” “Weekapaug Groove” started up and featured another short form, full band improvisation. Its not that jamming is verboten with the band these days but the long established rule that the one thing the fans can expect is change rings true. They seem to have no interest in getting lost in a twenty five minute improvisation when a five minute, focused jam will do. If they keep playing the kind of interwoven soundscapes like the one they played during this version I am all in favor for this change. The set closer “Loving Cup” and encore of “Show of Life” and “Golgi Apparatus” seemed perfunctory after the fireworks of the second set.
I walked out into the humid salt air of the parking lot, jazzed at the possibilities for the following night.
I arrived in the lot a little after 5:30, the increased police presence, if that’s possible, was noticeable. The patrols up and down the rows of parked cars with tailgating fans akimbo were relentless although I can’t say I blame them. It’s not as if the fan base hasn’t earned their reputation. Worth highlighting from the pre show conversation was how much Gary Brown’s handle on the band’s sound has improved. The sound from last years stand at Jones Beach to this year improved noticeably, everyone was more clear in the mix and it wasn’t just because the notorious wind at the venue laid down for the first night. We got to our seats around 7:30, the stage framed perfectly by a rainbow that seemed a good omen at the time.
The band came out just after eight again and launched into a fiery “Down With Disease,” Anastasio soloing like a man possessed. The opening stanza including “Sample In A Jar,” “Guelah Papyrus,” and “Poor Heart,” seemed like it came right out of the Summer 94 playbook and was flawlessly executed. “Ocelot” continues to mature nicely, its jam taking the role of the first set slow dirge nicely. The mid set “Chalkdust Torture” was a surprise outside of its opener/closer role but was an afterthought to the “Bathtub Gin” that followed. Although it might have been predictable, as “Gin” seems to be firmly entrenched in the mid first set improv engine role like “Reba” and “Stash” among others. If they keep playing it like this no one will care. The jam that ensued simply took off and kept building and building, and for the first time since they returned I really felt like Anastasio was back to his old self.
“Tube” followed, the band relentlessly pushing the set forward. It was in line with the band’s edict of reigning in some pieces that used to stretch longer and while the jam was tight, syncopated and danceable it felt cut short. “Destiny Unbound” was a train wreck, funky but flawed, the band struggling to find the chords. “Joy” let the air out of the balloon a little, a break that only “Run Like An Antelope” could follow. The set closer was a rager, they might not stretch it out into space like they used too but it was an intense and satisfying way to end an energetic first set.
The setbreak began like any other, exhalations and exchanges of “good set” among fans filing out to the concession area. Then about 50 or so yards from where my brother and I were seated we heard a raised roar, the kind you hear when a brawl breaks out in the stands at an Islander, Ranger game. Some poor soul had apparently swan dove off the upper level balcony into the section below setting off one of the more surreal scenes I have ever witnessed at a concert. Commentary aside there is one certainty I can divine from this; nobody comes to a Phish show to die. The emt’s rushing into the stands, the white faces of those exiting the section where he dove, the solemn looks of the event staff walking back down the isle after the jumper left on a gurney were all out of context with expectations of what the total feel of a Phish show should be. They simply didn’t register, and still seem puzzling today. I’ve been seeing Phish perform for all of my adult life, and, scary thought, more than half of my entire time on earth. They have always been joyous occasions. It left me shaken, and feeling sick to my stomach as the lights went down for the final set of the summer.
“Axilla Pt. 1” opened, an effective vehicle for re-energizing the crowd, many of whom must have been oblivious to the events that took place on the south side of the amphitheatre. “Timber” was very dissonant, with a tension and release jam that seemed to aurally parallel the events of the setbreak in a strange way. “Light” helped to sweep away thoughts of the jumper, the band leaving the confines of the song bathed in a rainbow backdrop by the always excellent Chris Kuroda. Without anyone overstepping the other the band developed a dissonant pattern that touched down on a melody very similar to the digital delay loop jam that popped up at different times during the mid to late nineties (see the NYE 95 “Mike’s Song” coda). It was fascinating and segued very smoothly into “46 Days.” Maturing from a “My Soul” like after thought to a versatile vessel since its post hiatus debut, this version was incendiary, providing more evidence that Anastasio is rapidly rounding into form. Another smooth segue led us into “My Friend, My Friend,” the song proper seemed a little off, the thunderous feedback that leads to the final chorus was intense.
The final third of the second set featured two back to back monsters, “Harry Hood” and “Tweezer” both well played if not astounding. “The Horse” and “Silent in the Morning” is a poignant inclusion late in a second set, I always have had a soft spot in my heart for the duo. The “You Enjoy Myself” that everyone sense was coming dropped in to close the set in an excellent way. Just like the lantern incident from the night before I can’t really comment on the outro jam because just as they seemed to be gaining steam I was pegged in the back with a half full water bottle and spent a good part of the jam figuring out what happened and mumbling repeatedly “who throws a water bottle?” to no one in particular. The exciting encores that the band dropped at Alpine Valley and Deer Creek in the lead up to the Jones Beach stand didn’t carry over to the East Coast, “Suzy Greenberg” and “Tweezer Reprise” is about as generic an encore as you will get out of the band.
In the aftermath of the show and the jumper incident I spent the next few days talking about nothing but the latter, everyone from my boss, parents, co-workers and family friends asking me about it. I’m happy that the kid appears to be ok but more than mildly irritated by the whole thing. Does it make sense that a being a fan of a band that is such a positive force for creativity and musicianship in an increasingly commercial, packaged world is something to be ashamed of? Something you have to keep from your coworkers or family because of the stigma that might be attached to following them. Am I alone in having to spend a few minutes qualifying my being a fan to non fans anytime I tell someone that I going or have gone to see Phish?
Venting aside I can’t help but feel bullish about the musical future of the band on the heels of this excellent summer tour closing run. One of the questions in my mind that still needed to be answered since the band returned last year was “will the music evolve in a way that is engrossing and vibrant?” as it had over the band’s career. 2009 didn’t answer that question in a satisfactory way, there were bright spots for sure but you worried that the band may never recapture the magic it once possessed before they retired, ostensibly for good, in 2004. This run answered the question for me in a very positive way. The band has regained it confidence and improvisational mojo and that can only mean good things are to come.