Photo by Rick Martinez

Phish’s first trip to Merriweather Post Pavilion came as an opening slot for Santana back in the summer of ’92. The venue—that famously saw a ban on Grateful Dead concerts in 1990—has since become regular stop on the band’s summer tour circuit and the Saturday, June 11 performance came as its eighth visit. With the summer 2010 Merriweather shows (in particular the second night) standing out as some of the finest of that tour, the energy upon reentry was brimming with anticipation and mighty high expectations.

The night began with the first “Daniel Saw the Stone” since the band’s IT Festival in 2003. For the third show in a row, Trey Anastasio plucked the opener choice from an array of signs peppered across the front rows of the pit, appeasing one lucky sign holder’s request. Some argue that this is simply an extension of the band’s tradition of audience participation. I am not as keen on the signs and feel they detract from the mystique that is Phish. In my view, it would be nice to see the band making these calls for themselves, or picking signs less frequently, instead of relying on a piece of colored bristle board to open the show.

Nonetheless, a bustout is a bustout, and several more came before the end of the first set. The appearance of a far more polished “Access Me” than recent versions, followed by the rare “Vultures” added a noticeable energy early on—and what followed was the direct result of it.

Once the crackling opening notes of “Wilson” rang out with Anastasio’s new crunchy guitar tone, the rest of the set took on a seamless flow with sections of collective improv from all four band members. Standout versions of “Reba” (very much worth a re-listen or two) and “Antelope” concluded a spectacular first set leaving fans with their mouths watering for the second.

Kicking off the second set with “Birds of a Feather,” the band tore through a brief section of high-energy rock before segueing into “Tweezer.” While much of the first set featured collective, four-part improv, these jams were more about Anastasio’s guitar wizardry. Neither version strayed far from its structure, and so themeat of the set was left for later.

Following the tour’s second “Waves (also kept fairly tame), and an oddly placed second set “Chalkdust,” the band carried the rock vibe into a fitting cover of The Velvet Underground’s “Rock & Roll.” Smack-dab in the middle of the set, the band led into the first improvisational highlight of the night with highly-psychedelic improv. Recalling, at times, the Grateful Dead’s 80’s “Space” jams, the music flowed into a cacophony of effect-driven chaos, which then segued into a well-placed and heartfelt take on Neil Young’s “Albuquerque.”

Carrying the energy from this segment into the next, the band dropped a second improvisational highlight with a charging version of “Piper.” During the jam, Anastasio made a jump to his wah-pedal providing an undercurrent for Mike Gordon’s accented bass lines and Page McConnell’s gritty clavinet work. Out of the song’s ambient outro jam came another heartfelt moment with the somber “Wading in the Velvet Sea.” Later in the set, McConnell stepped to the forefront again in a humorous version of “Suzy Greenberg” that included the band members repeatedly shouting “WHAT?!” This was the humorous, playful Phish that we all know and love, and it was a pleasure to see them having such a great time on stage.

While the second set failed to match the seamless flow of the first, the entire performance was well-played and delivered with intent and purpose. Void of flubs or botched transitions, Phish favored energy over exploration on this night. And instead of extended, adventurous improv, the band got its rocks off through soaring, climactic peaks and charging type I jams.