With all of the opinions coming out of Phish’s three-night comeback run in Hampton, it’s hard to know what to believe. Thanks to a gift from the band of free downloads of the shows, those who couldn’t attend the shows were able to hear the music for themselves the next day. While appreciated and welcome, this gift did have the somewhat negative effect of lending credibility to the opinions of those who weren’t even present.
You’ll never find more plentiful and divergent opinions on a single band as you will from Phish fans, and I’ve been known to ride the rail between overtly critical and casually accepting. For these three shows, there was a hefty dose of casual acceptance on my part. Phish is back, trying their best to make up for their pitiful “breakup” and the sub-par playing that preceded it. They’ve practiced and they are trying to give their fans what they want. That alone makes me happy.
Therefore, it was hard to be excessively critical of these shows, and quite frankly, I couldn’t find much to criticize anyway. While fans welcomed the band’s new focus on performing their complicated material correctly, some found Phish’s signature flights of free-form fancy to be somewhat lacking in Hampton. But after the sloppiness and lowlight-filled shows of 2003-2004, I found these most recent shows to be invigorating.
The weekend in Hampton was about the quartet becoming amazed at itself again and re-discovering the joy in their own material, as even principal songwriter Trey Anastasio seemed at times taken aback by his own work. Shedding the weight of their unwieldy organization and leaving the management and logistical duties to someone else seems to have allowed the band to focus on the music.
Choosing Hampton Coliseum for such a reunion is logical to the band’s most ardent fans. The blissfully understated interior of the venue turns into a mass of humanity during shows, leaving the band with nothing to look at but themselves and their fans – no box seats, corporate suites, or advertisements, just the gathered horde. Therein lies a clue as to the band’s desire to do it right, one more time.
For three nights Phish reveled in their work, the same wildly diverse, challenging work that Anastasio spent much of the last 8 years forgetting. Throughout the shows ran an electrical current of epiphany over music that was once their second nature. At the height of their powers in the 1990′s, it probably never dawned on the band that they would one day have to re-evaluate their practicing and performing methods in order to handle their own material.
It was apparent from the first note that the band meant business, as they opened the weekend with “Fluffhead,” a song that many speculate became too difficult for the burned-out band to master on a regular basis in their worst times. It was during “Fluffhead” and the subsequent, wholly unexpected “Divided Sky,” another compositional and mental juggernaut, that they proved they had taken the time and dedicated themselves to doing this right. The audience went progressively more bonkers during each harmonically tight, melodically daunting passage.
Now, don’t get me wrong – Phish is probably not going to get back to the effortlessly stratospheric style that made them one of Earth’s most skilled and musically accomplished bands. They’re always going to have to work for it from now on, and it’s unlikely that their fans will choose a 2009 show over one from 1994 or 1997 when picking out driving music.
But these Hampton shows also have moments, like the caterwauling darkness of Saturday night’s “Split Open and Melt,” the wandering deep sea exploration of Sunday’s lengthy “Down With Disease,” and Friday’s blatantly funky “Tweezer” that hint at some of the different kinds of magic that a fully operational Phish is capable of.
Friday night’s show was a full-fledged coming out party for the band, their songs, and five years of technological advances in concert lighting. Many fans found themselves overwhelmed at what was happening onstage for the first time in nearly a decade. Chris Kuroda’s lighting design has moved from behemoth territory into something incalculable, and the visual smorgasbord only served to heighten the impact of the first set.
At nearly two hours long, the set seemed as if it would not be interrupted by one of the band’s usual set breaks. By the time they wrapped up the set with “David Bowie,” it was clear that we were in the band’s lab, willing subjects to their diabolical plan.
After a first set crammed with 16 songs, the band unleashed 12 more for the second set, and continued the trend of “songs before jams” for most of the weekend. It could be that Phish version 3.0 will consist of deeper exploration into their vast catalog, or they could have simply been blowing the dust out of the crevices of these tunes.
In any case, the results at Hampton were stellar, with fast-paced sets that rarely lingered in one spot longer than necessary. I love a 30-minute instrumental journey as much as the next Phish fan, but it was refreshing to hear sharp, to the point versions of so many different songs.
“Tweezer,” perhaps the most obvious choice for a lengthy instrumental sojourn, featured a deliberate funk jam that contained some patient, tasteful playing from all four members. It also had direction, something that the band wasn’t known for during their brief comeback in 2003 and 2004. Instead of 22 minutes of meandering, the audience was treated to a nice, flowing 12-minute “Tweezer” that wound neatly into an inspired version of “Taste.”
It was so refreshing to have nearly every song choice be welcomed by the crowd. No matter how jaded the fans are, none of the songs had been played in almost 5 years, so even standard fare like “Possum,” “Sample in a Jar,” “NICU,” and “Waste” was greeted with enthusiastic anticipation.
While every song seemed like a highlight during this comeback show, there were touchstones to be found in the demented tones of “Stash,” which headed up a delightfully playful old-school segment including “I Didn’t Know,” “The Oh Kee Pah Ceremony” and “Suzie Greenberg.” The stretch run of the first show is also well-constructed, with the frenetic “First Tube” kicking off an eclectic hour that included heavy-hitting classics like “Harry Hood” and “You Enjoy Myself” (both of which hit some familiar sweet spots) alongside the rare “Grind” and a meaningful “Waste.”
The encore also featured the band’s first proper stunt of their new existence, as some of the glowing orbs that were part of the light show slowly fell to the crowd during “Bouncing Around the Room.” Closing the show with a run through The Rolling Stones’ “Loving Cup,” the band let the song do the talking – what a beautiful buzz it was to have them back!
On Saturday, the venue and crowd had an entirely different feel than the reverent, ceremonial vibe of night one. The coliseum was positively alive with people, jammed to the rafters with an audience that seemed much younger and edgier. People were ready to party, and the show reflected the Saturday night fever and relative youth of the crowd with a first set full of mass appeal and a funky, rocking dance party in the second.
Phish hit the stage with more confidence each night of the run, and night 2 reflected their growing comfort. After a “Back on the Train” opener that sounded as good as ever, the band dove right into “Runaway Jim.” Once again, the band’s jam vehicles were on display but rarely left the city limits, as “Jim,” “Run Like an Antelope,” and “Reba” blended seamlessly into the first set’s parade of mostly concise songs and ballads.
Still, the tentativeness found at times during the first night was gone, as evidenced by a deranged, noisy “Split Open and Melt” early in the set. The band truly jumped the tracks for the first time all weekend during this tune, speeding off into a realm of barely contained mayhem.
This interestingly paced set featured a mix of older and newer songs, with “Halley’s Comet” giving way to the recent Page McConnell song “Beauty of a Broken Heart,” and the questionable “Mexican Cousin” being sandwiched between a dreamy “Reba” and “It’s Ice.” The band showed their dedication to their complex material by dusting off the spidery “Guelah Papyrus” before closing the set with McConnell’s loungy “Lawn Boy” and the aforementioned baby “Antelope.”
Set two quickly erupted into a list of songs the band loves to sink their teeth into, and there were no breaks to be found. Even the mildly sedate “Prince Caspian” couldn’t dull the energy of fun, jam-ready selections like The Velvet Underground’s “Rock and Roll,” which the band interprets in the most joyous possible manner.
That was followed by a segment straight out of the band’s musically fruitful late-90′s heyday, with “Limb By Limb,” a growling “Ghost,” and a truncated “Piper” that dropped suddenly into the lyrically venomous “Birds of a Feather,” firmly evoking a time period in which the band produced their last great batch of new songs.
This set proved that Phish could throw a party and be meaningful all at once, just like they used to. The fun, funky vibe of the evening was maintained with an indulgent reading of “Wolfman’s Brother,” which dipped farther into the band’s well of earnest, loveable songs and surfaced with the ultimate Phish trio of “Mike’s Song,” “I Am Hydrogen,” and “Weekapaug Groove.”
This was followed by, for better or worse, the ultimate set closer “Character Zero.” The sudden, almost jarring encore of The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” served as a dark, puzzling end to the party. It wasn’t as if the audience wasn’t satisfied and exhausted, but the show ended earlier than the two surrounding nights, so many wondered if daylight savings time played a part in the abrupt finish.
In any event, the band’s promise of approximately 80 songs was right on track and they were hitting the audience with new musical punches every 8 minutes or so. Normally uncontained ventures like “Runaway Jim,” “Mike’s Song,” “Wolfman’s Brother,” and “Weekapaug Groove” were clocking in near the same total time as structured songs like “Punch You in the Eye” and “Character Zero.”
As exciting as Friday was, and as loose and confident as Saturday was, it was only fitting that the band combined their growing chutzpah with a far more interesting setlist on Sunday. Sunday’s show was for the die-hards; the weekend warriors were gone, and in their wake gathered one of the most appreciative, attentive, and easygoing audiences I have been a part of.
Mike Gordon’s unflappable bass playing had been prescient all weekend, along with McConnell’s lively keyboard work. Both combined with the suddenly rust-less drumming of Jon Fishman and Anastasio’s increasingly fearless guitar to give fans a glimpse of what the future holds once Phish 3.0 gets fully back on track.
Sunday’s show held setlist surprises aplenty, as the band worked through their most unique selections of the weekend. A surprising “Sanity” opener set the tone and even featured more theatrics involving the glowing orbs. Kuroda set the stage for the stunt, placing the arena in a sea of “stars” and turning one single orb into a glowing “world.” As Anastasio uttered the line “I don’t care if the world explodes,” the blue orb rapidly deflated and plunged into the crowd.
The first set started with a solid hour of essential material, including a classic combo that juxtaposed “Wilson’s” foreboding rock against the perplexing group interplay of “Foam.” This most enchanting of segments didn’t slow down until a much-needed break with the ballad “All of These Dreams,” and it encompassed the impressive live debut of “Undermind,” a sparkling “Bathtub Gin,” and a ballistic “AC/DC Bag.”
The inclusion of “My Friend My Friend” and “Scent of a Mule” in this most pleasurable run of songs wowed many Phish veterans, as the two songs have been among the most infrequently performed in the band’s repertoire since their first hiatus in late 2000. Phish continued to keep the audience guessing for the rest of this immensely enjoyable set, playing everything from instrumental jazz-funk (“Cars Trucks Buses”) to country (George Jones’ “She Thinks I Still Care”), keytar-led classic rock (Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein”), psychedelic epics (“Free,” “Maze”), and propulsive funk-rock (“Tube”).
The occurrences that defined the last set of the weekend had been brewing for three days, and the band finally untied the reins completely by unleashing a 20-plus minute version of “Down With Disease,” a song they love to include during celebratory moments. This intrepid exploration wound through several moods and textures, foreshadowing a set that I wish could have gone on forever.
The weekend’s most exploratory instrumental foray, “Down With Disease” morphed from a jubilant uptempo rock jam into a crystalline ambient space, gradually approaching the same spacey, dissonant territory occupied by the representative Walnut Creek 1997 version. McConnell and Gordon steered the jam through the cosmos, driving the band into outer space and happening upon a groovy “Seven Below.”
The remainder of the set unfurled with the timeless drama and grandiose ambition that makes this band the best at what they do. Setting the stage with the emotional one-two punch of “The Horse” and “Silent in the Morning,” Phish then dashed through an energetic trio of songs that served as the weekend’s last jubilant escape from reality.
The wry, synth-happy “Twist” melted into the show stopping majesty of “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” which satisfyingly exploded into “The Moma Dance.” A funk juggernaut that evolved from the 1997 instrumental “Black Eyed Katy,” “Moma Dance” was performed with voracious abandon in one of the very venues that helped nurture it from fledging funk jams into proper songhood.
Turning to their wistful cache of songs to help put a memorable cap on the weekend, Phish slowed things down with the thoughtful “Wading in the Velvet Sea” before ending the set with an effervescent, teary-eyed version of “Slave to the Traffic Light.” It was a gorgeous, reflective, and appropriate way to cap off the last full set of their return.
For the encore, the band mixed their sense of humor with more raw emotion, combining a threesome of their quintessential closing songs. After having the crowd serenade Fishman’s dad with “Happy Birthday,” they revisited the pairing of “Contact” and “Bug,” bringing to mind the closing moments of their last pre-breakup Hampton show way back in 2004. For their last trick, they finally gave us the unbridled joy that is “Tweezer Reprise,” letting all of the glowing orbs drop to the crowd amidst an incandescent blaze of light and sound.
Trying to comprehend the sprawling mass of songs and well-planned portions of these three shows is an exercise in futility. While the weekend had its rough patches, they were short-lived and more than compensated for. The important thing is that Phish is serious about playing their music again, and to watch the band re-discovering their capabilities in Hampton was among my fondest musical memories.
For years, fans wondered if Phish would, could, or should come back. Now that they’ve done just that, and done it with style, there’s a new elephant in the room: what does the summer, and the future beyond, hold for the band?
I really hope this guy got in on Sunday night!