Having recently pressed their collective “reset” button after a half-decade of nonexistence, the guys in Phish have so far used 2009 as – to cop a phrase from the sports world – a “rebuilding year.” The indulgent comeback shows in March served as an enticing prelude to an early summer tour that satisfied but merely hinted at what the band is capable of. Glimpses of the relaxed, confident, daring band that once destroyed America on a yearly basis gradually became visible through the careful murk of predictability that otherwise dominated the shows.
The band’s next-to-last tour stop at Maryland’s idiosyncratic Merriweather Post Pavilion found them in yet another transition. Starting in late July, the late summer tour found Phish reaching deeper and deeper into their catalog and producing gems of varying half life. The Merriweather show proved relatively mild in that department, but thoroughly thought-provoking and entertaining nonetheless.
The first set provided interesting, if not flawless, sequencing. Many bemoaned the aesthetically unremarkable “Crowd Control” opener, but fans with a nose for profundity sensed significance in the song’s standoffish lyrics. Given the venue’s parking woes, porous perimeter security, and divisive seating arrangements, the sentiment seemed appropriate. In spot number two, the upbeat music and regretful lyrics of “Kill Devil Falls” birthed the night’s first pronounced instrumental excursion, a brief but focused stream of fast-paced fretwork and relentless rhythms.
Rocking Saturday-night crunchers like “Axilla I” and “Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan” were balanced with more reserved offerings, like keyboardist Page McConnell’s “Beauty of A Broken Heart.” This introspective piece proved a bit languid, while the demented musical short-story “Esther” and the diabolically challenging “Foam” – certain sections of which guitarist Trey Anastasio flat-out struggled with – were better received among the devoted throng.
The eye-popping first segment of the show also featured two aggressive songs that hadn’t been performed since July of 2003 – “The Sloth,” a menacing tale of greed and gluttony culled from Anastasio’s decades-old “Gamehendge” song cycle, and the brief near-instrumental “Ha Ha Ha.” Anastasio commented on the fact that, despite botching the intro to the song, drummer Jon Fishman penned “Ha Ha Ha.”
Anastasio then announced the world debut of another Fishman-penned song called “Party Time.” The song’s moniker, which was once rumored to be the title of the next Phish album, served as its only lyrics. The band offered a fun and funky rock groove during this spirited half-joke of a “song.” I can envision “Party Time” emerging from the chaos of “Auld Lang Syne” during a big Phish New Year’s Eve party.
“Strange Design,” while not particularly rare, served as a noteworthy personal moment. I hadn’t witnessed the song live since my first show in the Fall of 1996, and a huge statistical gap was closed by this performance. Roundly satisfied by the set, I wandered out of the pavilion and soaked up the overall atmosphere during the lengthy “Time Turns Elastic” set closer.
“Time Turns Elastic” spans approximately 12 minutes, but features little deviation in structure from performance to performance, so its become as polarizing as any new Phish song among the fanbase. I enjoy “TTE,” but I don’t feel obligated to stand at rapt attention while it uncoils through several unique sections before finally striking with blazing grandeur at its climax.
A seemingly endless array of food and beverage options await the setbreak wanderer at Merriweather, and it wasn’t long before I had one of my favorite beers in hand and good friends all around as I excitedly awaited set two. It was about time for a “Tweezer,” and there’s no better place for it than the start of a second set, with Chris Kuroda’s light show accentuated by the complete absence of sunlight.
Merriweather’s flowing, slow and steady “Tweezer” isn’t going to set a veteran listener’s heart racing by any means. The song’s 10-minute running time is split neatly between the vocal section and the free-form ending, affording the band little time to experiment. Instead, this pleasantly concise weekend warrior of a “Tweezer” hit a moderate peak, quickly grew tired and was replaced by the chiming intro of “Taste.”
The band has displayed an odd fascination with the “Tweezer” and “Taste” combo this year, offering the same segue at the Hampton shows in March. The gleeful “Taste” easily found the dramatic flourishes and blitzing guitar solo that define it, and Fishman and bassist Mike Gordon happened upon a particularly restless, multifaceted rhythm that nudged Anastasio’s nimble solo further and further into the cosmos.
The night’s most inspired creation was yet to come, though, but there was even a calm before the storm. The band kept the vibe jovial with the jaunty “Alaska” before the horrendously placed ballad “Let Me Lie” brought things to a muggy standstill. This thing is a real groaner and more than enough reason to grab a drink or take a bathroom break. Normally, the Round Room-era boogie “46 Days” that followed wouldn’t be the best way to bust out of a setlist funk, but the band clearly had special treatment in mind for this otherwise ambiguous song.
“46 Days” stayed on a normal course at first, with the accommodating structure giving way to a strutting funk-rock jam. Said jam soon veered off in numerous directions, touching down in foreboding forests of synthesized sounds, entering black holes of ambiance, and scaling majestic improvisational peaks. Mesmerizing atmospheres and pastoral sonic landscapes manifested throughout the band’s deconstruction of sound, which finally, peacefully drifted into the opening strains of The Velvet Underground’s “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’.”
Performed only three times to date and in hibernation since Halloween 1998, “Oh! Sweet Nuthin'” re-surfaced at the Shoreline show 10 days before Merriweather. It seems to be back in the rotation, and I’m for it – it’s a far better choice than “Let Me Lie” or “Anything But Me” if the band just has to play a ballad. It provided a nice moment of measured melancholy before the sly intro of “Harry Hood” materialized from the final chords.
Like every essential Phish song – “Tweezer,” “Tube,” “Run Like an Antelope,” and the like – “Harry Hood” has already seen its pinnacle and will likely never return to the effortlessly glorious quality found in versions from the 1990’s. Still, the band manages to squeeze plenty of moody, cinematic goodness from “Hood”‘s majestically restrained closing jam, and this one soared a bit higher than most recent versions.
The second set seemed to fly by, and the encore flew just as fast and with a great deal more volume. Perhaps nodding to the town’s 11 PM cutoff for concerts, the band and crew proceeded to make one hell of a racket around 10:55. Two of the loudest songs in their repertoire – a ballistic version of Led Zeppelin’s “Good Times Bad Times” and the bombastic three-minute juggernaut “Tweezer Reprise” – comprised the show’s finale, and the intent of the song selection was unmistakable, even from my spot in row MM. The encore was probably the loudest I have ever heard the band in an amphitheater setting, so if they wanted to shake the very earth beneath Columbia, MD, I believe they succeeded.
This show – my 59th Phish show – strangely stands as one that I was not ready to see end. It’s not that I’m usually ready for a show to end, but I’m always quite accepting of the fact and well aware of flow of the concert. On this night, I couldn’t believe that “Harry Hood” was really the end, and the encore was all that was left. The setlist was uneven and didn’t please everyone, but Phish shows always please as many people as they leave nonplussed. With so many rare treats and memorable moments, I was incredibly satisfied by the show and I felt that the band was just hitting its stride when the encore rolled around. As jaded as Phish’s longtime fans are, it’s becoming apparent in 2009 that Phish’s extended absence will definitely serve to make out hearts – and ears – grow fonder.
All Photos by Esther Rodgers
08/15/09 Merriweather Post Pavilion, Columbia, MD
Set 1: Crowd Control, Kill Devil Falls, The Sloth, Beauty Of A Broken Heart, Axilla I, Foam, Esther, Ha Ha Ha, Party Time, Tube, Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan, Strange Design, Time Turns Elastic
Set 2: Tweezer > Taste, Alaska, Let Me Lie, 46 Days, Oh! Sweet Nuthin’, Harry Hood
Encore: Good Times Bad Times, Tweezer Reprise