When the first Bonnaroo took place in 2002, Phish had been “on hiatus” for nearly 2 years, and there was relentless speculation that Trey Anastasio’s festival-closing set would transmogrify into the band’s comeback. The rumors never panned out, but the possibility electrified the weekend. You could feel the excitement in the stiff Tennessee air for three days.
Imagine, then, what it is going to be like to actually have Phish on the farm. Bonnaroo began as an event aimed squarely at the band’s gigantic fan base, and now, after 8 years, they’re finally coming to Manchester. It could have never happened. After 2004, Phish could have been done forever. Bonnaroo would have gone on, but not having a Phish performance would have been one giant gap in the still-evolving history of the festival.
Now, with the event firmly established as world-class attraction, Phish has helped create one of the most unique Bonnaroos ever. For the first time, a headliner will perform twice without the two performances happening on consecutive days. The band will perform the festival’s first-ever late-night headlining set on Friday – and no, I’m not counting the debacle that was Kanye West at dawn in 2008 – and the festival-ending set on Sunday.
While Phish have welcomed guests with open arms in the past, sit-ins have gotten less frequent over the years. It’s hard to say if anyone will join Phish during their sets, or if any band members will appear during other performances. In any case, the possibility is there – the band is on record as fans of King Sunny Ade (performing Friday at the Other Tent), they’ve occasionally covered “Sabotage” by the Beastie Boys (performing just in front of Phish Friday night), and even hobnobbed with David Byrne (performing Friday on the Which Stage) in the past. It’s no stretch to fantasize that even Snoop Dogg could be invited to rap with the band, since Jay-Z did just that in Brooklyn during Phish’s 2004 “farewell” tour.
All of this speculation and anticipation begs the question – is Phish still worth catching? Is their fans’ excitement justified?
Judging from the band’s recent performances in Boston, MA and Wantagh, NY, they’ve tapped into enough of their old mojo to give solid, if not legendary performances. It seems like the band is right on the verge of performing to their capabilities, and who knows – with another week of warm up time, Bonnaroo may be the place where Phish officially gets their groove back.
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“Sample in a Jar” from 1996’s Clifford Ball festival: