When it comes to Phish, I admit; I’m biased. Having grown up in Burlington, Vermont in the ′80s and ′90s, (with Bernie Sanders as mayor) Phish meant a lot to me. Indeed to have anything from Vermont become nationally known was astounding, but the band also gave me instant street cred with stoner dudes in first year of undergrad at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York. This meant many conversations went like this:
“Woah, you’re from Burlington? Do you know Phish???”
“Sure I do. We all do.”
That was a lie, of course, but it seemed such a shame to disappoint them. In truth, it wasn’t until Sunday, July 10, 1994 that I attended my first concert, at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. By the end of the show, after a tear through tunes like “Chalk Dust Torture,” “Stash,” “David Bowie,” “Mike’s Song,” and “Weekapaug Groove,” fandom was sealed. Twenty-two years later—July 1st, 2016—I returned to Saratoga to find an older, maturer Phish, and a sound that’s both mellowed and ripened.
One thing that hasn’t changed much is the crowd, still flush with the 18—25 crowd, who look increasingly 10—15 from the grand old age of 41. With the band members entering their 50s, the fact that the crowd remains so young is impressive. The types are the same too, albeit in Millennial form, from hemp-wrapped hippie chicks to cock-fueled frat boys, with the “old timers” sprinkled throughout; some carry kids atop their shoulders, where the clouds of marijuana hung heaviest.
On the scuzzy Greyhound from Albany, several rode north with me, all of us fretting over the storms and possible tornados forecasted for the evening. But the “Miracle of Saratoga” occurred just as the band played the first bars of “Stealing Time from a Faulty Plan”—the clouds parted revealing a clear starry sky that twinkled throughout the show.
With a cold soaking avoided, any song would have made me happy, even my two most hated, “Waste” and “Waiting in the Velvet Sea.” Happily, the old faves started just three songs in with “NICU,” and later in the set, “David Bowie,” “Bathtub Gin,” “Golgi Apparatus” and a surprise set closing “Squirming Coil,” (“We’re gonna do one more”). Filling in the gaps, were two tracks from the surprisingly strong last album Fuego (studio albums never capture it), “Waiting all Night,” and “Halfway to the Moon” and a Talking Head’s “Cities,” the first of many covers during the night.
It mattered little that lyrics, beats, and notes were flubbed, or the once acrobatic guitar licks of the ‘90s were fewer and farther between. To fans, the live Phish experience takes in more than just the music. It’s really the band playing the collective consciousness of the crowd and at the best moments, flooding it with pure, unadulterated joy. Yes, that sounds totally cheesy, but nonetheless it ripples through the crowd.
...the live Phish experience takes in more than just the music. It’s really the band playing the collective consciousness of the crowd and at the best moments, flooding it with pure, unadulterated joy.
The totally new light show unveiled for the tour didn’t hurt either. Both above and behind the band, 72 LED video screens combine to form one large panel spinning designs reminiscent of ‘80s arcade games, ocean waves, and Warhol-esque Pop Art. In the ‘90s, we’d have called it “gnarly.”
Set two got underway with a personal favorite, “Sand,” with a chugging bassline that shows the band at their funkiest, but the song soon devolved into the spacy extended jamming that often characterizes the second half of the show (and drives Phish haters, and even me, into a tizzy). The freer flow reached its zenith in the third song of the set, “Chalk Dust Torture” which ballooned into a 22:37 version that saw guitarist Trey Anastasio hop onto an Marimba Lumina behind John Fishman’s drum kit and bass player Mike Gordon double on piano next to Page McConnell. Whether the decision was musically smart or not doesn’t really matter, it’s the surprise of it that thrills.
The remaining seven songs kept mostly to a standard 5--7 minutes each, shredding through “Bug,” “My Sweet One (with a rare drum solo),” “Sleeping Monkey,” and a sheaf of covers like the ever popular funk jam of “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” “Shine a Light,” before closing out with Hendrix’s “Fire.”
It goes without saying that any band with the success of Phish, not to mention more than 30 years on the road, will play with as much energy, agility, and precision as when they were young and hungry. Instead, Phish now pushes a sound that favors soundscapes over soloing but the essential elements that make it so appealing to all ages remains firmly in place—surprise, fun, and joy. And that feels just as good 22 years later. You can watch the concert in its entirety below.
The Phish summer tour runs until Sept 4