I’m just gonna come out and say it. Rarely will you see a more lackluster first set than the one we got here. But Phish knows how to pick themselves up off the canvas, and so they treated us to a fun second set and a hysterical encore.
The opening three songs had nothing distinctive about them at all, and “Limb By Limb” jammed a bit but didn’t offer anything out of the ordinary either. “Billy Breathes” is one of my favorite Phish ballads, and under other circumstances I would have been ecstatic to hear it, but it wasn’t the energy boost that this set was starting to need desperately. Same with “Vultures.” I love the prog-iness of the thing, but it had no bite, and I was starting to get restless. I was wondering if the band was still burned out from pushing the envelope the previous night.
“Back on the Train” was the first evidence of any kind of interesting group interplay. It was nothing spectacular, but it had a playfulness that was welcome. Toward the end, the crowd started clapping out a beat, as if to get the band psyched up. It must have worked, because then Fishman furiously hit the high hat to start “Maze.” This had plenty of spark. Page was a demon on the organ, Trey noodled on his keys for a while, and the jam built to a satisfying climax.
Then Fishman launched into “Cavern” with a vengeance. It was worth hearing just for Fishman's playing alone. He inspired the others to attack their parts with equal vigor. At the end, Trey waved his guitar to emit feedback like he did at “Tweeprise” from Camden six nights earlier. But it was an empty gesture considering that they had mailed it in for the first two-thirds of the set. In previous sets I'd seen that year, they had gone out of their way to spice up routine songs, or at least one member would put an extra effort into a solo or riff. They had ample chance to do any of that in the first six songs of this set, but chose not to. We figured that either they were still fried from the previous night, they were holding back to save energy for Oswego, or they were restraining themselves in the first set so they would have plenty left for the special things they planned to do in the second set and encore. Some of my friends decided to hedge their bets and left their seats for a spot on the lawn near an exit, fully intending to walk out if the second set was looking as lame as the first. That turned out not to be necessary, to say the least.
The second set began with the “2001” that we were supposed to get the previous night until Mike overruled with “Split.” This was a particularly mesmerizing version: tight, funky, and a little spooky. The energy level, from the crowd and the band, was eons past what it was in the first set. This eventually faded into “Mike's Song,” and the crowd went berserk. It started off much slower than normal, but soon it was up to its usual pace. The jam section got very dissonant, with Trey fooling around more on his keyboard. The noise made me think "What's the Use?" might be ahead, but all the while Fishman was tapping out the drumbeat to “I Am Hydrogen.” A long, slow version emerged from the dissonance. I rather enjoyed it. But the story of this “Mike’s Groove” was the “Weekapaug.” Mike just pounded the bass on his opening solo with a frenzy I can't remember seeing before. The song just kept getting faster and faster, with some incredible lightning-quick soloing from Trey and then another, even more spectacular bass solo from Mike. He was thumpin' it, Bootsy Collins style. I'm still hard pressed to come up with a better performance from Mike on any song. And all throughout, the others kept up with him, pushing the song to incredible heights. The ensuing “Simple” and “Guyute” kicked ass and took names. And “Loving Cup” was even more raucous. The word that came to mind was "raging,” not something I usually associate with this song. Trey's solo was extraordinary, and the crowd went into a frenzy, which maintained through the set closing “Golgi Apparatus.”
Everything the first set lacked, the second had. It was full of energy and spirit. While not as awe-inspiring as the best jams from the night before, it was much more fun.
But lots more fun was in store. When the band came out for the encore, Trey launched into a story about growing up in New Jersey and seeing concerts at this venue and the Meadowlands, and how much he listened to the guest they were going to bring out, “the greatest songwriter of all time, who also happens to be from Jersey.”
Some people really did seem to think at first that it was Bruce Springsteen that came out. I could tell immediately, from the height of the guest, that it was Tom Marshall in Springsteen costume. As soon as “Born to Run” started, I laughed my ass off, loudly. Tom had the look down, from the headband to the tight Levi's, and even did a few moves from the "Dancing in the Dark" video. (Alas, there was no Courtney Cox sighting.) His vocal was horrible, but he was probably drunk, so what could you expect? The band duly plowed through the song, then Tom left the stage with a flourish of arena rock clichés, tossing the headband into the crowd, and having a "personal assistant" throw a towel around his shoulders as he jogged off.
On this night, we learned never to count Phish out, even when they seem to be at their most uninspired.