[Editor's Note: We'd like to welcome guest contributor Dianna Hank for this recap.]
Last night at The Mann Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia, PA, Phish decided to show up to their own tour. Now, I’m not saying that there haven’t been good parts of the last 4 shows, it’s just that there hasn’t felt like there was that much cohesiveness between the band members, or flow to setlists. There are certainly things to take away from those shows and jams I will listen to again, but last night was the complete package.
Photo by 215music
If any band is capable of bringing some elemental magic to offset the dangers posed by the water table, however, it is Phish. And short of a "Reba," the band certainly poured some of its finest ingredients to concoct a memorable potion.
Sitting through the setting sun, we were literally watching ships sail in as means to anchor themselves just off shore for the show's opener. Another interesting facet of Lakeview is that the stage is relatively small. This forces the musicians to align themselves closer to one another, and really seems to enhance what has already proven to be a summer informed by a uniform and noticeable chemistry. As if in response, Trey and Mike take center stage, wearing their instruments. Spotlights upon them so trained, they open with the first of the evening’s many surprises, "The Landlady." A tight, fun version, the playing makes evident what will soon develop into a clear theme: Friendship.
Before this theme fully coalesces, though, we’re offered another favorite, this time in the form of last year’s anthem of sorts, "Blaze On," seemingly—at least for the time being—continuing its role as first set energizer. While the toxic debate surrounding the venue did not permeate either of Phish’s sets (Dave Matthews, who recently played the venue, ran through a version of "Don’t Drink the Water"), "Blaze On," with its now well-known lyrics, did seem to be a deliberate nod, acknowledging nearby Syracuse Hancock International Airport, and the steady stream of airplanes passing directly overhead.
After a humorous bit of banter—during which Trey acknowledges they are playing Fish’s hometown, and asks the audience (calling for a show of hands) if one is a fan of Fish and his mother—the band enters the night’s next big surprise, "Ha Ha Ha." Not played in sixty-three shows, this spirited, “heavy metal” version works well, especially seeing that it winds down into "Friends," a Fish-sung song played for only the second time. The song works on a few different levels. First, the "post-punk" vibe works well with "Ha Ha Ha." And of course Fishman assumes "center stage." But the song really seems to cement what this night—if not the summer—has really come to embody. Four best friends. Traveling the country. Together with their families. Having fun. And doing what they do best.
A third consecutive Fishman-penned tune, "Tube," is a welcome addition to any first set, and this version is spirited and fun. There is more to discuss, but when dealing with a show featuring twenty-seven songs, there are only so many words. Here, said words are probably better spent on the subsequent "Destiny Unbound," a total surprise, having not been performed in fifty-five shows. The band has been playing great all night, and the impressive work continues here, with a little extra jam tacked on. Add to this great playing more evidence that the band is having a terrific time, and you have the makings of another memorable moment.
"My Friend, My Friend" follows, more fodder for this show’s emerging theme. After a rough showing in Portland, the band atones, Trey powering through any past problems, clearly loose, in total command. A polished "The Mango Song" is up next. Closing a gap of seventy shows, the playing continues to inspire both the band and the crowd.
Photo © Derek Gregory
Of note: To this point in time, Trey did not feel compelled, or perhaps the songs did not call for, much by way of effects. So to hear Trey play so crisply, and with such warm lines, really did add another level ofspecial to the set. It was about this time—although the vibe had been great from the jump—that a totally palpable feeling of friendship and goodwill spread throughout the amphitheater. Among the smiling, whirling crowd, two fathers in their forties, dancing in the aisles with their teen daughters, really stood out. Shimmying and shaking. Smiling and simply shrugging. It was that sort of show.
Anytime Page hits a sample, ears perk. What ensues is not "The Dogs" or "Your Pet Cat" but perhaps the show’s biggest event: A long called but as yet delivered "Timber" (another bust out, absent some fifty-one shows since its debut) > "Timber (Jerry)" > "Timber." Here, Trey is the "effect," riffing the band into "Timber (Jerry)" with the crackling spark of a long fuse. Page is visibly laughing. The energy is incredible. And the segue back into "Timber," while expected, is no less impressive. By now the set, while quickly flowing, has become noticeably long. In the best possible way. Many were expecting a "Split Open and Melt." Or maybe a "David Bowie." More great playing, but perhaps a selection more traditional in nature, a strong, improvisational song to bring this already classic set to a close. Nope. Instead, Trey visibly smiling, darting from one friend to another, calls for "The Ballad of Curtis Loew." The first in sixty-one shows, this is a great, rousing version. Page's playing is soulful and inspired.
Photo © Derek Gregory
"Stealing Time from the Faulty Plan" is extremely well-played (another nod to lasting friendships?), and quiets into a raucous, band-and-crowd-pleasing "Mound," before Trey leads the band into "Winterqueen." A strong version, with soaring Trey and great full-band interplay, it seems that the band is content to close the set in unique, and, frankly, a pretty cool fashion. The song can fit here. But, true to the set—and to one another—the band, after a brief conversation (how cool is it to see them discussing song choices on stage?) elects to close with "one of their favorite songs," a powerful version of "Bold as Love." Not performed in fifty-nine shows, the band’s excitement is palpable, and they take an unusually long curtain call, Trey working the crowd and making sure to pick up a memento tossed upon stage. Honestly—and we didn’t even get to discuss Page’s Keytar "solo" (more on this later)—the first set itself felt like a show, with the Hendrix cover as its encore.
Set Two plays more true to form. A strong "Drowned" bleeds into a thoughtful albeit short "Twist," which quiets into a perfectly placed (and nod to the surroundings?) "Waste." Highly listenable material, and a nice combination of contrasting styles. More fun arrives in the form of "Piper," with Trey turning to smile at Fish. This seems like it might be a particularly short play, a la the days of its debut, but Trey develops and works through a few more ideas before making for "Simple." By this point it is clear the band and the audience are one; and the sing-along nature of the show is incredible, the vibe its own tenor. Arguably this version had much more by way of potential, but Trey has other ideas, eager to explore their new material (can you blame him?) and leading the band into the strong (and getting stronger) "Breath and Burning." The calypso nature of the music, coupled with some interesting lyrical content, fits perfectly in this spot, and keeps the audience captivated.
"Rocky Top" might seem—and maybe it is—an odd choice here, but perhaps not when considered in context. Laser beams and UFOs yield to "Martian Monster," which is fun, wildly improvisational (offering maybe not a rotation jam so much as yet another chapter in the summer’s “choose your own instrument” adventure) the current manifestation of a second set "Scent of a Mule," or all of the above. Regardless, the band and their fans are having fun together, and this totally carries over when the Martian was subject to further scrutiny of a late show "Golgi Apparatus." On paper, this song may seem out of place. In the moment, however, it really is glorious. The audience singing along while bathed in white. This is classic, old-school Phish. Made fresh by such an appreciative fan-base. It is a great version, and very much worth visiting.
Photo © Derek Gregory
"Frankenstein" is the obvious closer. Only what is made clear is that the Keytar “jam” was probably (actually?) the result of a technical issue; and this issue was not resolved, here. This, it seems, leads to the extended nature of the first set, and that alone would be a net plus. Only there is more. Nonplussed, Page makes for his rig and enters the song in stride, playing with fire and passion, bringing to its end what really is a fun and remarkable show. The "Character Zero" encore fits, given the energy in the room, and all that the band had already offered. There is more dancing. More singing. And before the lights come on, a general feeling of camaraderie and well-being.
Heading for home, it seems like anything is going to come our way. So get ready West Coast. Watching the tide roll away, it looks like nothing has changed. That everything’s going to be the same.
I certainly hope so.
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