[Thank you Ben Harder user @BennyHa_Ha_Ha for recapping last night's show in Bangor, Maine. -Ed.]
Well it’s been a minute for me, and it’s been even longer than that for ME. My first show, at 15, was 12/11/95 at the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland, and since that barn burner---which included Warren Haynes on both “Funky Bitch” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” and even some Elvis homage (for the last venue he was set to play) in the form of a “Suspicious Minds”---I’ve attended a number of shows each year that the band has toured. My run came to an end on 12/31/17, after which I went zero (0) for 2018. Wudn’t pretty, wudn’t preferable, but I suspect that a number of you in the Old Guard know what it means to have to sit out a tour or more to give a child your undivided love and attention. But boy does the passion abide. Perhaps even more so than when I was taking multiple night runs for granted. I listened to every note of 2018 during my hiatus, and once I got beyond the butthurt and the self-pity (and believe me, I delved deep), I just had to marvel at a show like 10/26/18. Dick’s, the New Year’s run, Mexico, they were all gravy.
The live experience is where it’s at, to be sure, but I’ve been surprised by how easily I have been able to geek out from the couch. That much was confirmed when I ran into Benny St. Clair of Pardon Me, Doug. We couldn't stop frothing about Set I of 12/30/18 and the 12/29/18 “Tweezer.” To hear us, you would have thought we took that shit in from the front row. Which isn’t to say that I haven’t had my share of grievances about the music or the quality of play---though not this tour! (And yes, I can hear the collective groan that some of you just let out.) My brothers and good friends have, at times, written me off as an ingrate and a lil’ bitch; it’s a fair assessment. I almost had a shot at Fall Tour, almost, but when I saw the dates and locations, my hand looked like a 2-7 offsuit. That led to my insufferable rhetorical question of: “Can they actually call it Fall Tour if they don’t play a single show in New England?” The various garbage threads I’m a member of---those hallowed spaces where friends text about both the inane and the profound, and in which each idear is assuredly dumber than the one before---would have all given me the boot if it weren’t for the Mafia Clause; you can’t whack a made guy, and you surely can’t dismiss yourself.
So 2016 was the last time the phab phour graced Maine with their presence. Surely Phish has a storied past with the state, and the sheer quality of the festivals and shows, which (unless I stand corrected) date back to 1989, are widely esteemed; here’s a concise history for those interested in the lore. Indeed, Trey’s decision to open the Ghosts of the Forest tour in Maine was purposeful. The Portland show on 7/6/16 appeared less so, though respins have been kinder. Perhaps it was my consecutive show experience with the PA mess on 7/8/16 and then the relative dud in LA on 7/22/16 that soured me. For me personally, the 2016 Phish ship was righted the next night down in ole Chula Vista on 7/23/16, not least of all with the “Martian Monster" > "Reba," "Ass Handed," "Tube” crush job. Phishing is like fishing. Seriously, check your expectations at the dock. You don’t land a lunker by planning on it. There’s a little more mystery to life than that, though I can’t ever seem to remember that myself. In any case, I’d harbored all this frustration with the Portland show, and in listening to it the other day, I found myself saying: “What’s the problem here?” Surely it’s not my favorite, but my initial criticisms now seem unfair. If I took the time to respin the other two shows, I’d probably have a similar take.
2019 Summer Tour, which is approaching the halfway mark, began on solid footing with the 6/11/19 “46 Days” and a “Stash” that has to be up there with the better versions of the song in the last handful of years. The solid play continued with an earnest effort at Bonnaroo and in Ohio with the 6/19/19 “Birds of a Feather.” An outstanding effort in Charlotte, and a dump of goodies for MPP2 had me in the familiar territory of: “Well what the hell is left to play at my show?” I know. Insufferable.
But let’s get to where we are, to Bangor, Maine. Fun fact: that river right there, the Penobscot, allowed for the world’s largest lumber shipping port in Bangor in 1830; if there was ever cause for a “Timber Ho!,” this place is it. In fact, if you scratch the surface, I think you’ll find that Bangor itself is more than just a gateway to Maine’s north. It’s a city that is intimately connected with the culture and economic history of New England. The place is currently in the midst of an economic revival. In the years after the mills closed down and many folks had to look for work elsewhere, you could have gotten out of your car north of Bangor on 95, taken a leak, and gotten back in without seeing a soul on either side of the highway. Today is a hustle and bustle of folks looking to check out the many natural gems in the surrounding area. Just northwest of us is Baxter State Park, and for those of you who have the time, I highly recommend a visit. It is vastly different from what you see in the Greens and Whites. For me, coming out of the woods and proceeding directly to a Phish show has surely been one of the Good Lord’s gifts. Though I can knock a 5-iron from my home to the Cross Insurance Arena in Portland, I’m so happy the band opted for two nights up here. I hope you are too. Surely Fishman is tickled to sleep at home for a few nights. After my 2018 skunk, I’m also thrilled for the break between Bangor and Fenway, which are the only four shows I will attend this tour. As for Darling’s, the last time Phish entertained us here was 2013, which was the summer tour opener. It’s a bit of a sleeper. I listen to the second set fairly often. The “Golden Age” is solid, and the “Antelope” is a surefire conduit to a PR on your respective cardio machine. So what did the boys have in store for us last night? Another one for the books? One for the ages? Let’s talk turkey.
Phish took the stage at 7:07pm over a grey sky, one that looked like a ceiling made of marshmallow icing. Not too foreboding, but imminent rain undoubtedly played a role in the vibe of the show from the word go. It was the usual straight-to-business entrance: a few flashed smiles and the slight nodded bows from Trey. After waiting a year and a half for this moment, I’m struck by Trey’s silky entrance and how quickly the space erupts from crushed rock beer garden to full-fledged Phish show, as Trey fires the opening rifts of “46 Days.” It’s a condensed version of the song, but from my vantage in the pit what’s pronounced is the forcefulness of Trey’s picking. 2:30 in and the languid drones have already begun, as has the dance party. The mid-section flies through some flawlessly executed guitar work, before a return to the opening rift notions a shift in direction. Indeed, it’s “Back on the Train.” Page’s clav work keeps our heads bobbing as Mike rules the backbeat and Trey ascends and descends through staccato playing in just about every tone he can summon. At 4:20 a road sign pops up: see “Bathtub Gin” ahead. But, never one to miss an opportunity for a joke at Fishman’s expense, Trey can’t help but call out “one of your beloved local politicians,” none other than the Lincolnville Selectman himself, Mr. Jon Fishman, “getting it done for Maine.” Their friendship clearly runs deep as Trey’s condescension is barbed but good-natured. The juxtaposition of Fishman prepping to orchestrate something like last year’s New Year’s gag whilst getting emailed about zoning issues back in Lincolnville just makes me chuckle. And I’m sure he’s right: “You get your ass handed to you every day.”
For those of you on the 9-5 today, “Bathtub Gin” is probably the first check in of the show. Mid track we get some building play from Trey with the layering beginning at about 8:30, and Page’s boogie-able organ work following suit before Trey catches a graceful return to the song’s end. Solid play. I had to laugh at my wife’s comment that, given the broad daylight, “The Dogs” is “an after dark song.” The mellowness of “Waves” ensues, with the rhyming couplets of the lyrics breathing some air into Bangor’s river hollow. A smooth transition from the tender ground of “Waves” moves into what I have to assume to be the first ever pairing of “Mike’s Song" > "Water in the Sky" > "Limb by Limb" > "Weekapaug Groove.” This “Mike’s” is mostly contained within the song’s structure we know and love, but some beboppin’ notes from Mike’s bass lead to some flared fingerwork from Trey. Eminently confident play closes her out before cascading into the song’s rock-heavy ending, and fists pump in unison across the crowd. “The Water in the Sky” is an obvious call at this point, but I can’t say I heard a single sigh amongst my brethren. Despite the downpours that would come, pretty much on and off from the end of first set through the second set, I didn’t see a single fan buckle. Let’s be honest, if you’ve seen Phish for any length of time, this is familiar territory. You don your rain gear and you keep your fucking head in the game. That’s what you do.
The first pang of nostalgia hit me with the opening notes of “Limb by Limb.” I remember the very day my brother James and I came home with The Story of the Ghost on its release date. We pawed over that haunting cover and through those liner notes. We were kids, just 16 and 18. Never could we possibly have imagined the Phish vehicle that the album would become. I couldn’t help but be brought back to those august years of ‘97 and ‘98, to Lemonwheel and 11/29/98, the first occasions I heard the song. It’s a lyrically arresting song, and during the back and forth between Page and Trey, I can’t help but be “taken far away,” back to those nascent days when the world seemed much different---mail order, for starters! More languid play around the 6:00 mark opens my eyes back to the present. Infinitely patient, and well worth the listen. A peppy “Weekapaug Groove” punctuates the effort with some opening “Ass Handed” lyrical teases. This one’s right down the fairway, as attested by my wife’s raised, pulsating hands during a widespread dancefest. “Julius” closes second set in the downpour, our past and our future “precisely divided” by the setbreak to follow.
Here, let me take a minute to recommend that tonight you visit the bathroom line before the second set begins. The team at Darling’s did what they could, but it was a jam up.
In my kitchen on Monday, homeboy Tanner and I were talking about the likelihood of a second set “Down with Disease” bomb. Indeed, I felt crushed rock rattle below my feet with Mike’s opening bass lob to rumble us back to life. It’s not long after the composed section of the song that this one makes a turn underneath a red glow that emanates from the genius of Kuroda. Incredible layering from all four gets us down to paydirt, which we are here for. Lots of vaulted harmonies take us to Type Awesome, and make this one a bit of must listen. Full on improvisational Phish and a delight to bear witness to in real time. “Play by Play” gets its third outing next, and I love it: the lyrics, the head bobbin’ funk fest, the swirling loops around a chorus of “I hope someone notices.” And we do. “Simple,” by contrast, has had a million outings, with this one being one of the heftier of late. With the song’s opening, all you can do is hope she goes long, and this one does at just under the twenty minute mark. I was lucky enough to catch Baker’s 13, the last time I heard the song, and this one gets into similar territory, with the closing minutes registering as particularly good. Once again, we’re into the must listen.
It’s a gentle segue into “Piper,” which also impresses. I could have done without the fairly bleak combination of rain and “Miss You,” but the song’s meaning is a poignant one. Big hitter, the “Llama,” and out of nowhere if you ask me. The song isn’t easy to pull off, and I was delighted that they owned it and stuck the landing. “Meatstick” is all smiles and dancing right through the Japanese. “Rise/Come Together” has just the desired effect of reminding me that “I’m a part of you and you’re a part of me.” There’s nothing like a “Slave to the Traffic Light” to bookend a fun show, and this one put a bow tie on it for me. The interplay between Mike and Trey is sublime. Lovely stuff. A “Loving Cup” rocks us out one last time to “a beautiful buzz.” For sure.
Take it all around, the show exceeded my expectations, and my sense is we’ve benefited greatly from the proximity of the Ghost of the Forest tour to summer tour. It feels somewhat ala the prep work Trey did for Fare Thee Well in 2015. The chops are there, with the band seemingly set to hit new highs at every stop on tour. I could see them tackling a “Foam,” “Dinner and a Movie,” or dare I say some Gamehendge (nothing in 2018, I should add!). So where does this one rank for Summer 2019? I’d say it’s up there. If you made it, I hope you got what you were after. If you feel a pang of having missed out, rest assured that the best is still to come. The fact is that the boys are in the pocket right now. See you tonight, and buckle up!
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