With the exception of MSG (60 shows) and Dick’s (27 shows), SPAC (22 shows) is Phish’s most played venue (other than Burlington’s Nectar’s and The Front, neither played since 1991). Kat and I have been to 21 SPAC shows, missing only the first, 7/27/1992, when Phish did a short set opening for Santana. That was before we first got on the Phish bus in the spring and summer of the following year. Last night’s show was our 122nd show, give or take, since 1993.
Having read the excellent recaps of the past several days, we thought a few words of humble disclaimer might be in order. If you are looking for an erudite comparison of where this concert ranks in the current summer tour, or Phish version 3.4.5 in general as many touring recappers are able to do, sadly, you have come to the wrong place.
We’ve taken upon ourselves a much more modest mission, to describe the show for the fans much like ourselves, who’ve largely hung up our touring shoes (we do take them off on the couch) and catch a few shows a year at their “home” venues, festivals and an occasional special show, trying not to be “jaded vets” but to approach each show with an open mind and ears.
We volunteered (fools rush in) to do this review because SPAC is our Phish “home venue,” about a half hour’s drive from our Glens Falls home. (Technically, the walkable Glens Falls Civic Center is our home venue, but is pretty much a "Halley’s Comet" in the universe of Phish venues.) That means you can sleep in your own bed after the show and cruise into the venue without the myriad hassle of traveling “tour."
Another reason we stepped up here was to put in a good word for SPAC and other great venues in general. At least in our minds, a good venue can add immeasurably to the concert experience. Several of our outstanding regional venues, SPAC and Albany’s “The Egg," of which Mike said has the best acoustics of any East Coast venue he plays, are relics of a sadly bygone era. In the 1960’s, state government leaders like New York’s GOP Governor Nelson Rockefeller built parks and recreational facilities where excellence in architecture (buildings and landscape), aesthetics and acoustics was paramount and cost was no object. It was an era where government was expected to provide free or affordable popular amenities supported by taxes, before government---and progressive taxes---was deemed “the problem”. ::end politics::
SPAC opened as a classical concert and dance “performing arts” amphitheater in 1966, striving to be an improved version of Tanglewood in the Berkshires. It’s nestled in a corner of the sprawling Saratoga Spa State Park complex, next to a deep gorge and brook. The covered but open-sided amphitheater is a perfect summer place to hear Phish, with warm breezes and a setting sun giving way to dusk and night throughout the show, as a natural counterpoint to Kuroda’s lights. There’s something about it that puts you in the mood for a summer show where the “set and setting” adds to the experience. For the rest of the year, you’re mostly trying to ignore that the magic’s happening in a fungible sports arena with the interchangable names of their current corporate sponsors. Here, you can enjoy your surroundings rather than try to ignore them.
(Perhaps this is a reason why many commenters on these recaps believe the recapper should attend the show in person rather than have listened to a webcast from their couch, even though watching a webcast might allow for more “objectivity” about the music itself, the counterargument?)
So, with those disclaimers and explanations of why we (heart) SPAC and other great venues, let’s get to the recap.
At 8:00 sharp, an exact half-hour after the nominal ticket time, the band took the stage and launched into a cover of the Everly Brothers’ “Cathy’s Clown," a 1960 top-ranked hit in the U.S. and U.K. Aside from the fact that this out-of-the-blue opener was a Phish debut, puzzling about the “why” suggested that the band was starting with the most retro of basic rock-and-roll songs, that had distinctive elements of vocal harmonies and guitar and some simple tinkly keyboard riffs, but proceeding at kind of a stately sing-song walking tempo of classic pre-60’s A.M. radio “rock and roll” music. Kind of ur-rock, whose tight vocal harmonies and crisp drumming (early tape-loop effort) were said to influence early Beatles music (e.g., “Please Please Me”).
So we kind of surmised that the quirky opener was a statement about “rock” in general. And, from the stage banter, perhaps something having to do with an inside joke about Mike’s colorful horizontally tiger-striped pants. We’ll have to listen to the tape later to see if we can figure out the exact connection.
After a brief pause, the band launched into the monster rock chords and buildup of “Tweezer Reprise," presumably the reprise “owed” the fans from Camden 3. After that two-minute bit of rock bombast, a quick segue into “Carini," which started with a huge Fishman scream. It’s pretty clear only eight minutes into the first set that the message is “we’re here to rock this joint." There follows a longish Trey-led guitar jam following the lyrics, about seven minutes of fairly standard Type I “tension and release” jamming, sprinkled with timely Page piano chording and Fishman drum rolls.
Page does some solid piano solos as the song is wrapping up and gets back to the main theme 11 minutes into the song, and then Trey starts leading into the next segue, which has us and our neighbors (hello, Jordan from Toronto!) wonder what song is being played. Outside the shed, the sun is setting. The intro was a good head fake, as the song turns out to be “AC/DC Bag." After the lyrics, there’s an unusually loud, raucous, frenzied rock ending and another unusual cryptic improvisational jam keeping us guessing about what’s next, which turns out to be “The Moma Dance” with a Trey jam on the theme and some Mike bombs, but other than the intro a pretty standard version, clocking in at around five minutes.
“The Moma Dance” always brings to mind one of our Mockingbird Foundation photographers who contributed great work to The Phish Companion, 2nd Ed. (2004), including the book’s cover photo, Pete Sitzman. The name of his website was “The Moment Ends." He loved the Mockingbird Foundation and devoted many hours to volunteering. Sadly, he had passed away when we trying to contact him about the last edition of the book. This is our shout out to you, Pete. Here’s hoping you danced your ass off to your favorite tune tonight.
Finally, after more than a half-hour of hard rock, a segue into a pretty standard “Theme From The Bottom," but one which offers a brief cool down from the show’s up-to-then-frenetic pace. The version, while standard in form, was marked by strong ensemble playing, with Trey and Page trading tasteful guitar licks and sparkling piano chords. Then into a soaring closing jam led by Trey, with strong bedding chords from Page, Mike and Fish working a “drums and bass” compliment. Classic Phish “hey hole” communication is happening, and the effort turns out to have more special sauce than the usual “Theme."
Then, after a brief pause and amidst some sparse drums and bass intro, Mike begins to sing a vaguely familiar tune which turns out to be the relative bustout rarity “Meat” from the Story of the Ghost era, last played during last year’s MSG holiday run.
Mike threw down some very very dirty bass here. And did we imagine that we heard horns? Yes? No? Nope. No horn section. Page has more tricks up his sleeve than you can shake a stick at.
Then another pause. Page leads into his infrequently played mid-life-crisis-regrets tune “Home,” which features Page on vocals, a crazy ascending piano jam, and a barber-shop-quartetâ€‘like vocal closing by all. The jamming is tight and everyone is throwing down, Page now on organ, building into another tension-and-release ensemble rock jam.
Then an abrupt change of gears and segue into a moderate tempo “Bathtub Gin” with some loud tension-and-release rock jamming, ultimately winding down to the set closing “Walls of the Cave." This ten-minute version features a patient buildup of a tension-and-release jam with a big, loud crowd-pleasing finale.
During “Walls of the Cave,” the person signing “Listen to the silent trees” stage right for deaf audience members was particularity animated. What an exquisite language they have! (Kat thinks it looked like that viral video of the sign language student signing to Cee-Lo Green’s song. ::You’re welcome::laughing emoji::)
So, after a rockful, no ballad, 1:21 first set with unusual debut and bustout surprises and more connected-than-usual-for-first-set flow, the band takes a break and lights go up, although now it’s dark outside the shed.
Justin from Toronto and we chat a bit and agree that the first set was entirely about “rock," verified by very little sitting or refreshment breaks by the crowd, but lots of frenzied dancing. We agreed that “your ass doesn’t lie” about what music is boogie worthy, and that the first set was better than “average-great Phish” because of its novelty, tight, and hard rocking, and set flow.
Our seats were in the front row of our section, with a railing separating us from a very busy walkway where there was a lot of dancing going on. It's fun to watch the different styles people have. There must have been a sign in front of Kat that lured only the tallest biggest guys to dance or stand directly in front of her, totally blocking her view. There was one big rock of a guy who had absolutely no neck at all who placed himself smack dab in front of her, rhythmically swaying to the music. No matter what she did, even trying to sway in the opposite direction to his swaying, her view of the stage was almost completely blocked, except for a flicker as we oppositely swayed past each other. Thankfully he soon wandered off, and she could once more see Trey beebopping around the stage with his happy grin of pure joy.
Back to the action: after the usual 45-minute setbreak, Trey led off with the third post-Halloween reprise of “Cool Amber and Mercury” from the Kasvot Växt set with a patient guitar solo and end jam segueing into “Down With Disease." This version featured a spacey sparse jam with a lot of Trey pedal effects, meandering jam sections, and generic tension and release, followed by the unfinished song, after 22 minutes, abruptly segueing into “Scents and Subtle Sounds."
Following the cool-down-ballad part of that song and a long buildup from the meandering jams to a tension-and-release finish with a tight jam at the end, the second and third quarter of the set featured a trifecta of a fairly standard “Twist”, “Wilson” and “Scent of a Mule” that featured what we thought was a unusually sparking Page solo break as “special sauce." However, the klezmer dancing-duel riffs seemed a bit flubby with Trey, perhaps starting to get a bit tired, though Page’s precise chording, and Fish's tireless rhythm section, saved the day. As further “special sauce” for the song, some of the lyrics referred back to “Cathy’s Clown” (and possibly Mike’s pants).
The second set wrapped up fairly quickly with some short-form-jamming songs; Mike’s “Fuck Your Face” returned after a 45-show, almost one-year gap, with another huge closing rock style jam, then into “Halley’s Comet," which featured some sparse, airy-but-tight jamming. At this point, we noticed the SPAC steel and concrete framed balcony seeming to vibrate in beat with the music and crowd dancing. Trey soloed with some heavy wah pedal effects in the loose but tight jamming, again, with all hands on deck contributing. Then the band segued into a set-closing “Harry Hood,” which was fairly short and standard.
The Ocho Hood had an especially extended beautiful bubble jam, the bubble being a large consolidation of balloons floated above the crowd controlled by some sort of magic. It was a long luscious jam. This Hood was not that Hood. To us it went by way too fast, with a rush to the lovely melody building in volume much too soon. This Hood did not have time to ascend to a satisfying climax. It was more a slam-bam-thankyouma’am kinda Hood. Didn’t feel that good.
For their encore, Trey appeared back on stage with the megaphone, signaling that part of the closing ceremonies would feature “Fee," another relative bustout from the Junta 1.0 era that’s always fun to hear. Then into the second post-Ghosts Of The Forest appearance of the Trey gospel-type power-ballad, “A Life Beyond the Dream." Perhaps sensing that the ballad encore was a bit too much of a cool down to send the patrons out humming, Trey launched into a closing “First Tube," which seemed energetic but had a fair amount of tired Trey flubbyness and distraction, probably having something to do with a stage jumper putting a balloon on the stage and running around the backline before he was tackled and led off. At least this fellow had his clothes on.
The band recovered and finished the song in splendid form, Trey running completely around the stage like the world’s biggest kid, with a big close, waving his guitar around and holding it over his head in the now familiar "rock star pose." He was having so much fun and looked the happiest we’ve ever seen him. We’re no noobs, we’ve certainly seen a happy Trey before, but he was totally beaming light and love of what he was doing that early summer’s evening in the Saratoga Spa State Park.
So, verdict, an above average-great Phish show with a more focused-than-usual first set, fun debuts, bustouts, and high energy throughout. Not necessarily a show for the ages, but worth a listen and definitely psyching us up for night two at our beloved local shed.
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