A Phishy Taste in My Mouth

“Happy happy, oh my friends…”

These lyrics echoed in my brain as soon as Phish hit the stage in Albany on Friday night.  That’s how the first song on their newest album “Joy” begins, and it could not have been more apropos for Phish’s 2-night soiree in Albany.  The opening song on Friday was in fact “AC/DC Bag,” and the fans reacted like starving, caged pit bulls smelling fresh meat just out of reach.  And then the cage opened, and a sea of dancing, spinning and singing washed over the Times Union Center.  My smile was a mile wide, and I was not alone.

I had not seen Phish since April of 2004 – they broke up in August of that year, and had not toured together until March of this year.  I almost forgot just what a happy occasion a Phish concert is.  No, happy does not do it justice.  There were gleaming gobs of ooey-gooey happiness overflowing out of the arena both Friday night and last night, and Albany’s Department of General Services is still mopping it up off the streets.  Perhaps it was due to the long layoff for many between shows, but the crowd greeted the Vermont jam band kings with overwhelming enthusiasm.  “Maze” followed the opener on Friday, a complex composed jam vehicle with many build-and-release moments that caused the crowd to simply erupt in joy.  The band dialed it back a bit for the laid-back country ditty “Driver” and the bluegrass-infused “My Mind’s Got a Mind of its Own.”  But the crowd dialed nothing back, especially when the opening notes of “Gumbo” began, followed by the fun “Bouncing Around the Room.”  Guitarist/vocalist Trey Anastasio barely said two words to the crowd all night – he let his playing do the talking.  Trey, along with drummer Jon Fishman, bassist Mike Gordon and keyboardist Page McConnell sounded exceptionally sharp, clean and precise all night.  It seems the 5 years off did them a world of good.

The second set began with the grandiose and funky “My Friend My Friend, My Friend My Friend,” and then went into “Golden Age,” a cover song originally done by the techno-electronic outfit TV On The Radio.  Phish turned it into a super-funk-rock-dancing jam of a song, and the crowd lapped it up.  Another cover followed, Little Feat’s “On Your Way Down,” which featured an incredible solo and vocals from McConnell.  It was at this point in the show that Anastasio seemed to find some deep, emotional connection with McConnell.  He consistently looked his way and smiled during the rest of the set, and Anastasio seemed to select songs that would highlight Page’s abilities (Phish does not do pre-conceived set lists; they improvise each show).  Perennial favorite “Fluffhead” was next, causing yet another explosion of fanaticism from the audience.  “Harry Hood” and “Suzy Greenberg” looked to end the set, each featuring intense solo work from McConnell, but Anastasio commanded one more song, “The Squirming Coil,” which by no coincidence features a beautiful ending solo from McConnell.  But that would not be all, as they finally closed the set with “I Been Around Awhile,” a song from the “Joy” album featuring – guess who – Page McConnell.

For the encore Phish belted out Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire,” which is an interesting song for them.  After the final chorus it stops being a Hendrix tune and becomes a Phish song, as they jam out the last 4 or 5 minutes.

Saturday’s performance looked like it would pick up from where Friday night left off, with Phish getting the crowd going with “Party Time,” the title track from their CD of bonus material not included on the “Joy” album.  The bluegrass tune “Uncle Pen,” the cheeky insanity of “Sanity,” and the bouncy fun of “NICU” had the crowd swaying during the first set.  But while Friday’s show had an overwhelming fun and happy vibe, the band seemed to really focus on intricate, extended jamming on Saturday.  “Foam,” “Alaska,” and “Split Open and Melt” occupied a good portion of the first set, each featuring marvelous jams that highlighted the virtuosity of each musician.  The set closed with the rollicking “Backwards Down the Number Line,” a joyous tune that had the crowd dancing in ecstasy.

Set two began with the funkified jam of Seven Below, and the jam kept growing, and growing, and got stronger and stronger.  Usually when someone asks “How long has this song been going?” they mean it in a bad way.  But when I asked myself that question about “Seven Below,” it was because it was sounding so great and I didn’t want it to end.  “Ghost” followed, and between those two songs, nearly an hour of amazing funk and spacey grooves had already passed.  To settle things down a bit, Phish appropriately provided their version of the Velvet Underground’s “Cool it Down,” but then heated things up again with the rockin’ “Gotta Jibboo.”  They closed the set with two great jams, “Wolfman’s Brother” and “Julius.”

The encore was one of their earliest and best-known tunes, “You Enjoy Myself,” a funky, jazzy ride that included Anastasio and Gordon doing a dance number while bouncing on exercise trampolines.  This song is a marvelous example of how Phish can bend, mix, and meld genres to create their own unique and amazing sound.  The song closed with a 3-minute a cappella vocal jam, and then they took their bows and left the stage, off to bring joy and happiness to another town.

So how did these shows rank among the thousands of shows they’ve done?  It’s impossible to quantify it.  Each show is unique; each version of many of their songs is completely different.  The only thing consistent with most Phish shows is the stunning musicianship, the incredible jams, the beautiful light show, and the happiness of the crowd.  What else can you ask of a band?  I hope they keep it up for another 20 years.

These Phish shows get 5 out of 5 stars!

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