Fresh off their triumphant reunion tour in 2009, Phish is keeping things rolling with a summer tour covering much of the east coast, southeast and Midwest areas of the country, plus a stop in Colorado and Berkeley, CA. This past weekend, the jam band kings played two shows at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC), a long-time favorite venue for the band. Rather than doing a full song-by-song review like I did for their Albany shows last fall, I thought I’d just talk about some of the highlights and things that made these shows unique (every Phish show is unique, but some things are more unique than others, if that makes any sense).
Phish has a song called “Tweezer,” a long, jammed-out tune with minimal lyrics. They also have a song called “Tweezer Reprise,” which uses the same chords as “Tweezer” but has a much faster, hard rock tempo, and is a short song as well. Phish tradition has been that when they play “Tweezer” at a show, they will at some point play “Tweezer Reprise.” Sometimes it’s at the same show, sometimes they will wait and play it at a later show. On June 15th they played “Tweezer” but did not play the “Reprise.” In fact, it was two shows later that they played another “Tweezer,” so in the Phish process of things, they now had to play two “Reprises,” which they did on June 18th back-to-back, a Phish first. I say all this because in an unprecedented Phish occurrence, they opened the show at SPAC on Saturday with “Tweezer Reprise,” making it the third time in a row, much to the amusement of the fans. The rest of the set was incredibly solid with some great highlights like “Fluffhead,” the Mustangs’ “Ya Mar,” and the high-energy “Suzy Greenberg” which was punctuated by a spectacular glowstick display from the crowd on the SPAC lawn.
The second set featured some extended improvisational jamming after the Velvet Underground’s “Rock and Roll,” and we were introduced to a new song called “Halfway to the Moon.” This was a great new tune – dark and textured, with some good jamming potential. It’s a perfect example of why people follow Phish from show to show – you never know what songs you’ll hear, especially when it comes to new material. They closed the set with another new song, “Show of Life.” This is a historic moment for die-hard Phish fans, because “Show of Life” is the first song in over 15 years played by Phish and written by Steve Pollak, better known in Phish lore as the Dude of Life. Pollak and the band go way back together – he wrote the lyrics for a few Phish classics and has released a couple of albums. “Show of Life” has a grandiose quality to it without being pretentious – it’s a good tune. The encore for this show was pretty standard until Phish decided to play “Tweezer Reprise” one last time, making it four times in two shows. Phish is anything but dull.
While Saturday’s show was good with some great moments, Sunday’s show will go down as one of the greats in recent Phish history. Things got off to a great start with “Brother,” the lyrics of which are merely “Whoa, whoa, whoa! Someone’s definitely jumping in the tub with your brother!” It’s set to a funky beat, and with Sunday being Father’s Day, Phish did what they did last year on the same day when they played “Brother” – a giant ovular tub was brought on stage and gradually a bunch of kids came out and squashed themselves into the tub as the band played on. When the song ended, guitarist Trey Anastasio introduced the kids – they are all the band member’s kids – and shouted “Happy Father’s Day!” It was a very cute moment – the littlest kids had giant headphones to protect their ears. From there things just kept getting better – Phish sounded tight and precise. For “Gotta Jibboo” they brought Tony Markellis on stage to play bass guitar. Tony plays bass for Trey’s solo band and co-wrote the song for Phish 10 years ago. Mike Gordon, Phish’s usual bass player, switched to guitar for the song, but the two-guitar sound didn’t really add much to the song. The end of the set featured keyboardist Page McConnell stepping out to center stage for the lounge tune “Lawn Boy,” and then they closed with a scorching “Run Like an Antelope,” with Trey’s fingers flying so fast I thought they’d fall off.
The second set was full of fantastic jamming and high-energy tunes, highlighted by the Who’s “Drowned,” which featured some great exploratory jamming. The songs flowed seamlessly into one another, with little “down time.” The set ended with the ultra-funky “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (the theme from the movie 2001) and the classic “You Enjoy Myself,” which featured a fantastic vocals-only jam at the end. The encore was the Edgar Winter Group’s instrumental classic “Frankenstein,” which featured McConnell playing a “keytar” at center stage.
All told, they sounded terrific. While their penchant for taking risks with songs and doing a lot of extended jamming has waned in recent years, their shows are still full of magic and musical moments that make your jaw drop and silently thank the music gods that Phish is still touring. They will wrap up the tour in mid-August – we have yet to know if there will be a Halloween festival this year, or even a fall tour at all, but whatever the band decides to do, the faithful will follow. And with good reason.
These two Phish shows get 4.5 out of 5 stars!