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Published: 2003/02/26
by Aaron Hawley

Phish, US Bank Arena, Cincinnati OH- 2/21&22


I didn’t know it was going to be like that. Six and a half years since I first saw the band, and two and a half years since my hiatus began, Phish was back in my life. I headed to Cincinnati, excited about my first show since the band had ended its self-imposed exile. I knew it was gonna be good. I presumed it would be great. But I didn’t realize the power and ferocity with which the four of them would destroy me and everyone else packed into a hot and smoky US Bank Arena on a chilly Friday night in Cincinnati.

A few minutes before eight, the lights dropped and the crowd roared with intensity as the fab four emerged from the tunnel behind the stage. The opening notes of "Wilson" resonating twice before the crowd’s screams shifted into the familiar Wilson chant, and the show was off. The band was rocking and Trey’s crunchy and in your face guitar led the way through a quick run-through of the tune, as a wide smile spread on my face and my feet started moving. Practically on the last note of "Wilson" Trey tore into "Frankenstein" without missing a beat and it was evident we were in for a full on rock fest. After the close of that tune the familiar white noise that precedes "Down With Disease" began to fill the arena as the crowd, which never stopped moving for a second the whole night, bristled with anticipation. They were not let down as Mike stepped up and thundered forth the opening bass lick with reckless abandon. This led into the night’s first exploratory moment as the band tore off on a pulsating funky jam that would continue for about fifteen minutes of high paced action before Trey brought the band back in with the song’s trademark lick.

After the jam which preceded it, "Lifeboy", not played since 1998, was the perfect breather song, as the band took a moment to cool their jets after the rocket like opening to the show. The overlapping melodies provided by the guitar, bass and piano filtered out over the arena as the band played this one with subtle beauty. I was thinking that Trey was right when he said that there is something amazing about a slow song in a big room.

Things weren’t cooled off for long when Mike stepped up and began popping out a funkified lick and Fishman dropped in to kick off "Boogie On Reggae Woman". Trey seemed a little unsure of the lyrics, but there was little to worry about because the band was kicking. Page and Mike took turns at funk breakdowns while Trey and Fishman started and stopped the groove. The whole time, Kuroda’s light’s shown down on the crowded floor screaming in ecstasy at each turn.

As the outro to "Boogie On" petered out, Trey began chording out the familiar intro to "Run Like An Antelope". The crowd began to pick up and roar in approval as Fishman joined in on the woodblocks and Page bounced pleasantly along on the piano. Then after the tension had been built and the table had been set, it was all knocked down by one crashing guitar chord and Kuroda’s spiraling lightshow. The band kicked it into the high gear and those in attendance were on a wild ride. The pace of the jam was that of a runaway train hurdling down hill with its brakes out, and just when you though they would drop into the familiar stops again, they would keep pushing forward. Finally the pace slowed and Mike thumped out his bouncy line. Trey held out "Marco" extra long before dropping into the songs closing portion the crowd prancing to and fro echoing the band’s repetition of the song’s final line. As Trey hit the last note and Fishman rode the cymbals, the crowd screamed their approval.

I figured that the band would have nothing left in store for us, as they put down their instruments and began to head off stage, until they motioned for their acapella microphone and Page, Mike and Trey huddled on the corner of the stage. Henrietta, straight to Cincinnati via Outer Mongolia strode behind his riser in search of vacuum as the rest of the band started up "I Didn’t Know". Their barbershop stylings were a little rusty, but no one in the house cared as Fishman offered us a spirited vacuum solo as the remaining three members of the band pranced around him waving their fingers and arms, even kneeling at his feet as he let loose with some lively electrolux sounds. With that, the band bowed and took their setbreak, one the exhausted but energetic audience needed as well.

Setbreak seemed to fly by as heads around me buzzed about the high-energy set they had just witnessed. Once the band emerged again, and took their places. Trey began to noodle around a bit when suddenly, before the crowd could really notice what was happening, he dropped into the trademark opening lick of "Mike’s Song". The arena erupted with raucous joy as the band hit the groove and Kuroda bounced light around the arena. I began to think about how much I had missed the band in recent years, and almost cried at the realization that I didn’t even know how much until right then. The jam took off on a funky and dark undulating tone and I was filled with happiness at the realization that the magic was back in my life. As the band slowed the groove it seemed that some began to start "I am Hydrogen", which I was dying for, but instead Trey chimed in with a loud guitar chord and started up "Free".

When Trey roared into the intro lick the crowd matched it in intensity. They danced and waved their arms, some sang along loudly, each time returning the energy in the arena right back to the stage from whence it came. The band let loose with blistering tenacity, before bringing the final jam back to a stop, while Mr. Anastasio could quiet the room with the opening guitar pattern of "Waste".

The classic Phish ballad acted as a good cool down song, but didn’t stay that way for long with the rhythm building back during Trey’s solo, Mike, Jon, and Page linking up underneath him. As the song began to trail off, Trey and Page each noodled quietly, when, as if to say, "Hey, let’s play something, it’s my turn to pick," Fishman dropped into the tell tale opening drumbeat of "2001". They crowd heartily agreed and bobbed together in beat as Trey and the others took their time sliding into their parts of the song. Trey’s teases of Bach, and "Stash", were well played and entertaining as he wove those other melodies on top of the undulating funk sound created by the other three.

Then, at the close of "2001", as if things just hadn’t been good enough. Fishman dropped the band into "Harry Hood". A song with profound personal meaning to me, I felt the tears well back again as I began to dance with abandon. I lost track of myself, and began to wonder why I hadn’t realized how much I missed this. During the latter part of the hiatus I almost began to get used to Phish being no more. I was at my 49th show, but it felt like my first. I didn’t keep a detailed setlist like I usually do. I just danced, I smiled, and I didn’t give a rat’s ass what song they played next because I was just so goddamn grateful to have them back. Later, when I listen to the official release, I could tell you if it was a good Hood, or a so so one, but I know that as I looked down on the band from the upper level US Bank Arena, I didn’t want to be anywhere else in the world.

"All of These Dreams" was next, and I know I needed a breather, but as far as Round Room songs go, I think it’s one of the better ones. "Possum" built the energy back up and the band took off on a tight rockin pace which rollicked and rolled as there wasn’t an ass in the crowd in their seats. "Cavern" closed the set, and seemed a little rough at times, especially in the beginning, but by the time the band reached the closing refrain they had everything ironed out. As the band put down their instruments and exited the stage someone threw their shoes onstage. I laughed to myself, since that’s just about the opposite of what the band tells you to do, but to each their own.

The "Wading in the Velvet Sea" encore didn’t go over to well with some I talked to in the lots after the show, but it sat fine with me. I think that song, the album version especially, is a quietly beautiful song which pulls at the heartstrings with out much razzle-dazzle from the band. I was reminded of the Big Cypress version, in the tail end of the all night set, in which the band was so exhausted you could hear it in their playing, Trey’s voice almost cracking. This one felt very much the same way a quiet farewell after a night that left me drained, physically and emotionally.

After the show I lingered a bit, not quite wanting to leave, but knowing that I would be back the next night. It just felt so good to stand in a smoky, but now lit, arena filled with happy phans sharing in the post show glow. Many of them were seeing the band for the first time in years, some for the first time ever, but everyone knew they had just seen a special show. As we filtered out into the cold and snowy Cincinnati night, someone held aloft a sign that simply said, "Smile". As if we needed a sign to remind us.

In a way, I was kind of glad to put Friday night behind me. It was back to normal on Saturday. I was ready for Phish as usual. A lot of the Phish shows I’ve seen, Friday included, were transcendent but most of them were just good ole laid back fun. It’s what I love to do, go see the band, and now that I’ve done without for the duration of the hiatus and new years run, I’m just so happy they’re back. The setlist book was back on Saturday, and so was a somewhat more critical ear, which felt "Sloth" and "Dogs Stole Things", right out of the gate lacked the oomph of the previous night. I did manage to enjoy the latter a bit more than when I seemed to see it every other show in 1997 and 1998.

The band quickly eased into "Piper" which got the whole arena grooving and the tempo built to a rapid pace throughout the lyric section of the tune. After about nine minutes of jamming Trey dropped into a couple of very familiar chords and Mike’s thundering slapping began to rumble about. When Fishman dropped the drumbeat into place the puzzle was complete and the crowd erupted for "Weekapaug Groove". Missing from Friday night’s show this song was one every head in the house wanted to hear and they let the band know it. The lyrics where flubbed a bit at first, probably due to the quick transition. This "Weekapaug" wasn’t the most exploratory, but chugged along and is notable for the interesting placement.

The band then drifted into "Dirt", the crowd erupting with Trey’s first trip to the microphone. This one seemed standard, and the folks around the arena swayed to and fro as Kuroda shone round circles of light on them and moved from section to section. After a brief pause the band began strumming out a good ole alien in the country ditty and Cactus took the forefront for an inspired "Scent of a Mule". Page played a fairly brief solo in the mule duel before the whole band dropped into some klezmer tinged grooves before bringing "Mule" to a close.

"Walls of A Cave" was next, started by Page, and it took me a minute or two to figure out what it was, not being completely boned up on "Round Room" material. I’m not sure that I’ve come to my final opinion of the lyrical portions of the song, but this one took off on it’s own and the jam was great. It was a beast that reared its head for quite awhile before the band brought it back home. I thought that would be it for the set, but "Mountains in the Mist" was next. This is a song that has really grown on me since it’s inception in the days of Trey’s acoustic/electric tour. I think the melody is gorgeous and Trey really puts his heart into when he sings.

Not to end the set on a down note, "Sample in a Jar" was up next. Say what you will about this song, people love it. It gets everyone standing and singing. Trey was a little off on the transitions the first two times through the verse but no one seemed to care. The house lights came up and I politely explained to the woman sitting in front of me exactly what they were saying in the song. And yes, Elihu is a name. Other than sit and converse with those in my section I milled about the concourse hoping to randomly run into some one who I hadn’t seen in a long time. Instead I just checked out the Waterwheel table.

The second set opened with what I feel is the consummate indoor set opener, "Tube". The band stepped off the deep end and began jamming with a bouncy funk feel, exemplified by a stop start pattern, Page dropping a quick three chord fill in the middle the break to the delight of all in attendance. The band began to stretch it’s legs a bit more than in the first set and seemed guaranteed to succeed in getting the set pumping.

"Bathtub Gin" was up next, much to the delight of my little sister, who had suggested this one as the song to hear, earlier in the hotel room. The band did not disappoint with a highly psychedelic twenty-five minute "Gin". The groove began quickly and morphed back and forth, Page taking a lead in supplying a heavily spacey keyboard sound. Unlike other versions, where Trey simply brings the jam to the end by returning to the melodic hook, the entire band began playing with the melody deconstructing it and putting it back together before finally bringing the song to a close. By doing so, this extended the end of the song, the crowd building with energy each time round, it was a highlight, and definitely is a "Gin" to hear.

After the giant "Gin" that preceded it, "Friday" was a bit of a let down, though the crowd and band definitely needed a chance to catch their breath. After a routine run through of the tune Fishman began a familiar high hat beat and I crossed my fingers for "David Bowie", which was delivered with intensity. The band stepped gingerly into unexplored territory, seeming to focus on each of the changes, aware of the complex nature of the material, that at one point was second nature, but now seems to need a little brushing up here and there. By the end of the tune the band was roaring on all cylinders, Trey pumping the crowd up with his wailing machine gun ending to the song.

"Bug" closed the set. Each chorus Fishman’s drums leading the band into the refrain, everywhere in the audience, folks threw their hands in the air each time the song’s title was repeated. No outlandish jamming, the song left the set on a fairly high note none the less. The "Suzy Greenberg" that followed in the encore, the first since the hiatus, was just icing on the cake as the crowd exploded with each chorus. Trey offered up some crunchy rock and roll chords before giving way to Page on the ivories in an enlightened piano breakdown. With that we were ushered out into the snow. Some people went home, some people played bongos with local street musicians. Me? I fought the throngs to get a cab back to my hotel. Exhausted, but thoroughly relieved that Phish was back. See you in Greensboro.

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