Phish, First Union Spectrum, Philadelphia, PA- 2/25
Music is a form of art, or at least that is what we have been taught. That "Weird" Al Yankovic song that I haven't been able to get out of my head since the 3rd grade, something about losing on the game show Jeopardy, as much as it may pain me to admit, is art. A Korn song that I might hear on the radio and quickly turn off to keep from punching through my dashboard out of disgust, well that's art as well. And not just any form of art, a highly sophisticated and sometimes magical form of communication that only a select few are seemingly ever able to transmit. Inside a steamy Philadelphia Spectrum tonight, Phish consistently showed, for the first time in years, why on a good night, they are as close to mastering this art as anyone may ever come.
Talk is cheap, and you'd be hard pressed to find another group of music fans as obsessively thorough and accurate in their review of a band's every move than Phish Heads. Word on the street, and in this case the "street" refers to the countless internet sites devoted to reviewing every painstaking detail of the band's live performances, was that something was missing. They hadn't worked off all the rust yet, hadn't placed much emphasis on song selection, and seemed to be working almost too hard to get back to that place where we'd all become so comfortable, the one that usually left people both dumbfounded and drained of their energy and emotion on the walk back to their cars. Tonight, everything changed, and twenty-eight months later, the moons and stars of the Phish universe seem to be happily realigned.
Philadelphia has a great concert tradition, and in no genre of music is that more clear than in that of the so-called "jam bands". All questions about the reputation of The Spectrum as a venue are immediately answered upon entering the arena with a glance at the banner honoring The Grateful Dead that hangs from the rafters among championship banners of the Flyers and Sixers, an ode to 53 sold-out concerts in that arena alone, a staggering number. From a Phish fan's perspective, the band has been nothing short of spectacular since their first show there in December of 1995. Tonight was no exception.
This crowd was ready, as they always seem to be, and when the lights went down shortly before 8:00 p.m., they erupted in an ovation reminiscent of those which have preceded some of the band's finest moments. Greeted by the first post-hiatus version of "Julius", the vibe of "this could be a special night" spread seamlessly throughout the arena. A jam of near epic proportions ensued, and if you closed your eyes for even an instant, you ran the risk of forgetting that this was, in fact, the first song of the evening. Before there was even a chance to catch your breath, however, "Talk", a ballad from 1996's "Billy Breathes", took the wind out of our collective sails. With excruciatingly spotty vocals, this one deserves to be returned to the bottom shelf of the Phish repertoire. At this moment, I began, for the first and last time all night, to believe the hype. How do you follow an opener like that with such a dud? What happened to the flow? And then it hit me, in much the same way it always had. This band is doing just as they have always done, which is whatever they want to do, ignoring reason and consequences, and along that journey, even at this stage of the game, there are bound to be some pitfalls. They're right where they are supposed to be, onstage, taking chances, both conscious and unconscious, and if the kid in Section 302 throws a hissy fit because Trey couldn't hit the high notes in "Talk", even if he hasn't played it in five years, then too fucking bad. You want to be moved? You want to experience the religion of it all? Then shut your little mouth and take this one like a man. Just then though, things changed, and for the remainder of the night, I was on the edge of comprehension, kidnapped once again by something that so often seems unattainable, but winds up being so undeniably real. From "46 Days", through the set closer "Walls Of The Cave", this was borderline legendary stuff from Phish, a band at it's best, and I was once again humbled and ultimately just thankful to be in the building. A mid-set "Slave To The Traffic Light", a placement unheard of before tonight, was, in a nutshell, career defining. A pentultimate example of what lyrical simplicity and musical genius can produce when paired together. The aforementioned "Walls Of The Cave", one of the newest and perhaps most widely accepted tracks off the band's hiatus-ending album "Round Room", has settled nicely into it's set ending slot, a journey through intimate composed parts that evokes memories and reveals dimensions similar to those of "You Enjoy Myself" and "Guyute". A near flawless set, "Talk" notwithstanding, that reaffirmed in my mind what I've known since 1995, that there is something special happening in this community, something that, if you are lucky, you get to be a part of for a short amount of time during what has suddenly become an increasingly uncertain lifetime.
And with that, I wiped the sauna caliber sweat from my face with a dirty hand and headed down into the compromising halls of the arena, with my sights set on the men's room and drink counter, an undertaking that would prove too great to conquer, as I realized on the retreat back upstairs to await the start of the second set.
As if the first set of music hadn't already done so, the second set reminded me again why I go see Phish at virtually any cost. It's amazing, when you are as tuned in as a majority of these fans are, how quickly one song can change a show. In this case, that song was "AC/DC Bag", and from it's opening notes to it's fiery ending, it was a showstopper in a show that had already seen a number of them. Paired with a cover of "Cities", by The Talking Heads, this show was starting to flirt with greatness, though it wasn't until the jam during "Theme From The Bottom" that it actually achieved it. This became one of those sets where it suddenly didn't matter what else the band played, the cerebral damage had been done, and 18,000 minds had been officially fucked. The set closed with a group of four songs that could just as well have been replaced with the band farting into their microphones, something I've alluded to for years, akin to the scene in "Bittersweet Motel" where the band reads an article proclaiming that they had reached a stage in their career where they were now able to musically urinate in the ears of their fans, and those fans would call it amazing. In this case, the band could very well have done that, and it wouldn't have mattered, they'd gotten inside of our heads. The show had already reached it's desired destination, which on this night happened to be a place alot of us wondered if we'd ever get back to. It was time to pack up the trucks and head to Worcester, their work in Philadelphia was once again complete.
A show of this magnitude deserves a fitting end, and in customarily simplistic fashion, the band strolled out to deafening cheers for their encore and treated the faithful Philadelphia crowd to an old favorite, "The Squirming Coil". Following the usual piano solo that ends this song, the band immediately began "Character Zero", presumably deciding on the spot to end such a glorious night with the kind of intenity and fury that they had evoked nearly an hour earlier during "Theme". One last chance for the fans to jump as high as they could, scream as loud as they could, and pump their fists like they had been transported to "Ozzfest". You left The Spectrum drained of every ounce of your being, craving more of what you'd just witnessed, and rejuvenated at the almost improbable notion that musically, after all these years, this band and it's fans still have places left to visit. Together.