Phish, Pepsi Arena, Albany, NY- 12/1
Perhaps the least-coveted ticket of Phish's four show Thanksgiving run, Pepsi Arena fit this tour's perennial "sleeper spot." While still a sold-out concert, Phish's Albany show flew under the radar because of its date. Falling after two Thanksgiving weekend concerts and preceding the group's birthday gig, Albany seemed like a natural show to skip during this abbreviated run. But, in many ways, the Monday night performance truly encompassed the idea of anniversary, welcoming back original Phish guitarist Jeff Holdsworth and embracing the jam style that will likely guide the band through 2004.
Since arriving at the Pepsi Arena in 1995, Phish has pumped out high-energy shows almost every year they've been on the road, offering animated antics like the 1995 Beavis and Butthead "Wilson" and silent-jam abetted "YEM," the 1997 "Bring The Dude" chants, and the 2000 debut of "Mellow Mood" and "Windora Bug." A few hours from their Vermont home, Albany has also seen its fair share of friends: J. Willis Pratt played a rare opening set in 1997, and Michael Ray ventured into the 16,000 person arena in September 2000. Along with other area venues like the Palace Theatre and Saratoga Springs Performing Arts Center, Phish feels comfortable in the Capital Region and always seems to take a few extra musical chances. But at first it seemed like Monday's show would simply continue to advance the musically solid, but somewhat non-celebratory, blueprint laid at Nassau and The Spectrum.
Promptly launching into the power-chords of "Chalkdust Torture," Phish picked up where they last left this song over the summer. Refocused, the group continues to weed out its theatrics and filter out the raw early Zappaesque fusion. Instead, the band is masking its jams with what can be called "chord-heavy space," playing a fast, raw synthesis of their '97 cow-funk and Siket Disc ambience. While not as experimental as the song's IT incarnation, "Chalkdust" still managed to break from its straightjacket. With the exception of the reflective "Thunderhead," Monday's setlist also drew from the group's old war-horses with 1994's "Guyute" acting as the show's second newest song. Mixing tight up-tempo group jams and long, lingering emotional ballads, the first set was tight and rock-based, the type of show one would expect during an early night of a New Year's run. Tight but funky, the choice Hoist selection "Wolfman's Brother" highlighted Phish's post-hiatus rhythm clarity, with bassist Mike Gordon and drummer Jon Fishman remaining in sync. Quick, up-tempo romps through "Sparkle" and "Guyute" seemed to break up the jam-heavy set, exploring Phish's late 90's understanding of arena-rock. Pacing their shows with precision, and emphasizing their ballads better than ever, Phish is replacing small, loaded riffs with wilder, darker guitar textures. While this style has uncoiled into "Great Gag in the Sky" jams, this new type of jamming, as first explored in "Seven Below," is most often being worked into worn-out funk vehicles like "Wolfman's Brother." Throughout Monday's "Wolfman's Brother," "Seven Below"-like riffs surfaced – a repetitious theme that seemed to emerge throughout the four-night run.
While the sing-along set closer of "Good Times Bad Times" was a welcome surprise, it seemed like Phish's Pepsi Arena show wouldn't stand out from its immediate predecessors. But after the quartet returned for their second set, it become clear the group had something special up its sleeve. Tearing into a tight "Tweezer," which segued into an ambient jam that remained more focused then similar '99-'00 experiments, Phish gently weaved into an equally adventurous "2001." While Anastasio's guitar guided each song early on, Phish's front man let his bandmates lead the core of each jam, a change of pace particularly apparent on "You Enjoy Myself," perhaps the seminal Phish song, and a number most thought Phish were holding for Boston. Gordon took "YEM" by its reins, even indulging in an extended bass-solo before the vehicle's vocal jam caboose. Acknowledging Gordon's lead instrumentation, Anastasio actually put down his guitar, allowing his three band mates to play some slim, funky axe-less fusion. For a few seconds, fans got a glimpse of what Phish would sound like sans Anastaiso, amounting to a bass-lead groove-trio many jazz-funk groups would aspire to match. If the show had ended there, Albany would have been on par with this year's best performances: musically tight, if not overly eclectic, sets focusing on high-energy guitar jams.
Yet 12/1/03 will be forever known for the reappearance of Jeff Holdsworth. A founding guitarist and vocalist in Phish, Jeff Holdsworth is often referred to as the group's Pete Best. During his three-year tenure in Phish, Holdsworth traded guitar licks with Anastasio, providing a solid, more bluesy, underbelly for the group's rhythm section. An important part of their bar-band days, Holdsworth helped cement the group's rock and roll edge, singing lead on several covers and complementing his bandmate's post-hippie styling. Though not much is publicly known about Holdsworth personal life, it has been documented that the guitarist, who was a year older than Anastasio, Gordon, and Fishman, left sometime in mid-1986 and rejected Anastasio's early chart experiments. Several friends of the group have also mentioned that during his tenure in Phish, Holdsworth's bandmates looked up to the guitarist because of his age and experience, through Anastasio was always the group's most active songwriter and arranger.
So when Holdsworth was escorted onto the stage, he appeared like a ghost floating in the Pepsi Arena. Slowly, crew members and Phish family meandered side-stage, watching one of the most surreal surprises in Phish's history. Though at first microphone problems marred Holdsworth's performance, his presence turned out to be more important than his playing. Standing next to his former bandmates, it became apparent that each member Phish has gained the celebrity, confidence and onstage comfort of an arena rock star, cultivating individual personas. Dressed in a black jacket and standing somewhat stiffly, Holdsworth appeared real and tangible, in contrast to these iconic figures. Running through somewhat sloppy, but entirely energetic, renditions of the two Phish songs he penned, "Camel Walk" and "Possum," Holdsworth highlighted his contributions to the group. Akin to Pig-Pen era Dead, early Phish played rock and roll, that found excitement not through multi-part compositions but through busy, crunchy rock. With Holdsworth singing shaky lead, the guitarist helped return both "Camel Walk" and "Possum" to their bluesy bar youth, though the Phish machine kept either songs from floundering too much. Nodding to their impending anniversary, the quintet then launched into "Long Cool Women," the Hollies' song that opened their first gig in 1983. Sure it was shaky and slow, but the appearance of this number brought back the raw energy that helped turn Phish into the world's most popular jamband. Holdsworth also gained more on-stage confidence, playing tight rhythm notes laid between Anastasio and Gordon. Throughout, Anastasio interacted with Holdsworth like a little brother scared to outshine his older sibling. When Holdsworth seemed a bit uncertain vocally, Anastasio jumped into help, but had too much respect for Holdsworth to completely take the song by the reins. Hugging the understandably uncomfortable guitarist frequently, for a few minutes, Anastasio seemed genuinely happy to be celebrating his past.
Closing their set with a rollicking "Run Like an Antelope," which allowed Page McConnell to shine, Phish combined novelty with note-perfect playing. Tom Marshall also ventured onstage to recite his lyrics to the song, which he credits as some of the first he penned for Phish. Perhaps the most fitting moment of the anniversary weekend, all six "members" of Phish were together onstage for at least a few minutes.
Though "Tweezer Reprise" seemed like an inevitable encore, Phish surprised all in attendance, including their roadies who had removed Holdsworth's guitar, by remaining a quintet for one final song. With Jimi Hendrix's "Fire," the group played the oldest cover still in their regular repertoire, another song performed at the group's first show.
In a year that has seen Phish reaffirm its identity a number of times, it's exciting to see that surprise will always be an appropriate adjective when describing the quintet. As the group sang in the Zeppelin cover that closed the first set:
"In the days of my youth, I was told what it means to be a man,
Now I've reached that age, I've tried to do all those things the best I can.
No matter how I try, I find my way into the same old jam."
Good thing, Phish isn't scared to try new ways to revisit both good and bad times.