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Published: 2004/06/21
by Jesse Jarnow

Phish, Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga, NY- 6/19

19 June 2004
Saratoga Performing Arts Center
Saratoga, New York
The Desmond
Albany, New York
I’ve been accused, probably rightfully so, of being a curmudgeonly Phishhead. If that is so, then it is because I reserve the right to freak out over shows like the one Phish played tonight at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center outside of Albany. For once, there was simply no fucking around. The two sets this evening came as close to perfection as Phish have in many moons: long focused jams in each of the well-selected songs, each shot through with the reckless confidence that once oozed from the band’s pores. The evening’s mood was pleasantly symbolized during the second set, in the midst of "A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing," when a gigantic yellow balloon landed at the feet of guitarist Trey Anastasio. Under some circumstances, he would have made a goofy show of popping the balloon. Tonight he swiftly swung the headstock of his guitar into the sphere, dispensing with it instantly and intently going back to his work.
Ambitiously opening with "Reba," the band set the tone for the first set with a not-too-shabby song execution, followed by a self-contained pocket jam. "Runaway Jim" continued the trend, ranging fairly far, but returning neatly to the song’s theme. There is nothing quite so satisfying as a really well-played new song, and "Scents and Subtle Sounds" – the second half, at any rate – certainly qualifies. The band was right to split the song into two parts for its inclusion on Undermind. The point at which the piece is cut in two (and where it began tonight) is, without anything else there, an extremely abrupt splice — as if Anastasio had never written a transition section. Started at that spot, the song is like a module. It’d be nice if the band ‘finished’ the song live, either by inserting a jam, or using the two parts of the song to bracket a longer set of tunes. The crowd received the song excitedly as it climaxed with a warm ‘Harry Hood’-like flourish.
The evening’s first real improvisation came in "Wolfman’s Brother." After Anastasio and drummer Jon Fishman hooked up for a series of short rhythmic flights away from the song’s central groove, the quartet sailed off into the psychedelic ether for a lingering jam before neatly wrapping the tune up. Like many of Trey Anastasio’s recent compositions, "Walls of the Cave" (which followed) takes the multi-sectioned structure of early Phish and replaces Anastasio’s meticulous cartoon melodies with latter-day maturity. At least, that’s the goal. A song that succeeds at it, oddly, isn’t by Phish at all, but by the Grateful Dead. "Wharf Rat" effortlessly and transparently skirts through about a half-dozen distinct sections at the story evolves. Anastasio’s songs in this vein have not yet measured up to that standard of grace. But they are getting there. "Walls of the Cave," now almost a year-and-a-half old, still contains several fundamentally awkward passages (notably the sharp transition, similar to "Scents and Subtle Sounds," before the "listen to the silent trees" refrain), but the band’s grasp of the song has improved vastly. And, like many classic Phish songs, the improvisational payoff doesn’t come until the end. "Walls of the Cave" peaked ecstatically before settling down into its real purpose — a long, quiet groove that dwindled to nothingness and back up into the ethereal as bassist Mike Gordon plucked upper-register melodies. The jam landed in a textbook "David Bowie" to close the set.
For the second time in three days, the band opened a set with the new "A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing." And they should damn well do it again soon. Like "Reba," the song set the mood quickly. For starters, it’s a new song. Especially given the relative timeframe of the band’s career (10 more shows, now), it was very, very nice to see them put a new song in a position of responsibility. If they have something to say with any of their new songs, now is no time to hold back. And, tonight, they didn’t seem to be. The song itself out of the way, the band moved into a long, dark watery theme — similar in feel to some of the music from the first night of Coney Island, though far more sinister and articulated. Ideas unfurled as the band moved towards the surface, becoming slightly brighter as the jam developed. After a healthy length, Anastasio wound it up and led the band into the centerpiece of the night: a long "Piper." The band took their time during the song’s introduction, exploring several short themes on their way to the verses. Once singing, they veritably rushed to the second set of verses in order to hop right back into the jam. They pulled back the tempo slightly and let go.
From there, "Piper" moved into a good half-dozen distinct, fully developed improvisations, each more enthralling than the last: down into a temperate simmer with Page McConnell contributing a bluesy Rhodes progression, a steady gallop with Anastasio delivering mysterious Middle Eastern melodies, a spontaneous pull-back into a moment of pure musical breathing, Fishman working the quiet back upwards, the jam plateauing with Anastasio firing off a brief power riff or three before being coaxed back into the flow of quietude and rockingness with an able flurry-cue from lighting director Chris Kuroda, and so on. The band’s transitions between ideas were breathtaking. There was virtually no wasted playing, no searching. A genuine segue into "Gotta Jibboo" found the band locked, momentarily, into a repetitive groove — a fine way to come down from the utter freeness of the two thoroughly out-there jams that had opened the set. Like the previous night’s "Taste," "Limb By Limb" found itself on new territory, a jam as rhythmically compelling and elegant as the song itself.
This was a great Phish show, and – for a little while longer – that still means something. Best, the show was great on its own terms. Not only didn’t it rely on the bust-out of some nugget of Phish obscurity, but it barely leaned on Phish’s classic material at all, finding equal (if not more) strength in "Scents and Subtle Sounds," "A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing," and "Walls of the Cave" as "Piper," "Reba," and "Wolfman’s Brother." Every note of this show is worth hearing, even the well-earned encore of "Waiting In The Velvet Sea." There was a fire under the band’s ass. Whether that fire was lit by their impending end or some other source of inspirado is up for grabs. Whatever it was, Phish really did it tonight. Word.

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