Phish, Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga, NY- 6/20
FROM THE TOURING DESK: Deep Phish
Happily, news from Phish tour seems to be pretty good so far. Brooklyn was pretty swell, especially the first night and the "Chalkdust Torture" from the second. Saratoga Springs was somethin' else. The first evening was one of the genuinely classic latter-day Phish shows, and last night was a truly excellent showing as well, with a second set (like the first night) that skimped on the futzing and went straight for the deep. But the bizarre part of it is how normal everything has been up until now. Besides the guest appearances – worldwide megastar Jay-Z in Brooklyn and mild-mannered Phish pop, Dr. Jack McConnell, last night – there has been no indication that there’s anything out of the ordinary. Certainly, the band hasn’t mentioned it. And, except for a few pregnant cheers for outlandishly apropos lyrics, the Phishheads seem to be taking it mostly in stride.
The lots seem to be populated with a mix of older 'heads taking a day or two off from work to catch a few final shows and wide-eyed young'ns trying to soak in as much as possible before the end. For the latter group, Phish is clearly not a nostalgia trip. For them, "Rift" and "Julius" – which the band opened up the first set with last night – don’t simply hearken back to their lead-off roles on two of Phish’s early ’90s albums. In fact, they are probably songs that many fans, especially those climbing on the bus during the band’s two-year Hiatus, may have never heard live. They are songs that aren’t yet filled with memories. They are songs that will define these fans’ glorious few years with Phish — vessels waiting to be filled up (or, perhaps, sailed).
It's too bad, then, that "Rift" was as sloppy as it was, the nimbly composed middle section falling prey to Trey Anastasio's memory. But the thought was there. The emergence of keyboardist Page McConnell's father to sing and tap-dance to a Father's Day rendition of "Won't You Come Home Bill Bailey?" was an absurd slice of down-home Phishiness. And the longer he tap-danced, the sweeter it was, his son looking a bemused mix of proud and mildly horrified, having to simultaneously lead his bandmates and deal with a parent's loving intrusion in his cool-and-collected adult professional life.
"Waves" had the evening's first real jam, drummer Jon Fishman holding down the center with intricate cymbal patterns (perhaps his most distinct talent as a musician). It feels very good to see post-Hiatus numbers falling into roles as set pieces. This tour, the band both seems to have learned how to play the more engaging numbers with enough urgency to tie the disparate sections together and weeded out Anastasio's unpopular ballads. What has resulted (maybe too late) is a new sense of their later material, and a direction home. After a quartet of place-holders (including a disappointingly collapsed "Gumbo"), the band closed out the first set with a long and varied cover of The Who's "Drowned."
Like the second half from the previous evening, the band's four-song set flowed as one piece of music, the quartet patiently developing themes both consistent with themselves and with the tour as a whole. Coming out of "Seven Below," the jams were watery and dark, McConnell layering ambient sheets of Hammond organ. The band slowly moved into "Ghost." Once inside, they veered quickly from the song's funk into a dripping prettiness, Anastasio and bassist Mike Gordon improvising a gorgeous melodic counterpoint. McConnell added a third voice as they rode back to a funk groove, through a sinister space, into the underhanded cattiness of "Twist."
It took a long moment for the band to break from the song's cyclical rhythm. A long stretch of interesting music followed. Though, as the band brought it down, they seemed to lose their focus, resulting in some aimless playing. Finally, Fishman accelerated, lighting director Chris Kuroda threw on the big lights, and Anastasio shredded the song to a diminishing finale. "You Enjoy Myself" was perfunctory, though the dramatic final segments of the composed section were played with aplomb, and received the biggest cheers of the night. The vocal jam was sad and pretty, like a Brian Wilson lullaby, overtones blending in the mud of an amphitheater P.A..
So officially closed the band's last weekend in New York — four reassuring shows (and at least three full sets of for-real playing) at two perfect venues set in old-fashioned backdrops (the dreamland grit of Coney Island and the Edenic cure-all of the Saratoga Springs spas) whose functions have changed surprisingly little since their turn-of-the-century heydays. Fans inhaled the clean country air (and a few dank bowls) amidst the lush trees and schemed rides back to Manhattan for the band's rumored (later confirmed) Monday night appearance on the roof of the marquee at the Ed Sullivan Theater, taping a spot for David Letterman's Late Show. And that seems to be business as usual in this roving summer camp where fans blissfully dance away the grim horrors of the outside world. Wish you were here.