Phish, Hampton Coliseum, Hampton, VA- 8/9</b.
FROM THE TOURING DESK: And Revise Your Despise So Impending
Aye, Phish are still an American band (for another week, anyway). Next door, Crabbers' Restaurant and Sports Lounge welcomes Phish fans in unevenly spaced marquee letters. I imagine that, pulling in, Phishheads fundamentally felt the same sensation as Trekkies or motorcycle enthusiasts or the KISS Army — pleased as punch to all be in the same place, and as amused by the locals' attempt at friendly greetings as the locals are happy to have the business. As such, Phish are perfectly at home amidst the strip malls and motels and chain restaurants in sprawling landscapes like that of Hampton, Virginia. On the other hand, at home as they are, these relationships are often nourished by deeply held notions like "the Hampton Coliseum looks like a big flying saucer" and might, with suitable doses of LSD and that ol' Vermont magic, achieve lift-off. This, too (or, at least, the hope that it might be possible), is quite perfectly American.
Tonight, the Hampton Coliseum-cum-Mothership did not achieve lift-off — though, after the first half of Phish's final performance at one of their favorite venues, it seemed mighty close. Opening with the walloping no-brainer choice of "Chalkdust Torture," the band ripped confidently through the verses, and shifted into discordant overdrive as they hit the song's jam. With leader Trey Anastasio laying back, the adventurous improv was led, in turn, by Page McConnell's abnormally loud piano, Mike Gordon's picked bass lead, Jon Fishman's melodically circular cymbal pattern, before the band dipped into ambience and built majestically back up to a major-key screamer (and crashed through an unfortunately abrupt ending). The demented Gershwin march of "Bathtub Gin" – roaring '90s nostalgia for the roaring '20s – continued the credo of "jam early, jam often," returning to the elongated crest of "Chalkdust." By the end of the first two songs, the band had clocked nearly 40 minutes worth of mostly amazing improvisation. "Runaway Jim," which segued smoothly out of "Gin" never quite gained its own momentum (nor a jam). "Walls of the Cave" pushed just far enough through its near-elegance to find itself in a breakneck improv, Anastasio hopping in an animated pedal-dance as he blurred the song to a hyper-speed ending.
Unfortunately, the load was blown. The second set bloomed awkwardly, the band looking for its kicks in bizarre places, such as the set-opening ballad (?!) "All of These Dreams" (which succeeded with surprisingly forceful poise that I think kinda actually worked), and nary a jam to be seen until a full five songs into the set. Between that, the band's song choices were confusing, to say the least, though not without their pleasures. "Lifeboy," Hoist’s ballad of near-existentialism, was lovely, and perhaps the first song that one could say with any sad probability that the band won’t be playing again. But it was a nice sanctuary. One could imagine Phishheads veritably collapsing in their seats around the cozy arena, weary from their long drives (and dreading even longer ones tomorrow, either back to home or to Massachusetts), leaning back, and enjoying Chris Kuroda’s painted lights on the corrugated metal canvas of the venue’s room like those last delicious moments in bed before getting up to face what will likely be a king hell bummer of a day.
The jamming, when it came (maybe a 20 minute island in the middle of the set), was very much of Phish circa 2004 — dark and twisted. If the creative problem for the evening, set out during "Chalkdust," involved different ways of resolving strange rhythms and angular chords, then "Seven Below" and "Stash" tried different approaches to the same problem. Once the band settled onto the same rhythmic page (or arrhythmic page, as it were), "Seven Below" fell into a texturally rich ambience led by Fishman's open hi-hat march, a pattern which got pleasingly more and more complex the quieter the band got. "Stash" (praise Zeus) was not skimpy — a meaty, abstract jam filled with synchronized left turns and time-shifts that zagged evasively and ended up swinging all the more for it. But that was about it for Hampton '04. The "Stash" collapsed into a sluggish "NICU," the "NICU" to the one-too-many-ballads balladry of "Bug," the "Bug" to the uniquely Phish sing-along of "Contact," the "Contact" to the finalf "Character Zero." "David Bowie" made one last attempt at a resolution of rhythm and dissonance, and settled for what "David Bowie" has been for nearly 20 years — a great, climactic jam. Anastasio's fingers hardly failed him, and the song built to a perfectly dramatic ending.
But, like it or not, the ending didn't involve levitation, nor smoke machines, nor members of the Grateful Dead, nor nothin', really. Just Phish. That and the promise of five more shows, during which (it has been rumored on the Internet), the band will unlock the mysteries of the Pyramids, open the Ark, explain who killed Jack Kennedy, distribute maps to Atlantis, and jam with Phil Lesh and Eddie Van Halen. See you on the road.