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Published: 2009/03/07
by Randy Ray

Phish, Hampton Coliseum, Hampton, VA 3/6

Photo by David Vann

Playing one of their longest two-set shows in their legendary history, Phish returned to the stage with formidable purpose in their first gig since Coventry in August 2004. And make no mistake about it, the band came to play, and as they dipped into their sizeable catalogue, the reunited jam kings chose to focus on volume of material over versatility, perfection over improvisation, and, most importantly, playing together as a focused unit, rather than as a band showcasing solos, covers, novelties, or off-the-cuff noodling.

In an interview earlier in the week with the New York Times’ Jon Pareles, Phish frontman Trey Anastasio mentioned that Phish had settled on 80 songs for the three-night run. Speculation grew as to how the band could cover so much material in Hamptonwould they play three three-set shows? Would they play another Big Cypress-like all-night set? Well, the 80 songs seem to serve as more as a guideline, than any actual set of rules, and Phish managed to defy the expectations by delivering 28 songs on their first night back.

Hitting the stage at 8pm, the band was met by a tremendous ovation that seemed to lift the building, the Mothership, as it were, and never quite bring it back down to terra firma. As Phish eased into “Fluffhead,” their first great multi-sectioned opus, the quartet seemed deeply touched but not deterred, especially a beaming Page McConnell, in an emotional moment reminiscent of his tearful breakdown at Coventry. Nonetheless, the band made it through that first song, that first look back at who they were, and who they are attempting to be at this point in time, and then moved right into “Divided Sky,” another early classic that shaped the band, and served notice that the band was fully aware of the importance of their songs, their lofty legacy, and the historical gravity of this particular evening.

“Chalkdust Torture” followed in an almost welcome moment of pure rock n’ roll riffs n’ revelry after the previous duo of hallowed chestnut epics. The performance also seemed indicative of how the four musicians would treat open-ended jam possibilities at their first gig in over 54 months. Instead of exploring space within the Great Unknown, the musicians chose moments to improvise, and then got right back to the main motif at hand, quickly, as they returned to the body of a song without any room for needless error. Smart move by a smart band with rust removal issues hovering over the stage like an invisible cloud, but damned if the band didn’t find a way to dissipate that weird aura.

This considered trait became more prominent when Phish finally entered their first moment of improv adventure with “Stash.” The band was exploratory and atmospheric, but never attempted to draw too far outside the lines, not just yet anyway, lest they lose the conceptual plot. A fine moment, the brief dalliance with unpredictability in “Stash,” direct and meaningful, and it helped shape the set’s personality, adding color to a setlist which was beginning to read like a Greatest Hits model. Fishman tossed out that predictability on a warm reading of “I Didn’t Know” by doing a short vacuum solo as Anastasio dashed over to the drums, betwixt the quartet showcasing their vocal abilities.

“Suzy Greenberg” gave the band their first real opportunity to show how their spontaneity and looseness as a unit playing within a sturdy framework helped shaped their sound over a two-decade plus career. McConnell delivered multiple keyboard solos, toying with the textures of the song, and brought a welcome bit of relief to an often claustrophobic “Please don’t screw anything up, tonight” vibe that seemed to linger even after the household appliance molestation by the percussionist. If “Stash” was their first trip into the vacuum of space, then “Suzy” was Phish’s initial chance to breathe with their legendary post-Pranksters mask on, and collectively come out intact.

What followed was another sharp choice of songs that eased the tension down several levels as the foursome dove into a tight half dozen tunes that emphasized hooks, witty charm, and their often underrated group vocals (“Farmhouse,” “NICU”- where Anastasio received a huge roar of cheers and laughter, and a big smile for himself, when he came to the line ”when my life was a haze”), “Horn” and “Rift” with great vocal dynamics, a sublime “Train Song” with bassist Mike Gordon on vocals, and “Water in the Sky” played in the way it was originally written with an almost Country Western approach).

The final two songs were twin set closersor what would appear to be traditional closers as Phish sometimes crafted set templates in the past, but just as easily discarded those choices when their artistic ambitions shifted gearswith pitch perfect readings of “Squirming Coil” and “David Bowie.” The former featured the famous piano coda played by McConnell, but as if the overriding thematic connection needed another underline, the keyboardist played a short sequence of beauty, and then ended the song. The latter featured the band allowing themselves a long passage of transcendent tension and release before closing the song with a big wallop as they returned to the tune’s theme, and finished the set after nearly two hours of passionate playing filled with vigorous intent.

Numb. The setbreak felt like a hammer had finally stopped pounding one’s head as each blow extinguished another series of fan’s expectationswould Phish ever play again? Could they play again? Would it be the same? Different? Still relevant, or, gasp, even interesting in these weird and chaotic pre-Apocalyptic times? Well, for sanity’s sake, it was at least comforting to know that Phish had played a very long 16-song set, nailed the classics, delivered some welcome humor, played like they KNEW they had to deliver, andfor better or worsedid so without any banter, shenanigans, or fundamental breakdowns. Out in front of the coliseum is a large circular pond, and the band had commissioned a giant white robotic figure to stand in it, built out of square boxes, with a red smile-y face on its blockhead. Yes, symbolically, one got The Connection. That dorky and happy robot IS Phish, but it is so much more, and the first set defined that fact.

The second set began with the only new number debuted at their first show back, “Backwards Down the Number Line.” The song is a welcome addition, and featured opportunities for the foursome to cut loose, before Anastasio moved the band into “Tweezer,” helping cement the evening’s grand design, while reaching a fine moment of transcendence that never wavered until a humorous hiccup near the show’s coda.

“Tweezer” segued into “Taste,” and Phish was completely on roll at this point as all the marks were hit, changes mastered, and the band was playing as one extremely-focused unit. McConnell, again, stood out on “Taste,” as had Anastasio on a spectacular “Tweezer,” but neither moment detracted from the fact that the band was on point as a collective unit, neither emphasizing or refraining to spotlight a single individual. “Possum” was delivered with lusty aplomb, and then the quartet took their first minor break of the set before heading right into another emotionally-driven song, “Theme from the Bottom,” which had all of the security guards by the rail turning at various times during the song’s vocal-tinged climax, to wonder “Who ARE these guys?”

Who, indeed, as Fishman smashed into the opening of “First Tube,” and the band roared into an incendiary version, which continued to arc upwards, before finally descending into the opening rim shots and hook of “Harry Hood.” At this point, one was drained, and yet, Phish found a way to use one of their all-time classic tunes to bring light into what was becoming a very welcome yet heavy atmosphere of peak performances. Above the sold-out coliseum, carefully-placed giant balloons changed color throughout the evening and also served as trippy lighting effects with various shapes and imagery bouncing off the circular behemoths. During “Hood,” in what used to be a late 90s/early 00s glowstick war extravaganza during the jam sequence, small disco ball light fixtures on a large round apparatus in the middle of the arena lit up the crowd and the venue to sublime effect. Thankfully, the glow sticks seemed to have finally subsided although numerous individual sticks hit the stage throughout the night. The “Hood” jam was also tight and focused, and the band wisely brought the mood down a notch with a tasteful reading of “Waste.” (and, yes, “Hood,” also served as a set closer in the past, but like the first set, this night was all about defying expectations and delivering quality performances of some rather timeless material).

Phish had not referenced their first post-hiatus stint, or Coventry, on this evening. Indeed, the word “trainwreck” was nowhere to be found within a mile of the Hampton, but as the group began the rather intricate opening of “You Enjoy Myself,” it was as if all involved were in some kind of weird digital delay loop that had hooked January 2003 at the Hampton Coliseum into its exotic matrix because the band fucked up the opening sequence. And stopped. And chose to start over. NOT before Trey Anastasio, who despite his often gabby unpredictability in the past, has always had a strong sense of Phish and their ultimate destiny as their de facto leader, commander, chief songwriter, and inevitable post-Phish fall guy, quipped, “We are going to start over, but it isn’t going to be like the last time,” and we all had to laugh with him because who knew that the opening sequence could be so damned challenging after years of epic performances?

And, as they have often done in the past, Phish played a truly memorable version of a great song after first acknowledging that they are, in fact, four human beings. “YEM” featured the re-introduction of the trampolines as Anastasio and Gordon pulled off their synchronized movements, however having two technicians bringing out the tramps, instead of ex-road manager, Brad Sands, was a weirdly melancholic moment, which served to emphasize in another symbolic way thatagain, for better or worsethe band had moved on from its legendary past in more ways than one. The song also featured a great jam sequence, and a welcome return of fine interplay between Gordon and McConnell, before a wonderfully long, weird and beautiful vocal finale that felt scripted, but didn’t seem too rehearsedit just felt like another perfectly surreal Phish moment.

That may be the theme right there when one looks back at the first post-second hiatus show for the bandanother perfectly surreal moment for a perfect surreal band and its history and its legions of loyal, mad, crazy, and shockingly observant fans. This isn’t just a band, it’s a lifestyle for many, and this band needed to remind everyone in the building that if they aren’t playing together as a unit, none of that other stuff matters in the least. Who expected them to even be able to do this sort of thing on their first night back?

Phish came out for the encore, and the a cappella four-mike stand was placed in front of Page’s grand piano, near the lip of the stage, and the quartet dipped into a wonderfully warm version of “Grind.” With its weird lyrics and mathematical formulas, the song is well-suited to their group character. “Bouncin’ Around the Room” served as the second encore and, on cue, some of the giant balls fell from the ceiling to bounce throughout the audience circumventing any mixed feelings about this particular tune. One lone yet determined round straggler comically made it up to the stage, and hovered over McConnell as if to say, “You made my night, Chairman,” and Anastasio went over to assist in this silent praise, suggesting that the huge potentially destructive sphere needed to be anywhere but near the valuable man and his keyboards, but McConnell managed to pop the massive beast, in turn, creating a big explosion and round of laughter.

“Lovin’ Cup” closed the trio of encores and the evening at around 12:20am, with another fine bit of jamming from all four members as the memorable lyrics from the Rolling Stones’ classic continue to provide an opportunity to let out a loud roar of good ole piratesque sing-a-long before the ship, again, heads out to sea, to points unknown and beyond. The future, as they say, is always uncertain, but for Phish, one thing is clear, as the four musicians collectively push away from their premature retirement shore, and head back on the sometimes challenging waters of their continuing career, now in its third decade, the end isn’t always as near as it once appeared, and on this very emotional and historic evening, that may be the most lasting impression of all.

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