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Published: 2009/03/08
by Randy Ray

Phish, Hampton Coliseum, Hampton, VA 3/7

Phish continued their three-night reunion run at the Mothership with another long opening set filled with fan favorites, and a monster second set which signaled a return to some of their peak improvisational playing after a robust but more refined opening night.

The rejuvenated quartet began the night in front of another boisterous sold-out crowd with “Back on the Train.” And, indeed, PHISH IS BACK, and it was a good way to ease into a loose sounding motif which would set up another lucid frame for the evening. On Friday, the band had carefully crafted an almost perfect two-set show, which, except for the YEM opening sequence re-start, whether it was botched as a joke or not, appeared flawless, and wasn’t lacking in anything but that famous improvisational area of space that only Phish seems to master. On Saturday, Phish quickly showed that they still have the ability to go deep into the risky realm of chance and unpredictability.

“Runaway Jim” followed and was sturdy, off-the-cuff, and _precise_that word, again. “Brian and Robert” entered the set as a surprising momentum deflator, but that was only the initial point of view, as the moody number began another running theme which would supplement the evening’s main thesisslow things down a bit, and then pick everything right back up again as Phish head even deeper into vast uncharted sonic terrain.

“Split Open & Melt” solidified this overriding master theme as the Phab Phour played their first truly epic jam of the weekend which produced broad smiles from each of the musicians at song’s coda. “Heavy Things,” “Punch You in the Eye,” and “Gumbo” served as a very solid trio of invigorating touchstones, but they were merely a grand setup for another example of wonderful band communication and interplay on a sublime “Reba.” Slowing things down just a bit, the band followed with “Mexican Cousin,” which one supposes that their sober frontman, Trey Anastasio, now plays more for a laugh, and a chance for some fine guitar work on the solo passage, as opposed to any connection with the literal lyrical content. Ahhhbut that’s rock n’ roll, now isn’t it?

“It’s Ice” came out of nowhere in this confident and upbeat set, and also served as the first doorway into pure ambience of the weekend as all four locked into an intense solo passage and met as one group mind before returning to the main theme. “Halley’s Comet” was another surprise. Played with humor and perfection, the band also found an ingenious segue passage that entered “Beauty of a Broken Heart” from Page McConnell’s 2007 solo album. Somehow, they made this duo work well together, and it was a welcome bit of unpredictability on a night that seemed to excel in that area.

“Guelah Papyrus” returned and so did the synchronized dancing of Anastasio and Mike Gordon. The song offered a nice dose of humor featuring witty lyrics, a classical interlude, dorky interplay, and classic prog rock moves. Page McConnell, who continues to excel with numerous choice solo runs, came out front on his ode to the nightclub singer set piece, “Lawn Boy.” He acknowledged “Mr. Gordon,” who also is clearly showcasing his formidable chops within the new confines of Phish in 2009. “Run Like an Antelope” ended another long post-second hiatus first set on a high note.

The second set finally brought back some of the unpredictable moments of improvisation that the band has patented throughout their illustrious career. Yes, the quartet isn’t quite venturing too far out of this particular galaxy just yet, but their jam sequences are tight, considered, well-played, and quite engaging. Risky? Well, not yet, either, but they are making those strides, and the opening six songs of the second set were like rich bounty to the hardcore masses as Phish ripped into their lusty version of Velvet Underground’s “Rock n’ Roll,” which has continued to find a home in their sets since they covered the VU gem Loaded on Halloween, 1998.

The furious pace right out of the second set gates was spearheaded by muscular Anastasio guitar work, Jon Fishman accentuating and slashing away behind the drum kit, before Phish segued into a vibrant version of “Limb by Limb,” and the band finally found their space boots yet again for a full, round and open version of “Ghost” that was magnificent, albeit nothing too terribly epic in its length. Which would have been fine, but the song’s passage into “Piper” suffered just a bit as the normally patient Anastasio may have found it difficult to just get on with the next number, flubbed the crescendo of the opening motif before the song took off, and the quartet eventually charged into a fire and brimstone version of “Birds of a Feather,” which, when bookended with “Rock n’ Roll,” created a truly fine sandwich, and an example of Phish as a ballsy hard rock band, as well.

If “Birds” was a peak riff-a-thon moment of the night, “Wolfman’s Brother” served as a funked-out primal beast that initially lumbered along as Anastasio and the band looked to find the groove before really hitting its stride during the brief jam sequence, which featured some very superb Gordon bass work. The inevitable crash back down to earth after Phish’s first extended foray of the run into the outer realm of the Great Unknown occurred as they lit a torch under “Prince Caspian,” which offered a fine McConnell piano solo (the writer suffers from redundancy charges here) near the song’s coda, but seemed like a potential set killer at the time.

Alas, one was getting far too cynical far too soon asafter a brief break which contained much band banter back and forth on stage, most between Anastasio and Gordon, some with a bemused McConnell and Anastasio, and produced a big laugh from Fishman when Gordon related some pivotal news to himafter several shoutouts for “MIKE’S SONG,” in the surrounding area near the Page Side of the stage, Phish kicked into the song in question, which opened up to a full, punchy, and a rich, resounding version of the entire “Mike’s Groove” sequence, ending in a ferocious “Weekapaug Groove” that, again, offered some bouncy, tight, elastic and loose bass playing from Mr. Gordon.

“Character Zero” followed as sort of an empty echo off the walls of some mountain of sound that the previous sequence had forged. One had hoped for a lengthier workout on “Weekapaug,” which would have made “Zero” null and void in the set. Suffice to say, at least the reunion, thus far, has remained fairly consistent and the band has returned to some of their improvisational motifs that exploded their fervent fan base in the 1990s.

Alas, expectations can defeat even the best of them and the band played a very entertaining and confident climax to arguably their best set of 2009two nights and counting. And, they did it again in the encore with the reappearance of the Beatles’ masterwork “A Day in the Life,” and a very welcome old friend, indeed. The Fab Four’s intricate dual themes of abstract dissonance and lyrical resonance on this closing song from Sgt. Pepper’s, also served as a neat little symbolic tie to the show’s overall premise“Sure, we can jam for a while, we won’t go too deep, but we’ll keep it tight, play some shorter tunes for a spell, and then bring you home nice and safe.”

Not the loftiest of ambitions, but for a band well into their third decade, on their second night back after a long second hiatus and retirement,’ one is challenged by any notion of criticism. Instead, one is left with the feeling that the band has found its footing, and now only needs the twin gods of time and imagination to really forge some new adventures. In the meantime, it is back to the future as Phish continue to re-write their own history.

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