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Published: 2009/03/09
by Randy Ray

Phish, Hampton Coliseum, Hampton, VA 3/8

Placing themselves in a position of continually topping themselves after Saturday’s show edged Friday’s for peak moments, Phish came away victorious in more ways than one. This was a pressure-packed weekend after four year and a half years away from the road, and the trio of shows were predestined to be filled with possible hazards and treacherous pitfalls. Somehow the four veteran musicians locked into the huge spotlight on their performances, delivering yet another strong reunion show on Sunday that ventured further away from the shores of inactivity, and presented their best show of the run.

Not that everything was superb, as Phish in 2009 still has a tendency to insert too many songs into a bloated setlist, and, perhaps more importantly, cut their explorations short. However, the precise way in which they are improvising within a carefully-planned framework is actually both an old and new idea for the band. Old because they have returned to practicing long and hard to get something right. New because it appears like the band isn’t remotely interested in some of their more self-indulgent excursions, or attempts at crazy detours, which led to either sloppy playing, or, contrarily, excellent improvisation in the later years pre- and post-hiatus 1 and 2.

“Sanity” opened the show as, ironically, a sign requesting its presence was resting on one of the arena walls nearby. Circular lights filled the sold-out venue as the band watched the effect produced by Chris Kuroda, who had a truly memorable weekend himself, before sliding into the song with its witty aside “Lost my mind just a couple of times,” which produced a humorous “Yes, I did!” from Trey Anastasio. On the “world explodes” lyrical passage, Anastasio pointed to the ceiling, and one of the giant balloons that had been attached to the Hampton Coliseum roof throughout the run, deflated and descended to the crowd. Fortunately, this wasn’t another symbolic moment about the performances.

“Wilson” began the smidgen of Gamehendge material in the set as pre-show discussion on the streets and the net, in hotels and the Hampton lot, via calls and text messages led many to believe that a full-on presentation of Anastasio’s senior thesis was going to happen on Sunday. It was a very long shot, but everything suddenly seemed possible after the first two stellar shows. But Phish aren’t really that predictable right now. Yes, they are hitting the notes and spinning heads into the stratosphere. No, they won’t do what you want, when you want. Instead, they moved into “Foam,” which happened to pick up the other consistently escalating factor of this historic runPage McConnell played his first fiery solo of the night, and continued his stint as the quartet’s current standout musician.

“Bathtub Gin” was the band’s first link to the nebulously ethereal X-factor of the weekend as first McConnell, then Anastasio, and finally the entire band worked as a tight, organized unit on a jam gem. The residue of the performance appeared to impact a well-placed “Undermind” that featured another superb solo from [insert McConnell hyperbole]. “AC/DC Bag” created one of several ape shit reactions from the crowd on this evening as suddenly it became glowstick madness throughout the Coliseum before

“My Friend My Friend” brought the mood to a restful lofty position that was inevitably solidified by a rather fine version of “Scent of a Mule,” with another opportunity for McConnell to play another solo run that heightened the songs multi-layered textures.

“All of These Dreams” offered a brief trip back down to earth as if Phish was suddenly conserving their energy on a slow ballad while maintaining an unpredictable setlist. “Maze” picked the energy level back up again as each member took their opportunities to burst the seams on this little self-contained escalating ditty that stretches and recedes based on its own improvised forward momentum. And that all sounds complicated and obtuse compared with the next song, Mike Gordon’s reading of “She Thinks I Still Care.” It is a song written by George Jones, masterfully re-invigorated by Phish, and the tune added more offbeat colors to the weekend portrait.

Suddenly, the spotlight was on a member of the band that had previously been in the shadows throughout the weekend. Have we discussed the cat playing keyboards, yet? Page McConnell, not content with being a musician’s musician and a fan favorite during this run, delivered a classic reading of his track, “Army of One” from Phish’s last studio album, _Undermind_an album making a second appearance in this eccentric yet thoroughly enjoyable set. After the song, in which the Chairman of the Boards gave a rather great vocal performance, Anastasio walked over to McConnell and said, “Nice,” which proved to be a subtle understatement. At this point, the keyboardist could have fallen off the stage, and somehow, he still would have made the thud sound fantastic.

“Tube” brought the funk to the evening, and the weekend for that matter beforewait for itdrum roll pleasePhish kicked into Page McConnell’s “Cars Trucks & Buses,” which offered the man a rare chance to take a mind-bending solo spotlight. “Free” momentarily freed the crowd from the Page Comes Alive weekend festivities as the lyric “the feeling I forgot” sung by Anastasio, got a loud cheer as everything else referencing his once dazed and confused mental status did throughout the run.

“Frankenstein” was finally wheeled out, which made the trio of fans wearing the green monster masks all weekend long happy and, one imagines, enabled them to breathe a bit easier, as well. A musician from the band literally came to center stage with a Moog synthesizer keytar strapped to his waist, and then returned betwixt Anastasio and Gordon on one of the best versions of the song in the last four years. Oh, I think it was Page Mac. At this point, it was an embarrassment of riches for anyone remotely interested in the man’s playing as he played a great solo amidst a raucous band performance. Setbreak.

Phish returned to the stage amidst a shower of roses tossed over the barricades from the audience, stretching from McConnell to Jon Fishman in the straight line that the band has returned to in its stage setup. The roses were tossed in gratitude forwell, does one need to explain the bond between this band and its audience? If there was lingering resentment towards Phish, that vibe wasn’t present in Hampton, Virginia on this weekend.

The drummer responded with a thank you from the band, foreshadowing a nod back to a Fishman family member later on in the evening. And Fish, like Anastasio, appeared to be silently doing what he does best all weekend. If these two old friends were once the most vocal members of Phish in the past, it was glaringly obvious that none of that was evident at the Hampton Coliseum as the emphasis was 100% on making the music work, rather than instigating any old school shenanigans to produce a laugh.

Indeed, after such an occasionally fun-loving first set that featured the various members of Phish backing Page McConnell, the band returned to the outer regions of improvisation on “Down with Disease,” which was one of the longest space explorations of the weekend with spectacular lighting work by Kuroda. The song had a tremendously moody and melodic closing passage led by Anastasio, before the guitarist tossed his Nikes onto his various foot pedals, and then the band melted into a wonderful version of “Seven Below,” with the guitarist playing a patient, methodical solo, which eventually and flawlessly led right back into the main theme. Was the jam too short? Perhaps, but after the “Disease” adventure, one felt satisfied, and the band quickly moved into “The Horse>Silent in the Morning” to bring some air into the second set.

“Twist” re-introduced the funk before an atmospheric jam which featured some fine counterpoint drum measures by Fishman. Lots of color, light and shade, but it was a mere prelude to “2001,” which continued the funk Big Time, and escalated into down tempo, cool breeze status with a potent version of “Moma Dance” that showcased the most energetic dancing of the weekend from Mr. Anastasio. The man looked pretty darned happy, and why shouldn’t he? The proverbial They’ say a recovering addict needs to find something greater than themselves to survive on a day-to-day basis. In a way, it appeared that Anastasio has taken that post-rehab, post-addict premise and focused his attention on his old band, and its members. One can speculate that the escalation of McConnell’s role also plays a part in that scenario. This is all merely conjecture, but one could see the joy on the guitarist’s face, and truth be told, it was almost always in reaction to one of his bandmate’s many fine moments throughout the weekend.

And that said, it was time for the guitarist to take back a bit of the spotlight on a tremendous version of the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” which garnered one of the loudest reactions of the weekend when Anastasio hit his pick on the strings of his Paul Languedoc guitar to start the song’s famous opening notes. To continue the heavy mood, Phish played “Wading in the Velvet Sea,” the infamously botched number from Coventry at their last gig in August 2004. This time they were perfect, and the song engendered a huge cheer when McConnell sang the opening verses, an act he previously couldn’t complete as he was sobbing uncontrollably at that fateful festival in Vermont.

“Slave to the Traffic Light” finally appeared after a brief 2009 drought. The chestnut was played with craftsmanlike perfection by Anastasio. At this point, it felt almost like the guitarist was overcompensating for the sometimes severe criticism directed at him during the self-indulgence of his solo career, and the later stages of Phish in 2003/2004.

In the end, Trey Anastasio is in a classic Catch-22 settingdamned if he jams, damned if he doesn’t jamand to just try to fit into the realm of the Phish Group Mind might be the safest, sanest path for the extraordinarily gifted yet often beleaguered musician. He had been silent for much of the weekend with very few comments directed to the audience. Instead, he allowed the band’s music do the talking, and this philosophy worked thrice over. The frontman finally broke his almost complete code of silence before the trio of encore songs by acknowledging the extraordinary weekend, stating that it was a reunion of family and friends, and then he stated that Jon Fishman’s father, Leonard Fishman, was celebrating his 76th birthday. The gentleman was standing in the first level of seats on the Fishman Side of the stage, and he waved to the crowd before Anastasio quipped that “It had been a perfect weekend, and now you can make it a perfect +1’ weekend if you sing “Happy Birthday” to Leonard.”

And so the band and the audience sang the song, and one suddenly realized that these four musicians were about to pull off the unexpected: get back together and play those great songs again on a nightly basis. Oh, but play them really really really well, just like the old daysno mistakes, smiles all around, keep it loose. In that spirit of the reunion, Anastasio dedicated a warm, crowd-pleasing, and arm-waving version of “Contact” to the elder Fishman. “Bug” followed as the second encore, and cooked for a while, but was a doorway to what many had hoped would happen: Phish would play “Tweezer Reprise,” after playing its legendary jam companion, “Tweezer,” on the opening night of the run.

Now? Phish is back on hiatus. Gasp. A few solo projects. Trey with an orchestra, again. Page at JazzFest with Porter Batiste Stoltz, and oh, yeah, a new Phish studio album being recorded in the future. Hiatus no longer has that negative stigma. “We’re done” seems like a distant ill-advised whisper, now. Or was this all in the script? Time will tell. Bonnaroo, and a sold-out summer tour awaits, and fans can be relieved, temporarily, knowing that one of life’s little artistic pleasuresguilty, or otherwise, depending upon one’s ability to explain the unexplainable to the uninitiated cultural masseshas finally returned, and Phish appear ready and willing to play a hell of lot of good material to those that desire such a thing in 2009 and beyond.

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