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Reviews > Shows

Published: 2009/06/07
by Dan Alford

Phish, Nikon at Jones Beach Theater, Wantagh, NY – 6/4 & 6/5

Theres an interesting debate forming on the internet, once you weed through the range of critics full of vigor to find something to hate and the gushers whose ecstatic ejaculations seem to always start or end with Dude! whether its actually written or not; or maybe really its just a difference in opinion based on a difference of experience: there are those of us who started listening to Phish in the early 90s (or earlier) when Page still had an upright piano, and "Hydrogen" leg lifts were a common sight, and there are those of us who started listening, or at least came of age in our listening, sometime in mid 97 or after, when seemingly any song could melt into a thirty minute improvisational opus, and a theater sized show was entirely out of the question. (To be fair, I am omitting you lucky devils who started listening in the last five years, and are currently being ushered through the gates of bliss with your very first shows, where every version is the best version youve seen and the lay of a given night, while not unfamiliar, is nonetheless experientially unique. And, too, you get to wallow in the grandeur that is Chris Kuroda—let us never forget the grandeur that is Chris Kuroda.) It seems that those of us who became companions on this ride in the later years are itching for the quartet to cut loose, or rather have nearly broken into a full body rash over the topic—if its shy of ten minutes, it just doesnt do it. Those of us in the older crowd are overjoyed to hear a flawless "Cavern" and to return to the ebb and flow of a Phish show. This group remembers what it was like in those days of half-sold theaters and then sold-out hockey arenas when the setlist did actually tell something of what transpired; remembers that the move from one tight tune to another, from rocker to off-kilter quirkiness to sappy ballad, created an emotional rollercoaster the likes of which has not been seen or heard since, and were pretty damn happy with these early stages of Phish 3.0, as Microsoft has apparently insisted we call the band. The others, they want that monster Ghost or Tweezer or nothing, and happily, the second night of Phishs run at Jones Beach happened to have ample music to make everyone happy.
The group opened with only the third performance of Grind, their collective age being 65,386 days in case youre keeping track. Then with grace and intent, the quartet ripped into a blisteringly tight Divided Sky, seemingly a prayer and a jab at the drizzling gray skies that had been looming over the venue all evening. Treys face was stern and pensive during the hanging pause, and with a quick double tap, they were off, Mike thundering through the mid section of the song, and ushering on the full blaze that followed. It was brilliant, and certainly one of the two highlights of an excellent show. The new Ocelot followed, with its playful dittiness and rocked out jam, like a big rolling kick, and then Squirming Coil, the first of a dozen reference to beach and sand and water. The energy sizzled and the music made people jump, especially the glowing, gorgeous jam leading to the piano solo—I really dug the first night, but tonight the chills came earlier and more frequently, and not just from the breeze; the air was electric.
PYITE found the band capitalizing on the moment, cutting deftly through the turns and dance moves, while the aching longing of Dirt had Mike sharing a few bars of lead time between Treys plaintive lines. By NICU it was clear that this was an incredibly well sculpted set; everything seemed to mesh together perfectly, certainly within songs, but importantly in terms of the overall scope of the set: Sky and Coil separated by a pop rocker, PYITE and NICU separated by a ballad perfectly paced. Trey seemed caught off guard by the big cheer after I look back on those when my life was a haze, and started laughing. Everything felt good.
And then they switched gears, strutting into a speedy, funky Ghost and proceeding to make clear that Phish is still the preeminent improv band in the world, open ended, open minded and entirely tight and cunning all at once. Mike pulled the band into the groove after the last verse, as they launched into a twisty, turny sluice, and before long the whole movement rose up on keys and guitar and aimed at glory. It bent and shifted, growing better with each move, the whole band crushing the jam, Trey with that same intense look on his face. Eventually the music evaporated into high-pitched, rapid-fire buzzing under blue washes and circles, and Mike guided it back to wind down Ghost—the best song of the night, a statement from the band.
After a slow, simple version of Water in the Sky, the band established the tone of the second set with the muscley energy of Birds. Mike was thumping and popping through the verses, and joined with his cohorts to whip up a storm blast on stage, something echoed in the following Drowned, which had a long, fluid run from Trey highlighted by machine gun riffs and plateaus. At some point Treys fleet firing fell under Kurodas rainbow circles, and he hopped to a classic, rock and roll riff, almost like Jumping Jack Flash; fuzz bass swelled in and the whole movement collapsed into a funky, funky Meatstick—a rarity enough alone, but which also included the Japanese lyrics.
The mid-set Time Turns Elastic noticeably sent people running to the bathrooms, and while it is certainly not the most danceable tune, there were some dark caverns worth exploring among the bouts of largely sappy lyrics; the orchestra versions have something going for them that is missing in the Phish version—it just didnt transfer quite right. Waste was beautiful, was what If I Could on Tuesday wasnt quite, as if the tentative jitters were now banished, and the show ended with a killer version of YEM. The post tramps jam in particular was tough and clean, with everyone locked on and building to a howling blaze—awesome. As Mike began his solo, Trey put down his guitar and started dancing in the shadows. The Rock and Roll again proved the power the setlists construction, somehow recollecting the Drowned early in set II without any specific reference; the whole venue was dancing, hands in the air, and it was all right *****
Although the weather held off for Thursday, Friday was a soggy mess, and hoards of fans were still pressing through the gates as Phish opened with Wilson followed by an oddly stand alone Buried Alive and Kill Devil Falls, debuted just two shows earlier. The energy level was high and the whole set seemed at odds with the gusty rainfall and general feeling of Wet—like an afternoon set from 1994. Which is not to say fans werent enjoying it; in fact, the band was playing incredibly tight and clean, making sure everyone was rewarded for their dedication in the face of the elements, and everyone was happy to soak it in. In fact, this was the first of the three nights that found groups of people desperately cruising the lots looking for a too elusive extra.
AC DC Bag dipped funky under blue lights, but quickly popped back up to a hot burn, an old school version that made for the apex without a second thought, and effervesced into I Didnt Know. Fishman came front side to play the vacuum for you, sucking the moisture out of the air. The ominous, raging My Friend, My Friend had a great drumming and piano, and a slashing vamp mid song, and for counterpoint, a short Yamar had Trey and Mike toying around:
He was my grandpa.
He was Mikes grandpa.
And later, in an oddly melodic voice, Mikes gonna play one for his grandpa now.
The set ended as strong as could be with Theme From the Bottom swinging sub-aquatic, turquoise and purple spotlights spread out and stationary. The jam seemed to swell and grow and became an wild, driving force, and the rain was chased away, now just spritsing droplets; Boogie On Reggae Woman threatened to shake the amphitheater apart with its mud-bubble bass and dense clavinet, and the frantic gyrations they called forth; and Split Open and Melt plunged deep into the swampy darkness, dripping purple with green swirlies spilling off the stage and extending across the crowd. It only grew more twisted and gnarly, becoming an tangled cluster of overwhelming intensity colored by rapid-fire drumming and whining guitar. A monster triptych.
As much as the first set really did seem like something from the early-mid-nineties, the second set was a whole different beast, a truly fearless jam fest. The opening DWD soared brightly as a rainbow moved across the stage one color at a time. Trey leaned out in front, shredding fast and calling up cheers, taking the music over a dozen peaks and plateaus, but never letting it come down. At some point the band slipped into a slick Twist made all the more so as Trey first teased Oye Como Va and then the whole band joined to rock out the Puente via Santana joint, making it the center of their own tune—it was so stylish, and so natural; tonight it felt like the band could do anything. Trey pulled back to close Twist in an instant, and just then the skies began to open and that familiar rhythm lick heralded Piper. Big, blocky sheets of rain crossed the crowd, lit up by spinning yellow lights, given the form and substance the drenched dancers could have only guessed at in the darkness. Trey hit another distinct rhythm lick to start the improv, and the music grew quirky and angular, the surging precipitation lit up again at the end as it made a yet more forceful downward charge.
I woke last night to the sound of a storm.
The suite finished with a lively Backwards Down the Number Line, followed by Free, a tune that was lurking behind the previous transition anyway. The song seemed extra large in its placement, grinding guitar and heavy bass giving it weight and seemingly mass. Trey was dancing and hanging on notes, and at the climax there were thousands of ponchos with fists a-pumping in the rain and brilliant white lights.
Twenty Years Later brought a darker turn, somewhat reminiscent of Whats the Use in tone, though not form—Im still upside down with Page trailing lightly after, We all start out small,—but the band bounced right back with a crowd pleasing 2001. They took their time on the intro, letting the energy build, peak, and open on a disco-funk dance party. Over-exuberance led to a few ugly notes from Trey at the end, but they were easily overlooked in the body shaking, not to mention the opening notes of the highly anticipated Slave—the lot had been buzzing for days that they would close the run with it, and when they actually did, it brought the house down. The quartet took the plunge into the final stretch, that moment of stillness and anticipation painted in broad purple lights with green accents that seemed to remove the space between stage and audience. Trey was rocking back and forth, and twisting from right to left as if casting each line on to the crowd. The groundwork laid, a breathtaking range of peaks shot up into the air, rain dancing in puddles at the stage lip, people lurching forward or standing still, stunned. It was an epic climax to a show that, like night before, had something for both camps, new and old, and everyone in between, only more so. Phish, people, Phish.

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