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Published: 2009/06/18
by Randy Ray

Phish, Bonnaroo, Manchester, TN 6/12 & 6/14

Depending upon whom you spoke with, it seemed either inevitable or impossible that Phish would actually play at the Bonnaroo festival upon their return. Well, they could and they did, so it was with a profound sense of anticipation that the recently reunited quartet hit the Main Stage for a Friday night late set. Rumors filled the air about possibilities, but other than guessing some of the songs being played on the first leg of their summer tour, most predictions about the legendary band, at this point, are fairly futile. Phish is back, and they are slowly getting the machine up and running. I was impressed by how quickly they had evolved from that first summer gig at Fenway on May 31 to the gig preceding their Bonnaroo appearance, the remarkable show in Knoxville on June 10.

Hampton seems so long ago nowlike the Moon landing or some equally absurd historical date in our little time machine past. Indeed, it was only March, but Phish has traveled quite a bit between the hiatus after Hampton and the gig in Boston at the ancient home of the Red Sox. They recorded an album, rehearsed, and saw that their entire summer tour was sold out with tickets purchased by either fans, or fans and numerous entrepreneurs who sense a Phish feeding frenzy and seek to sellsellsell into that market. Alas, some of that second market thinking has backfired, as it should, but it coats the tour with a deep bit of darkness indicative of the times that we currently inhabit.

But Bonnaroothat seemed to make sense. The template for the festival had been borrowed, tweaked, modified, and enhanced via the work and experience of the Phish festivals from Clifford Ball to Coventry, and the Manchester juggernaut has been working rather well for eight extraordinary years. The festival does not rest on its laurels, and Phish seemed like the perfect headliner after their much-ballyhooed return to the stage at Hampton in March. Luckily, for all involved from promoters to old and new fans, and those who had neither seen, nor heard of the band, Phish did not disappoint and delivered two diverse shows that featured their wide range of weird sonic colors.

The thought was that Phish would either play a typical two-set show on Friday, or just play a long setthe latter option being something they have not done in quite a while. They chose the long roo model, and proceeded to play their longest set since Big Cypress on 12/31/99, or 1/1/00 depending upon your mode of recording chronological events. This choice seemed to work well because Phish has played numerous long sets since Hampton as theyve returned to the simple idea of the group mind groove. On Sunday, of course, the option of a good ole long set vs. traditional 2-setter was there, too. Ahhbut Sunday the 14th is futurespeak, and this is Friday, June 12.

Phish began the late night set with a pair of rockersone tried and true, Chalk Dust Torture, and a new gem called Stealin Time from the Faulty Plan, presumably with lyrics echoing frontman Trey Anastasios recent troubles that ended in rehab. The Divided Sky and Possum followed and featured some of the old school dynamics, time signatures, and energy that Phish has brought back on the train in 2009.

But it was, again like its appearance at Hampton, the song Down with Disease that showed the true doorway into what could be the new Phish as the band opened with tight band interplay, high energy, deep focus, and a solid map into an unexplored quadrant of the Great Unknown. I will admit that I am a fan of the band because of their truly wonderful back catalogue of numerous songs that could have only been created by these four cats from Vermont. But I am also a huge supporter of the unpredictable nature of their jamming, and to hear these passages of music within Down with Disease with Lord knows how many new fans just standing there trying to figure out what they were hearing was a righteous buzz that required nothing other than itself to exist.

The rest of the long ass set was beautiful and classic Phish, but therein lay the only miniature problem of their return. Fansold and neware getting their Phish on, but the band is still not quite comfortable, or willing as the case may be, to stretch out for extended periods of time in more than one or two carefully chosen improv setpieces. Which is finecirca 1993, rather than say Fall 1997but I wonder if this means that the quartet will continue to write setlists filled with classic songs and new tunes; meanwhile, cutting their jam detours short so as not to jeopardize a set with unwanted wankery.

Wolfmans Brother was equally jam-worthy for a short spell, with Poor Heart serving as a brief set curveball, but it was the combination of Kill Devil Falls>Free, that welcomed a return to a fiery brand of Phish that can segue and jam without the reapplied training wheels that left a lasting impression. Harry Hood>Highway to Hell>2001>You Enjoy Myself>Wilson>You Enjoy Myself was filled with passionate playing (Hood), space walks (2001), unpredictable covers out of nowhere like a bat out of hell (sorrytoo obvious) (Highway to Hell?! Yes, please!), and a mistake (or was it?) that turned into a classic moment of what separates Phish from other bands.

I had been hoping that Phish played a little bit with the structure of YEM since it needs a bit of an overhaulnot the first five minutes, or the silly lyrics, or the trampolines, but the way the song is setup in a way that has become somewhat predictable: composed opening sections, lyrics, breakdown, tramps>bass n drums>jam>a cappella weirdness. Well, someone either signaled, or planned a Phish-y bit that had the quartet segue into Wilson for several minutes before returning to YEM, and, you know, it worked. More of that wackiness, pleaseplanned, or not! The evening ended with A Day in the Life that serves as an encore for the band on special occasions, and overall, this was a fairly special three-hour set that went down well with the peepsold, new, or indifferent.

With Sunday, all bets were off again. Would Phish play all night? Doubtful. Would they play two sets, or one? Dunno. Would they jam like its 1998 or 1995? No, this is 2009, and thus far, 2009 is no slouch eitherjust, well, different. Phish moved forward from the momentum of Fridays stellar set, and kicked into high gear (literally, later on) with a potent AC/DC Bag/NICU combo, which quickly dispelled the notion that the band would cover Gamehendgea notion that has lingered in the rich fantasy minds of the wishful thinking Phish world since, oh, Sundays pre-show talk at Hampton on March 8.

Gotta Jibboo and Punch You in the Eye continued the high and fun energy of the set, but it was Bathtub Gin, which slowly segued out of the closing moments of the speed fest that is Sparkle, that kicked the music to another level as Phish found the patience and care to build the jam until it slowly mutated back into its original form from whence it came. Dont get me wrong. I am digging these types of focused jams despite my misgivings about their lack of space explorations. They are honest and inspired, and not forced like sections of an overall piece that somehow dont seem to fit together. Gin worked, and it rocked. As did Character Zero, which followed and kept the atmosphere lively, but Tweezer really moved and kicked and walloped into something else entirely, containing a brief moment of Free, before continuing forward at a breakneck pace into one of the best jams of the weekend, if not the tour (well, until a little Velvet Underground song appeared later on in the evening).

The Horse>Silent in the Morning was a welcome breath of fresh air before Run Like an Antelope zipped everything back to fifth gear. At this point, Phish could do no wrong, and were taking risks, playing with momentum, soloing well, playing as one unit, and just giving everyone something to remember as they packed up to head out of Tennessee to parts unknown post-Bonnaroo.

But Phish played their wild card and it wasnt Gamehendge, or Waves>Bowie>Miami Piper(?!)>Sand>Harpua>Abbey Road>Harpua>Tennessee Jed sung a cappella,or even Mike Gordons Fuck Your Face pulled out of the deep and dark closet for that matter. No, Trey told a tale about a childhood hero, and how that musician gave a performance that he thought was the norm for rock concerts. No, as Bruce Springsteen has proven time and againlike Phish, he makes his shows very special and unique, and one would be hard-pressed to find a more hard-working bunch of cats over the last 30 years.

And so Bruce came out on stage, and it completely blew my mind. It was a great moment. Historically significant? Sure. Rock history? Of coursetwo titans of live music sharing the same stage, and it was indeedthat word, againspecial. Phish played the ultimate bust out with the BossMustang Sallywhich had not appeared in a Phish setlist since 1988. It was unbelievably cool to see Anastasio and Springsteen trade solos, and later when they dug into the Bosss two gems from Born in the U.S.A., Bobby Jean and Glory Days, it was equally transcendent and hilariously perfectSpringsteens shout to Page McConnell to play a solo on keyboards is a true classic. If I had to be critical about these songs, I would have to say, Are you kidding me? Forgettaboutit. This was a fine moment, and a great gesture on Springsteens part for those that think that this aging Jersey icon wouldnt know Phish, or their lofty legacy.

Springsteen and Phish left the stage cementing the notion that the Phab Phour would play two sets, instead of another epic-length lone set like Friday. Yes, the thought drifted into my head that anything after the first set would be anti-climatic, but I felt lame and greedy.

Had I become one of them? A jaded vet that nitpicks Phish into oblivion from whence my fandom will never return? Well, yes and no. After Hampton, I was satisfied for various reasons, and didnt feel the need to see Phish all the time. Hampton was an amazingly positive weekend of shows, and pretty much everyone walked away feeling a sense of either closure, disdain, or ready to jump back on the train. I felt closure, and that was that. Phish didnt die at Coventry. In fact, Trey Anastasio, Mike Gordon, Page McConnell, and Jon Fishman will never die because their music will continue, and I suppose one just has to pick the right spot to find that feeling again, if one is so inclined.

So when Sundays second set began, after the illustrious first set, I sensed that Phish needed to play three 30-minute jams just to match the positive vibe of the evening; hence, the entrance into my little pea brain of the jaded vet nitpicking clown who has expectations. The band began with the Lou Reed/VU cover from the Ghost of Halloween Past (1998), and quickly dissolved into one of my favorite jams of the year post-Rock and Roll. The jam entered space, drifted into ambience, echoed into a warm wormhole, and rolled out into the new song Light, which no pun intended, shone in this context before folding into a rocking version of Round Rooms 46 Days. A beautiful trio. A beautiful band.

And that was it. Phish had reach an epic peak, and then they slowly came back down to Earth via standard renditions of Limb by Limb, Farmhouse, and Prince Caspian with moments of jammy brilliance found within another new song Backwards Down the Number Line and a molten lava reading of First Tube, which cooked from start to finish, despite some occasional minor miscues. Suzy Greenberg fed into the inevitable Tweezer Reprise, and both were smoking headbangers with the former including some fine McConnell funk, and the latter featuring Anastasio in his full-on guitar hero poses.

One walks away (or drives, flies, scampers along with the phamily malnourished canine, or teleports to another dimension as the case may be) from Bonnaroo with the impression that Phish made the right decision to play the festival. The Vermont quartet delivered some great jams for the old and newb, played some truly rockin songs, and made some mistakes that evolved into more Phish-y brilliance (or reasons to bag on Phish 2009). In the end, it is hard to quibble with how these four cats are playing, or what they are playing. They are out there trying to regroup as a band, and from where Im standing, they are doing a fairly good job of reminding people why so many have spent so much time picking over so many shows from such a wonderfully weird and genuine band.

- The writer would like to thank Dean Budnick, Josh Baron, and Mike Greenhaus for their friendship, good humor, and editorial support at Bonnaroo. Me thinksme KNOWS I cannot do it without the Terrific Trio, and 2009 marked our fifth year in a row as a team working on the Bonnaroo Beacon (their eighth, my fifth). A big shout out, as well, to C. Taylor Crothers whom I always thank when I see him because the Big Fella reminds me that a picture is indeed worth a thousand words. Great work, Mr. C!

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