Phish, Pepsi Center, Albany, NY – 11/27
It seems like only yesterday that Phish shows and Thanksgiving went hand in hand, but of course those days were well over a decade ago. Still, what a treat to have those old feelings surface as the fall tour made its way east and up the coast to a favorite city for the quartet, Albany. It was a cold, rainy, windy night, keeping most of the lot scene inside the parking garages, and keeping many of the fair-weather fans away; tickets were easy to score and the upper reaches were decidedly empty by the time the band hit the stage with the high energy pairing of “AC DC Bag” > “Maze.” The former found Trey Anastasio working a slick line in his leads, building to a rabid apex. As the song effervesced up and away, the guitarist hung onto his clacking notes, using them as a transition and bouncing up and down during Mike Gordon’s opening rumble to “Maze.” The song had a wicked solo from Page McConnell with the rest working out a few cool breakdowns below before he unleashed an electric flood of organ sounds.
The rest of the set unfolded in much the same way as the rest of the tour’s have thus far, which is to say with a slew of shorter compositions, extremely well played and light on the improv. “Driver” and “My Mind’s Got a Mind,” two versions of the same song really, preceded a brief, sweet “Gumbo” and an excellent “Bouncing” > “It’s Ice” loaded with deep, deep bass under full red lights. “Two Versions of Me” was a particularly nice surprise in a night full of left of center song choices, a pretty, pretty song. With “Timber,” the show crossed over to a headier vibe, wiry guitar eking its way over big thumping drums, and as the jam began to cook, the back of the house was lit with throbbing starlight. Spinning orange and green searchlights spiraled out across the front of the room, and the music grew denser and denser to drive it home. “Limb by Limb” too had a sizzling climax, although it was the syncopation of the verses that stood out for some reason; it seemed like the show was loaded with fugue-iness, but then again, maybe every Phish show is. And that’s just what was happening here, a Phish show. We’re past the initial jitters of the early summer, and the need to have every show top the last. The band is back on tour and every show has its highlights and ebbs in energy, has a setlist that will appeal to some and not to others, a feel of its own. Just before “Cavern” the first night at Albany felt like any one of a thousand nights of Phish, and that was good, good feeling. As the traditional set closer finished, Kuroda began to spinning the lights to declare the break, but in the midst of the noise, Trey began to strum a chord and the band moved right into “Light,” a totally surprising placement even though the tune has been played less than a dozen times. It was the big soaring jam of the set, overflowing with energy in a sea of reds and yellows, and then the ambient outro rose quickly to a cacophony, with pedals and loops and fuzzy keys growing loud, loud, louder, Trey and Mike etching out a brief reference to the intro before letting the buzz drop to close the song. Excellent.
Set II began with a dramatic “My Friend, My Friend” all big and threatening and filling the space, and simultaneously reminding me of how intimate the song seemed when it was in its infancy so many years ago just down the street at The Palace, when Trey would play the intro on an acoustic guitar on stand. Here, though, he had his Languedoc held high during the homicidal jam, screeching it along the mic stand, and instead of ending with a squeal, he took the band into a cover of TV on the Radio’s “Golden Age.” No one seemed to know the tune, and it came off as a little chunky with a ton of lyrics and a tight bass line, but it opened on a wonderful bright and joyous jam. As it began, I wondered if it would be worth the seeming awkwardness of the composition to get to it, and as it finished, Mike and Trey tearing the song down from the inside, and Page and Fish then joining in too, the answer was a resounding yes. It’ll be interesting to see if this one sticks around or not.
Mike called the following tune, another rarity, Allen Toussaint’s “On Your Way Down”, and set the song up to shine with huge, deeply funky bass. Page was at the height of his powers, belting out the lyrics and slaying a sick organ solo. The energy was bristling, and Fishman was slipping in stylish fills (he did so throughout the night, in “It’s Ice” and “Gumbo” and other spots). The stage was bathed in magenta with shafts of yellow stretching skyward as Trey and Mike locked up to crush a groove. The “Fluffhead” that followed was the centerpiece of the show, the song having moved up one notch in its mythic status after its history at It and Hampton. Mike was playing especially manic bass during “Fluff’s Travels” and there were little extensions here and there, a piano solo taking a few extra bars or a rhythm lick doing likewise. The finale was appropriately explosive, the room seeming to bounce as a single entity, and the quartet shifted into “Piper.” The jam vehicle moved through its regular paces before spinning around into a weirdly disjointed jam, the syncopation that characterized much of the first set now being viewed through the lens of improvisation. The elements stayed largely separate though, Mike keeping everyone at bay and repeatedly shaking off a coalesced movement so that eventually the group shifted gears entirely, falling into a pretty, ethereal ambient passage with light, down tempo “Piper” teases. “Tomorrow’s Song” faded in, the rest of the band not quite with Trey at first, and unfolded as an ideal “Mellow Mood” style Trey groove, just really pleasant; this will be a smiley tune buried deep in a seguefest in the future, tomorrow maybe…
Trey flubbed the first verse of “Prince Caspian” and stayed tangled up for a bit, laughing and jokingly repeating “waves” a few times, but then he took the song out for a loose wander before the quartet began “Harry Hood.” Mike, as was the case all set long, was out in force through the verses, although the final jam began very delicately, and real, real pretty. Trey was lightly feeling his way along, and it was maybe the first time all night that he was staring up with that slack jawed expression, rather than digging into his guitar and tapping pedals. The rhythm section drew him back in and carried the song up to its gleaming climax. The show closed with a short “Suzie” and “Squirming Coil”—the song was hanging in the air for the whole set, so it was just perfect that Page was so lost in his long, beautiful solo that his band mates returned joking about it to finish the night with “I Been Around.”
The show was certainly unique, interesting and loaded with quirky asides, although nothing especially earth shattering. And that’s just fine; it was a Phish show right in the middle of a Thanksgiving Phish tour, with all the comfort and ease and sense of tradition that that brings.