Phish, Verizon Wireless Arena, Manchester, NH – 10/26
Always Phish’s musical quarterback for better or worse, guitarist/singer Trey Anastasio is often brilliant and sometimes downright sloppy. In a town that has boasted comedians Adam Sandler and Sarah Silverman as residents, last night Anastasio made Phish’s first visit to New Hampshire in nearly 20 years memorable by doing his best Brett Favre impersonation.
Manchester, N.H., was Phish’s last stop in a series of relatively small-town gigs—Augusta, Me., population of 18,000, anyone? Buller?—before going big in Atlantic City for a much-anticipated Halloween run this weekend. And by opening the Verizon Wireless Arena gig in Manchester with blazing versions of rarified classics such as “After Midnight” (played for the first time since 1999), “Alumni Blues > Letter to Jimmy Page” and “The Sloth,” not to mention the debut of the recently deceased Gregory Isaacs’ reggae staple “Night Nurse,” it seemed the treats had come early.
By the reactions of his three bandmates, Anastasio’s spur-of-the-moment song selections surprised them just as much as the audience, and by the end of the first set—which included an absolutely gorgeous “Curtain With,” a feisty “It’s Ice” and a set-closing “Walls of the Cave” with a Velvet Underground-esque coda—the 11,000 in attendance smelled an all-rarities show a la Pittsburgh 2003. The second set, however, was the sort of hit-and-miss jumble that can sometimes accompany a band whose audience encourages it to improvise rock music at hockey arenas.
Out of a slow and funky “Mike’s Song” that featured Page McConnell funking things up with the kind of synthesizer exercises he went wild with in his side project Vida Blue, Anastasio pulled Phish into a sweet rendition of “Simple” and then the group’s reggae standard “Makisupa Policeman” (complete with a verse about “smoking another nug”). Then, after the aforementioned “Night Nurse”—no doubt a tribute to Isaacs, who passed away Monday night—and a no-frills “Wedge,” the real shenanigans began.
A well-executed “Ghost” finally arrived after being teased several times, and the deep and darkly funky jam that followed featured Anastasio goading the audience into virtual eruption with an impressive series of tension-and-release guitar runs. Out of a spontaneously beautiful transition, the jazzy “Mango Song” appeared, and while it’s hard to top a song about a child born with mangoes for hands and feet for sheer weirdness, slamming a botched “Weekapaug Groove” into a messy improvisation underneath another round of the “Ghost” lyrics, coming back into an up-to-speed “Weekapaug” after a failed attempt at the Rolling Stones’ “Can You Hear Me Knocking” outro and then suddenly finishing the set with “Llama”—a song Phish had played two hours earlier—was simply absurd. And not necessarily in a good way.
After a set like that, one imagines the four members of Phish walking backstage and asking each other, “What just happened?”
That the group encored solely with its borderline adult-contemporary ballad “Show of Life” didn’t please the crowd, either—especially those of us who’d witnessed the incredible “Reba > Backwards Down the Numberline” encore in Augusta last week.
Like Brett Favre—who threw a horde of interceptions Sunday night on plays that would’ve otherwise ended unspectacularly and then given his team a chance for glory a few moments later—Anastasio sometimes gets over ambitious, or perhaps even irrational, when given full reign when it comes to calling audibles. As Phish fans, we love him for that, and many if not most of the live Phish moments we consider memorable are due to the unbridled freedom we’ve come to expect the band to perform with. But as with Favre, Phish will always win some and lose some, for lack of a better phrase.
Still, seeing Phish perform twice in one week where one can not only feel good about Hood but actually drink the stuff was pretty special. And for the first time since I’ve been seeing the band, Anastasio looked directly at the audience during all his extended solos rather than choosing to intermittently stare at the roof of the arena—or at the mountains, as he did in Telluride over the summer. Whether that experience drove the Phish captain to make pressured decisions to meet zany expectations, we’ll probably never know. Alas, it’s almost Halloween and Phish is primed to play another full surprise album by another artist—anyone have an idea what it might be?