Phish kicked off the final act of their summer circus under the tents at Darien Lake last night. The amusement park atmosphere oozed into the amphitheatre as Phish crafted a festive show with a standout second set- combing diverse songs into a creative frame that included some of the most stunning improv of the tour. Combined with a first set that carried its weight just fine, Phish offered a full platter last night in Darien, playing their fourth standout show of their career in the western New York venue.
After a strange and impersonal stop in a Chicago soccer stadium, Phish tour felt like home again in the intimate confines of Darien Lake. Coming out for the second set to an already amped audience, Phish stepped up and played one of the best jams of the tour in an open-ended and adventurous “Drowned.” Taking one of their favorite vehicles of the summer on a psychedelic odyssey, Phish gave a nod to the insane set-opening version of 2000 that made it to immortality as a Live Phish release. Last night’s go-round featured the band’s revitalized jamming style, born at Red Rocks and on display throughout the past two weeks, stringing together creative ideas into a completely original piece of music. Writing in the car on the way to Albany, I haven’t had the luxury of revisiting this magnificent jam yet, but my gut is telling me it is right up there with the company of The Gorge “Gin” and “Rock and Roll” in terms of exploratory risk-taking and success. Connecting several passages of extremely cohesive improv, the band took us on a set-opening “roller-coaster of the mind,” to quote Trey, himself, from Darien Lake ’93.
As the band brought the tour-highlight down into an ambient palette, they artistically passed into the intro of “Prince Caspian.” Using the dreamy composition to resolve “Drowned’s” excursion, Phish placed the usual late-show power-ballad squarely in the the middle of the second set. Exploding a focused and regal version of the fairy-tale saga, Trey took a glorious solo as the band chugged away, creating a continuing whole-band highlight. Before crashing into the final chords of the song, Trey started the opening licks to “Rift” in another creative call that worked masterfully. Taking up the opening rhythms, the band jumped atop the change and they were off and running into a blistering rendition of their mid-’90s classic. Showcasing their precision all night long, this second-set “Rift” carried every bit of momentum of the previous thirty-plus minutes into a triumphant and shredding version of the song. “Drowned > Caspian > Rift”- a Phishy combination of songs that flowed beautifully- and as the band landed on the last vocal note of the song with pride and a sense of musical arrival, the crowd greeted them with a heartfelt ovation.
Following the opening suite of the set, Phish moved from “Rift’s” first song to its last with a interlude of “Horse > Silent.” And as the band subsequently cued up “Sparkle” in the middle of the set, you knew something big was coming next. As the amphitheatre overflowed with energy, the band slipped into a centerpiece “Antelope.” Taking the mid-set jam on a ferocious jaunt, the band got into some snarling patterns, putting the magnifying class on the frenzied improv. Navigating the break neck music locked together, this jam embodied the narrative essence of the song- musically depicting a dramatic escape from an oncoming predator on the Serengeti. The stand-alone mid-set version allowed “Antelope” to shine in a unique place, wrapping up a second-leg of versions that have re-upped the ante for the old-school song.
When the band dropped into “Suzy,” it had the certain vibe of a feel-good set closer, but as the band wound down the swanky funk textures, Trey delicately strummed the opening to “Fluffhead!” Even though the song is “back in rotation,” every time it starts it still feels like a complete surprise; providing the same sensation last night when it was unveiled as the exclamation point on an energetic and unique set of Phish. While sometimes “Fluffheads” can have huge emotional impact without impeccable playing, Phish crushed a virtual note-perfect version in a huge set-ending highlight of the night. Bringing the show to an energetic peak, the band used their multi-part composition as a show-stopping closer on a tremendous summer night in New York.
Phish brought out the fireworks in the first set as well, featuring a second song bust-out of “Dinner and a Movie” that, with their re-found diligence, sounded awesome. Following one song that almost everyone wanted to hear, the band rolled out a first-set funk-down with a thick and expressive “Wolfman’s.” The liquid-groove session was bookended by another sinister bust-out in “My Friend, My Friend,” a song that converged with nightfall in a dark confluence of Phish and nature. After a well-played “Sugar Shack” whose carnival-esque melodies gelled with the night’s surroundings, the no-brainer first set diamond came in the late-set “David Bowie.” As Phish dove into their psychedelic opus, they did it with aggression and meaning, bringing the delicate piece on mind-numbing journey into darkness with more than a few original passages of improv. Molding arguably the heartiest “Bowie” of the entire summer, Phish was noticeably clicking as they careened into musical space. A version that was an experiential highlight of the entire show, I’m sure this one will hold up on tapes.
And just as band landed their intense voyage, ostensibly ending the set, they revved up a “Bathtub Gin” that immediately evoked memories of The Gorge’s other-worldly excursion. This first set version, though, was much more contained, breaking structure with cathartic melody while remaining anchored to the song’s rhythm in an interesting and dichotomous version. Before closing the set with “Golgi,” the band paid homage to the late Les Paul, who passed yesterday at 94, by playing a jazz standard popularized by the guitar legend- “How High the Moon.”
One down. Three to go. With a show that began summer’s last four nights in style, Phish still left plenty room to blowout the next three with endless possibilities. Will they play another “Ghost?” After a massive version on the first night of Red Rocks, we haven’t heard from the song again. Will they drop a second-leg “Ocean Song”- maybe at SPAC- its improvisational birthplace? Where will the end-of-summer “Tweezer” fall? With their current “anything-goes” style, these next three second sets are as predictable as the the lotto, upping the anticipation for the conclusion of summer. Act two comes tonight in Hartford, and we shall see what Phish has in store- you’re guess is as good as mine.
I: Sample In A Jar, Dinner and a Movie, Wolfman’s Brother, My Friend, My Friend Possum, Farmhouse, Sugar Shack, Brian And Robert, David Bowie, Bathtub Gin, How High The Moon, Golgi Apparatus
II. Drowned > Prince Caspian > Rift, The Horse > Silent In the Morning, Sparkle, Run Like An Antelope, Suzy Greenberg, Fluffhead
E: Joy, First Tube