The last time Phish was around, during the “post-hiatus” years, there were many magnificent musical moments- contrary to popular myth- but something was missing. Throughout the band’s past, they had not only put on great concerts, but laced their performances with humor, antics, musical jokes, and a general zany energy that defined a Phish show. As the years wore on and the band got deeper into unhealthy habits, this energy- this Phishiness- began to fade, a clear sign that all was not well in Gamehendge. As 2003 turned to 2004, Phish’s spirit was waning, and after a three-night stint in Vegas, things were clearly spinning out of control.
And then Coventry happened. We were forced into a distinctly un-Phishy ending to the greatest chapter of our lives, and it just didn’t feel right. But alas, sometimes, as Nana said, “That’s the way the cookie crumbles.” But the fates wouldn’t have it that way, and five years later we found ourselves back in the kingdom of Phish- but would it be the same?
After so many unknowns were answered at Red Rocks and The Gorge, Phish sailed back into New England in a triumphant homecoming. When the band quit in ’04, Trey said he feared becoming a nostalgia act, thus when returning in ’09, we knew things would be forward-looking. With a forthcoming album, more heartfelt and mature songs, Phish has entered a new stage of their lives and of their careers. But on one special night in Hartford, CT, the band showed everyone that they haven’t lost touch with the spirit that inspired them from the start- Phish still had their Phishiness.
Though their renewed musical spirit was on display throughout the second leg, one wondered if their early days of Gamehendge narrations and allusions were simply a relic of a bygone era. But when Phish opened Hartford with four songs that could have been pulled from their college days, a different energy to the show began to emerge. “Punch,” “AC/DC,” and “NICU” got the party started, but it wasn’t until the dramatic drop into “Colonel Forbin’s” that we knew something special was at hand. As Mike’s bass crisply cut the thick summer air, the band delved into their classic saga of the Gamehendge hero. Clearly practiced, the band confidently and cleanly moved though the composition, with Trey even giggling as he mentioned “Icculus, the prophet.” But as the time came for the first narration of 3.0, the band transitioned directly into “Mockingbird.” Likely a by-product of their rehearsals, they bypassed any storytelling for a soaring run through “Mockingbird”- a gorgeous piece of music that is so much more than a mere bust-out. By nailing the old-school composition, the band dosed the crowd with that Phishy energy, and when they dropped the first “Birds” of tour, the place exploded.
In a torrid session of improv, Phish crushed the only version of “Birds” this tour; a rendition that veered from the song’s direct path due to dynamic interplay between Mike and Trey, subtle rhythmic shifts, and powerful piano leads. While not getting into ‘type II’ territory, this was nonetheless an enthralling escapade. Coupled with another strong version of “Stash,” these two dark jams anchored the old-school set. “Stash” moved into some dirty psychedelia, led melodically by Page, as Mike and Trey created a cacophony of effected sound. Trey climbed out of this sonic dungeon with wails that conveyed emotional desperation. This piece is some seriously dark Phish, and easily throws its hat in the ring with the best “Stashs” from this tour. Sidestepping any melodic interlude for a straight trip into the center of the earth, this is a dark-horse version that hasn’t gotten its due credit.
The same early-era energy oozed into the second set, but not before Phish crafted the most enchanting- albeit oddly aborted- piece of music all evening. Transforming the “Disease” jam into a percussive ride, and then into a slowed down musical medium, Trey infused the piece with stunning melodies as the band hit a mellow groove that oozed spirituality. People have called this a “Reba jam, ” but that assessment is a mere attempt to label an incredibly improvisational segment of Phish that really had little to do with the song. Could the music have been drawn from a spaced-out and slowed down “Reba?”- sure, but in my opinion there was no musical allusion going on there. Instead, Phish was flowing in some of their most magical improv since The Gorge, which is why it was incredibly disorienting and flat-out wrong when it was abruptly cut off by the coarse opening of “Wilson.” Trey had to be the only person in the entire venue thinking that dropping “Wilson” amidst this delicate jam was the right call, but ironically, he is the only one who matters. What could have been a stunning summer highlight of “Disease > Slave ” had Big Red been patient and used the five minutes of “Wilson” to bridge the two noble songs, turned into “Disease > Wilson > Slave,” which wasn’t too shabby either!
Centering “Slave” in the second set, Phish built perhaps the summer’s most climactic version of the usual set-closer. A joy to hear as a focal point, “Slave” ascended with meticulous and creative offerings from all in a blissful melange of harmony and melody; a mid-set emotional peak. Without skipping a beat, Phish slid into “Piper,” continuing the uplifting vibe of the set.
On this night, “Piper’s” break-neck jamming would reach another level of connection and interplay as the band trounced through the shredding piece with spirit and innovation- getting to some truly unique musical places. Initially led outwards by a catchy Trey lick, the band turned the rock textures more rhythmic, creating some fast-paced whole-band patterns, as they completed each others’ musical thoughts with an awesome proficiency. In the most dynamic segment of the set, this “Piper” continued on its driving path, cushioned by completely unique bass lines, and led by slicing and dicing guitar acrobatics. Naturally arriving in “Water in the Sky” out of a more ambient section, it was cool to see Phish moving organically and landing wherever they landed, regardless of song or placement.
The non-stop nature of this set continued with the long-awaited return of “Ghost,” which had not heard from since the tour-opening highlight at Red Rocks. Pumping the amphitheatre with more energy to the point of implosion, Phish tore into the jam with an opposite feel of Red Rocks’ wide-open funk; this time favoring more a more intense, driving course. The band locked into some on-point improv, with Trey making guitar runs all over the place. The consistent rhythm allowed him and Page to create some searing leads, directing the forceful jam to the top with their two-part creativity.
Trailing down into a digital pattern that sounded more like a futuristic video game than music, the band sustained the pattern as Trey began poking fun at a kid in the front row who continued gyrating to the bizarre sounds. Out of the joke came an impromptu Trey vs. Fish dance contest to the same music to the amusement of all. The band had already ripped so hard, that any fun asides seemed completely appropriate- and Trey continued the side-show by beginning the lyrics to “Catapult” over the same backing texture.
As he continued to banter over the strange rhythm, he turned the course of his narration as soon as the band began the chord progression to the rarely played homage to the god of Gamehendge, “Icculus.” As soon as the song was discernible, the audience responded with an ovation. Trey began talking about his youth, when there were no video games and technology, and comparing it to the present with us “crazy kids out there with [our] iPhones and [our] DVDs, listening to [our] auto-tuned music; it’s all machines!” Then, in the line of the night, he said, “But what I want to ask you is, when was last time that one of you picked up a fucking book?!” Exploding the amphitheatre with his comical splicing of present day culture and Gamehendge lore, we hadn’t seen Trey this animated in ages. It wasn’t the fact that they were playing “Icculus” that was so exciting, it was hearing that passionate voice we had heard on our earliest analogs scream about the fucking book! That’s what mattered! Trey was feeling his history, basking in the culture he created, and subsequently feared and ended twenty years later. His spirit was back; after all the legal entanglements, addiction, and rehab- we had our hero had returned! We had heard him play like a maestro throughout the tour, but rarely did he say anything. As he continued his absurd and extensive rantings, it was like being reunited with an old friend- a spirit we hadn’t felt in ages. It wasn’t about the bust-out- it was about passion, a old-school passion we never knew we’d see again. It was about The Book and all its symbolism. It was about being reconnected to Phishiness again.
As the band closed the show with a “YEM” that was more antics than improv, it didn’t seem to matter. Though I would have liked to see a huge blowout “YEM” to cap the night as much as anyone, Phish had left it all on the table in a series of high-spirited, non-stop jams. So when Trey began to shimmy to his band’s groove instead of add to it, everything was relative to the special evening that had just unfolded.
Among all the musically significant shows this past tour, Hartford represented something unique; something special. No doubt the music was great, but more than anything, that Phishy spirit that grabbed our imaginations at some point on our lives, and ran away with it, was back in effect. Walking out of Hartford into mild summer eve, it felt as if the Lizards had wrestled The Book away from Wilson- and Errand Wolf- if only briefly, and all was right in Gamehendge once again.
Jams of the Day:
“Piper > Water In the Sky” 8.14 II
“Ghost > Psycho Killer” 8.14 II
DOWNLOAD OF THE DAY:
8.14.09 Comcast Center Hartford, CT < Torrent
8.14.09 Comcast Center Hartford, CT < Megaupload
After searching for a great AUD source, this is the best I could find for now.
I: Punch You in the Eye, AC/DC Bag, NICU, Colonel Forbin’s Ascent > Fly Famous Mockingbird, Birds Of A Feather, Lawn Boy, Stash, I Didn’t Know, Middle Of The Road, Character Zero
II: Down With Disease > Wilson > Slave To The Traffic Light, Piper > Water In The Sky, Ghost > Psycho Killer > Catapult > Icculus > You Enjoy Myself
E: While My Guitar Gently Weeps
Source: Schoeps MK4 > KC5 > CMC6 > Sonosax SX-M2 > Apogee Mini-me(aes out@24 bit/96khz) > COAX > Edirol R-44 SD-HC Card > USB > Soundforge 8 (tracking,resample/dither to 16bit/44.1khz) > FLAC — (Taper – Andy Murray)
Hartford 8.14.09 – (Photo: Ryan Gilbertie)