Review by Darren Kerr
Photography by Rodney Gitzel
So how is it that Phish, this band from Vermont, could, without a top ten hit or video or radio exposure, be handed the coveted torch of the post-Grateful Dead carnival microcosm? The answer is simple: hard work, constant touring and consistently killer live shows that are an amalgam of space and ground. As much Buck Owens as Buck Rogers, and equal parts P.T. Barnum and J.P. Patches, Phish are the closest thing to a group mind made flesh. The way they build and peak a song with such eloquence and intensity can only by explained by telepathy. Or, to be brief, they smoke like the Grateful Dead used to before they discovered MIDI technology.
Phish opened tonight's show with "Chalkdust Torture," a flat-out rocker which sounds a bit like David Wilcox, and which is the only Phish song I have ever heard on radio. The band dipped into the old crowd favourites quite a bit for this show, and the next three tunes were ones that have been in their repertoire for the last decade: "Giula Papyrus," "Divided Sky" and "Wilson." "Divided Sky" came out of nowhere, with the band members enveloped in white light for the stunning four-part harmony intro. Trey Anastasio can coax the most beautiful sounds out of his guitar, the sonic equivalent of a peaceful winter night or the soundtrack to your last utopian dream, and some of the baroque Allman-esque guitar passages in the song were enough to achieve pure bliss. "Wilson" is one of a few very old songs which tells the tale of the mythical kingdom of Gamehenge, over which Wilson reigns supreme.
The next song was introduced as a new song which they'd just written on the road. It was full blown country music waiting at the border and wanting to get home. Bassist Mike Gordon sang this one and, even though it caused the show to lag, the audience really liked it. Another old song, "Split Open and Melt," followed, with more crazed weirdness, as Anastasio entered the nth dimension usually inhabited by Robert Fripp. "Rift," one of my favourite Phish songs, was given the full meal deal incendiary jam treatment, as people all over the Coliseum were ecstatically riffing on air guitars. Keyboardist extraordinaire Page McConnell was all over this song, leaping from jazz to Joplin rag and with a little Morricone for that added zing.
The second set, though, was largely made up of Phish songs I just did not know. That's the thing with Phish: even if you've heard every one of their seven albums, they're still gonna pull stuff out of the tickle trunk that only true Phish-heads are familiar with. One particularly phenomenal jam was like the Mahavishnu Orchestra playing celestial footsy with Daevid Allen's Gong. Suddenly everyone around me disappeared and there was only myself and the band in some sort of cannabis-assisted pseudo-symbiotic relationship. Then, just when I thought the hairs on my arms could rise no higher, drummer Jon Fishman signaled the segue into (depending on who you talk to) either "Cymbals and Saxophones" or "We've Got a Band." Hell, it wouldn't matter if it was called "Sauerkraut Landlord," it still would have been a killer tune with a groove as thick as Liam Gallagher's head.
This set also contained the only two songs that the band would play from their new album, Billy Breathes, which is a much more subtle, song-oriented offering than the mad jams of previous releases. "Cars, Trucks, Buses" was a welcome little interlude in the style of the Sanford and Son theme or the tracks behind Pizzicato Five's ditties, while "Waste," a poignant declaration of love and apathy, will most definitely be the first song played at any Phish-head wedding in the future.
The old songs I did recognize in this set were "Weekapah Groove" and "Harry Hood." The former sounded almost Doobie Brothers-ish, while the latter was a reggae workout. Throw in a touching a capella version of "Amazing Grace" and a very faithful encore cover of the Zep classic "Good Times Bad Times," which had everyone stomping in the cheap seats, and you've got yourself a peach of a rock show.
I left the Coliseum feeling both inferior and inspired. Meanwhile, Phish and most of their traveling circus were setting their phasers on "border cross" for the next night's show in Seattle. More smoking Phish and, yes, more grilled cheese sandwiches.
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