Phish kicked off the northeastern leg of their summer tour in Hartford, Connecticut, last night with a show that was short on surprises but still delivered the nearly sold-out shed some serious rock bang for its recessionary buck.
Since launching their trek last week at Bridgeview, Illinois's Toyota Park, Phish have debuted two originals ("Show of Life" and "Idea") and three new covers (The Band's "Look Out Cleveland," John Lennon's "Instant Karma" and Tom Waits' "Cold Water"). Last night, however, the band seemed happy to revel in its newfound and extremely well-oiled maturity. Phish recaptured their collective footing in 2009 after a four-year breakup. The quartet is now building on that recovered spirit with music that taps into every aspect of their quarter-century career together.
At 95 minutes, Phish's first set was nearly a concert in itself. From one angle, it concentrated on guitarist Trey Anastasio's goofy yet complicated early compositions and near-instrumentals, such as the Latin-tinged "Punch You in the Eye," the rarely heard "Dinner and a Movie" (complete lyrics: "Let's go out to dinner and see a movie") and the always-majestic "The Divided Sky" (complete lyrics: "Divided sky, the wind blows high"). From another, it offered a quick dip into the group's two most recent albums — last year's Joy and its outtakes sibling, Party Time — with Anastasio's slinky, Beatles-evoking "Ocelot," bassist Mike Gordon's own Latin-Caribbean ode to Vermont love, "Sugar Shack," and "Alaska," a throw-away rocker Anastasio redeemed with a long, swaggering solo.
The band displayed its newly focused jamming style in "Stash," which began as a slow simmer and built calmly yet inevitably to a supernova. The lyrical density of another early rarity, "Esther," was dispelled with a raging version of the James Gang's "Walk Away." And the presence of Cirque du Soleil a short way down the freeway may have inspired another of their favorite covers, Los Lobos' "When the Circus Comes to Town."
There's a place in the middle of "The Divided Sky" when the music simply stops. Last night, that pause was filled by much of the audience, which seemed to consist mostly of baseball-capped sports fans, chanting "Beat L.A.!" in honor of the Lakers-Celtics Game Seven that was underway. A Phish crewmember provided occasional updates during setbreak. And the crowd's obvious favoritism may also have inspired Anastasio to plunk "Guyute," a Celtic-inspired prog-rock suite, into the middle of set two.
Phish opened the second set, however, with Party Time's title track (complete lyrics: "Party time!"), which the band followed up with two long, funky jams. During "Down With Disease" and "Sand," Anastasio stepped back as though to demonstrate just how elegantly egalitarian this band could be when all four members, including keyboardist Page McConnell and drummer Jon Fishman, sync up and get down. The interlude also inspired lighting director Chris Kuroda's most colorfully geometric 3-D effects (which were sadly missing from the band's recent 3-D movie).
The set's energy level waned shortly after "Guyute," though. Some moron hit Gordon in the head with a glowstick during "Farmhouse," and the segued trio of tunes that followed — "Mike's Song," the ambient instrumental "I Am Hydrogen," and "Weekapaug Groove" throwdown — felt relatively perfunctory. The group wrapped up the first show of its two-night stand with the Rolling Stones' "Shine a Light," the final song on Exile on Main Street, which Phish covered in its entirety last Halloween. It's one of rock's great redemption songs, and Phish have made it their own.
"Punch You In the Eye"
"Dinner and a Movie"
"The Divided Sky"
"When the Circus Comes"
"Alaska" > "Golgi Apparatus"
"Party Time" > "Down with Disease" -> "Sand" -> "The Horse" > "Silent in the Morning"
"Mike's Song" > "I Am Hydrogen" > "Weekapaug Groove"
"Shine a Light"