It was an intentional move not to look at the set lists for the first four shows of Phish's domestic summer tour. Maybe it sounds silly, but since show number five marked the start of what's being considered a sort of New York area mini-tour -- consisting of these previous two nights in Holmdel, N.J., continuing with two nights in Hartford, Conn., then moving back to Jersey for two nights in Camden (including the culminating Fourth of July gig) -- it almost feels like its own tour. Why not treat it as one?
For a band that boasts a different show every night, the fact of the matter is that there are several elements that can be predicted by process of elimination. Chances are, if Phish just played a tune a night or two ago, you're not gonna hear it. So, in the spirit of spontaneity and having no expectations, the lists were off limits.
So we entered PNC Bank Arts Center ready for whatever the band had to offer. And when the boys came out on full-force with the arena-rock, guitar-driven "Chalkdust Torture," the crowd was more than ready to follow. A little bass-heaviness from Mike Gordon is always welcome and he was poppin' something fierce on "The Sloth" to keep the vibe going. The jammed-out favorite "Bathtub Gin" was extraordinarily upbeat, as if someone added a shot of 151 to the mixture to give it an added punch. What with all the rocking going on, it was a bit odd that the first set should end on such an unusually mellow, but utterly perfect note as "If I Could." We haven't seen 'em bust this gorgeously sweet, slow-swayer of a song out for a couple of years now.
Come second set though, Gordon was slap-happy once again, opening with a garage-bandy noise fest before his signature lines opened the funky number that shouts out to, as the band sings, "a thousand barefoot children outside, dancing on my lawn." Vibe gained into vibe lost with "Harry Hood," a twisted little ditty that weaves in and out of jam territory and has acquired a couple of quirky audience tricks that, essentially, are beginning to ruin the song -- no matter how tightly the band performs it. Props to our Jambands.com brother Benji Eisen for the motivation and the balls to pull off a mass movement. The guy (pretty much single-handedly) got thousands of people to chant "Hood" back at the band when they sang "Harry." And it was novel for a while. Now it's trite, cliche, overdone, obnoxious. Like a private joke told way, way too many times so it's not private anymore, or funny. Ditto getting knocked in the head with glow sticks during the "sure it's pretty, but it fucking hurts" glow stick wars. Rings, kids. Throw the glow rings.
Speaking of overkill (not the band, hence the lowercase) . . . Hands up, who's sick of hearing "When the Circus Comes to Town"? Beautiful tune. Los Lobos wrote a masterpiece. But it's just not the kinda thing we need to hear all the time. And other than that one lady (and I guess a few others like her) sitting on the lawn who, God bless her, admitted "I don't know any of their songs except that one I hear on the radio," most are hearing this pretty damn often.
If it's not overkill, it's poor placement. "Albuquerque" is a sincerely pretty song, but it's a total bathroom break when placed between the way more upbeat "Mike's Song" and the "Weekapaug Groove" set closer. Following a disco-y "First Tube" comes the Stones' "Loving Cup," which is performed more frequently than "Circus," but it's a hard-hitting number that just never seems to get old.
In two words: short show. Almost exact hour-long sets. But who'd trade a short, great show for a long crappy show? How about a long great show, then? Second night proved that we could have the best of both worlds. It was a night of epic covers. Phish opened with Son Seal's "Funky Bitch," played some hot-rockin' originals, then ended the set coming out of the Who's "Drowned" and segued seamlessly into Velvet Underground's "Rock and Roll." Hell of a way to leave the crowd pumped up for a forty-five-minute break. But when the band hit the stage again, there was nothing to indicate how utterly off-the-hook the show was about to get. The opening "Birds of a Feather" was unbelievably tight, and the always bizarre "Catapult" made up for the about-to-enter-the-over-played new radio single "Heavy Things." Oh, irony of ironies, guitarist Trey Anastasio spaced on the words . . . twice.
That was followed by "Sand," my vote for single. Rarely, if ever, does one get to see so many rhythmless white people in a crowd clapping completely in synch with one another, but completely off the beat. The jam more than made up for the moronic moments. Enter the "Meatstick," the song with which Phish attempted to break the world record for the number of people doing a dumb (but endearing) dance at the same time. Close call at the 70,000 or so-attended Oswego summer festival, but no dice. So instead, as inferred by Anastasio's mid-song chatter, the band is trying to infiltrate foreign lands one by one until the world knows The Meatstick. It was all just fun and games until the guys floored us with the Japanese version of the song. Seriously. All four of 'em busting, "Time for the Meatstick/Bury the Meatstick/Take out the Meatstick time/Oooh oh shocks my brain..." in Japanese.
The theme continued with the Talking Heads cover "Cities," which went back into rotation during the band's brief tour of Japan. And in honor, the words suddenly changed, mentioning "A lot of people in Tokyo . . . doing the Meatstick . . ." It can't get any better than this! But it did, with "Walk Away." The James Gang tune seemed like a perfect set-closer. Nope. When you've got a couple of kids jumping on the stage and running like antelopes out of control, there's only one way to go -- toss in "Frankenstein." And you're still not done because Anastasio's having way too much fun. So slow it down a little, catch your breath and wade with the band in their velvet sea. They encore with "Character Zero," a great song that now, by its very nature, implies "Yup, it's over." It was a fitting end to a show that, from the very beginning, never lost its touch.
Drummer Jon Fishman called the first night one of his "favorite shows ever," saying that you never really know when it's gonna happen, and then -- BAM! -- you find yourself just digging it. Can't wait to hear what he thinks of this last one, or what he and his boys have up their sleeves for the next four nights.