If last night’s Live at Letterman performance were Phish‘s Fuego album release party, the emphasis was certainly on the party. Yes, the quartet showcased a trio of new songs, but throughout the 45-minute set, Trey Anatasio and Co. proved more committed to making devotees dance than to featuring their freshest material. Naturally, the 400 Phishheads in attendance seemed to have little problem with this arrangement: As soon as the ushers disappeared, they spilled into the aisles, brandishing inflatable swords and semi-clandestine pot vaporizer pens, slapping five at every opportunity and shaking the balcony of the 87-year-old theater.
Focusing on high-energy blues-funk staples like “46 Days” and “Character Zero,” Phish’s eight songs resembled a condensed and user-friendly advertisement for the real main attraction: a 22-date summer tour launching next week in Massachusetts. Keyboardist Page McConnell even grew self-conscious when it came time to introduce the night’s first Fuego number, “Halfway to the Moon.” “This is from our new album,” he oozed, laughing, in his best lounge-singer drawl.
New albums and their attendant promotions have never been Phish’s strong suit or their fans’ main interest, but the lightly-branded webcast was a winning compromise. Nearly each number uncoiled into efficient solos featuring Anastasio making atmospheric Echoplex loops, adjusting his custom guitar’s tone and/or leaning his head back in giggling bliss. In places — McConnell’s “Halfway to the Moon” and a thrilling sequence of intricate and airy staccato jamming in “Twist,” for instance — the band hinted at the open-ended conversational improvisation for which they are both beloved and reviled.
While appearing increasingly old-fashioned next to the molly-gobblers of the swelling EDM nu-hippie kingdom, there remains nothing on the American musical landscape quite like Phish and their fans. Building a vocabulary of jerry-rigged improv classifications, internal metrics and coded pleasures that are sometimes unrecognizable to the band themselves, the Phishheads speak a finicky but essentially optimistic language. Many analyze, but most just dance. Sometimes it’s hard not to when presented with these esoteric Vermont musicians capable of producing old-fashioned ecstasy and maintaining community, even when crammed into the low-bandwidth medium of a 45-minute set on a television soundstage.
For Phishheads in particular, Fuego comes with baggage, having been debuted live on Halloween when most fans expected the band to perform their usual gimmick of covering another band’s classic album. Some in attendance were still quite vocally bummed, but others took it as a sign that Phish aren’t done kicking, squirming or doing whatever it is that Phish does. “It’s gonna be a good summah,” someone bellowed in a Boston accent, perhaps real, perhaps faked, as the houselights went up.