The crowd vibe was at a high for the Camden, N.J., shows, which landed at an exact halfway mark for the summer tour as a whole, and ended the New York area mini-tour before the band heads north to Canada. The surroundings outside the amphitheater reflected the sense of festivities; blazing sparklers, calls for goo balls, whistling nitrous tanks, and last ditch efforts for an extra ticket dominated the soundscape. Traffic packed the Benjamin Franklin Bridge from Philly to Camden and the overview revealed a constant stream of cars pulling into various parking lots. Red-white-and-blue garb peppered the constantly milling crowds, even the night before the 4th. Nothing too out of the ordinary, but then, the music hadn’t started yet.
Inside, house lights down and band on stage, it was a very different story. Just when you think you know what to expect, think again. Seems all bets were off and all theories were shot straight to hell. So much for the long odds for repeats: “Down With Disease,” “Bathtub Gin,” “Heavy Things,” “When the Circus Comes to Town,” “Run Like an Antelope,” “Sand,” “Chalkdust Torture.” And that’s just the first night. Add a third “Gotta Jibboo” on the July 4 and you’ve revisited a good chunk of Holmdel and then some. However, while the set lists might read as repetitive, what they don’t reflect is how significantly unique a song can come off even when the band’s playing it so often.
The Camden “Antelope” knocked Holmdel on its ass by its jam alone, not to mention bringing lyricist Tom Marshall out for vocal duties. “Runaway Jim” reappeared as a second set opener and jammed and jammed and jammed for over half an hour! “Sand,” always a great tune, had some sort of extra-special-something, a smoothness perhaps.
Don’t get me wrong, the band wasn’t about to rest on its laurels, and they spiced the shows up considerably with a lot of old-school treats: the first “Foam” since ’98! “Glide” (complete with the band — and some audience members — falling to the ground for thirty seconds at the end). New tunes or classics, the band’s sense of timing was beyond impeccable. Stopping on a dime, two-minute freeze-frames and clean re-entries. Flawless vocal exchanges between keyboardist Page McConnell and guitarist Trey Anastasio. I was sure, sure that I had been right. How could they possibly top it the next night? Just leave it to Phish . . .
They began with an a cappella “Star Spangled Banner” and from there, the set went just about everywhere — from new album title track “Farmhouse,” to old album title track “Rift,” to the title of Anastasio’s college thesis “The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday.” Nobody could have predicted how out-there this show could get! “Avenu Malkenu”?! The show skipped back and forth between songs we’d seen within days and songs some had never seen before, or at least for a few years. Hell, I saw wrinkled brows on serious veterans when the band began “I Saw It Again.” Ironic! But so accurate for so much of the show.
True — three “Gotta Jibboo”‘s. But you can’t even complain when you’re hearing real history. The tune jammed, like its first night second set opening counterpart “Runaway Jim,” for over half an hour. The July 4 “Jibboo” will stand for some time as the version. When you see a band take a regular and stretch it out like this, there’s nothing left to do but let your jaw drop and dance like you’re never gonna experience it again. I’m reminded of that “Bug” we saw a couple of days ago: “Nothing I’ve seen can be taken from me . . .”
Throughout the night, McConnell pulled moments of welcome domination, from solos, to vocals, to “Magilla” and ending with a full-blown “Lawn Boy” lounge-like encore. But the night was not to end on such a silly or mellow note. As pyrotechnics/fireworks set off across the stage and up in the pavilion rafters, the band jumped into Zeppelin’s “Good Times Bad Times” to close the show, and the run, with a major bang.
Looking back, it seems impossible that they could have covered so much old ground and still managed to play the new disc almost in its entirety (except “Sleep”). Arguments will rage on as to which night was the best, which venue was the best, which set was the best. I’ve been wrong before, but I’m still willing to stick with Camden, both nights, over anything else we’ve seen in the last week. The build-up gave every opportunity to end up a let-down, and the band overcame beautifully. More than just critical, I’m a critic, and I can’t remember the last time I saw a show, let alone two shows in a row, that I had no complaints about. Need I say more?