Phish finally returns to Shoreline, sounding like it had never been away.
By Jim Harrington
Phish didn't change much during its five-year breakup. Its show on
Wednesday night at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, part
of the band's big summer reunion tour, closely resembled its previous
stand at the venue in July 2003.
Sure, the Vermont quartet vocalist-guitarist Trey Anastasio,
drummer Jon Fishman, bassist Mike Gordon and keyboardist Page
McConnell played some different songs, including a few from a
forthcoming studio album, and found new ways to stretch out the jams.
But those are minor details. In total, the new Phish sounded a heck
of a lot like the old one.
Is that a good thing? It depends who you're asking. The group
definitely delighted the 22,000 fans or, in Phish lingo, "Phans"
at Shoreline. On the other hand, Phish showed little to convince us
it's ready to move beyond its niche jam-band following (even if it is
moving tickets faster than most other touring acts).
The scene at Shoreline had a familiar feel to it. It started in the
parking lot, as concertgoers arrived hours early to mingle with old
friends, buy dubious baked goods from tie-dyed vendors and avoid the
police while drinking microbrews.
Inside, tapers set up their equipment (Phish, following in the
Grateful Dead's footsteps, allows fans to record the concerts) and
the people on the lawn jostled for position. There were lots of free
hugs, big smiles and strange cigarettes being shared, and the lines
in front of the merchandise booths, beer vendors and bathrooms were sizable.
The advertised show time was 7 p.m., but Phish didn't take the stage
until 45 minutes after that another common occurrence and the
crowd erupted like it was witnessing the single greatest event in the
history of mankind.
Phish nicely illustrated its versatility during the first set. It
started in the land of prog-rock with "Golgi Apparatus," which
included an amazing array of breakneck musical changes executed with
pinpoint accuracy, and over the next 80 minutes the group would hit
on '50s-style vocal doo-wop ("Halley's Comet"), full-throttle rock
("Chalk Dust Torture") and Pink Floyd-inspired psychedelia ("The
Divided Sky"), among many other sounds.
That first set also included two tracks, "Time Turns Elastic" and
"Stealing Time from the Faulty Plan," from "Joy," the Phish album due
in stores Sept. 8. Neither managed to hold its own amid all the fan
favorites. Much better was the group's oft-performed cover of Los
Lobos' sweet ballad, "When the Circus Comes."
After a short break, the quartet returned to play another 100
minutes. The group loafed through a few of the numbers, leading one
to speculate that the recent four-night run at the famed Red Rocks
amphitheater in Colorado left the band a bit winded, but otherwise
operated near the top of its game.
And, just so we're clear on one thing, Phish's game is played at a
higher level than that of most bands.
One of the highlights of the second set was the monstrous take on
"Down with Disease," during which Anastasio provided plenty of
nimble, yet powerful guitar leads and underscored exactly why he made
Rolling Stone magazine's list of the "100 Greatest Guitarists of All
Time." McConnell also contributed two memorable moments, handling
vocals on a pair of cover songs the Velvet Underground's "Oh! Sweet
Nuthin'" and Jimi Hendrix's "Bold as Love" (which came in the encore).
The most intriguing piece of music in the show, however, was the fun
pop song "Backwards Down the Number Line." That track, the first cut
on "Joy," sounded like it could turn out to be Phish's first hit
since the 2000 single "Heavy Things." Could "Backwards Down the
Number Line" indicate the band has other radio-friendly tunes hidden
away? If so, we might even be able to differentiate the new Phish
from the old.