Phish at Red Rocks, July 30, 2009. Photos by John Leyba, The Denver Post
They look the same. Mike’s still got the five-string bass and the graying hair helmet. Trey still stares slack-jawed through his fire-red mop while chasing elusive jams. Fishman and Page look just as they did a decade ago, maybe minus some hair. But something about Phish is different this time around.
The band’s first set Thursday at Red Rocks in 13 years saw an older, wiser band, taking their time and teasing their always ardent fans with a kaleidoscope of offerings that blanketed several genres.
The “Divided Sky” opener was a nostalgic nod to days past. The first lick Phish ever played at the moonscaped Red Rocks venue in 1993 was “Divided Sky,” but back then, the band was a hard-touring quartet pioneering a new path for improvised rock. On Thursday, Phish took the stage as the world’s greatest jam band.
And the proved their worthiness for that crown. The new “Ocelet,” – from the upcoming album “Joy,” it’s first studio effort in five years – offered a syrupy, loafing funk with both keyboardist Page McConnell and guitarist Trey Anastasio delivering torrential, overlapping jams.
Overlap is a key element to the Phish sound. This isn’t “your turn” jamming, which defines today’s jam scene: Guitar solo to bass solo to drum solo to next song, rinse and repeat. Phish has long flexed the four-way jam, with four masters working independently but melding seamlessly. It’s why they rule the jam fiefdom.
Rolling from a short, brutish “Poor Heart” into an extended and playful “Moma Dance,” Anastasio revealed a rare hesitancy, as if the band’s five-year break-up and recent reunion has prodded him to listen harder to his bandmates’ efforts. He seemed to be enjoying the listening as much as the playing on Thursday, his grin wide and giddy.
The same could be said for the Phish crowd, which is known for relishing both the music and the playtime that surrounds a Phish show. This crowd was decidedly cosmopolitan. Chance meetings with fans revealed a gathering that drew from all corners: the couple gals from Japan who didn’t speak any English, the dude from Pittsburgh who wistfully noted he may have fatally injured his new marriage by flying out last-minute to the four-night Red Rocks stand, the kids who were 9 when Phish last played Red Rocks and drove from Austin in a single-day push, and the hundreds – it seemed – from New York, Vermont, Maine and Massachusetts.
“Horn” faded into “Stash,” which turned off-the-charts rowdy and stretched well over 10 minutes. The “Stash” was a return to form for Phish, with the playfulness abandoned and Anastasio leading his team deep into a roiling gorge of violent, frenzied jams. No song better displayed the interwoven, symbiotic connection between Anastasio and drummer Jon Fishman.
The duo has probing conversations with their instruments. The crowd, already about as fired-up as can be, erupted in response to the deeply grooved “Stash,” as evidenced from the geysers spewing acrid smoke across the sea of grinding bodies.
The roller-coaster theme continued with Phish slamming on the brakes with a gentle, peaceful “Horse” into “Silent in the Morning.” The “Silent” saw the four-top flexing their always admirable harmonies. The five-year sabbatical seems to have renewed their interest in vocals, as all four showed Thursday a gift for crooning.
Maybe it was Chris Kuroda’s magical touch on the lights, but the second set showed an inspired Phish delving deeply into its improvisational roots, searching songs for nuggets worth expanding and then adorning those nuggets with fanciful flair. With a double-entrance and double-standing O, Mike Gordon – now playing with a pick and sub-kick mic on his bass amp – churned into a boiling “Mike’s Song” that took its traditional turn into “Hydrogen” and “Weekapaug Groove.” The bass-led offerings swept into a stormy crowd favorite, “Ghost,” which marked a return to that ambient funk that defined Phish’s middle years.
A howling, juicy “Wolfman’s Brother” followed, with nary a scent of that Russian-flavored jam that once characterized the song. Anastasio flexed his mightiest muscle in “Wolfman,” displaying a lasting strength and energy that hopefully indicates his band’s “renewed purity of purpose.” (The lack of which was cited by Fishman in the supposed-to-be-forever break-up.)
A perfectly placed “Limb by Limb” chased down “Wolfman,” with a rolling, spinning rhythm that allowed all four musicians to dance around each other’s best groove.
Again, they slowed to an amble with a soft “Billy Breathes” and again, another chance to showcase the Phish harmony which longtime fans can remember as often fleeting and fickle. McConnell kept the mood soothing with “Squirming Coil,” leading Anastasio to find a subdued riff to overlay McConnell’s serene keywork on the grand piano.
But McConnell was barely winding down his solo when Anastasio, chomping and stomping for a return to the fury jam, leapt into “David Bowie.” A discordant intro kept dancers awkwardly swaying until the band fell into a ravine of chilling yet fiery grooves that lasted several minutes or was it hours? Without a word, the band bowed and left the stage, returning to thunderous approval for their perpetually crowd-tickling encore cover of the Stones “Lovin’ Cup.”
All hands went to the sky and Kuroda’s lights went bright for each refrain: “What a beautiful buzz, what a beautiful buzz.”
Silent in the Morning
I Am Hydrogen->
Limb By Limb
Check Reverb daily for updates on Phish’s four-night visit to Red Rocks.
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