I’ve been away from the blog for a while now, mostly due to computer trouble, but also due to a lack of downtime. Summer has been full of musical adventures – unusual Mystic Canyon gigs, new collaborations, and a jammin’ reunion in Jersey – all stories for another day. Right now, the journey that is freshest in my mind is the trip I took last Saturday with my buddy Tom to see Phish at the Gorge Amphitheater.
This would be my 55th Phish show, and my first since the last time they came to the Gorge in 2003. My expectations were mixed – after Phish fell apart in 2004, I’d accepted it as a bittersweet end for my favorite band, but the buzz about their return this year had my hopes up. Were they really playing better than version 2.0, or were people just glad to have them back and more willing to overlook a little sloppiness?
As the show approached, I tried to clear my mind and just appreciate the moment for what it was. When I saw some of the songs on my wishlist popping up on setlists from Shoreline and the first night at the Gorge, I decided to abandon all preconceptions and surrender to the flow. My faith was rewarded with the best Phish show I have seen in ten years.
The Gorge scene was amazing as always. The remoteness of the venue has a way of weeding out the less desirable elements of the lot scene, rewarding those who commit to the journey with a mellow freaky flea market vibe to enjoy. After haggling for some shirts, Tom and I downed our last brews and headed for a spot on the lawn.
Just after the sun ducked behind the canyon wall, Phish treated us to a Mango Song opener, a rare treat that set an “anything goes” tone from the start, followed by a more traditional firestarter, Chalkdust Torture. I’d never heard Mike’s Middle of the Road before, but it sounded like classic Phish to my ears. I always love a good Tweezer, and this one was focused and funky. Driver was an unexpected change of pace, but it piqued my attention for the new song Twenty Years Later, which is enjoyably darker than the other new ones. Ya Mar is always fun and Its Ice is a personal favorite that demonstrated the band’s renewed focus on the composed sections of their trickier songs. Wolfman’s Brother brought back memories of the thick funk grooves of 1998, and peaked with an energy that could have closed the set. But Phish had another trick up their sleeves, playing a somewhat predictable Character Zero but then following it up with the tightest Antelope I can remember. The frenzied peak maintained a driving intensity without ever losing control, contrary to the lyrical plea at the end of the song, I suppose.
Tom and I moved down from the lawn to the floor for the second set, which kicked off with a monstrous version of Velvet Underground’s Rock ‘n’ Roll. I had always found this tune a little boring, but this 21-minute jam session was anything but. After some mesmerizing twists and turns, the band settled into the thick reggae of Makisupa Policeman. Mike Gordon’s bass dominated this show, particularly the outstanding fuzzed-out solo he took on this tune while Trey worked the octave pedal to keep the bass line going. Having thusly exchanged roles, they closed out the song by switching guitars for a few minutes, before switching back and launching into the bouncy new tune Alaska. The Wedge is one of my favorite rarely-played tunes that has a way of feeling like the perfect song choice at exactly the right time. Phish followed with You Enjoy Myself, once again showing restraint and focus that resulted in a highly enjoyable groove, featuring more bass virtuosity from Mike and some particularly creepy vocal jamming at the end. Perhaps further demonstrating their renewed confidence, they fired up an extended version of the new tune Backwards Down the Number Line, a melody that echoed through my head for the next few days. This segued smoothly into a Piper that seemed to launch the crowd into the night sky, culminating in an atmospheric soundscape, intermittently punctuated by Fishman, who seemed to be teasing Llama before joining the rest of the band at the front of the stage for an a capella set closer, Grind.
Good Times Bad Times has been a frequently appreciated encore for me, giving my first 2009 Phish show a very old-school finish. Page’s vocals in the out-chorus sounded better than ever, taking on a hearty growl that I’d never heard before. As much as I loved the first set Tweezer, it does have a way of telegraphing the final encore. I found myself hoping for the Reprise to pop up earlier in the show. Still, no matter how expected, it’s one of the most kickass finales I have ever seen by any band.
Phish 3.0, as the kidz are calling it, lived up to the hype and sounded better than they have since before their first split. Their playing was precise when it needed to be, with a few minor flubs from which the band seamlessly recovered. The jams were looser and more adventurous than they have been all year, from what I have heard, but they never wandered off aimlessly. I’d say the magic is back for this Phish fan, and from the way they seemed to be enjoying themselves, it’s clear that the magic is back for Phish.