Trey Anastasio: Phish phrontman, recently out of rehab and back on the road with his band, brought fans into a state of euphoria during the Darien Lake gig. MATT MUMAU PHOTOS
Phish is the pronunciation of the nebulous set of ideas to which so many soul-seeking teenagers in the 1990s escaped while the United States experienced a roaring boost, hell-bent on forging new philosophies after a long Republican reign in the executive office. Unemployment dropped, technology zoomed and so if there was ever a time to party, the 1990s was it. Phish had a knack for magnetically wafting the disenfranchised, party-seeking youth of the era toward its optimistic promise of the never-ending groove and a multicolored Pandora’s box of unbridled improvisation.
Yet when the band broke up officially in 2004 (it had been on a disintegrating hiatus from 2000 to 2002, only to play abbreviated tours afterward) at the now-legendary concert in Coventry, Vt.—roughly 60 miles from the University of Vermont, where the band had formed in 1983—Phishheads world-wide had to turn to the less-than-great side projects of the band’s members for their jam band fixes. Those included guitarist and lead vocalist Trey Anastasio’s all-star, ill-fated Oysterhead, drummer and Syracuse native Jon Fishman’s Jazz Mandolin Project, bassist Mike Gordan’s many meanderings and keyboardist Page McConnell’s solo endeavors.
Anastasio has since gone through the motions of relieving himself of the duties of a 2006 drug-related DWI charge and a consequent rehab stint, and has gotten the band back together for a nationwide tour that made a stop at the Darien Lake Performing Arts Center, 9993 Alleghany Road, Darien Center, on Aug. 13, the fourth-to-last date of Phish’s reunion run, which started in March. Thus, Phish–a rebellion conveyed through its abstract, often joyfully non-nonsensical means—descended on the sold-out, 21,000-person capacity venue like a particularly bittersweet teenage memory, mingled with the subtle, on-the-edge festival treatment that Phish can’t help itself but muster.
Prior to the band’s on-stage appearance a tailgating crowd assembled in the venue’s parking lots that called to mind the unadulterated throngs of 1969 hippies at Woodstock (indeed, the weekend marked the 40th anniversary of the three-day fest that started them all). Bowls were smoked, joints were rolled, barbecues to fulfill the munchies were fired, rainbow-hued Frisbees were tossed and the communal air of the 1990s Phish scene was rekindled during an orange-tinted, sunny evening. Old friends embraced, having missed the time when they used to spend months on the road following the band, while the all-but-forgotten ticket bootleggers held up their index fingers to try to help out “phriends” with a “miracle” ticket.
The high and tripping gaggle then assembled in the venue proper for a roughly 8 p.m. start to the festivities, a segue from the crowd’s uproarious applause leading into “Sample In a Jar.” Regardless of the crowd’s foggy, groggy consciousness, the band’s style immediately seemed to match Anastasio’s cleaned-up persona, sticking closely to the form of that song as if the group was doing its best to strip its material down to the basics in order to rebuild itself.
An unlikely run through “Dinner and a Movie,” an eclectic, anxious tune from the group’s studio album Junta, followed the same predication, moving predictably through its tightly composed, starkly contrasting emotional roller coaster. “Wolfman’s Brother” then broke the jamming cherry, leading toward a healthy number of soul-shaking improv sessions to follow.
Known for breaking their gigs into a relatively reliable pattern (two roughly two-hour sets separated by a break and an abbreviated encore session), the band’s first set hit upon a lengthy “Bathtub Gin” before Anastasio took a moment to remember the recently deceased master of all axes, Les Paul, who had passed away at age 94 earlier in the day.
“I want to take one last second before we go to set break,” Anastasio began, “to pause and celebrate a person who left the Earth today, and who’s a big hero of mine: the guy who invented the electric guitar, Mr. Les Paul. He’s no longer with us; he’s here in spirit. I have to acknowledge him because there would be no concert going on right now without him. He was an amazing guy. He kept playing music well into his 90s, and so he’s a hero of mine and all of ours for a lot of reasons, and hopefully we’ll be playing in our 90s, too. And hopefully, you guys will be there.” The group then played through a quaint but brief version of “How High the Moon,” one of the standards upon which Paul left his indelible mark.
Set two then splurged on a risky musical economy that could only be righted by the energy of an enthralled crowd, kicking off with “Drowned.” That tune corralled into a seemingly unplanned jam session that had Anastasio pulling simple notes into an ethereal realm, as if the tones were attempts to push from an imaginary consciousness into that of the crowd; the licks then formed a sort of musical theme that Anastasio attempted to finagle into later tunes.
Fan dazzlers, like the mathematically and soulfully puzzling “Rift” and the pleasantly jangly “Silent In the Morning,” were like musical fireflies during the second set, in that they weaved the simpler, colorful ear candy that the group has composed during its lifespan into the calming nighttime aura around the Darien Lake venue.
Then, rock-solid jammers “Run Like An Antelope” and “Fluffhead” rounded out the inevitable orgasm with which the band had teased the crowd through the set. This reviewer has listened to more Phish bootleg tapes in his day than he’d be willing to count, yet the group, while clearly attempting to freshen up its chops by indulging such staple tunes, carried itself with an ineffable but noticeably new posture straight through its climax.
“First Tube,” the group’s second encore after “Joy”, took the crowd’s mentality through Anastasio’s triplet-over-quarters groove during an improv that deserves the cliche of being “transcendent,” having left fans in a state of euphoria for which their drugs couldn’t fully account.
Phish has since concluded their tour, rounding it out with gigs in Connecticut, Maryland and back in New York at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center for the Aug. 16 finale. Given the reactions from Web-friendly fans, highlights from those gigs seemed to include a reprise of the not-often-played tune “Harpua” as well as a “Huh?”-inducing cover of Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl.”
Phish’s future road trips, while donning that familiar guise of its old set of tunes and its draw of fans cut from the same jam band cloth, seem destined to fulfill its drive toward that same idea that the band’s name originally embodied. While other post-modern groups like the Flaming Lips have since adopted the spectacle of Phish’s inspiration, nothing quite matches the energy of the original jammers, an opinion that was strengthened by the band’s Darien sets.
Phan boys: Tailgaiting, hippie-style, was in full effect in the parking lots outside of the Darien Performing Arts Center.