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Phish

Hampton Coliseum, Hampton, VA

March 6-8, 2009

The four and a half years of waiting are over: Phish is back. Better yet, they sound good; I mean really good. Phish’s farewell tour in 2004 exposed a band at its absolute worst. As drummer Jon Fishman (whose surname inspired the group moniker) later admitted, their final concert in Coventry, Vermont was one of the “greatest train wrecks in live music history.” Pianist Page McConnell wrote a letter to fans last summer hinting at a reunion, and last October Phish uploaded a video to their website making a reunion official with a run of three shows at Hampton Coliseum in Virginia, a prized venue of the band.

Last Friday, Phish took the stage at 8 PM. Guitarist Trey Anastasio strummed the opening chords to “Fluffhead” (a song that hadn’t been played in nine years), and the crowd exploded into cheers and applause (the opening song was an issue of hot debate amongst fans for months). The band, reaching their live performance peak in the mid-90s, used to rehearse relentlessly in order to execute the precise and difficult passages commonly found in their catalog of hundreds of songs. Family life and burn-out contributed to a much looser rehearsal ethic, which most fans agree led to a decline in their highly-acclaimed performing ability. This time around, Phish intends to be more committed to the discipline of practicing in order to regain the momentum they had over a decade ago.

And they’re definitely headed in that direction. It is, however, a gradual climb back to the top. The first Hampton show was an epic display of Phish’s committment to their fans and their music. The set was peppered with live favorites like “Divided Sky,” “Chalkdust Torture,” “Stash,” and “Tweezer.” Known for their penchant for long improvisational passages, Phish kept their jamming tight and focused, in stark contrast to the meandering and uninspired solos found throughout the 2004 tour. While the aforementioned songs contained successful jam sections, other songs may still need a little work. It has, after all, been a long time since these guys have played together. A much anticipated tune, “You Enjoy Myself,” began too abruptly ­— bassist Mike Gordon began on the wrong beat, and in the wrong key — and frontman Anastasio decided to stop and restart the song. So they’re a little rusty, but we’ll give them a break — Anastasio quickly joked that it wouldn’t be “like the last time we restarted it,” referring to their notoriously less-than-perfect performance of the song at their final concert. Gordon’s short but beautiful bass solo during the bridge more than made up for the mistake.

Another long jam, “David Bowie,” also began with Anastasio playing in the wrong key, but he quickly modulated up to the right chords. Lyrical flubs and other missed notes appeared all throughout the set. In addition, the vocal harmonies in “Water In the Sky” weren’t listenable at times (though none of the band members are hailed for their singing ability, per se). However, what we did hear was the boys warming up and getting stronger as the night went on. As the weekend progressed, the band became increasingly tighter as well as more confident. McConnell was at the top of his game the whole time, and much louder in the mix. Anastasio opened up little by little after each set, reaching a scorching high by night three.

Sunday’s show was an absolute success, and it had finally become clear that Phish was on its way back to reclaim their title as one of the greatest American live acts. Over the three-day period the group played more than ninety songs, with a different set list each night. While the weekend was a celebration of Phish’s great past, it was also a promise of their return. Word is out that they’ll be in the studio recording a new album, and they even debuted a new song, “Backwards Down the Number Line,” on their first night back. I’m expecting more attention to their older material this summer (tunes like “The Mango Song,” “Vultures,” and “Axilla” were absent from the sets) in addition to a good dose of more pop-oriented, catchier new songs. You’ll have to be patient and wait for the summer tour to hear more Phish — but if you can’t wait to listen to what the new and improved Phish sounds like, head to http://livephish.com and treat yourself to a free download of the Hampton shows!