In front of me, someone’s taking an early pre-show hit from a marijuana pipe; behind me is third base. I’m shivering in the light drizzle of the 50-degree weather as thousands of people pour into Fenway Park. Everyone’s wondering the same thing: What song will they open with?
I’ve been waiting to see Phish since junior high. When they broke up in 2004, I thought I’d missed my chance to see them live. But after five years of silence, the epic jam band announced its return last fall and I immediately booked a ticket for their 2009 summer tour, which kicked off at Fenway on May 31. (The second show was on Long Island, but more about that later.)
So as the crowd on the field gathered toward the stage that day, I knew I couldn’t settle for a 32nd-row seat — I had to be right there at the front. Hundreds of us spilled into the aisles, pushing forward. Just as I edged my way into 2nd row, Fenway’s announcer Carl Beane proclaimed the beginning of the national anthem.
Trey Anastasio, Mike Gordon, Page McConnell, and Jon Fishman, my jam band heroes, had discreetly gathered on the pitcher’s mound and began to sing. Afterwards, Beane’s booming voice reminded everyone about the “no smoking” rule, and sly laughter erupted, as well as puffs of suspect smoke from the infield. Beane finished his spiel with a rousing “play ball!” as Phish ripped into “Sample In A Jar.”
Immediately I was dancing and singing along to the song I’d performed myself so many times. Without any hesitation, Phish blazed through other danceable grooves like “Moma Dance,” “Chalk Dust Torture,” and even a new tune from their forthcoming record called “Ocelot”. The new song sounded fresh and catchy, and played well sandwiched between old classics.
FORGIVE ME IF I DON’T SING IN YOUR KEY
While they were separated, the four players had gotten involved with other projects and tours of their own. They were also getting into trouble. Guitarist Anastasio was arrested for possession of heroin and prescription drugs in December 2006. Since then, he’s committed to being sober; he looked much healthier and brighter onstage at Fenway than he did in 2004, when he was near the peak of his addiction.
In between songs Anastasio conferred with bassist Gordon to decide what to play. At a Phish concert, the audience and the band are equally unaware of what might happen next, which is why so many fans follow Phish around the country. Every show is drastically different. Songs that clock in at five or six minutes on a studio record can push the twenty-minute mark in the live setting, journeying through several musical styles and emotional states.
The second set opened with a thirteen-minute version of “Tweezer,” which evolved into a bold jam harnessed by drummer Fishman’s consistent rhythm. Anastasio was playing strongly, leading the band by locking in on adaptable riffs. McConnell traveled around to different instruments, coloring the sound with a Moog keyboard he recently added to his arsenal.
While the Fenway show was not by any means the strongest Phish show ever, it was a clear indicator that the group is back, serious about music, and serious about getting back to the musical heights they reached in the nineties.
Still, it’s been five years and there were a fair number of flubs. Anastasio missed a guitar lick in “David Bowie,” but quickly jumped back in at the right beat. The band members were communicating well on stage, though, checking in with each other and even responding with their instruments to various musical cues. As a gift to fans, Phish busted out two fabled rarities from Phish’s past, “Curtis Loew” and “Destiny Unbound.”
As the encore came to a close with a stunning rendition of Led Zeppelin’s “Good Times, Bad Times,” segueing into “Tweezer Reprise,” I was overwhelmed completely by the performance, my knees sore from dancing nonstop.
On my way back, I bumped into some fans from the show at Cambridge Pizza. As we happily recalled Anastasio and Gordon’s trampoline dance during “You Enjoy Myself,” we discussed what other summer shows we’d catch this tour. I sadly told my new friends that I didn’t have any tickets.
One of them was planning to cover all the Phish dates this summer. She encouraged me to catch the next show, on Long Island. On impulse, I agreed. We exchanged numbers, and I ran home to look for a ticket.
WE GOTTA GET ON THE ROAD, DESTINY UNBOUND
After a couple hours of searching on Craigslist, I found a ticket from a fan in Manhattan who had to miss the show in order to watch his kids at home. I took a 7 a.m. ride on the Fung Wah down to New York, and met with my Craigslist savior. He politely sold the ticket to me for under face value. Immediately, I headed to the lot at Jones Beach Theater.
The first few numbers of the night went light on the improvisation, but things quickly loosened up as the band kicked into “Reba,” a song from 1992’s Lawn Boy that features intricate counterpoint between piano and guitar. During the song’s lengthy jam section, fans revived an old tradition by tossing hundreds of glowsticks into the air to create a spectacular light display.
This show also marked the return of the ballad “If I Could,” which reappeared in a newly-arranged form. The second set began with four songs that segued into one another, as Phish often does spontaneously. The transitions, though, were not quite as fluid as they have been in the past. Fishman abruptly began the beat to “Weekapaug Groove” to signal the shift out of “Wolfman’s Brother,” but his bandmates needed a few moments to catch up.
The highlight of the night was a dark version of “Harry Hood” deep in the second set. The crowd favorite imploded into an ambient section anchored by McConnell’s Moog keyboard. The brooding, infectious pulses from the bass hypnotized the audience, and the band peaked back up for the end of the song, which reached the seventeen-minute mark.
As I left the amphitheater, I stopped by another Phish touring phenomenon: “Shakedown Street.” Taking the name from the Grateful Dead song, a section of the parking lot transforms into a mini-market where fans can buy a grilled cheese sandwich, handmade T-shirts, or drugs.
I treated myself to a vegan quesadilla and discussed the evening’s performance of “Foam” with a fellow fan. Not too far away from me, people were filling up balloons from a tank of nitrous oxide, happily sucking at the balloons to get high. Most fans following the band for the whole summer fund their trip by vending food or other crafts at Shakedown Street.
The following morning, I couldn’t wait to go home, trade for recordings of the shows, and relive them all over again. Over two nights, I had heard 43 unique songs without any repeats between both shows. At Fenway alone, the band played two sets, totaling almost three and a half hours of music.
Phish is playing progressively better each night, and I’m elated that they’re back on tour, happier and healthier than ever, and that they have a new record coming out this summer. The handful of new songs I’ve heard at the shows tells me that it’s going to be a real bluesy album.
My Phish adventure turned out to be a wild musical experience, as well as a liberating social experience — and for those who are curious: No, I didn’t inhale.