I will say this upfront to avoid the inevitable flames from the Phish Nation: I am not a Phish fan. I don't have anything against the godhead jam rock quartet from the great Northeast. I just missed the train to Weekapaug Junction in college and dug deeper into old school punk when so many of my Madison, Wisconsin contemporaries were getting their spin on.
I've seen the group twice before: Once near the very beginning of their career explosion when they played a small theater in Madison around 1990 (complete with their old shtick of trampoline jumping and vacuum cleaner solos) and then again in 2000 at Radio City Music Hall in a gig I vaguely recall being way more intricate and massive than the Hoover days.
And then I saw them again on Saturday (November 21) night at U.S. Bank Arena in my hometown. See, I have an inordinate amount of good friends who live and die by Phish and who are constantly trying to convert me to their cause even as I try to lure them to the Muse/Decemberists side. With a sold-out two night stand in my own backyard, I couldn't resist giving it another shot.
After traversing the shockingly brazen open-air drug bazaar that sprouted on the concourse outside the venue, we made our way inside and the sights and smells (oh, the smells) of my brief late 1980s dalliance with the Grateful Dead nation came rushing back like ... well, you know how that one ends.
I'll dispense with the talk of the onion soup-thick haze that predictably choked the air the second the group took the stage and just say this: I totally get it. To a true outsider, and avowed music geek, watching Phish do their thing for more than three hours is like taking in a master class from a fellow "33 1/3" junkie.
I'm told this was a classic set, and from the opening strains of "Wilson," I could tell both why the band decided to get back together and why their fans were ecstatic at the news. Riding a Genesis-like funky groove, "Wilson" snapped like a new wave rubberband and lead singer/guitarist Trey Anastasio couldn't have looked happier to see his minions punching the air and shouting the song's title in unison.
"NICU" had a reggae vibe that poured in elements of Frank Zappa freakouts with some King Crimson prog, and over the course of the next few tunes I heard bits of Joe Walsh guitar, some Doobies white boy funk, a bit of Grateful Dead chooglin and, during the raver "Ocelot," a cheery Chicago blues that slammed into a nearly 10-minute cover of the Rolling Stones' classic Exile on Main St. country jam "Torn and Frayed." During that gem, the band showed off their almost telepathic powers and followed the groove through tips of the hat to Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti, some Parliament-Funkadelic grind and a tease of Talking Heads geek punk/funk.
I smelled a whiff of Cat Stevens during "Strange Design," some Les Paul guitar prowess amidst the cowpunk newgrass of "Ginseng Sullivan," appreciated the pitstop at a cover of the Neil Young obscurity "Albuquerque" and was pleasantly impressed during the epic ramble through the appropriately titled "Split Open and Melt," which folded in some Miles Davis electric jazz, a bit of Santana guitar histrionics, a drums and space-style meandering jam midsection and a big finale with pinging laserbeam notes from Anastasio. Like a number of the songs, the tune built to a rapturous, rave-like peak that drove the pin-eyed kids nuts as they filled the air with flying glowsticks and balloons.
After a nearly 45 minute break, the second set opened with a surprisingly funky 15 minute ramble through the Velvet Underground's "Rock and Roll," including an endless interstellar jam near the end that helped shake off the cobwebs of the extended bathroom break. With blue and green lights beaming in all directions, "Ghost" felt and sounded like a space ship landing in the middle of a Traffic concert, and I had to conceal a bit of a snigger at what passed for a zen mantra during "If I Could," as the college aged kids in front of me put their arms up in religious fervor as they sang along, "If I could, I would/ But I don't know how."
There was some more Stones-y boogie ("Backwards Down the Number Line"), a bit of New Orleans piano magic ("Suzy Greenberg"), a glow-stick waving bombastic cover of Richard Strauss' "Also Sprach Zarathustra" (also known as the theme song to "2001: A Space Odyssey") and a set-ending "The Squirming Coil," which made me think of a piano duel between Born To Run-era Bruce Springsteen and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road-period Elton John.
And then, to be honest, I was exhausted. I skipped the encores ("Sleeping Monkey" and "Axilla" for those of you keeping score), but on the way home I realized that rather than making me think Phish were rock retreads, my game of "spot the influence" made me appreciate even more what a great service this band is providing to their fans. Aside from the bacchanalian party — which, don't get me wrong, is truly epic — Phish are opening the encyclopedia of their musical minds every night and inviting their followers to discover the universe of sounds that are at the touch of an iPhone app.
Assuming, that is, they can find their phone, or their car when the lights come back up.