By Adam Rosenberg
I saw Phish last night. A lot of people did (Madison Square Garden is a pretty large room), but it was new for me. I've seen them perform in concert more than 70 times over the years, but not once in the past almost-decade. Granted, they spent part of that period on hiatus, so no one was seeing them then. But I fell off that train in 1999, catching only sporadic shows until mid-2000. So last night was a sort of homecoming. And I have to say, as cynical as I've become of that scene in the years I've been away from it, the show was fan-damn-tastic.
For starters, the setlist really delivered. Enjoyment of a Phish setlist is largely a personal thing; different songs move different folks, and this is a band with a catalog that — between originals and covers — is literally hundreds of songs deep. The selection last night fit what I'd want to hear almost all the way through. Some killer, seriously funked out covers of "Boogie on Reggae Woman" (Stevie Wonder), "Cities" (Talking Heads) and "Also Sprach Zarathustra (Theme from '2001')" (the version made popular by Eumir Deodato) highlighted the night, along with searing versions of originals like "Stash," "Down with Disease," "Piper," "Fluffhead" and "Free."
Then there's the light show. Seriously, if Phish want to really evolve what they do, they ought to wise up and stick a rack directly over the head of lighting engineer Chris Kuroda. He sits behind and a little above the soundboard, surrounded by lit candles and glowing LCD screens, a mad wizard conjuring up colorful shifting landscapes tailored to each song.
As good as the show was, the night wasn't perfect. "Time Turns Elastic," originally written as an orchestral work, is abysmal to hear in a live setting. There's no consistent beat to it, the melody is frequently dissonant and (blame the venue for this) the vocals are frequently lost beneath the too-busy arrangement.
What's more, the band's time apart didn't sharpen guitarist Trey Anastasio's skills very much. While they still function magnificently as an ensemble, reading changes and sticking together during lengthy improvisational jams, Anastasio is still a master of the flub. And there's nothing worse than feeling the tension build in a song like "Free" only to cringe as Trey hits a bad note on the release. There's nothing for it — you can't really demand that he "gets better." Hopefully, some of those chops will return as he re-familiarizes himself with these songs during future tours.
The big downer of the night was the absent sense of family. A lot of the joy I got from seeing Phish in the old days related to my large circle of friends — people I trusted and shared good times with every step of the way. Many of them were there last night, but we were all scattered. It is very likely, at least in part, a product of growing up. There are just some things that can't be recaptured.
However, one thing that hasn't changed is Phish's innate appeal as a live band. In the days leading up to the show, I grew increasingly ambivalent about attending. Listening to (but not seeing) the shows since the reunion left a bad taste. They sound messy, unpracticed, out of touch with their own music. Settled in at the venue, with the lights swinging and the sound blasting, it's a much different experience.
It's true that a lot of the magic is gone. It doesn't feel like there's any mystery to the setlists. No shock-worthy "bustouts," no unexpected covers, none of the little games or musical quotations (a la "The Simpsons" theme/ "Doh!" crowd response meme) they've been known for. It's just the band playing their music. Maybe that's a good thing, given how long they've been apart. You have crawl before you walk and walk before flying. Still, for all that I enjoyed about last night's show, it was impossible to overlook the fact that some of the fundamental components of what made seeing Phish of old such an experience are now gone.
"Punch You in the Eye"
"Backwards Down the Number Line"
"Boogie on Reggae Woman"
"Time Turns Elastic"
"Back on the Train"
"Down with Disease"