WASHINGTON, D.C. Gearing up for a two-day New Year's Eve festival in Florida, improvisational rockers Phish showed off the many sides of their personality as they toured the East Coast last week.
Anyone who saw the Vermont band Dec. 11 at the First Union Spectrum in Philadelphia and four days later at the MCI Center in Washington heard only one song repeated over the two nights. During these two shows, the band played music ranging from a bluegrass-laced romp ("Scent of a Mule") early in the Philadelphia show to a cover of an Edgar Winter's classic rock instrumental "Frankenstein," which closed out the D.C. gig.
As opposed to other Phish tours, on which the band has tended to operate with a focused rotation (while still keeping individual shows different), last week's shows offered entirely different musical and theatrical approaches, ranging from bombastic explosions in Philadelphia to more nuanced, subtle touches in Washington.
On Dec. 3031, Phish will perform for around 70,000 fans at the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation in the Florida Everglades, including an all-night set scheduled to start just before midnight on New Year's Eve.
"It's gonna be epic," Phish lighting designer Chris Kuroda said last week. "We have added 24 movable lights alone for those gigs. ... It is such a vast venue, I will be going down a few days early to work a few things out."
For their run of December shows, Phish also added a new wrinkle in the sound system. At both the Spectrum and MCI Center, the main hanging speaker stacks on each side of the stage were separated to create a gap between the top and bottom sets of cabinets to provide better sound to the upper levels of the arenas. The sound was bright and crisp in the Spectrum, and a thick bass quality was present at the MCI Center.
In Philadelphia the band arrived onstage dressed casually, with the exception of drummer Jon Fishman, who wore a dress. The excited crowd sent hordes of balloons and glowsticks hurtling toward each other and, unfortunately, the band. Bathed in a deep red light, the quartet slipped into the reggaelike introduction to "Harry Hood," a 1985 song for which Trey Anastasio played a small portable keyboard before donning his custom-made hollow-body guitar. While locking into a tight groove, the band had to avoid numerous objects being tossed at the stage.
A pairing of "Mike's Song," spotlighting Page McConnell's organ, and a forceful version of "Simple" (RealAudio excerpt of live version) kept the momentum going. "They are breaking out of their patterns now before they get to Florida," "Phish fan Ellen Gold, from Oakland, Calif., said of that pairing."
The combination of "I Am Hydrogen" and "Weekapaug Groove" that followed featured an inventive lighting move: darkening the band, while having the crowd behind the stage lit up in yellow. This, while the 20,000 seat hall was enjoying a funky vamp dominated by the interplay of Anastasio and McConnell, exemplified how the lighting is like an extra instrument.
After a 45-minute break, the band ambled back onstage and fed off an uproarious crowd with Stevie Wonder's "Boogie on Reggae Woman" Mike Gordon led the way on that one with a snaky bass presence and a charged reading of Robert Palmer's "Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley."
What followed is why many Phish fans believe the lighting designer is the "fifth member" of the band an intense jam, during "Ghost" (RealAudio excerpt), which locked into a sinister, atmospheric lighting sequence that Kuroda and two associates controlled from 110 feet away.
"Ghost" was followed by "Also Sprach Zarathustra" (a.k.a. the theme from "2001: A Space Odyssey"), during which Kuroda blasted the band with black and purple cone-shaped effects on each step of the ascending theme.
"C.K. was on tonight!" said New Orleans resident Alicia Foglia, who said she had followed a string of Phish shows from Detroit to Cincinnati to Philadelphia. "He was totally in tune with the boys."
If Philadelphia was Phish at their screaming best, Washington allowed their more reflective and intricate side to be heard. The first set featured such Phish standards as "Bathtub Gin" and "Wolfman's Brother," which highlighted the group's affinity for funky, laid-back grooves. Fishman added some polyrhythmic touches to the former, which developed into a lilting melodic riff.
The first set in Washington ended with an intricate reading of a Phish classic, "You Enjoy Myself" (RealAudio excerpt of live version), better known to fans as "YEM." This is also one of the songs during which Anastasio and Gordon engage in a choreographed series of moves on trampolines while playing, much to the amusement of all, especially themselves.
The second set contained more examples of Phish going back into their book, pulling out old standards such as a somewhat abrupt "Halley's Comet" and "Suzy Greenberg." Anastasio moved back to the keyboard during "Free," developing a four-note phrase that laid the groundwork for some sublime group interplay that hushed the audience. "Philly was intense and this was mellower," Robert Golden, a fan from Boston, said. "The crowd was nutty in Philly. ... They were more laid-back here."
Phish released a live box set, Hampton Comes Alive, in November and have a studio album slated for the spring.