Not many bands can spring as many surprises on their audience as Phish do. At the jam-happy band's Thursday night show at the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, Calif., the group sprung no less than five new songs on their audience, who blissfully swallowed the funkier new tunes right alongside older material.
During their 14-song, nearly three-hour show, Vermont's finest, despite their own best efforts, lived up to their reputation as "Jerry's Kids" by packing the Shoreline with 15,000-plus "trustifarians" as my companion called them, trust fund kids with not-so-natty dreads. The very young crowd did their best boogie dance shimmy to Phish's all-over-the-place sound, which ping-ponged from fusion jazz, to Zappaesque progressive experimentation, southern boogie rock and acid freak-outs.
Phish opened with a new song, "Ghost," immediately setting the mood of the evening, that of an incredibly-tight, gearhead band who are so in sync even their improvisations seem scripted. The loose, jazzy funk of "Ghost" immediately begged the question, "are Phish too good?" Have the band spent so much time with their improvisational games and intense rehearsals that they've become the very thing they long-ago set out to avoid, that being a predictably noodly, meandering quartet whose jams are so tight they feel a bit antiseptic?
For the sake of journalistic disclosure, I have to admit I've only seen Phish once before, and that was six years ago at a much smaller venue, so I don't pretend to be down with their disease.
At Shoreline, Phish tried on so many different guises that it was difficult for the uninitiated to keep up. The Mustangs cover "Ya Mar" started out as a somewhat cheesy Jimmy-Buffett-on-acid calypso groove, only to morph into one of their patented trippy mantra jams. With hard-to-follow changes coming faster (and much louder) than one would expect, the words "mellow math rock" came to mind, then quickly drifted off on a fragrant, musky breeze.
The first set was loaded-down with new material, including the Benny and the Dead funk jam "Dogs Stole Things," the creepy barber-shop quartet prog rock of "Limb By Limb," and the at-times acid wah-wah funk of "Saw It Again." The rest of the set was stretched out over sometimes 10-to-20-minute versions of old favorites "Maze," "Glide" and the well-received "You Enjoy Myself." That multi-layered, mostly instrumental song ended with a prison-break light show that sounded, and felt, like an alien landing.
The only new song in the second set was the jazzy "Vultures," which was surrounded by more reigned-in versions of "Runaway Jim," a cover of Los Lobos' "When the Circus Comes to Town," "McGrupp" and a seemingly-endless suite "Mike's Song/I am Hydrogen/Weekapaug Groove."
Ending the set with a full-on hard rockin' cover of Neil Young's "Cinnamon Girl," ballsy by any measure, but certainly when performed in Young's back yard, Phish didn't completely shake off their well-deserved reputation as noodle rockers, but did prove their willingness to try anything once, twice, or maybe a dozen times, just to see what sticks.