Look Who Stopped Sucking!

Katie bar the door and Grandma bang the pan! Phish have made a good album. It's not a grand statement, mind you, but a second live set that's engrossing in a way they never have been before. This is a woolly pop band who can stretch out, rather than an overgrown music-box simulation of one. The most recent studio recordings show some gain in sinew and glossy sound, but Slip Stitch and Pass is an unforeseen development.

Back in 1988, any number of pop commentators in the Northeast could have looked like prophets if they had testified that the crude, band-distributed Junta cassette with the hick-psychedelic fish logo presaged festival-filling success. Still, it was dreadful stuff, so no regrets. Swarms of comparisons to the Grateful Dead (a fascinating group until their temporary retirement in the '70s) clung to the band like remoras, but always seemed like sucker fare. Phish had aspects in common with the Dead--dilute vocals, faint drumming, keyboards that drained vitality, rhythm problems throughout--but invariably sounded more like Jethro Tull. One reason the new collection breaks out is that finally outsiders can hear the band has roots.

And Phish might have felt they needed to explain themselves to outsiders. The group is only a midrange curiosity in Europe, and this show took place in front of a relatively tiny school of fans in Hamburg, Germany, so the thrust was Phish revisits the garage. Three cover tunes set up the six originals: Talking Heads' "Cities," ZZ Top's "Jesus Just Left Chicago," and the barbershop quartet fossil "Hello My Baby." These diverse numbers belong together only through the group's affection for them. It would be dazzling if Slip Stitch and Pass drew a line from the breathless new wave of "Cities" to the heaving keyboard flourishes of "Taste," a mature-phase Phish number. While the linkup doesn't happen onstage, it's enough that it happens in the performers' minds. The sense of the tunes flowing together, even if individual numbers stick together no better than usual, gives the whole album a pleasurable, eccentric contour.

Trey Anastasio's guitar dominates the first three-quarters of the show; he oozes effortlessly into and around a long pedal-effect workout in "Wolfman." Partisans will claim the beats get funky around here, as the Wolfman turns into Jesus leaving Chicago. The rhythms do loosen, and Anastasio keeps the road map in front of him, but there's no hint the groove will swallow the room, as in proper funk. Another sore point between true believers and skeptics, the band's philosophical profundity or lack of it, is solved by the guest writers. The clear language and meaning of "Cities" and, screwy as this sounds, "Jesus Just Left Chicago" (which sounds like a story in this context) make even the recycled Frank Zappa yocks of "Weigh" feel articulate. And words don't need to haul hefty loads for the rest of the set.

The off-kilter but inexorable pace retakes command on the previously undocumented, and nicely hard-bitten, "Mike's Song." Anastasio's guitarations hammer phrases to pieces and reassemble them. He's not the dimensional explorer he strives to be, but he works up a sweat thinking hard here. His accumulated sizzle carries you through korny kwotes from the Doors' "The End" and Pink Floyd's "Careful With That Axe, Eugene" as well as a mercifully compact rendition of "Lawn Boy," another one of Phish's not-stoned-enough jokes. "Weekapaug Groove" ends with a graceful nod to the Stones' "Can't You Hear Me Knocking." None of which is as instructive as the first encore snippet that follows.

The a cappella "Hello My Baby" is Phish with the flannel cloak of enigma stripped away. "Send me a kiss by wire," indeed. Clearly the audience thinks wow, what far-out material, but the earnest presentation, right through shaky harmonies, turns Phish into plain folks at last. Slip Stitch and Pass will probably remain an oddball item in the band's catalogue, since it cuts straight across their mystique. Modest and gawky, this set takes prog-rock satire and psychedelia and heavy blues and turns them into a backyard playlet. This is a bunch of nice fellows from down the block who happen to know how to keep the gang entertained for the afternoon with card tricks and shaggy-dog yarns. Rather like what their name always led you to expect.

 
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