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Jones Beach Theater
Wednesday, July 4
Better than: Putting the freak flag in permanent cold storage.
“Goddard College!” Phish leader Trey Anastasio called out between verses during “Alumni Blues,” the band’s opening number at Jones Beach on Wednesday night, a rare onstage shout-out to the band’s Vermont alma mater. Anastasio wrote the doofy blues-funk number around the time he transferred into Goddard in the mid-1980s, a school with self-structured curriculums that make Hampshire look comparatively square. The band members threw themselves into their obsessions, studiously following their curiosities through jazz, fugues, classic rock, improvised music, and intense practice routines, absorbing the idyllic weirdness of the place as they formed their identity. In a sense, Goddard thusly became the spiritual alma mater for pretty much every jam band formed in the past 20 years. Nobody to blame or credit but the wonders of progressive liberal education.
Wednesday night, during the second of two sold-out shows at Jones Beach, the Vermont quartet celebrated the birth of the nation during a pleasant evening at Robert Moses’s cement and sandstone jewel, but mostly showed why they’re Goddard’s most distinguished alums (give or take David Mamet). Long before it became fashionable to hate Phish—or even to like them—the band was blessed with a profound and palpable outsiderness, which they channeled into their music and made a successful career. This outsiderness keeps away many and draws others defiantly close. During the two set, three-hour show, the band did almost nothing to invite in the former, plenty to please the latter (plenty to confound them, too), and continued their decades-long battle with whether or not to let their freak flags fly. Sometimes, they flew.
For a jam band, Phish don’t actually do a whole lot of jamming these days; that only took place during a few scattered segments. Instead, Phish’s latest obsession seems to be simply trying to play as many songs from their three-decade songbook as they possibly can over the course of a tour. Early in last night’s set, they played the Velvet Underground’s “Head Held High.” Never mind the quality of the performance (well-practiced, but mannered; Lou wouldn’t be amused), this was the band’s first performance of that song since their Halloween ’98 cover of the Velvets’ Loaded. For longtime fans, this approach inevitably leads to WTF?-level experiences (a good thing!). But even though they sound positively crystalline compared to the drug-addled years before their 2004 breakup, Phish has yet to rediscover the creative charge that created what remains a powerful body of work.
The nothing-is-prohibited setlist democracy does result in an almost-complete refusal to play promising new material (such as recent jam vehicle “Light”) more than two or three times a tour. But of the 29 songs performed last night, only five entered the band’s repertoire in the past decade; the band is ignoring any lingering musical threads from their promising 2004 album Undermind, not to mention seeming like they’re trying to win the audience over, or achieve anything grander, or find a new musical direction. Since their Goddard days, though, they’ve followed their obsessions, from horn sections (’91) to cartoon-prog segue-fests (’93) to bluegrass (’94), 40-minute loop-space excursions (’95), ecstasy glides (’97), and beyond. And there’s no apologizing for obsessions.
Phish’s outsiderness glistened through “The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday,” a vaguely atonal and utterly unrocklike chamber guitar piece by Anastasio (also written during the Goddard years) that—seemingly to make it work in the context of a rock show—the band permanently affixed with a klezmer slap-funk-ska version of the Hebrew hymn “Avenu Malkenu.” But just as often, the freak-flags rode half-mast, such as during the generic blues-rock of “Kill Devil Falls” and the harmless jam-pop of “Alaska.” (The paradox, of course, is that most of the new songs are not all that great.)
The show’s most extended patriotic moment came at, yes, its most outsider. Introduced with a vamp on Argent’s “Hold Your Head Up,” Anastasio behind the drums, drummer Jon Fishman (yeah, the guy in the dress) took center stage for a vacuum solo-abetted version of Prince’s “Purple Rain,” perhaps prepared in advance of predicted thunderstorms. Once the band’s most predominant freak-flag—dress plus vacuum solos plus Syd Barrett covers—Fishman has lately been more inclined to stay behind his comically large drum kit. Midway through the vacuum solo, though, the band’s Goddard freeformness, their massive success, and the song’s falsetto ooh ooh oohs collided precisely at the moment the Jumbotron cut to the Fourth of July Jumbotron perennial: a shot of a lone arm in the audience waving a small American flag. Fishman ran around the stage, flashing boxers that matched his costume’s pattern, and eventually the band gathered near the front of the stage, listened carefully to a pitch pipe, and sang an a capella barbershop rendition of the national anthem. Tight.
“U.S.A! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” a portion of the crowd chanted as the band left the stage before intermission. Does it get more American than that? Of course. Does Phish get more American than that? A guy in a dress singing a cover by a highly sexualized and kind of androgynous Jehovah’s Witness, adding a vacuum solo, following it with the “Star Spangled Banner,” and getting a bunch of Long Island concertgoers (and maybe half-ironic Phishheads) to chant “U.S.A.”? Absolutely not.
Things didn’t go precisely downhill from there; the band reached several fairly wonderful peaks during its second set. But nothing quite matched that moment, either. For many, the real reason to see Phish is the deep and careful interplay between the band members, perhaps the greatest Goddard product. Most audible in bassist Mike Gordon’s quizzical counterpoints to Anastasio’s arena-rock leads, the band’s longest jams found the band in extended four-way conversation. On “Tweezer,” Anastasio pushed outwards from a molten Eddie Hazel-like solo before the band pulled back on the reins and slid into dark zone, disassembling towards formlessness as keyboardist Page McConnell switched to his Hammond and Anastasio and Gordon vibed with their pedals. McConnell settled in on a Rhodes (lots of gear, these Phish dorks) and the band found an Eno-esque mode that soared easily. In previous Phish epochs, the band might have hung in the newly discovered place for upwards of 20 minutes. In Phish Mach III, it lasted all of two before Anastasio pulled the ripcord and started “Twist,” from 2000’s Farmhouse. There was a nice jam there, too, the band members completing each others’ rhythmic and melodic phrases as they chased circles around the changes, chords turning minor, abstracting their way into the sunset, and yet another classic rock cover in the form of “Quinn the Eskimo.”
The latter part of the show had some downs (a sloppy “Taste,” another bummer new one in “Show of Life”), another Velvets cover (“Rock and Roll,” pretty alright, with a way-too-short jam), a Stones cover, a decent segue (into “The Horse”), and a good deal of meh (including a connect-the-dots “Harry Hood” with a WILL YOU STOP THROWING THE FUCKING GLOWSTICKS ALREADY I’M TRYING TO LISTEN TO MUSIC kind of jam that didn’t do much new with the song’s progression). The whole show was like that and, given the sellout-but-you-could-easily-score-a-cheap-extra-outside status, it seems like anybody who cares about the Phish experience was able to experience it, which is also a good thing. The guy who looked like a grizzled cut-rate Long Island stunt double of Willie Nelson in cowboy hat and American flag soccer jersey behind us certainly enjoyed it, almost forcibly attempting to share his joints with anybody within arm’s reach. And even if there wasn’t a fireworks display (I blame Robert Moses), the Phishheads were able to provide there, too, small portions of the parking lot exploding in spark-showers as the nitrous tanks hissed and cars pulled out into the night.
Critical bias: Twice taught an accredited college course about Phish.
Overheard: “We’re going to leave half an hour after the show ends. You might think you need more time in the parking lot, but you don’t.”—Bill, running one of the totally pleasant Rocks Off party buses to the venue
Random notebook dump: Wish I could transport any Phishhead who uses the term “face-melting” instantly and without explanation to a Merzbow concert, sans earplugs.
Alumni Blues >
Letter to Jimmy Page >
Head Held High
The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday >
Avenu Malkneu >
The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday
Kill Devil Falls
The Moma Dance
Quinn the Eskimo
Rock and Roll >
The Horse >
Silent in the Morning
Shine A Light
Show of Life
Slave to the Traffic Light