Phish kick off tour with impressive Fenway show

A review of Phish at Fenway Park on May 31, 2009

, Staff Writer

After five years and and a three-night, eighty-four song reunion in Hampton, Virginia, the jamband colossus that is Phish kicked off their first summer tour since 2004 Sunday night at Fenway Park. The energy flowing through the crowd was palpable, to say the least: veterans with excesses of a hundred shows under their belt mingled with newer fans before the show, Lansdowne Street and Yawkey Way were more packed than any Red Sox game, and random cheers would start from afar and sweep through until everyone was excitedly proclaiming the return of the foursome.

Before really getting things going, Phish did a quick and dirty, yet impressively-harmonized, rendition of the national anthem up near the pitcher’s mound. And then, ten minutes later, they began the tour in earnest with “Sample In A Jar”. The first set of the evening went the usual rout the band has taken since returning to the scene – many songs impeccably executed, but not as many jams, which is fine, considering that fans were eager to hear their favorite song played (and there are many favorite songs for Phish to play). They continued with “The Moma Dance”, hitting up a funkier groove and letting lead guitarist Trey Anastasio solo around for a bit, before going into “Chalkdust Torture”, which drew much applause from the audience, everyone singing at the top of their lungs the refrain of “can I live while I’m young?.” Juxtaposed against the old standard was the premier of a new tune, “Ocelot”. It was the first of three songs that Phish would debut on Sunday, with “Light” and “Time Turns Elastic” coming later in the set. They didn’t open up any of the new songs too much, instead giving the audience a taste of the potential each song has. “Ocelot” will in the future allow itself for some great laid-back grooving, but for now they kept things to about seven minutes, hardly enough to call it a jam by Phish’s standards. The set continued in this fashion, and it was great to hear the band playing so well together. It’s really like they never missed a beat. Vocal harmonies on “Bouncing Around The Room” were perfect, as well as “Poor Heart”. Keyboardist Page McConnell’s vocals on “Wading In The Velvet Sea” were great, too.

But the show didn’t really hit its full stride until the tail end of the first set, “Down With Disease”. At this point the band and the audience were pretty much in sync with each other, and Phish stretched the song out to a good twelve minutes, arguably the first real jam of the evening. Page’s piano bounced giddily while Trey’s guitar noodled around, reaching peaks and falling from them regularly, all held together by the grooved bass playing of Mike Gordon while Jon Fishman offered the occasional frenetic drum fill. And then, as though to top themselves, the band immediately launched into “Destiny Unbound”, a fan favorite that had previously only been performed twice. Gordon took vocal duties on this one, and he nailed it. They closed the first set with “Character Zero”, a pretty standard closing song, and appropriately so, building to a rocking conclusion in which Anastasio burned through a firey solo that ended things on an appropriately high note.

The second set opened with the reliable jam vehicle of “Tweezer”. The song meandered through all flavors of Phish’s music, weaving through a dirty funk jam until the band slowly began to smooth things out, notes becoming rounder and fuller, building to a peak and then seamlessly segueing into the premier of “Light” (this may have been the first real segue the band has done since their “farewell” show in 2004, though some would argue there was one in Hampton). “Light” was kept to a paltry five minutes, but once again demonstrated great potential for the band in the future, definitely built rhythmically and musically for Phish to take to places we’ll have to hear to believe. After a pretty standard “Bathtub Gin” and “David Bowie”, we were given the premier of “Time Turns Elastic”, which Trey jokingly referred to as Phish’s new single (though it kind of is). Sticking pretty close to the studio version released prior to this concert, the band did open up a few of the sections. The piece is really a full-on composition, flowing between styles smoothly. The middle of the song featured the most extensive jamming, a pretty minor-key thing on which Page mashed sinister chords and Trey made his guitar wail, only to resolve in the song’s grand conclusion. Overall, the debut of their “big” new song was very well-received, and the song once again shows great potential.

Then the band busted out another one from the vaults: “The Ballad of Curtis Loew”, which hadn’t been performed since 1993 prior to Fenway. The band didn’t do too much with the song, save maybe a few additional vocal harmonies, but the treat lay in simply hearing them perform it. Following this bust-out, they launched into a twenty-two-minute “You Enjoy Myself”, which featured an extensive pitch-black funk jam, complete with McConnell playing a dark and low synthesized “ow” noise. For the last five minutes, the band settled into a really strange, but oddly great a cappella vocal jam. It was a really cool way to close out the show, and the crowd cheered emphatically when it was all over. As an encore, Phish played “Cavern”, Led Zeppelin’s “Good Times, Bad Times”, and the predictable "Tweezer Reprise", which was grand and triumphant.

Despite all of the immense build-up to their return to the stage, Phish were still able to meet, even exceed, expectations. Sure, there weren’t as many long, weaving jams, but those will come as they continue to play. If Hampton was for the old fans, then Fenway was an induction for those who had never seen them and to showcase some new material. What’s important is that Phish is back, and weirdly it’s already like they never left. It’s going to be a long, great summer.

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