Any human person who can claim to write an objective review of the Phish is lying to himself, his editor and all readers. It is impossible to separate the concert-going experience in all its sweat and smells from the pure musicianship of the band themselves, now in their 30th year playing together.
To the uninitiated, the tie-dyed horde of “phans” that descended on on Tuesday, July 8th may be indistinguishable from the crowds that used to dog the Grateful Dead, America’s original jam band. Though also characterized by an obsessive following of smelly zealots and songs that leap from composed, complicated arrangements into simultaneous free-form improvisation by all four members, Phish’s similarity to the Dead begins and ends right about there.
It’s been 19 years since the band played The Mann, a 1976 amphitheater in Fairmount Park whose cedar-wood pavilion is “one of the best sounding sheds we’ve ever played,” according to keyboardist Page McConnell, who thanked the crowd early on in the first set for braving weather that saw the venue asking fans on the lawn and uncovered terrace to return to their cars in anticipation of a storm cell passing through. Delayed two hours from ticket time by the weather, the band stormed on stage with an “Axilla I” opener, a fast-paced metal rager that felt like a collective, explosive release of the nervous energy that had built up in the pavilion during the delay. Foot firmly pressed to the gas pedal, making up for lost time, guitarist Trey Anastasio led the charge into “Gumbo,” a Southern-flavored funk outing that segued seamlessly into “Taste” in its tour debut. This relatively rare, old-school treat gave way to “555,” a new song from Phish’s album Fuego that was released on June 24.
Hear in your mind’s ear a giant, fat rubber band being snapped against glass, underwater, and you might have an idea of what bassist Mike Gordon’s punchy pick-attack on “555” sounds like. Howling through the lyric, Gordo made a strong case for this song to compete with “Fuego” as the best new tune from the new album. Though it hasn’t spilled outside of its composed borders yet, one can sense in “555” vast untapped potential waiting to be born.
Thumping through a “Tube” of impressive thickness and density if not length, the band quickly reached a funky peak in this first-set staple, giving way to another Fuego number, “Halfway to the Moon.” This pretty number voiced by Page reveals Phish’s departure from some of the quirkier, more nonsensical lyrics that characterize their earlier songwriting into more introspective and thoughtful reflections.
The first set continued strong through a quick and dirty “Camel Walk,” a breather in “Sparkle” and the always-weird “Halley’s Comet;” some of Trey’s best playing came through in the following snappy “It’s Ice” that skated into a loose, rangy “Ocelot.”
You don’t have to like Phish to appreciate the virtuosity of the gorgeous piano introduction to “Walls of the Cave.” This two-songs-in-one number is relatively new (in Phish chronology) and one I would recommend listening to with an open mind if you have not delved into Phish previously. It touches on Plato’s allegory of the cave; are the things we perceive every day the true nature of reality, or simply shadows on the wall? Though written at an admittedly dark time in the lives of both Trey Anastasio and his longtime writing companion and Phish lyricist Tom Marshall, the song closed out the first set with both band and fans locked in a battle for who was sporting the biggest smiles. Trey even approached the front row to accept a t-shirt and immediately pulled it on, turning around to reveal the familiar Flyers logo to much cheering. Growing up around Princeton, New Jersey, Trey is a known Flyers fan who often flies the orange and black on stage.
After a very short intermission, the band returned to the stage with the heavy, hard-rocking “46 Days” straight into a 25-minute, 58-second long “Fuego,” that saw Trey stepping back and allowing the improvisation to explore and drift without much leadership from this perennial band leader.
Though it’s not one my favorites, the crowd response to the basketball-foul-shot story-song, “The Line,” also on Fuego, was enthusiastic. They didn’t even stop dancing during “Backwards Down the Number Line,” a bit of a groaner that always, always starts off jarringly as Trey attempts to make the first high notes and always juuuust misses. Our forebearance was quickly rewarded (good hippies!) with a classic Phish throwdown of “Tweezer” into “Story of the Ghost,” which Trey was pushing for a good five minutes during “Tweezer” until the rest of the band caught up with him and dropped into this dark, evil song for too short a time. It was here you really noticed the new toys and tricks of Phish lighting designer Chris Kuroda, who has incorporated the backdrops from last year’s indoor arenas into his kit this year, playing with pastel color washes and new LED lights that look like gleaming clusters of rainbow caviar in their dark cans. Kuroda unleashed a glittering snowglobe effect during “Tweezer,” inviting us all literally, into the freezer, and added brand new psychedelic patterns and swirling geometric shapes to the mix during “Ghost.”
Perhaps in honor of the song’s debut at the Mann on July 16, 1993, the band dropped into their first cover song of the tour, one which is actually a cover of a cover. The funk band Deodato rearranged Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” familiar to fans of the Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey, into “2001,” arguably Phish’s greatest cover. It seemed like the entirety of the 14,000 souls in The Mann got down like they’d never have the chance again, and indeed, it was getting late and we could see the end coming, unwanted but arriving as it always does, too soon.
Gliding out of the downright nasty and and rude “2001” into a blissful, if standard, “Harry Hood,” band and fans hit the homestretch with “Tweezer Reprise,” the anthemic, fist-pumping championship reprise of the “Tweezer” that had ended too quickly earlier in the second set. Followers of Olympic gold medalist swimmer and phan Michael Phelps may recognize this tune as the one played by NBC when Phelps became the most-decorated Olympian of all time in 2012, with 22 medals.
After what seemed like a ten-second break, the foursome took the stage for the last time of the evening for an encore of “Possum,” a song that has become something of an in-joke among aficionados. It’s often played, and there’s many a fan who can count Possum among their most-seen tunes. No matter how you feel about it at the beginning, though, by the end you will be leaping from your seat and cheering along to his bluegrass-rock mashup about roadkill.
When the lights came up and we surveyed the sweaty, glowing crowd collecting their melted faces off the ground to re-apply for the journey homewards, it was clear this was a show to please both the newbie and the aficionado, despite the lack of a single jam that stood head and shoulders above all else. The sound in The Mann’s cedar pavilion is unparalleled, alive; enclosing and uplifting all it touches. It’s ear-sex in the best way possible, and one got the sense that Phish was delving into more and more of their favorite, classic tunes in order to hear just how good they could sound in that divinely designed space. It was a thrilling treat to hear this mature foursome return to a venue that has hosted so many of the local’s first Phish shows, and was so intimate compared to typical summer outdoor venues of 20,000. With a slight facilities renovation (bathroom lines were unacceptably long; no water refill stations available) The Mann could compete as one of the East Coast’s greatest venues. It also kills on sound; bringing the rest of the place up to modern standards would put it on the level of legendary rooms like Madison Square Garden.
You can listen to a free stream of last night’s show, and every show that came before it, at phishtracks.com. I’d suggest it.
Photos by Scott Harris. Additional reporting provided by Nick Cejas.