Phish is arguably the most oft-maligned band currently performing, with reviews of their shows focusing as much on the people that choose to attend their performances and the "scene" that comes with a Phish concert as the music. Vice even goes so far as writing numerous pieces such as "I Survived a Phish Show," "Phish Has Been a Band for Thirty Years Now and They Have Sucked the Whole Time" (with the accompanying response of "This is What Happens When You Make Fun of Phish on the Internet."
With that in mind, I take on this review from the other perspective, that of a Phish fan. Writing a review of a band that you have seen numerous times and consider your "favorite band" is always a slippery slope as objectivity can occasionally fly out the window; however, I am determined to write this review, not as a Phish fan, nor as a person who blindly hates Phish for no reason other than their neighbor in college who didn't shower listened to Phish, but as a (somewhat) objective journalist.
Wednesday night's performance saw the band travel to Holmdel, New Jersey to the PNC Bank Arts Center for the fifth show of their Summer Tour. This show came on the heels of a canceled performance in Toronto the night before due to immense flooding. But Phish fans are a resilient bunch, with droves of "phans" as they are affectionately known, making the trek back down some 500 miles to make it to the show in New Jersey the following evening.
Wednesday night's show opened up with the relative rarity "Llama" off the band's A Picture of Nectar album, which had not been played in 33 shows. The rest of the first set had a handful of highlights, but much of the set was standard-fare including "Sample in a Jar," "Bathtub Gin," and a typically crowd-pleasing rendition version of "Suzy Greenberg."
The fun really picked up in the second set as the opening romp through the Talking Heads' classic "Crosseyed and Painless" is everything that Phish fans love and everything detractors of the band point to. The Remain in Light version recorded by David Byrne and the rest of the Talking Heads clocks in at 4:37. Phish's take on the song lasts 17:10, featuring multiple jams within the same song, prompting the person next to me to ask if this is still "Crosseyed."
Much of the second set featured great jams as four of the nine songs played during the set clocked in at 10 minutes or longer including "Harry Hood," "Light," and "Slave to the Traffic Light" with a special nod to the "Light." With some of the most pointless lyrics in music history — another knock against the band which most Phish fans will toss aside as the cost of doing business — the song featured a fantastic jam as the Page McConnell (who plays keys of all variety) took the band into a spacey, Clavinet and Grand Piano led jam in its latter stages before the band teased the Dizzy Gilespie turned Phish tune "Manteca."
At the end of the set, lead singer and guitarist Trey Anastasio took to the mic to thank everyone for coming out before leading the band through a quick charge of the country standard "Rocky Top" and the band's own "Cavern" and then stepping off for a quick encore break. The band came back out to play "Possum" for the third time in five shows, not a big deal for most bands; however, in Phish world, this constant performance of the song drew the ire of enough fans as many started to heads towards the parking lot.
With a rare day off on Thursday, I took the opportunity to see Furthur, a spin-off of the Grateful Dead in a post-Jerry Garcia world featuring Bob Weir and Phil Lesh of the original band. I merely note this as despite the number of connections drawn between these two bands by lazy journalists, other than having devoted fan-bases, an insistence upon changing up the set lists from night to night and a proclivity towards extending songs well past their album versions, musically, these bands are quite different. Something that Anastasio has iterated a number of times, yet comparisons are a constant crutch for journalists and this is at face value, an easy one to make.
Diversion aside, Friday saw me take the train out to Wantagh, New York on beautiful Long Island to see the band perform at the Nikon at Jones Beach Theater. When I had gone to bed Thursday night after I finished watching "Sharknado" the weather looked clear enough, with a threat of rain; however, a threat of rain sounded like the same weather promised of the past few days.
Upon arriving to the parking lot, I realized that the weather was way worse than advertised. As I ambled to my seat, sheets of rain were coming down with howling rain and a temperature more akin to what I experience in Madison during the early Spring than July on Long Island. When the band came on at 8:20, they quickly launched into the closest thing the band has to a jock-rock anthem, "Chalk Dust Torture." Up next was the quasi-infrequently played instrumental "Cars Trucks Buses," which has only seen seven appearances since the band's return in 2009.
The set hit a fever pitch from the crowd when the band launched into only the ninth ever rendition of "A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing," which featured a spirited solo from Anastasio as near-gale force winds kicked and the rain poured down. Up next was a quick take on "Water in the Sky," a fitting choice considering the weather. The next highlight of the set came with the set-closing pair of "Reba" and "David Bowie." "Reba" is arguably one of the band's trickiest compositions and Anastasio worked his way through it with surgical precision, something he was unable to do on the Gordon penned tune "Sugar Shack" earlier in the set. What followed was a typically furious "David Bowie" which capped off the more than 90-minute first set.
After a half-hour set break, which felt like hours longer and caused a number of people to head to the warmth and safety of their cars, the band reappeared and opened up the set with a particularly impressive take on the Velvet Underground's "Rock and Roll." This nearly 20-minute take on the song was one of the clear highlights of the night as McConnell led the band into uncharted territory time and again, marking one of the best jams of the year to date (granted only six shows into the tour).
After a high-energy but short take on "2001," a nod to the Kubrick film which used Johann Sebastian Strauss' "Also Sprach Zarathustra" the band embarked on the best 27 minute stretch of the night. The band opened up this sequence with my personal favorite song, "Tweezer" a song with lighthearted lyrics that almost always brings a great jam with it. After dropping into dissonance, Anastasio began to lightly play some chords that I couldn't quite pick out. After a few seconds of this, one by one, the band followed suit as the band perfectly segued from "Tweezer" into the Talking Heads' "Cities" without so much as a hitch. After a funky jam lead out of the lyrics, the band followed drummer Jon Fishman's lead as he played the drumbeat to "The Wedge" throughout the song and the band eventually broke into the song.
After a particularly good version of "The Wedge" the band took a collective breather with "Wading in the Velvet Sea" before closing the shorter second set with the rock anthem "Character Zero." For the encore break, the band played their typical pairing of "Sleeping Monkey" into "Tweezer Reprise" before stepping off the stage.
Over the course of the past two shows, though there was nothing ground-breaking about these performances, the band reiterated to me why I have spent so much time listening to them and going out to these shows.