Phish Saratoga Performing Arts Center Saratoga Springs, New York July 3-5, 2014
If there is one overriding impression to glean from Phish's summer 2014 run at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, it's that the band is equally proud of and inspired by the material on Fuego (Jemp/ATO, 2014). Not only was every song on the record played over the course of the three-night run (with the exception of keyboardist Page McConnell's "Halfway to the Moon," which has already been in rotation for some time), but tunes such as the title track and "Song Monica" were prominently positioned in the sets.
The former led off the second half of the summer holiday night , while the latter was the initial encore tune on 7/3, simultaneously reaffirming Phish's confidence in the new material and the generally positive response it's been getting from their demanding fan base. "Fuego," rapidly turning into a tour-de-force, hit twenty minutes in duration July 4th, allowing the band yet another interval of patient exploration, the repeated likes of which were highlights all three nights.
Equally importantly, and just as obvious on the initial night's reading of "Winterqueen," the new material is of a piece with vintage pieces like "Possum" and "Run Like An Antelope." The latter imparted logic to the July 3rd performance in the band's hell-bent run through it to close the second set properthereby setting up the full-bore attack of the second concert, although it is now commonly used to close sets (and effectively so), in contrast to the languorous approach Phish took to improvisations here early in their summer tour.
Ripples and currents of melody and rhythm emerged from interplay in which guitarist Trey Anastasio often deferred to his comrades. And that's not just because of the steadfast insistence of bassist Mike Gordon's alternately rumbling and syncopated sounds. In New York, this more democratic approach most often resulted in featuring keyboardist Page McConnell throughout the weekend. Echoes of the "Island Tour" of 1998 emerged from the latter's bank of keyboards, but such points of reference were rare this year at SPAC. The band eschewed any covers of outside material, but also played with a purity that, in staples like "Carini" and the chunky likes of the new "Wombat," left readily apparent influences of the past far behind (except for the knowing homage to The Beatles
There was some continuity, however, as the quartet took its time on July 3rd to loosen up and get limber, but these shows were not the continuous ascent to transcendence over the course of six sets as occurred in 2012 or, to some extent, last year. Thus, the first set of the final night was perhaps too lighthearted for its own good, but given the relentless intensity throughout the previous evening, it's fair to say the band had earned the right to take it comparatively easy. And perhaps the succession of tunes such as "Scent of a Mule" and "I Didn't Know" were part of a purposeful setup of a subsequent set of segues, including "Flufhead" and "You Enjoy Myself," that skirted the perimeter of the epic, even if Phish sounded somewhat tentative at times.
The band's growing attachment to tunes such as "Waiting All Night" where four-part harmonies distinguish the arrangement, may in fact be leaving Phish somewhat disconnected from a repertoire that's become increasingly standardized since their reunion in 2009. Seeing the indefatigable Jon Fishman dismount his drum riser to play the vacuum cleaner might leave that impression as much as the absence of sprawling jams now replaced by a more economical approach to chestnuts like "David Bowie" (mirrored in somewhat simplified lighting displays from Chris Kuroda).
And while that may result in an inevitably bumpy transition in the short run and long, it's hard not to admire Phish's staunch refusal to stand still or worse, repeat themselves in front of audiences that, whatever the carnival-like atmosphere they conjure up (even in the face of torrential rains that hit upstate New York Thursday night), would accept no such stasis or petrification.