Phish at Fenway Park, Boston, May 31, 2009

Doug Collette By

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They may not have hit a home run, but at least Phish had the courage to step up to the plate.
Fenway Park
Boston, Massachusetts
May 31, 2009

When the sun broke through the clouds just as Trey Anastasio took his first solo of the night May 31st, there seemed to be no other place to be than Fenway Park in Boston listening to Phish. In their first show since their triumphant return to performing in March of this year in Hampton VA, the quartet appeared genuinely happy to be playing together again, flexing their muscles through two generous sets though not doing any heavy lifting, at least during the first two hours.

Phish Under (High Barometric) Pressure

Following the rainbow that colored the drab skies full of rain prior to this unique event, when the skies cleared of clouds to reveal a gorgeous half-moon, it was just another wonder of nature. Phish themselves hardly fall in that category perhaps, if for no other reason than they didn't exactly light up the sky, suggesting at least in the early going of this summer tour that, while they were very tempted to stretch out and let loose with the improvisation the likes of which has made them the contemporary definition of rock and roll, they preferred to pull back.

It was almost another way of saying what these 2009 concerts represent as a collective statement: Phish is in this for the long haul. If the group members' current approach to their career is, well, careerist (the "single" Anastasio announced is available via iTunes), that's only because idiosyncrasy only goes so far (in ways large, like covering The Who's Quadrophenia on Halloween 1995, or small like this night's "You Enjoy Myself"). And when eccentricity becomes accepted—and thousands flock to the concerts regularly (all summer shows sold out, joyously singing and playing along with the eccentric musicians and their likeminded songs—it is no longer idiosyncrasy or eccentricity but a new convention.

So it is that Phish are playing much of their tried and true material, like the set openers "Sample in a Jar" and "Tweezer." To their credit they sound rigorously rehearsed and inspired by each other—guitarist Anastasio's playing is especially pointed while keyboardist Page McConnell may be the most gratified with the reunion, displaying a deft touch with acoustic and electric instruments that bears out his growth during the group's "hiatus" between 2004 and 2009. Bassist Mike Gordon and drummer Jon Fishman (pictured below) remain redoubtable support as well as dual sources of inspiration: when Phish seemed ready to launch in both first sets (Stash" and "Bouncing Around the Room" and, second, "Bathtub Gin"), it was because one of these two, or both in tandem, were pushing to do so.

If it seems contradictory to be relegating new material to a static piece called "Ocelot" (purportedly to be on the next studio album) and the group version of Anastasio's "Time Turns Elastic" (he remains without reservation the spearhead of the group once again, as in the Vermont band's earliest incarnation) and even more so to see the rousing acclamation the audience affords tunes like "Moma Dance," almost as if this were a more mainstream presentation of a greatest hits litany, that's really what it is, just in a different, and perhaps self-consciously alternative, frame of reference. It would be curmudgeonly to dismiss it as such or to dwell on a woefully erratic sound from Yawkey Way—this from a band that's put on its own festivals and thus should be above such crucial shortfalls, operationally speaking.

There may come a time when Phish, having played together again for a period of time, comfortable with each other onstage and with material old and new, will push the boundaries of spontaneity to greater lengths, take more chances than they did May 31st, for instance, on "Bouncing Around the Room" and "Down with Disease." Leaving the collective comfort zone more often and more deeply and widely would then make the gesture of the encore of Led Zeppelin's "Good Times Bad times" somewhat less of a crowd- pleasing sure thing, and more of a refreshing return to basics—from the likes of "David Bowie"—for the musicians as well as the attendees.

In the meantime, Phish is basking in a glory it once shunned and rightfully so. Having brought a risk- taking approach to composing and performing into a personal style, they probably deserve to embrace their success as much as their fans, leaving moot, at least for the time being, the issue of when they are truly trading on past glories, like so many established performers who never took real chances. For Phish to play one of, if not the most, revered baseball parks in America, signified a certain peculiar logic and made their appearance as unique an event as it could be. They may not have hit a home run, but given the swirling winds late in the evening, no Sox batter probably could have either. Kudos to the band for summoning the courage to step up to the plate.

Photo Credit
C. Taylor Crothers

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