Phish at The Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Springs, New York

Doug Collette By

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Saratoga Performing Arts Center
Saratoga Springs, New York
August 16, 2009

It's a long way from Fenway Park to Saratoga Springs New York, not so much in geographical terms, but in the progress Phish has made in recapturing their group chemistry since beginning their 2009 summer tour. Whereas the group was somewhat hesitant in much of their interplay in Boston on May 31, the foursome sounded and looked fully in command throughout their close-to-four hours on the stage of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center on August 16th.

This final performance of the tour might well serve as the ideal show for someone who's never seen Phish in concert (or someone who actually has but still hasn't grasped the unusual attraction). The band was extremely tight when they chose, but also stretched out to tremendous lengths,albeit judiciously, at times. The foursome had their tongue in cheek just far enough to bring a laugh at certain junctures (such as the trampoline act), but overall played with an earnest fervor in direct proportion to the audience's own passion.

And the crowd was honest in their fervent anticipation and response: thirty-thousand plus attendees weren't working to elevate the band or egg them on but responding to a performance that in a very real sense might be termed the definitive Phish concert (though the Hartford show of two night's prior was rapidly ascending to mythic status).

Phish played an extended first set close to two hours in duration as if to prove themselves to that devoted audience and themselves as well. As taciturn as the group has been with the media while touring this summer, the quartet was, as usual, equally stoic on stage during the entire evening.

Guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Trey Anastasio (right) graciously and effusively thanked the fans twice during the evening and the residents of his adopted home of Saratoga as well, saying all that needed to be said about the interval during which Phish were disbanded. Displaying a palpable warmth and a comparative economy (for all its expansive ingenuity) Anastasio's instrumentalizing, and that of his bandmates, said the rest.

The eccentric whimsy that had Anastasio and bassist Mike Gordon doing a two-step in tandem (after the latter dropped some absolute bombs with his instrument in the early going) might be at odds with the progressive approach that informs the collective Phish technique, but such a deadpan approach becomes just plain funny when intermixed with the serious likes of the outward emotionalism of "Anything But Me" or the mammoth atmospherics of "Backward Through the Number Line," sourced within the keyboards of Page McConnell, which opened the second set. That segment wasn't the only moment that hearkened to Phish's fabled "Island Tour" of 1998, but it was a far cry from the fleet motion of the band exuberantly galloping to the close of the first set with "Run Like an Antelope."

There's a definite pace to any excellent Phish show, but it's somewhat hard to discern, as are the changes of intricate tunes like "Golgi Apparatus" or "Chalk Dust Torture." Phish music has no roots in the blues to speak of, and the group eschews pop structure in most of its originals. "David Bowie" begs singalong, but the title is all there is to the to the refrain—so the positive element of predictability that arises from deliberate repetition is rare. Which is no doubt why the Vermont group chose to cover elemental tunes like Lou Reed's "rock and Roll" or the riff-heavy encore of AC/DC's "Highway to Hell:" here Phish can step outside themselves and enjoy playing less self-consciously and more for the pure fun of it.

That said, Phish set high standards for themselves in their first twenty years as the jamband scene coalesced around them. The quartet's clumsy dissolution in 2004, including the Coventry event (the rain that threatened to ruin that event just a passing albeit potent thunderstorm half hour before showtime this night). But Phish recommitted itself to its music and its bond as musicians prior to the three nights of Hampton in March 2009, in so doing reigniting their collective inspiration and imbuing it with a new-found discipline that, through the two legs of summer shows, found them inexorably moving further into the expansive realms of improvisation for which they became famous and with which they closed their second set on a full twenty minutes of "You Enjoy Myself."

The rabid Phish-head or casual observer may or may not forgive them the sight of drummer Jon Fishman out from behind his kit, in his trademark mu-mu, singing Katy Parry's "I Kissed A Girl," but it is comic relief that might be altogether necessary given some of the intense intervals over the course of nearly four hours (including the machine-like percussion work of this man: would the sound were slightly clearer to hear his playing in detail). Every night Phish performs so consistently splendidly, not to mention idiosyncratically, as they did at SPAC, that they redeem their past as much as their decision to regroup.

Photo Credit
Dave Vann

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