Phish: Coral Sky

Doug Collette By

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Coral Sky



What's most striking at the outset of Phish's Coral Sky DVD is how much the band's presentation here, in November 1996, is so remarkably similar to the sound and vision of the Vermont-based jamband since its reunion in 2009. From the sight of drummer Jon Fishman in his trademark dress on stage, to the near telepathic tradeoffs during improvisational segments, this might well be a recent performance.

Certainly the good-natured gusto that informs the opening "Ya Mar," and the fiery improvisation that follows in the form of "Julius," finds all five musicians locked in a spontaneous unity that usually only arises late in a performance—so the level of the band's inspiration at the open-air Florida venue is as high as the level of the audience's anticipation.

The drama of the forceful jams that distinguish "Taste" aren't all that surprising given the context of the Coral Sky performance (also available on cd), but that doesn't make them much less compelling to watch and hear. Two nights before Phish had celebrated Halloween by covering Talking Heads' Remain in Light (Warner Bros/Sire, 1980) in its entirety and certainly the combined sense of relief and satisfaction, together with the polyrhythmic textures of that other band's music, accentuated by the presence of Santana percussionist Karl Perazzo, kindled a spark that ignited the Phish's approach and delivery. The balmy atmosphere probably didn't hurt either, but since the camera work homes in on Phish as it inhabits the stage, to the exclusion of its surroundings (and curiously, the devoted audience that claps in just the right places on "Stash"), that factor doesn't figure in for viewers of either of the two discs in the package.

The dynamics of the performance justify the multi-track recording and mastering. Hearing keyboardist Page McConnell's use his acoustic piano to gently converse with Perazzo on congas is sweet to the ear on its own terms and worth watching as well, especially as it gives way to an equally delicate interlude where bassist Mike Gordon and Fishman alternately nudge and navigate behind guitarist Trey Anastasio. Such segments are the stuff of which made this show the "fan favorite," as it's referred to in publicity material; but more importantly, such purposeful musicianship is that which still distinguishes Phish from most all other improvisationally-oriented rock bands.

An almost physical sense of release arises from the version of "Free" that follows and elevates to an even higher level in Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode," an interlude that acts as a precursor to the beginning of the second set. Talking Heads' "Cross-Eyed and Painless" segues into Phish's own "Run Like An Antelope," the combined juggernaut of which—apart from the comic aspect of Fishman's stilted vocal and a playful guitar fragment that presages the "Harry Hood" to follow shortly—makes the absence of any bonus features on Coral sky moot. For the band members themselves, Phish historians or other scribes to comment and/or analyze such sublime extended moments would, at best, smack of overstating the obvious, or, at worst, failing miserably to capture the reality of the moment. Likewise, over-busy editing or effects would only detract from the palpable drama as the group, led again by McConnell, this time on electric keyboards, navigates through some ambient sonics that are a harbinger of the famed Island Tour of 1998.

Bereft of any historical commentary in the package (or on the band's website), Phish and its organization have the right to be confident that recorded performances such as Coral Sky speak for themselves. Besides which the group's fanbase considers itself perfectly well-schooled in the facts, as well as the myths, of Phish in minutiae. And in marketing terms the package has the further selling point of an appearance by Allman Brothers Band drummer Butch Trucks, participating in the encore of "Funky Bitch." After the emotional peaks of "Waste" and The Beatles' "A Day in the Life"—a contrast to the solemnity in the form of an acappella "Sweet Adeline"—another physical catharsis via the layered syncopation on this number is perfectly appropriate, and comparable to the astute means by which Phish devise their set lists in 2010.

Tracks: Ya Mar; Julius; Fee / Taste; Cavern / Stash; The Lizards; Free; Johnny B. Goode; Crosseyed And Painless / Run Like An Antelope; Waste; Harry Hood / A Day In The Life; Sweet Adeline; Funky Bitch.

Personnel: Trey Anastasio: guitar, vocals; Page McConnell: keyboards, vocals; Mike Gordon: bass, vocals; Jon Fishman: drums, vocals; Karl Perazzo: percussion.

Production Notes: Run Time: 120 minutes; Recorded November 2 1996 at Coral Sky Amphitheatre, West Palm Beach FL.

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