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Phish: Live at Hampton Coliseum, March 2009

Doug Collette By

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Nearly four and a half years after what was meant to be its final concert in Coventry, Vermont, Phish made a resounding return to the stage in Hampton, Virginia in March of 2009. Clearly well-practiced as it navigated its way enthusiastically through some of the most challenging and familiar material in its repertoire, the Vermont quartet reestablished itself as the standard by which jamband musicianship is measured.

At the same time Phish maintained its cutting edge within contemporary culture by setting up a Twitter account for fans to follow reactions to the shows—and more importantly, offering free downloads of recordings from all three nights performances. The mixed and mastered recordings became available in digital format, as well as physical disc, via the LivePhish program the group pioneered in 2001. The three sets capture what is a seminal moment in modern rock.

Hampton Coliseum 03.06.09

As Phish wends its way through nearly four hours of music on the first night, it is clear it has taken the reformation seriously, in the most professional sense of the word. The progressive approach to writing and playing on tunes like the opener "Flufhead" makes it clear the rumors of intense preparation by the foursome were not just rumors: the group flawlessly navigates the stop-starts, scale ascensions/descensions and turnarounds/transitions from structure to free playing and back again.

What's just as obvious too is the emotional element in Phish's playing and singing. And it's not just guitarist Trey Anastasio whose vocals and guitar playing define the phase "exorcise the demons." Keyboardist Page McConnell plays with gleeful economy and authority on "The Divided Sky," for example, while bassist Mike Gordon and drummer Jon Fishman's interactive underpinning (captured in great detail and flourish by recordist Tim Powell and mastering engineer Fred Kevorkian) remain a redoubtable rhythm section: they play with as much soul as precision.

Phish rose to prominence via an expansive approach to live performing it reaffirmed in Hampton, as well as through a networking of a community aided by the growth of the web. Studio albums, radio play, singles and videos have played virtually no part in the group's elevation to jamband icon. Accordingly, it misrepresents these performances to call them "greatest hits" collections played live. But it is true Phish conceived the setlists with an eye toward including its best known material as well as that which would challenge the band to rise to the occasion and meet the expectations of the hordes of fans who traveled to Hampton Coliseum.

Hampton Coliseum 03.07.09

From the muted sounds of acclamation as the group began, to roars of recognition for tunes including "Sample In A Jar" and "Tweezer," the band certainly chose well, but the second night is definitely a second tier of material, and not surprisingly, musicianship.

Significance of its reunion aside, Phish's movement through "Punch You In The Eye" and "Split Open And Melt," interspersed with "Reba" and "Wolfman's Brother," creates a self-limited low ceiling of intensity. At least until the climax, the ascension to which may have been the rendition of Lou Reed's "Rock And Roll" (more of which such crowd-pleasing covers appeared the next night). The triptych of "Mike's Song"/"I Am Hydrogen"/"Weekapaug Groove" became something of a predictable set-closer as the band developed—but more often than not, right till its 2004 disassembly, it functioned as it does here: a demonstration of how the combustible synthesis of material can ignite fiery instrumental interaction.

The night of March 7th stands as something of an echo of the previous evening but also continues a thematic approach new to Phish as the group resumes its career. Once too arch and ironic to evince much straightforward emotion, now even slight pieces of material such as "I Don't Know" can carry autobiographical reference (though to hear Anastasio sing "didn't know I was that far gone" may require familiarity with his personal travails during the period 2004-2008). In a gesture more typical of Phish's protective tongue-in-cheek attitude, here's where Fishman does his vacuum cleaner solo. Talk about exhuming the past, Phish touched virtually all the bases in Hampton (including placing the drummer to stage left as in their early rather than behind the band as aligned in 1999).

Hampton Coliseum 03.08.09

Scanning the set list for the final night of three, then gauging the excitement of both the band and its audience, it seems this run was devised with the dynamics of a single evening's performance across the multiple performances: meeting the audience's expectations head on the first night's pinnacles, allowing for some necessary drift toward the middle, before a final ascent to crescendo in the conclusion. Toward that end, 3/8/2009 is replete with fusion of outside material like "Frankenstein" and the theme from "2001" that's proven to provoke a crowd reaction almost as frenzied as "Foam" and "Tube."

In between are nods to democracy in the form of McConnell's "Wading In The Velvet Sea," Gordon's token gesture to bluegrass in "She Thinks I Still Care," and a rendition of "Happy Birthday" to Fishman's father, as well as the recurrence of the self-referential in "Army Of One." To its credit, Phish never sounds too careful for its own good in Hampton nor, on this final night, too abandoned for its own good. The Vermont unit might well have thrown all caution to the wind by the third hour on the third night, but it stands as a testament to the group's self-discipline, and it's members commitment to each other and to its fans, that it remained focused. As a result, the music remains highly potent through what might have otherwise been a too-predictable finish on "Tweezer Reprise."

Phish has again set some high and precarious standards for itself on every front with the Hampton 2009 shows. The kind of exploratory playing that made the group famous reappeared and, the fact is, it's something that remains rare among rock or jazz bands. It remains to be seen whether, in the midst of collective improvisation and the spontaneity of live performance, the quartet remains capable of attaining those levels of inspiration again and again—but that's the challenge Phish has courageously established for itself.

Tracks and Personnel

Hampton Coliseum 03.06.09

Tracks: CD1: Flufhead; The Divided Sky; Chalk Dust Torture; Sample in a Jar; Stash; I Didn't Know; The Oh Kee Pah Ceremony; Suzy Greenberg; Farmhouse. CD2: NICU; Horn; Rift; Train Song; Water in the Sky; The Squirming Coil; David Bowie. CD3:Theme From the Bottom; First Tube; Harry Hood; Waste; You Enjoy Myself; Grind; Bouncing Around the Room; Loving Cup.

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

Hampton Coliseum 03.07.09

Tracks: CD1:Back on the Train; Runaway Jim; Brian and Robert; Split Open and Melt; Heavy Things; Punch You in the Eye; Gumbo; Reba; Mexican Cousin; It's Ice. CD2:Halley's Comet; Beauty Of A Broken Heart; Guelah Papyrus; Lawn Boy; Run Like an Antelope; Rock and Roll; Limb By Limb; Ghost; Piper; Birds of a Feather. CD3: Wolfman's Brother; Prince Caspian; Mike's Song; I Am Hydrogen; Weekapaug Groove; Character Zero; A Day in the Life.

Personnel: Trey Anastasio: guitar, vocals; Jon Fishman: drums, vocals, vacuum cleaner; Mike Gordon: bass, vocals; Page McConnell: keyboards, vocals.

Hampton Coliseum 03.08.09

Tracks: CD1: Sanity; Wilson; Foam; Bathtub Gin; Undermind; AC/DC Bag; My Friend, My Friend; Scent of a Mule; All of These Dreams. CD2: Maze; She Thinks I Still Care; Army of One; Tube; Cars Trucks Buses; Free Frankenstein; Down with Disease; Seven Below. CD3: The Horse; Silent In The Morning; Twist; 2001; The Moma Dance; While My Guitar Gently Weeps; Wading in the Velvet Sea; Slave to the Traffic Light; Happy Birthday Leonard; Contact; Bug; Tweezer Reprise.

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


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