Phish: Live in Utica October 20, 2010 At The Aud

Doug Collette By

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Live in Utica October 20, 2010 At The Aud



It may demean the occasion to call it an instant classic, but Phish's October 2010 appearance at The Auditorium in Utica, New York has all the earmarks of a unique event. The main distinction of the evening was the music, some of the most self-challenging and rewarding the Vermont band has played since its reunion in 2009; but there's also the unusual confluence of factors that has already embedded the concert in Phish lore.

One of the few sold-out shows on the fall tour, this stop occurred in one of the most distinctive venues, a mini-Madison Square Garden of sorts, where the audience, even at capacity one of the smallest on the itinerary, almost but not quite wholly surrounded the band, to which it was in fairly close proximity. There's always energy in the air when a great band plays, but it's not always as highly charged as it was in The Aud this fall night.

The quartet seems to sense it from the start, even as it moves deliberately but authoritatively from the cover of Clifton Chenier's "My Soul" through the fairly new "Stealing Time from the Faulty Plan," off that year's studio release Joy (Jemp, 2010). "Vultures" finds the group gaining even more traction on "Wolfman's Brother," by which time the rhythm of the video editing has been well established: it allows for front and back shots of drummer Jon Fishman's formidable technique, tight close-ups of keyboardist Page McConnell's fingers, wide angle shots of the whole band on stage and regular, but perhaps all too fleeting, insertions of shots capturing the wildly imaginative lighting of Chris Kuroda (a special single camera was set up for just this sole purpose, a first for Phish).

Just as the band begins to loosen up, it slips into the syncopated pattern at the heart of Talking Heads' "Cities," where localized references to the Genesee factory begin to bring the performance deeper into real time. "Guyute" finds Phish channeling its individual and collective technique into the complex changes that bespeak the band's roots in progressive rock: rarely has the distinction between improvisation and charted instrumental work become so blurred, a point reaffirmed not just by the clarity of the video shots (or the true-to-life audio), but the dizzying camera angles of the foursome in a variety of alignments. Meanwhile Kuroda's lights reflect the impact of the musicianship as it hits the audience.

Based, in part at least, on the presence of a sign in the audience reading "Guyutica," the tune would serve as thread in and out of the remainder of the set, something preserved on the first of the two otherwise truncated CDs that round out the Live in Utica package. More evident than on the previous release in this format, Alpine Valley (Jemp, 2010), the logic of the editing for the audio discs seems arbitrary to a fault, especially since the complete recording has been made available via the Live Phish series at the time of the tour. Some creativity commensurate with that of the band might be devoted to devising a means of efficiently holding all the physical goods (two DVDs and three CDs).

It's at this point in the show, perhaps, that watching what's happening on stage distracts from following, as closely as necessary, what Phish is playing. Certainly the back and forth teases of "Wilson" are red herrings as each only ratchets up the intensity as well as the intricacy of the interplay among the players. At these moments it matters less which of the four is the superior musician, but more how they've learned to complement each other with such fine precision.

It disparages the first set as well as the second to say the latter is more of the same. It's also inaccurate. Balanced on the edge of the proverbial knife through most of the first hour plus, it might be unreasonable to expect comparable ingenuity in the moment, but the fact of the matter is Phish takes the excerpt from The Who's Quadrophenia, "Drowned," and run with it. The clarity of McConnell's piano as it segues into Anastasio's guitar for "Sand" almost makes it feel like the quartet never stopped playing, except that, if you're a musiclover who likes to hear stories in a setlist, set two on 10/20/2010 might well be interpreted as an extended rumination on the passage of time—specifically Anastasio's in and out of Phish—triggered by past appearances in this particular city.

Songs like "Axilla" and "Birds of a Feather" contain images that trigger recollections of Phish history, after which the band offers instrumental commentary by way of prompting the audience's own memories of hearing those songs. It's a subtle communion between artist and performer to be sure, like that of old friends where much can go unsaid for the sake of new dialogue. The soft melancholy at the end of "Slave to the Traffic Light" sounds like a backdrop for these four men to acknowledge the bond they've nurtured over the years, the sum of which becomes encapsulated in the encore of "Good Times Bad Times." The Led Zeppelin cover is stretched out of shape as much or more than any Phish original in this setlist or its predecessor.

Phish's sense of its own history, of course, is based on collective and individual experience over two decades, two hiatuses and a purposeful reunion in 2009. Long- time Phisheads may contend the band now takes fewer risks than in the past, with proportionately lesser rewards, but the objective observer, fan or not, may argue the level of efficiency in the jams are at an optimum level right now. Certainly watching and listening (or just the latter) to Live in Utica captures this group doing things few contemporary rock bands dare to attempt.

DVD1: My Soul; Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan; Vultures; Wolfman's Brother; Cities; Guyute; David Bowie; Wilson; McGrupp And The Watchful Hosemasters; Saw It Again; Run Like An Antelope. DVD2: Drowned; Sand; Theme From The Bottom; Axilla; Birds Of A Feather; Tela; Split Open And Melt; Have Mercy; Piper; Split Open And Melt; Slave To The Traffic Light; Good Times, Bad Times. CD1:Vultures; Wolfman's Brother; Cities; Guyute; David Bowie; Wilson; McGrupp And The Watchful Hosemasters; Saw It Again; Run Like An Antelope. CD2: Drowned; Sand; Theme From The Bottom; Axilla; Birds Of A Feather; Split Open And Melt; Have Mercy; Piper; Split Open And Melt; Slave To The Traffic Light.

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

Production Notes: 180 minutes. Recorded October 20, 2010 at the Utica Memorial Auditorium, Utica, New York.

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