Phish Live Summer 2010: Back to Back at SPAC

Doug Collette By

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Saratoga Performing Arts Center
Saratoga Springs, New York
June 19 & June 20, 2010

Early in their second set on June 19th in Saratoge, Phish played "Free," one of a number vintage tunes offered that night interspersed with the occasional newer tune such as "Joy." But the ringing guitar refrain combined with the soaring harmonies on the former had special resonance here in 2010. A year after the comeback of 2009, the quintessential jamband are indeed free: of unreasonable expectations, preconceptions gone awry and, perhaps most crucial of all, self-induced pressure to perform (and not just their music—as icons of a contemporary musical movement, glibly described as 'the jamband scene,' once again vibrant with their return to activity).

Neither performance matched the galvanizing likes of last year's tour closer in this same location. There was nevertheless a renewed sense of self-determination evident throughout the two nights in the spacious New York state venue, perhaps no more obvious than in the contrast between the two performances, each of which ran approximately three and a half hours total, with two sets per evening. Phish display virtually no sense of self-consciousness that harms their uncanny improvisational sense, but rather a self-discipline that, on the first night, found them progressively more exploratory as the performance progressed, but always conducting themselves efficiently and economically, as individuals and as a unit.

Hence, at intervals throughout June 19th, specifically and most notably during "Runaway Jim" and "Bathtub Gin" in the first half, then set two's blazing opener of Lou Reed's "Rock and Roll" and a home stretch including "David Bowie," the courage that permeates the quartet's approach to playing paid its dividends. No solos from Trey Anastasio went on too long. Nor did bassist Mike Gordon's frequent bass segments do anything other than further propel the momentum of the performance in question. Drummer Jon Fishman doesn't take solos in the conventional sense, but he continually creates intricate rhythm patterns that are inherent in the tune and simultaneously in sync with what his partners are doing at the time.

Notwithstanding Anastasio's ebullient stage demeanor, keyboardist Page McConnell may be the one member of Phish visibly most gratified by their reunion. And inspired as a musician: his versatility, not to mention the depth of emotion in his playing has often dazzled, and continually impressed since the first shows in Hampton VA in March of last year. His contributions were similar in Saratoga Springs, in particular, his extended turn on acoustic piano at the end of "Show of Life" was memorable for its fluidity and melodious construction, as it elaborated on the song's lyrics.

McConnell, with the rest of the group, descended slightly into novelty when he played the key-tar during the next night's encore of Edgar Winter's "Frankenstein." But it's reflective of how Phish refuse to take themselves too seriously that they, as much as an audience that has relaxed almost as much as the group, will simply have fun with such a piece. It's a dose of refreshing simplicity, well-placed, especially on a night full of novelties, most of which furthered the intense mood of musical self-challenge.

An opening of "Brother" was also an acceptable exception to that rule as it allowed Phish, all of whom are family men now, to introduce their children as they came out to sit in a metal bathtub stage center as the band played the lighthearted number, all as a means of acknowledging Father's Day.

Moving further into the performance, the group took pains to stretch out on each and every number June 20th and, while a continued occupation of the quiet end of the dynamic spectrum caused the set to drag somewhat during "Roggae" and "Sleep Again," that which preceded, such as the cover of Talking Heads' "Cities," was compelling to watch as well as hear (though the shed's sound remained overly loud and strident). And the blistering version of "Run Like An Antelope" that closed the first half of this show more than made up for that comparatively sluggish interval: Phish rarely allow themselves to play with such raw power (and even here didn't forsake their usual finesse).

There were no such lapses when the band returned to finish off this one of a number of such multi-night runs on the summer 2010 tour itinerary. Phish rocked hard on "Carini," the band followed Gordon's lead as he belted out the lead vocal on an excerpt from The Who's Quadrophenia (which the group had played in it entirely on Halloween 1995, one of the multiple way this band has distinguished itself and by extension the jamband movement of which it remains the flagship band) and the genuinely dramatic version of "Also Sprach Zarathustra," threw the sold-out crowd into a dancing frenzy and rightly so—there was less a sense of kitsch than real majesty in the theme from "2001."

It was a slightly unsettling but nonetheless indelible memory to preserve from this back-to-back at SPAC to hear Phish conclude the formal part of the evening of June 20th with the oddball four-way vocal interplay on "You Enjoy Myself." This band's eccentricity is an essential component of their collective personality and now in their second year of reunion may rightly be termed Phish 3.0 —they enacted one self-imposed hiatus in 2000 to 2002, then endured another not so deliberate with the breakup in 2004—such idiosyncrasy sounds perfectly natural, and, this balmy early summer evening in upstate New York, evoked an equally natural reaction from the audience. Such an authentic bond between artist and performer has long been a goal of Phish and their community, but it has perhaps never been so genuine as it is right now.

Photo Credit

Dave Vann



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