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Phish: Saratoga Springs, New York: July, 6-8 2012

Doug Collette By

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Phish
Saratoga Performing Arts Center
Saratoga Springs, New York
July 6-8 2012

Since their triumphant return to the stage in Hampton VA in March of 2009, the four members of Phish—guitarist/vocalist Trey Anastasio, bassist/vocalist Mike Gordon, keyboardist/vocalist Page McConnell and drummer/vocalist Jon Fishman—have renewed, reaffirmed and reinvented their personal and professional relationships. The climax to Phish's first leg of its Summer, 2012 tour demonstrated how far the group has come in that progression.

From the very start, the purposeful approach Phish took to its reunion permeated this three-night run. Compact performances took precedence over extended improvisation, as the quartet was intent on staking out turf to explore later in the evening as well as the next two nights. Accordingly, apart from the swooping runs from Gordon, genuine intensity was ephemeral in the first hour, Anastasio lighting it up only on "Stash. " This galvanizing moment, however brief, constituted a welcome return to serious business after Fishman commanded center stage with his hand cymbals to deliver Neil Diamond's "Cracklin' Rosie."

A cover of Traffic's "Light Up or Leave Me Alone" roused the crowd back to the level of excitement conjured by a roaring take on Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer," so it was little wonder Anastasio returned to the stage after set break with such a look of determination on his face. Phish picked up where it left off a half-hour previous, launching into an uninterrupted ninety minutes that included a hammer-down through "Carini" before bouncing through "Sneaking Sally Through the Alley" and "Ghost." If the foursome's forays into funk occasionally sounded flat—and there was a bit of meandering during the course of the second set, though usually only as sounds turned ambient— Fishman's fillips kept the rhythms lively this sweltering evening.

Meanwhile, for all his formal technique on grand piano, McConnell knows how to coax syncopation from the clavinet during such interludes; he enjoyed it with all the relish (and body English) he displayed behind the Hammond B3 organ the next night. And let's not forget the gusto in his singing either, however much his scholarly, bespectacled appearance might belie such passion (or the self-deprecating humor he displayed on "Lawn Boy").

The impromptu appearance of lyricist Tom Marshall and a famous figure from Phish lore, The Dude of Life (Steve Pollak), couldn't derail the momentum of the band as it flew through "Run Like An Antelope" and then quickly returned to close the first evening with The Rolling Stones' "Lovin' Cup," which contained the keynote lyric of the evening: ..."what a beautiful buzz!..."

Broadcast live on Sirius radio, July 7th's two sets continued almost breathlessly for the entire night, so that another Exile on Main Street (Atlantic, 1972) cover, "Torn & Frayed," elevated the atmosphere through Frank Zappa ("Peaches en Regalia), more Heads (a sumptuous "Cities), then to thunderous crescendo with Led Zeppelin's "Good Times Bad Times." Lest it seem Phish was merely a tribute band this evening, its original material—"Rift," "Maze" and "Bathtub Gin"—soldered the set into a seamless whole. The a cappella opener, "Grind," was thus a red herring; the rest of this performance was all no-nonsense, as the Vermont-based foursome pushed itself and asked the audience to keep up.

Which to their credit they did and not just with a glorious glowstick war during the second set. Phish used The Violent Femmes' "Blister in the Sun" to knit together another continuous string of tunes including Stevie Wonder's "Boogie On Reggae Woman," from whose percolating rhythms the band launched itself further and further out; seeming to peak with "Also Sprach Zarathustra (Theme from 2001)," the group ratcheted up its own excitement and that of the sold-out pavilion and lawn folks with "Prince Caspian," "Mike's Song" and "Weekapaug Groove."

If Phish never sounded truly magnificent, it was nevertheless marvelous to behold all four musicians flush with the sense of their own near-faultless synchronicity. With the ensemble playing tight, the transitions faultless and the jamming the work of a band drawing judiciously but boldly on near thirty years of playing together, the final night at SPAC contained the momentum of the home stretch within the greatest sets. Taking no time to "warm up," Phish started fast and hard, keeping up the pace as if daring lighting master Chris Kuroda to think and act as quickly as it was during its improvisations.

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