December 4, 2003

A Free Form Phishified Fiasco

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Going Phishin’ on Strong Island. It was definitely something to look forward to besides turkey last weekend. Their second date with Nassau Coliseum this year was also the kickoff for the band’s holiday run, a tour that will culminate in yet another Phish New Year’s party at Miami’s American Airlines Arena.

Speaking of New Year’s, it was only twelve months ago that Phish fans across the country were drooling over the band’s return from hiatus at another New Year’s concert at Madison Square Garden.

Since the release of Round Room and their return to the stage, Phish has completed both a winter and summer tour and returned to Loring Airforce Base in Maine for “It,” the latest in the band’s series of Woodstock-like music festivals. On the calendar, certainly, Phish is back. But as they kicked off their third tour of the year in Nassau last week, what was the state of the musical Phish union?

Jumping into their first set with “Bouncing Around the Room,” Phish certainly used lyrics to imply “That time and once again” they hadn’t missed a beat. Perhaps the most flat way to categorize Phish is to call them a jam band. And even though this classification cannot capture the groove, the innovation, the sheer unexpected electricity of not knowing what will come next, it’s a stereotype that will have to do, because Phish jammed the socks off of Nassau. Often following bassist Mike Gordon’s lead on the changes, the band played on each others’ improvisations and fed off the crowd’s energy to break down or build up each jam as they saw fit.

In particular, guitarist Trey Anastasio used “First Tube” as a spring board for a circular guitar riff that in turn fueled a hi-energy merry-go-round of sound. Keyboardist Page McConnell provided the glue for many of these jams, but had his own chance to stand out during the beginning of “Bathtub Gin,” as he used sharp electric organ chords to accentuate the original sheet music. “Bathtub,” as usual, featured audience participation on back-up vocals underneath the song’s impromptu tapestry.

As McConnell had done, drummer Jon Fishman supported Anastasio’s trebly guitar solos and Gordon’s funky bass changes. Fishman himself was on target, never lingering near predictable and always hitting the changes on time with his band mates. Unfortunately, Fishman’s comrades never really let the energetic drummer stand out and make his own statement about the jam.

The strongest moments of the concert were when Phish shifted gears without warning. They opened the second set with “Waves,” a song from their newest release that, on tour, has quickly become a platform for very floaty jams. As “Waves” died out, Phish warped back to their 1994 release Hoist and pulled out “Down with Disease” and “Sample in a Jar,” two songs dripping with Boston-influenced guitar solos. When the anthem-like “Sample” closed out, Phish jumped right back to the here and now, jamming off of “Walls of the Cave,” another song from their latest release that fits like a hippy-woven wool sock in their live repertoire.

Despite their predictable unpredictability, there were moments when Phish failed to keep me on my toes. Towards the end of the second set, Mike Gordon took the lead on vocals for “Mike’s Song,” and adhering to the live-Phish rule-of-thumb “Weekapaug Groove” soon followed.

While some might consider the uncut umbilical cord of these two songs a quirky sort of in-the-know tidbit for loyal Phish-heads, I found the dynamic to be tired and deflating at Nassau.

The set-list was an exception at this show, however, as Phish kept the audience guessing by debuting a new song called “Crowd Control” and bringing out long-time friend of the band The Dude of Life for lead vocals during the encore.

On paper, their second stop this year at Nassau Coliseum was just another hurdle on Phish’s 2003 odyssey. Inside the Coliseum, however, the show was anything but ordinary. In fact, the only real disappointment of the night were the broken bottles, crunched beer cans, and cigarette butts that transformed the parking lot into a Long Island landfill. Phish fans may be pegged as hippies, but the ones who showed up at Nassau last Friday sure weren’t environmentalists.

Archived article by MArk harrison