It is weird to see a band that has already written the ending to its own fairy tale. Words and notes take on added weight where once there was just plain old music; the energy from the stage looms like thunderclouds overhead sometimes passing on harmlessly, sometimes opening up in deluge; each song isn't necessarily played like it's the last time ever, but each song is definitely listened to as if it might be... and so on. And so it was with Phish and me this past weekend. Having my "I'm 30 and I understand" mindset going in, it was one last trip on the roller coaster before getting off and getting on. I saw my first Phish show during the spring of my senior year in high school... this past Sunday I threw a blanket down on the grass for my wife and two kids. Suffice it to say, the movie of my adult life has Phish peppered generously on the soundtrack. Thursday night in Brooklyn and Sunday night in Saratoga Springs – would they be mere nostalgia or would they join the ranks of memories of the "good old days" themselves?

06.17.04 :: Keyspan Park :: Brooklyn, NY

Phish :: 06.17.04 :: Keyspan Park :: Brooklyn, NY by Libby McLinn
I have always been a front row guy and made the day-long effort to get there for Thursday's show at the Keyspan Park. Rain threatened all day and the passing grayness served to both excite and deaden the crowd. The energy was so off to me Thursday night. I had expected a sort of next-level rush from before the lights went down to the moment the band took their final bow. It just wasn't there. This seemed to translate from the stage as well. It was just a really weird vibe that I wanted to attribute to that renowned first-show-of-the-tour jitteriness, but couldn't help think that maybe the weight of "the end" was beginning to do its dirty work. All the open letters and Charlie Rose interviews came into play with each riff, each song choice, each jam... I wondered how they would sustain an entire tour.

06.17.04 :: Keyspan Park
Brooklyn, NY By Libby McLinn
Don't get me wrong, the show was great. I danced my ass off pre-millennium style and am still a bit sore. Probably not necessary for me to go into a lot of detail because the show was broadcast all over the country and you probably not only saw it but stayed a lot drier boogie-in' to it than I did. My highlights were: "The Curtain With" – when it turned the anticipated corner it was goodnight for me, just beautifully cascading solos from Trey around that theme; "The Moma Dance" which had the best energy of the night, the band doing somersault after somersault to keep up the energy on this one each time lifting it that much higher; "46 Days" > "Possum," started out standard and rocking and then they abruptly blasted into Phishville with a middle jam completely absent of the tell-tale meandering that has plagued a lot of their post-hiatus snoozers; and "Mike's Song" > "Hydrogen" – a very old-school rendering that was balls-out, sustained rock and roll for just as long as it needed to be. By the time they got to "Weekapaug" it seemed like the tank was empty. It struck me that the band was literally exhausted, Fishman particularly seemed unable to sustain that usual "Weekapaug" groove despite multiple coaxings from Anastasio. Yes, they had delivered an admirable effort for the first show of a weighty tour, and while things didn't necessarily seem forced, the boys did seem to be putting a lot of effort into making the show good. There was something unnatural and, I don't want to say joyless, but something just off about it.

I walked out with a big smile not sure if I was glad or sad to be missing the next two nights before heading upstate on Sunday. Always a bummer to miss certain songs, but reports of lots of good, some bad, little "can't miss" over the next two nights had me satisfied that I made the right decision and gave me enough rest to get psyched up again for Sunday.

06.20.04 :: SPAC :: Saratoga Springs, NY

Phish :: 06.20.04 :: SPAC :: Saratoga Springs, NY by Libby McLinn
From the rail to the back of the lawn, seems like it's always been one or the other for me and I've always wondered if where I was sitting directly affected how I heard the music and my ability to judge the show. Sunday night we couldn't have been much further away and conversely I couldn't have been more taken in by the music. Flat out sick-ass Phish show from top to bottom, certain to go in my tops when the last chapter of my Phish novel has been penned.

06.20.04 :: SPAC :: Saratoga Springs, NY
Trey & Mike by Libby McLinn
One of my biggest peeves about recent Phish shows has been a lack of that blob-mentality, where there is no leader in the jamming, no alpha-male guiding the pack, just a mindless goo of music flowing freely from four guys with bad haircuts. If the band can't even jam well, it just accentuates all the other stuff that I love to bitch about. Yeah, I know, these last shows have little to do with nitpicking and complaining... but it would be nice if, in addition to being a traveling, roadside wake of the greatness that was Phish, the shows were actually kick ass and memorable! Sunday night they reached that nirvana place over and over again, it didn't matter where I was standing or if I could see the stage or not, the music was coming at me from all directions and Phish seemed to stop the clock and knock the crust off that certain spot in my brain that has been waiting for them. Easily the best show I've seen in a half-decade.

06.20.04 :: SPAC :: Saratoga Springs, NY
Jon Fishman by Libby McLinn
The details:
The opener was "Rift" which was sloppy at best, but a good opener nonetheless. Weird how every time a song starts up, especially the songs you've seen a couple dozen times and heard a couple hundred, you make the realization that it might be the last time. It's even weirder how you forget about it two seconds into the song and then the feeling hits you like it was the first time when the next song starts up. So "Julius" is the true beginning of the greatness, because while it's never been on my "list" it's a rager, and it was raging as well as it ever has Sunday night. The fact of the matter is, Phish just can't play every song in their repertoire the way some songs demand to be played and in the recent interviews it appears that maybe the band doesn't even feel right attempting them. So it stands to reason that the band will be at their best when sticking to material it can handle. There's plenty of it to go around. Sunday at SPAC they were in that zone – there was little room for error and so they could just surrender to the air... or the flow... or whatever it is they're surrendering to these days.

06.20.04 :: SPAC :: Saratoga Springs, NY
Page & Dr. Jack McConnell by Libby McLinn
Page's dad came out for a Father's Day surprise and they did "Bill Bailey" which was a mere lark, lots of fun, and, I'll admit, a black line through one more song on my needs-to-be-seen list (Hi, I'm Aaron and I'm a Phish stats dork). Thursday night the band had gotten in their "antics" by dedicating "Kung" to the US Open golfers. It felt a bit forced... like "we need to do something silly." Sunday's Jack McConnell appearance, complete with hat and cane and tap dancing while his son accompanied was a perfect reminder of why we came to love this band in the first place. I've seen Trey dance with his grandmother to her favorite song, "Contact," Fishman sing to his mother on Mother's Day and blow vacuum with her a couple times... and here is Page's pop with a giant smile on his mug laying it down in front of ten thousand freakers. Good times for this dad, for sure.

At other recent shows, sandwiching the "Bill Bailey" spectacle between the blistering guitar rock of "Julius" and the Phish-as-genre otherworldliness of "Waves" would have been awkward and flow-killing. On this night, however, the band was on – I won't say they could do no wrong, but they were feeling it and I was feeling it from them in "Waves." This song and "Drowned" to end the first set set the stage for the oomph of the second set. The jamming was really as good as it gets, I thought. It wasn't Trey leading the way and everyone trying to keep up. It was Trey leading and then Mike leading and then Jon leading and then Page leading and then no one leading at all and then everyone leading. All the while subtle shifts in the jam wouldn't bring about confusion but rather a full acknowledgement from the entire band. "Drowned" reached "best ever" territory and defied the "longer doesn't mean better" fate that many jams seem resigned to live out. This thing just kept on going and as it kept on going it kept on getting bigger and better and nastier. Like that plant in Little Shop of Horrors, the jam was alive and gobbling up the lifeblood from all four of them taking on a life of its own.

Phish :: 06.20.04 :: SPAC :: Saratoga Springs, NY by Libby McLinn
Here I must pause and call out Mike Gordon. Over the past few years, in my eyes, he has gone from kick-ass bass player to one of the staunchest pillars of bassy goodness. Both Thursday night and Sunday night, he was in and out of places I never knew him to go. The guy is playing like he's up for free agency at the end of this tour and turning heads and inciting riots as he goes. There were moments on Thursday where the band seemed lost in places where they needed Trey to get them out... but Mike was there, picking up the slack during botched sections in "Divided Sky" or getting all loosey goosey during a free-form "Free." Mike Gordon is on some sort of bass-playing Red Bull and is dropping bombs, firing missiles, parting seas and controlling the weather. Be warned.

So, where were we? Oh yeah, Mike Gordon tearing up The Who like he was born to rock and the rest of the band rising to the challenge. And just when you're wanting more, they take that break and you're left wondering if this is the sign of things to come.

Oh, it was, it was! A setlist that reads:

"Seven Below" > "Ghost" > "Twist," "You Enjoy Myself"

That might get your imagination moving a bit, as well it should. Yeah, sometimes it just means that they lollygagged for 50 minutes and Trey was wanking and Fishman was lost and... and sometimes it just means that the band was all there for a spell and just knew what to do. I am as crotchety a curmudgeon as it gets with this band and I can tell you that this second set was not just stellar but interstellar. It was a large, four-fingered hand that reached out, cracked open my skull, tickled my gray matter and ordered me to dance.

06.20.04 :: SPAC :: Saratoga Springs, NY
Phish by Libby McLinn
I'm not sure it's even worth breaking down on a song-to-song basis. The opening triplet was a single coherent musical thought with perhaps a thousand separate pieces contained within. The segues were true and tight and vivid and powerful. Sure there were unguarded moments that might have been boring or pointless, but when the band is feeling it, they seem to recognize these moments and quickly correct them. The jams were electrifying and moved so effortlessly from passage to passage it became difficult to distinguish composition from improvisation. That is where the beauty lies and that is where my love was fostered. It's just been so long since I've heard Fishman take over a jam or Page get so involved. It starts off where one guy is following the other and then they are locked in so they start following closer and closer until eventually they are playing on top of each other. Getting this to work with two guys is a treat, but when all four are playing on top of each other like this, it's cold fusion. This set was self-powered, a perfect trajectory. Download, enjoy, you'll see what I mean; I'll spare the rest of my superlatives and adjectives.

06.21.04 :: Marquee of the Ed Sullivan Theater (Late Show) :: New York City, NY

06.21.04 :: Marquee of the Ed Sullivan Theater
New York, NY By Billy Fowks
The show and the schlep took a lot out of me, but I was still holding a few chips when the dealer threw me a high pair in the form of an email. "Phish on Broadway" was what it said, and you didn't have to tell me twice. Now there are stunts and there are stunts, and this one is up there. Phish playing from the top of the marquee of the Ed Sullivan Theater as part of their appearance on the Late Show – does it get any cooler? This was all about cool. The setting deep in midtown Manhattan, a mere block from the site of my first ever Phish show at Roseland Ballroom, about 20 blocks from their unofficial NYC home, Madison Square Garden – that was cool. The assembled crowd: a generous mix of youngsters home from school and desperate to get in as much Phish as they can while they can; curious NYC-resident half-fans looking to be a part of something that everyone could sense was going to be big; bleary-eyed fans in their work clothes who had just seen one or two or four shows over the weekend, worked a full Monday and were chomping at the bit for any scrap they could get; everyone in between and, of course, the confused and sweaty policemen trying to keep some semblance of order until they finally, essentially, shut the street down – that was cool. And that music, the band, those four clowns of cool, knowing that everyone was expecting an "Undermind" sampler and delivering a set of short-version classics – the standards stripped down to their barest form, no lengthy jams, sections dropped for brevity, and yet, quintessentially Phish – that was pretty damn cool as well. The set, after the "Scents and Subtle Sounds" played for the Letterman broadcast, was barely 20 minutes, a perfect protein shake of Phish to both tease the belly and nourish the soul.

Personally, I have no qualms with the end of Phish – I am glad it's coming, I understand all the motivations, and I am happy they made the decision and will be happy to see them go through with it. Before these shows, though, I wasn't sure just how they would go out. After Thursday, I feared the worst for this tour, a possible stumble to the finish line despite sure-to-be-plenty moments of greatness. Sunday night's show and the Easter Egg set on Monday ensure that Phish will go out the way they began and the way they've continued to exist for the two decades strong. Not sure why I ever doubted it.

Aaron Stein
JamBase | New York
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[Published on: 6/22/04]

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