Phish | 08.14.09 | Hartford, CT

Words by: Jesse Borrell | Images by: Adam McCullough

Phish :: 08.14.09 :: Comcast Theatre :: Hartford, CT

Trey – Phish :: 08.14.09 :: Hartford, CT
Textbook blue skies and a drawn-out sunset accompanied our walk towards the Comcast Theatre in Hartford, Connecticut. It is in fleeting moments like these, within both the waning humid days of summer and the near end of Phish‘s summer tour, which the mind tends to wander in and out of a reflective state. After a great run of performances that did not disappoint, one can’t help but hope that Phish has a little something extra in the tank to raise their musical plateau steadily onward.

Over the past few shows, there has been an almost formulaic nature to the setlists; often large selections of succinct songs dominating the first set. On this evening, however, we were greeted with a full ranged onslaught that surpassed expectation. After climbing the wide staircase towards the lawn, a collective sea of roars attempted to will an early commencement. Firecrackers soared from what looked to be an off limits area behind the upper green wall, and it was this and other random playful acts of mischief that allowed the time to go by until the band arrived on stage just before 8:45 p.m.

The opening licks of “Punch You In The Eye” set the tone for what would be a playful night. Moving intently through the structured portions, Trey Anastasio‘s guitar play gave and took subtly in coordination to his own dancing feet. The view from the lawn was interesting enough, but the sound space was heavily littered with distracting shouts and emphatic fan declarations. The song progressed into a patient funk, pulled further towards Jon Fishman‘s concluding hot-n-tot drum rolling. Where some recent takes of “PYITE” have ended abruptly, this version eased away from us like a wave pealing off a distant shore.

Mike – Phish :: 08.14.09 :: Hartford, CT
Making my way off the hill and under the pavilion, it was almost as if a whole other show was taking place during a short “NICU.” The beginning of “Colonel Forbin’s Ascent” took many by a pleasant surprise. White beams of accented light displayed Chris Kuroda‘s handiwork in almost unison to Trey’s lyric: “When the dust had cleared, the colonel lifted up his head, and was driven to his knees by a blazing beam of light.” As we all climbed towards acquiring the Friendly Book, the epic lyrical journey clashed in darker red and white washes. Meandering chord play by Anastasio paralleled an overall jam that was looking for cohesiveness. Eventually, the battle for the Colonel’s ascent persevered towards the subsequent “Fly Famous Mockingbird,” and it was Fishman’s arrhythmic play that led to one of the most cinematically unique rock opera jams I have heard Phish play this year.

Anastasio’s sustained guitar wails during the opening moments of “Birds of a Feather” pulled us into a more hard-edged groove. After a series of smaller peaks, the track could have taken a turn towards incoherent space, but while not really pushing any envelope, persisted with a mature and fun style. And throughout, it was Fishman’s energizing drum whacks that gave the song much integrity. All in stride, the familiar concluding theme for “Birds of a Feather” appeared. The flow didn’t cease until the very end, where Fishman’s staggered beat interrupted where the final chorus usually interjects, adding a couple extra measures in just for fun to finalize the musical treat.

The casual nature of “Lawn Boy” allowed many of us a moment to cool off. Perched at the edge of the stage, Page McConnell seemed to beckon a sweeping breeze that flushed out the front concert space. Prompting the usual Mike Gordon bass solo, McConnell conversed with the fans in the back: “How about you in the lawn? Let’s hear it for Mike!”

Page – Phish :: 08.14.09 :: Hartford, CT
The previous interpretation of “Forbin” > “Mockingbird” added intrigue to what could occur during the ensuing “Stash.” What unfolded traveled around many different themes. One second we were enthralled in some sort of middle eastern spy mystery, the next excursion would captivate through darker spaced thrashings. At times it didn’t seem to be really occurring in front of us at all; through the meandering sound/image play various sonic voices were heard communicating in twirls. Eventually, similar motives collapsed and surfaced to a more distinct group discussion. The layered sludge subtly became confusion once again, only to reform towards what was left of the communal “Stash.” This one was a wild ride, and it was comforting to know they were seemingly “going for it” this entire evening.

“Ladies and gentleman, about to perform his first vacuum solo of the tour,” Trey comically announced during “I Didn’t Know” before sitting himself behind the drum kit, “a recent Juilliard Master’s Vacuum Program graduate, the one and only Jon Moses Quagmire Dewitt Hampton!” After the ensuing vacuum solo during “I Didn’t Know,” the newer Gordon track “Middle of The Road” was an upbeat number that efficiently bridged the time appropriately between two monster tracks. Although the vocal harmonies need some fine-tuning, the song shows potential even in its early stages.

The set one closer, “Character Zero,” has left many yearning for more in some of the recent attempts. A serious guitar-focused rock song at its core, “Character Zero” can almost be seen as a moment of truth whenever pulled out towards the end of a set. In the middle of a pocketed fury, Anastasio appeared to stretch his low-gauged guitar strings to the limit alongside Fishman’s fevered fills as tonight’s excursion was fun and aired out. By no means the pinnacle of the show thus far, this set ender did manage to leave us all with fists in the air looking forward to what they could possibly pull out for the rest of the evening.

Fishman – Phish :: 08.14.09 :: Hartford, CT
As set two opened with the familiar demonic bass warps of “Down With Disease,” the Hartford crowd erupted under the epic forward tumblings of light and sound. With a vast palette of inspiration before him, Kuroda kept up the pace in unison and we were once again flushed away by some ferociously progressive rocking and rolling. McConnell’s funky ivory work about ten minutes in broke the space continually wider in a form of transitory release. Eventually pure beauty emerged before us, and Anastasio’s solo sounded very similar to a “Reba” jam. If it weren’t for a somewhat harsh segue into “Wilson,” “Down With Disease” would have been seen as a flawless start to the killer second set.

While short, “Wilson” was compactly sweet. Anastasio exhibited a wrath that was consistent throughout the whole evening. There was a small pocket where the track could have broke past the five-minute mark, but the band had its sights on the next track’s larger premise. One of those numbers that is so deeply rooted within the DNA of Phish, the often-contemplative meanderings of “Slave” encouraged both feelings of past reflection and forward evolution. The playing field for all band members felt even. Given this moment of restitution from the crowd’s perspective, it bent the imagination to think of what the view felt like from the artist’s perspective as the ten-minute take both soared and resolved with the grace of a gravity-stricken feather.

Page & Trey – Phish :: 08.14.09 :: Hartford, CT
After a number of recent epic road trips throughout the vistas of Colorado listening to Farmhouse, the adventurous beginnings of “Piper” brought a smile to my face. Inspired by the previous journeys inside “Col. Forbin” and “Stash,” this polyrhythmic cut had much potential. Two minutes in, Trey blitzed his will and concentration towards the heavens; leading the pack with a playfully piercing tone. Throughout this entire evening, it was as if they had been continually searching for this type of ascension. The flow was collected and concise nearing the halfway mark, still searching for that aspiring groove. A small scuffle between security and a phan brought my attention back down towards the people around me. Their invigorated movements confirmed that they too were seriously enjoying the now cryptic sequences. The mood turned completely on its side during “Water In The Sky.” Even the security guards, who had been hard at work all evening repelling the riff-raff, were seen handing out glow sticks to lucky fans with a subtle generosity.

With the start of “Ghost,” one couldn’t help but feel content with tonight’s song selection. The effortless rock flow brought me back into introspective mode, and tonight’s excursion gave even more evidence that Phish 3.0 can offer inspirational muses. Some of the best moments with this band are the ones where they encourage you to go deeper within one’s own soul and psyche. If not for almost seizure inducing lights by Kuroda, many of us would have been too entranced to see grimaces upon the faces of the band members as the song transitioned into another of history’s gems.

Phish :: 08.14.09 :: Hartford, CT
The Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” came out of nowhere, almost as if a last minute decision by one of the band members. (On an interesting side note, a couple of Talking Heads songs, including “Psycho Killer,” were played over the PA before the show.) The track itself began in its usually stuttered fashion, but by the end only the repeated plick and plunk sounds by McConnell and Fishman remained as the quartet regrouped with intention towards the obscure “Catapult.” The ensuing robotic “dance contest” between Anastasio and the crowd over McConnell’s continued plicks and plunks kept the evening flowing and comedic.

“Does anyone else love this song as much as I do?” Anastasio asked. “I love this song. I’m waiting for the day until they play stuff like this on the radio,” he admitted while dancing over the sonic pulses. “Driving along, you know? Cranking it up?” Trey’s further ramblings about our most recent generation’s reliance of iPhones and DVD players over his elderly use of plain ole’ books made this ad-libbed version of “Icculus” very relevant, and shed our current time and place in a somewhat satirical light. With the stage soaked in a full range of reds after the structured portion, the set two closer of “You Enjoy Myself” sealed the deal. Although possibly cut short at the strike of midnight because of a late start, the tight improv section and ensuing beatbox-infused vocal jam left many of us fans in awe of what lay ahead for the evolution of Phish.

Existing almost as a large magnifying glass hovering above, the opinions and critiques surrounding this vast scene by both the greater media and the waves of adoring fans are definitely a dime a dozen. But walking away from the Comcast Theatre with the encore of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” still lingering through my head, tonight’s shows did seem special. Although the curfew snuck up on us, we left the venue resonating with that familiar and silently contagious buzz on a visibly very sleepy morning in Hartford. This feeling could not have been a fluke. And it will be further dissection and exploration of this emerging maturity of Phish that will keep many of us coming back for more.

8/14/09 :: Comcast Theatre :: Hartford, CT
Set I: Punch You in the Eye, AC/DC Bag, NICU, Colonel Forbin’s Ascent > Fly Famous Mockingbird, Birds Of A Feather, Lawn Boy, Stash, I Didn’t Know, Middle Of The Road, Character Zero
Set II: Down With Disease > Wilson > Slave To The Traffic Light, Piper > Water In The Sky, Ghost > Psycho Killer > Catapult > Icculus > You Enjoy Myself
E: While My Guitar Gently Weeps

For more images of this show, go here.

Phish perform next on Saturday, August 15 at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, MD. Check back for live Tweets, setlists, pics and full reviews. Complete Phish tour dates available here.

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