PHOTOS BY ANDY MARONEY
Phish once played Santa Rosa in 1993 at the Luther Burbank Center, a venue with a capacity of about 1500. The young band was in their heyday, amazing audiences with their pyrotechnic jams—and having tons of fun doing it, as evidenced by the set list and notes from that night.
Back then, drummer Jon Fishman performed solos on trombone and Electrolux vacuum cleaner, the latter during a Syd Barrett cover song. Between their own fun and funky compositions, the band playfully covered songs by Argent, Led Zeppelin, and even performed two tunes a capella with no microphones, barbershop-quartet style. At one point a member of the audience was brought onstage to tell a joke.
That was the Phish that I knew and loved when I first discovered them, that same year. A band with a great sense of humor, entertaining as hell, made up of talented and fearless musicians. They got the crowd involved by bouncing giant beach balls into the crowd for the “Big Ball Jam,” while guitarist Trey Anastasio and bass player Mike Gordon jumped on mini trampolines in synchronized choreography to the music. There was even a “secret language” between the band and the audience (so, for instance, when the guitarist played a few notes of The Simpsons theme the entire audience would exclaim “D’oh!” in unison).
Nineteen years later they’re still cranking out the crunchy jams, albeit with less of the trademark humor and goofiness. The Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco holds around 7,000, yet is now considered one of the more intimate venues to see the band at. The fact that these recent shows were part of a three-day run was monumental for “phans,” as the band hadn’t made an appearance in San Francisco since 1998 and had never done an entire weekend there, much less at this location. There was much anticipation for greatness by those in attendance.
Rumors flew throughout the crowd: Perhaps they’d do a Grateful Dead tune as a nod to the area. Maybe Phil Lesh would join them on stage for some tunes. (He didn’t, but he was present backstage Friday or Saturday night, according to one source.) Maybe they’d even bust out the elusive “Gamehenge.” Everybody was sure something special was going to happen.
Being a “casual” but longtime fan, I’ve only been to 33 Phish shows. You might laugh, but that’s a relatively low number compared to the truly devoted who tour with the band whenever possible. I figured I could pass on Friday night since that’s typically a “warmup” night anyway for a three-day run. Looking back at the setlist I didn’t see anything that made me say, “Damn, I wish I went to that night too.” Truth be told, two shows back-to-back in two days is grueling enough for me. Maybe I’ve “been there, done that” a little too much but I find that much entertainment all at once to be sensory overload.
Of course by entertainment, mainly I mean crowd-watching. The Phans are at least as entertaining as the music. Their swirling, seemingly out-of-control gyrations are something to behold—and/or roll your eyes and shake your head at, as one security officer was witnessed doing. Many costumes were worn, from children’s knit hats that resembled cuddly animals to full-on wizard capes and sexy mermaids. The festive vibe that radiates throughout the crowd at a Phish show is unlike any other concert I’ve attended. Sure, some of the merriment may be chemically enhanced, but certainly not all of it. There is a sense of joy, community and just plain fun within the fan base that I’ve not seen elsewhere. Most of them are some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. That’s not to say that they all bathe as often as they should, but you get the picture.
The lines for merchandise were long, with many fans snatching up the limited edition poster artwork that is available at each show. The beer lines were almost as long, but at $8 to $11 a pint, many decided to stick to water. Despite the numerous opportunities to purchase alcohol the crowds on both Saturday and Sunday seemed extremely well behaved. Not one altercation with law enforcement or security was observed inside the venue.
As the heat level rose in the auditorium and the crowd’s energy escalated the band was right there to steer them through the experience. Based on past experiences I personally found the Saturday show to be far less on track than the Sunday show, but there were some highlights. Opening the first set strong with the rollicking “Runaway Jim” it set the pace for a high-energy show. Four songs in, though, the momentum was lost with the more obscure “Beauty Of A Broken Heart” from keyboardist Page McConnell’s self-titled solo album, and the less-familiar song prompted many bathroom trips. Over the course of the next several songs, lead guitarist Anastasio’s already fragile voice became more unstable, but the fans didn’t seem to care. Fishman reprised his vacuum solo during “I Didn’t Know.” McConnell would eventually become the MVP of the night, however, with his funkalicious clavinet solos.
Saturday’s second set also began strong with a cover of TV On The Radio’s “Golden Age,” a tune that’s been in Phish’s repertoire for the past couple years. An abrupt and choppy beginning brought down the oddly-placed “Piper,” and the remainder of the set seemed to be very up and down, energy-wise. The highlight of the second set for me had to be the classic “Fluffhead” which dates back to the band’s first official release, Junta. Glow sticks cascaded through the air as the band tore through one of their most beloved “oldies.” Lighting designer Chris Kuroda hit the accent cues flawlessly, playing the light board in the back of the room as a fifth instrument. Ending the set with a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Loving Cup” followed by a two-song encore, the band left the stage to go rest up for their third and final night. As they were exiting the arena the general reaction among veteran crowd members was that it was a good show, but nowhere near legendary.
That would come the following night.
Unlike Saturday night’s sets that started strong and fizzled in the middle, Sunday night was purely fluid in song choice, playing, and crowd energy. After beginning the first set with the tame “Crowd Contol,” the party kicked in to full gear with “Party Time,” a tune that originated from a percussion drill Fishman used to warm up with. An epic “Reba,” complete with unison whistling by the band, was followed by crowd favorite (and unofficial Phish anthem) “Free.” The first non-Phish composition of the night was a rocking take on the James Gang’s “Walk Away.” Fans kept on dancing through the trio of “NICU,” “Back On The Train” and “Gotta Jibboo”. Another early, and lyrically minimalistic, song, “David Bowie” closed the set.
As solid as the first set was, it was the second set of Sunday night that figuratively blew the roof off. Fans raced back into the auditorium for a fantastic cover of Talking Heads’ “Crosseyed And Painless” which seamlessly segued into “Light,” an original tune, THEN became “Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley” before melting back into “Crosseyed” again. Later in the set back-to-back cover versions of “Rocky Top” and “Boogie On Reggae Woman” kept the energy level high. Maybe the most ridiculous moment of the evening came during “Meatstick,” which involved synchronized dancing and lyrics sung in Japanese. Following the anthem “Bug” the band conjured up some of their original magic with the lengthy staple “You Enjoy Myself,” complete with trampolines.
As if that weren’t enough, the expected Bay Area reference finally came in the form of the encore song, “Ride Captain Ride,” by the one-hit-wonder Blues Image. After capping the weekend predictably, but perfectly, with “Tweezer Reprise” (the conclusion of a song they started to play two nights before on Friday), Phish returned to their tour buses to take a well-deserved rest before their tour of the Southeast.
Despite the fact that much of the original quirkiness that initially attracted me to the band is no longer there, they still can put on a kickass show and jam with the best of them. Yes, the fact that the shows are available live on pay-per-view so that lazy fans can “couch tour” is a little weird, and gives one the impression that the band is sometimes playing for the cameras. However, the intense emotional peaks that their music is still able to induce were clearly demonstrated on the third and final night of Phish’s weekend in San Francisco. Sunday was show number 33 for me, which, to most people, is a ridiculous number of times to have seen the same band.
As long as it stays fun I’m going to keep on counting.
Beauty Of A Broken Heart
I Didn’t Know > 46 Days
Tube > When The Circus Comes
Split Open And Melt
Golden Age > Piper > Mike’s Song > Simple > Backwards Down The Number Line > Carini > Wilson > Weekapaug Groove
The Horse > Silent In The Morning >Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001) > Fluffhead > Loving Cup
Show Of Life > Character Zero
Free > Mound > Walk Away
NICU > Back On The Train
Gotta Jibboo > Roggae
Crosseyed And Painless > Light > Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley > Crosseyed And Painless > Theme From The Bottom > Rocky Top
Boogie On Reggae Woman > Meatstick
You Enjoy Myself
Ride Captain Ride > Tweezer Reprise
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.Live Review: Phish at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, San Francisco