Ever since the band reconvened in 2009 (the dawn of “Phish 3.0,” natch), my policy has been thus: Read setlists from the tour online and snag a ticket to the closest show (usually SPAC) just to “check in.” It’s been about a decade since I held “tour kid” status with any legitimacy or pride and, in the intervening years, my tastes in music have spiraled far outside the solar system that Phish big-banged into my adolescent mind during high school. Masquerading as some kind of rock critic, I lately require a delicate cocktail of guilty-pleasure nostalgia and touristy curiosity to snag that first ticket, but then something strange happens when I hit the lot: My careful, self-respecting policy gets discarded wholesale.
The scene was pretty low-key Friday night (running bath-salts jokes notwithstanding), the beginning of the band’s three-night run at SPAC that closed the Eastern leg of their summer tour. I had a pavilion ticket, and there were no shortage of others for sale in the lot. This would change drastically over the next two nights, as the band’s level of playing fueled a palpable anticipation quantifiable by the number of heads trying to get inside and close enough to be bathed in light man Chris Kuroda’s optical wizardry.
After a cursory start to the first set, the band interpolated the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” into the bridge section of “Tube,” a surprise that seemed to set everything in motion. In the next breath, guitarist Trey Anastasio hopped on the drum kit for Argent’s “Hold Your Head Up,” the classic cue that drummer Jon Fishman is due to take center stage. Introduced by Anastasio as “Friar Tuck,” Fishman delivered a rousing, tongue-in-cheek version of Neil Diamond’s “Cracklin’ Rosie,” bashing crash cymbals, running laps around the stage and dramatically tucking his trademark dress into a pair of matching boxer briefs. Even Anastasio seemed astonished by the early energy, prodding Fishman nonsensically for “tucking thrice on the first night.”
Coming in at 16 songs, the set was representative of the band’s formula to deliver a flurry of more concise, rousing songs early before digging deep in the second set. When the dark, subterranean funk of “Sand” followed rocker “Chalkdust Torture” and sinister metal vamp “Carini” to start the second set, the mood had been set. I’ve been a sucker for this bureau of the Phish catalog since it emerged in the late-’90s around Story of the Ghost. The simple, elliptical song structures of “Sand” and “Ghost” gave way to some of the night’s most adventurous improvisations, untangling the knots only for Ween’s “Roses Are Free” and Robert Palmer’s “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley.”
When longtime Phish friends and marginally reclusive collaborators Tom Marshall and Steve “Dude of Life” Pollack made a surprise appearance to sing their lyrics on set-closing “Run Like an Antelope,” I knew I couldn’t bear the thought of sitting at home with this band playing down the road the next two nights—critic cred, weekend plans and bank account be damned.
First set Saturday night was all about keyboardist Page McConnell, who came forward to sing his loungey “Lawn Boy” before returning to the organ for Frank Zappa’s epic “Peaches en Regalia”—a reminder to anyone who needed it that this band have always had more in common with Zappa than the Grateful Dead. It was in the second set, though, that a compelling window into the band’s three-decade evolution was opened via cover songs. In addition to athe aforementioned, the Rolling Stones, the Stanley Brothers, Traffic, Led Zeppelin, Z.Z. Top and Richard Strauss all found their way into this weekend’s shows, but the way the band steered Stevie Wonder’s “Boogie on Reggae Woman” (1974) into TV on the Radio’s “Golden Age” (2008) showed how the band’s propensity for covers has never been about mere novelty (although traces of the Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun” did show up four times this set) but rather the natural absorption of the cultural moment into a 30-year snowball of material. Then, in a move both riotous and affecting, the band encored with a spot-on “Sabotage” dedicated to recently deceased Beastie Boy MCA.
At some point Sunday night, the culmination of some of the best Phish sets I’ve seen in 15 years, I realized that there’s no such thing as a “classic” Phish show, even though the term came to mind multiple times. The term presupposes an era from which the performer has somehow fallen. Most successful artists experience this fate in some way, and there have been times in Phish’s career during which it was more cheerful to be nostalgic. Yet, the band have built their entire aesthetic on the defiance of rock cliché (while nearly falling prey to it), which puts them in a critical class entirely separate from any other act large enough to sell out a forum like SPAC. Reviewing this band is like trying to review the weather. It’s almost pointless to consider one show outside of a run, one run without the climate of the full tour or one obscure song selection despite the band’s ongoing career arc. Instead, it’s better to do like the tour kids, or surfers chasing a swell, and be ready to dive back in when the tide is right.