Phish is sort of like golf.
It’s hard to step onto the tee box after six months without swinging a club and blast a drive right down the middle. Hitting buckets in the off-season can help keep the swing in tune, but sometimes it’s hard to make time for that when you’re a parent, or you just debuted your first Broadway musical, or there are elite symphonies who want to play with you. That kind of stuff.
Phish didn’t slice one out of bounds in Bangor on Wednesday, but let’s just say they missed the fairway wide right and dropped an uneven tour opener that was destined to be largely forgotten by time Dick’s rolls around, save for a few sparkling moments. But if anybody deserves a mulligan now and then, it’s Phish, no?
A cooling evening thunderstorm gives way to clearer skies, but not before forcing lawn patrons to the balcony for shelter and delaying access for those headed in. Phish tweets from its official account that fans are welcome inside (subtext: Let’s get this show on the road) and takes the stage around 8:23, give or take.
A two minute conversation yields a concise “Kill Devil Falls” opener, which is followed by a greasy and kinda sloppy “Moma.” Mike and Trey try valiantly to hook up, and to punch through with an idea or two, but it never quite gels. This is followed by a weird-but-not-in-a-good-way “Sample” that fumbles along through the final chorus and attacks the outro solo tentatively and quietly. Perplexing.
“Yarmouth Road” makes its debut next, two nights after being sound-checked in Bangor. This new Mike number stirs up a sunny Caribbean vibe not unlike “Sugar Shack” – and at this point, any brand new material is welcome evidence of creative collaboration among the band. More, please!
On paper, “Bathtub Gin” looks like a likely candidate to rescue this wayward set, but is retired before it can realize the peak it seemed to have in its sights for a time. A satisfying “Nellie Kane” pairs up with a pristine “Army of One,” which remains one of my very favorite Page tunes for its elegant changes and poignant, personal lyrics.
Trey struggles mightily through the opening section of “My Friend, My Friend,” which is ironic given how perfectly practiced he is with it in a symphony setting. “Cities” builds to a nice boil before surrendering to a “David Bowie” that once again finds Trey fumbling on the fretboard throughout the composed section. The jam is bright and lovely, however, and flirts briefly with true greatness, tacking a confident finish onto a halting set with lots and lots of songs but not much command.
But ask for redemption... and ye shall receive.
Enter set two, which opens with a cover of “Energy,” a tight little pop bauble by a Denver indie band called The Apples In Stereo. This fetching tune features rich harmonies reminiscent of “Golden Age” and yoganic lyrics like the ones in “Light” – which is what arrives next.
“Light” spent 2012 cementing its status as the baddest jam vehicle of Phish 3.0, and there’s a lot of pressure for this one to perform tonight. But perform it does, eventually, exploring a variety of themes and delivering a generous dose of hard-won, technicolor glory at the peak. It’s one of those great moments at Phish shows that lash out and eat all of the less-than-great moments around it.
“Light” segues into “Mango Song,” which is interestingly placed and quite well-played. “46 Days” is a fucking workhorse, and the band delivers a hot, purposeful version that yet again segues perfectly into “Steam.” Trey beelines for his Whammy here, and summons the whales for a jam that convincingly marries blues, space, and soul.
Phish buries the accelerator now and charges into “Drowned.” Trey leads the jam for a spell, then hands the baton to Page, who soon hands it off to Fishman for a change of tempo. The jam is yet another whale-hailing affair for Trey, but it’s patient, free-ranging, and ultimately fulfilling.
“Slave to the Traffic Light” is yet another perfectly placed song in a well-constructed and well-played set. It’s a soaring, tear-jerking version... which is to say that it’s a perfectly average “Slave.” A smoking “Character Zero” closes out the frame.
In the end, it seems to me that the SPAC audience got to hear two bands for the price of one tonight. Granted, the first band had an off gig.
But the second band breathed fire and took names.