Revelation and rediscovery with Phish after a decade away
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
The parking lot at the Great Woods amphitheater in Mansfield, Mass., is its own special endurance test.
On this night, Phish ended their two-set show promptly at 11:01. I was back to my car around 11:15, and didn’t actually start moving until about 12:45 — enough time to listen to all of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street and then some, scribble out some thoughts into a notebook and, of course, take in the developing little scenes in the parking lot.
To my right, there were four kids who couldn’t have been much older than 18 hanging out around their tailgate, laughing and talking. People came and went up and down the makeshift aisles, some selling posters and t-shirts, others peddling water for $1 a bottle. At one point a pop-up nitrous operation opened up in the open space next to me, with three guys charging $5 per balloon and working overtime to keep up with demand.
None of this is new or special. This is a typical scene in the aftermath of a Phish show, and this being their tour opener, there was a little extra buzz in the air. In a quick survey before and after the show, there seemed to be as many veterans as newcomers, with some folks taking in their 10th or 30th night with Phish, others their first.
I was somewhere in between. This was my third concert, low on the Phish fan totem poll and notable because it was my first in a decade. I agreed, spurred on by a text a week ago from a friend that read, “We’re thinking about going to Phish. You in?” and the memory of a band I used to love but long ago put into storage. Except for the wait, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
In the middle of the second set, the band careened effortlessly from a fun version of “Simple” into a deep, intense take of “Free,” building slowly until the main theme revealed itself. The band locked into that groove led by guitarist Trey Anastasio, smiling but dead serious on the task at hand. To his left, Mike Gordon locked in on the bass and the band was taking off like that flock of birds producer Steve Lillywhite compared them to so long ago.
This was a band that was absolutely intertwined with each other; tight even within the context of their explorations and intent on giving the music a chance to reach that transcendental height possible in those rare moments. These guys were playing with determination and fire. This was not the band I saw 10 years ago.
A few days before their 2004 farewell in Coventry, Vt., I caught their two shows at this same venue (then called the Tweeter Center, now the Xfinity Center), my first and until recently final forays into the live realm of Phish. The parking lot felt about the same, albeit a little more hard-charged and wired, and inside the band and the crowd had fun. Part of their charm, I took it, was that the sets were always a little ragged. Not rough-edged and harsh, the way Neil Young firmly insists his Crazy Horses concerts are run, but rather loose, with professionalism a distant second to exuberance on the to-do list. Any and all mistakes are just inevitable markers on the road.
I enjoyed myself those two nights, for sure, but I didn’t go back and listen to those shows much; they didn’t hold up under scrutiny. There were some great moments over those two nights, but it was obvious that the band that was not at the height of their powers. At Coventry, the evidence of the band’s tumble became more apparent. Songs were chaotic and the band basically stumbled to the finish line. “If there was ever a concert that represented a band smacking into a wall, that was it,” drummer Jon Fishman told the New York Times in 2009.
When the band went onto the shelf that year, my own dedication started to fade. Billy Breathes remained in the vast rotation of albums I try to keep on hand, but the enthusiasm for their other albums and live material — even the great stuff — started to wane after years of listening beforehand. When the band came back in 2009, I didn’t take much note. It was good to know that they were out there doing their thing, but I had moved on. So this night, as much as anything, was a personal exercise to see if rekindling that dedication would be worth the effort.
After pulling in, I met up with my friends in a different section of the lot and we listened along while Tim Howard did everything possible to keep the United States in their World Cup match with Belgium. From there, the circle of friends grew, neighbors were neighborly and I got to talking to a few people who were surprised that I hadn’t seen them in so long.
“Oh wow, you haven’t seen them since?” one asked. “You’re in for a fun night, you’re really going to like it.”
All this — personal bias, faded memories, etc. — turned this tour opener into a revelation. This version of Phish is miles away from the wounded animal I watched limp out the door. They have a new record, Fuego, that plays like a celebration of all their strengths and catches a band excited for the new places the music might take them. There were a number of new songs dotting the setlist on this night, highlighted by “Wingsuit” closing the first set, and they took that fire from the new songs and doubled down on their extensive back catalog.
As a result, a song like “Free” took on new life. “Ghost” was played with the same energy I’d heard on bootlegs so long ago, and it transitioned perfectly into a jumpy rendition of “Weekapaug Groove” that was tight even as it travelled off into the inevitable tangents that make the Phish live experience so interesting. During "Mike's Song," keyboardist Page McConnell kept threatening to take over the jam, pushing the group before easing off and handing the reigns over at the last moment. Everything I liked about this band — their creativity, their songs and their inventive approach to performing — was present and accounted for.
By the time the band got to “Cavern,” Anastasio and Gordon were stepping in perfect time during the “Give the director a serpent deflector” section. The entire band was smiling and basking in the moment. Up in the lawn, the crowd was dancing around me and the primary point of live music was illustrated: to create something new and unique, and help a group of people find that escape they might not have had otherwise. It could be a dozen or a few hundred or a few thousand, but a lot of people went home happier than they arrived.
Of course, at Great Woods, going home doesn’t happen right away. The parking lot is divided into about a dozen sections that filter out into the same four-lane exit, creating a bottleneck that can take hours to navigate.
So fans make the most of it. A lot of people bring the grills back out, play music and try to keep the night going a little longer. I had to be back to work the next morning and was driving out solo back to Boston, so I got in line, put the car in park, fumbled through a few CDs before landing on the Stones and just tried to take in the moment, people watching and relaxing and trying not to count the minutes.
At one point during this parking lot purgatory, alternating between drinking water and leaning out of my own driver’s side window, an older guy wearing a blue wig and shorts and holding two balloons walked by. He was bobbing his head to no song in particular. And to everyone and no one at once, he shouted:
“Phish is back!”
They certainly are. It seems they’ve been back for a while now, too.
Email Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org