Phish Closes Out Two-Night Forum Stand With Rituals and Virtuosity (Review)

James P. Hendershot
– Phish
Merriweather Post Pavilion, Columbia, Md.

The Forum, Los Angeles, CA
Capacity, 17,505 
Saturday, July 28
It’s hard to be on the fence about the venerable Vermont-spawned jam band Phish. As Jordan Peele once put it in a biting satire on the group’s diehard fans: “When dudes get into Phish, they don’t come back… I’ve been there. It’s a bad drug,” before mocking the group followers’ penchant for set-list trivia and endless discussions about previous performances of old favorites.
That said, I’m a bit of a latecomer to the Phish phenomenon, though I’ve been steadily warming since my first live show at the Hollywood Bowl several years ago — a pre-legalization smoke-out, complete with the omnipresent beach balls and glow sticks, along with the most benign hippie vibes this side of the Grateful Dead, whose communal spirit and jam band ethos they most closely mirror.
On the second of two sold-out shows at the Forum, Phish performed the ninth date of their current 24-date summer tour that runs through three shows at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colo., Aug. 31 through Sept. 2. These were the first band dates since Phish’s historic four-show run last December at Madison Square Garden (of 17 shows they played at the legendary venue over the course of the year), culminating in a five-hour extravaganza New Year’s Eve blow-out.
A Phish concert is probably the closest thing you can find these days to the spirit of a vintage Dead show, with its own distinct rituals passed on, including musical and lyrical cues that set off everything from standing with your back to the band (while newcomers blithely face the stage) to unleashing a torrent of lit glow sticks. After 35 years, what characterizes Phish is the impressive cohesion among its four members, all virtuosos in their own right – from the muscular blues arpeggios spun off by guitarist Trey Anastasio and the complementary piano/organ/synth/clavinet work of Page McConnell to the steady-as-they-come rhythm section of bassist Mike Gordon and drummer Jon Fishman, a pair of simpatico M.O.T.’s who give the band its hamishe Middle European backbone.
For Phish, who didn’t repeat a single song in back-to-back 19- and 18-song sets over the course of the two-night Forum stand, it’s not so much “what” they’re playing – though real fans hang on every selection – but how they transform each number into a sterling set piece of its own. With no theatrics, pyrotechnics or video screens, ostensible fifth band member Chris Kuroda’s lights work hand-in-hand with the music to create that unique energy between Phish and its audience, often bathing the crowd in white light at particular peaks in Anastasio’s shards of guitar glissandos.
Trey’s winding, scale-based blues runs – more muscular, but just as supple as Jerry Garcia’s – mesh with McConnell’s keyboard fills. “With your past and your future precisely divided/Am I at that moment? I haven’t decided. I haven’t decided” is Phish-speak for the existential journey represented by their concerts, which offer a musical narrative every bit as epic as, say, Springsteen, without the autobiographical specificity.
Crowd favorite, “Suzy Greenberg” brings out the first barrage of glow sticks, characterized by Trey’s funky wah-wah and Page’s honky-tonk keyboard and clavinet stylings to its loping, Dead-like stroll down memory lane. One of the evening’s two covers, “Timber Ho,” a ‘30s song co-written by bluesman Josh White, and a Phixture during band’s sets, offers what Phish Heads dub a “tease,” as Trey references the Allman Bros’ “Mountain Jam,” itself a take-off on Donovan’s “There is a Mountain,” the song rolling along like a runaway train, Chris Kuroda’s lights blinking like a railroad crossing.
Phish are expert in any number of genres, especially reggae, playing a sinewy cover of Bob Marley’s “Soul Shakedown Party,” which segues into a rollicking Phish standard, “Kill Devil Falls,” and its Bob Weir-like refrain, “I learned my lesson and I can still remember the last one/ But this time will be different.” It’s time for a white-suited Mike Gordon to step to the mic for “555,” an angular, bass-heavy number which leads into the electro-funk meows and caterwauling of “You Pet Cat,” as Page McConnell artfully mixes feline samples into the mix. The first set gains needed momentum with the cascading guitar riffs of “Tide Turns,” the funky “Superstition”-style keyboard riffs of “No Men in No Man’s Land” and McConnell’s ‘20s-style ragtime jazz riffs and Trey’s piercing guitar lines on “Bathtub Gin,” as the crowd yells out the chorus, “We love to take a bath!” ending the initial 80-minute 10-song first set.
All Phish phanatics know that the second set is where the band settles in and begins to stretch out, with the very Dead-ish “Gotta Jibboo” unleashing peals of high-register riffage from Trey. The fiery “Fuego” inspires a “Vlad the Impaler” sing-along and a sturdy Imagine Dragons-like percussive tribal drum chant courtesy Mr. Fishman, with a dinosaurs-walk-the-earth Anastasio guitar solo giving the coda an exotic Middle Eastern feel. The chunka-chunka Afro-pop riddims of “Birds of a Feather” remind me that Phish have famously covered Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” in concert, while the toasting patois of the playful “Meatstick” takes us back to the group’s breezy island side. The spacey “Soul Planet” offers a showcase for McConnell’s virtuosity, spanning a B3 gospel organ, a Keith Jarrett-style prog-jazz piano solo and an other-worldly jam that takes the crowd in lift-off. The Beatlesque psychedelia of “Wingsuit” offers a rumbling, pit-of-the-stomach Gordon bass line, while the heavy beat of “Cavern” inspires yet
another flurry of glow sticks along with the final line of the regular set, “Whatever you do, take care of your shoes.”
Showing off their eclecticism, the encore starts with the blue-grass dose-do-your-partner square dance of crowd favorite “Sparkle,” only the fourth time in its 27-year history as an encore, and the sing-song, fare-the-well “Character Zero,” which allows the sated crowd to stumble out of the arena as the house lights go up.
As befits the curatorial nature of their devoted fan base, a full stream of the evening’s concert is available free for all ticket-holders (after scanning the ducat bar code with your cell) within two hours of the last note. While each song title will be carefully inscribed in the big book for future reference. Phish may well be an acquired taste, or even a cult, but as Jordan Peele so aptly noted, once it’s acquired, it’s awfully tough to shake.