Phish came out strong and serious Friday night at its familiar and favored Saratoga Performing Arts Center, blasting into “Stealing Time from the Faulty Plan” for the opener. They hardly let up from this point, playing an hour-and-45-minute first set before intermission and an epic second set.
Even before this we knew we were in for a good night when Ernie, Trey Anastasio’s dad, allowed folks to take selfies with him a few rows in front of me before the show.
The first of a three-night run at SPAC, the four guys, all 50-plus in age, showed no signs of wear and tear. In fact, they play cleaner, crisper and more to the point than ever. While they may reserve their chops a bit when they can, they held back little for this show.
When they finished “Bathtub Gin” for the classic big set-closer, everyone seemingly satisfied with the full set, Anastasio turned to his band members and asked to do one more song — for no apparent reason other than to play more. “Bathtub Gin” was clearly sufficient, the audience screaming the line “we’re all in this together,” capturing the general feel of the band’s one-of-a-kind fan base. The energy was high here, and went higher for the bonus song “The Squirming Coil,” a melodic tune that led to a well-behaved jam. Then Anastasio left the state, followed by the others, leaving Page McConnell alone on piano to carry the tune himself.
McConnell was hot all night, the most underrated of the group, his subtle role of feeding chords and coloring moments with his right hand often makes or breaks the jams. So McConnell, alone on stage for a few minutes playing a beautiful solo for the entire SPAC audience, was a stand-out moment for the show.
While the night was mostly filled with great moments, there were a few quick throw-away tunes, like the Talking Heads cover “Cities,” and a brief knee-slappin’ country tune sung by the neatly-coiffed head-bobbing Mike Gordon on bass.
But then there were tunes like “Free,” where Gordon had a cool solo before Anastasio took over the song and slowly led the band to a decent height before abandoning the ascent and closing the tune.
And there was “David Bowie,” early in the show. It’s hard to say if this is a tribute to Bowie — the only lyrics in the song is the man’s name. But the band takes the song seriously and Anastasio took the familiar position he likes to take before he launches a long solo: He hunches over his guitar and locks his eyes on the audience. It’s hard to say who feeds off of whom at these times.
Anatasio is a master of leading, and then following. The band knows this, gets in line behind his queues, and when ready, gets ahead of him, then they let him pass, glide in his wake, then pass him again. This interplay happens in their best moments, when no one is forcing it, as it did several times Friday night.
There were some outlier tunes, and Anastasio positioned himself to dig in for a few, but in the end the band felt best to stray only with their more well-worn songs; they never explored, or even kicked the tires, of their newer ones. If they won’t take a chance at SPAC, their home court, than where?
The sing-along “Prince Caspian” was a favorite for many, a dud for some.
In the end this band is fit, healthy, and playing as good as ever. They are fun, upbeat, and determined after some 30-plus years of playing this way. It’s hard to see how this experiment in American culture, known as Phish, will end. Maybe it never will.
The band plays again tonight, and for those who prefer not to deal with the crowd, the shows are webcast live from their website, for a price.