Phish opened its tour Tuesday night at the Times Union Center with a typically amazing show, the first set delivering pretty much everything you want from them, and the second set reaching higher. The show closed with a predictable but still epic “Harry Hood,” clinching the show as one of their best in the region in years.
Well into their fifties, energized and wonderfully impatient in spots, they wowed and awed the packed Center for most of the night, the softer spots too few to even talk about.
Opening with the funky “Moma Dance,” one of many special offers Tuesday night, they pushed straight into “Cavern.” Here the lights dimmed and they stepped slowly into their first mini-journey, feeling themselves out, like a stretching exercise with little expectation, eventually settling into a great jam that built as a unit with no clear leader. That is, until Trey Anastasio stepped forward to hold a single, soaring note for several bars, launching the band, and the crowd, into its first of numerous frenzies.
Call Anastasio the lead, but he mainly opens doors for the rhythm to walk through. Bassist Mike Gordon often leaves the song’s structure before Anastasio, setting the stage for the longer jams.
Gordon took a rare bass solo, as he often does in “Theme from the Bottom.” Afterwards he and Anastasio faced each other and performed a call-and-response duel while drums and keys faded out to focus the spotlight on them.
Even the pretty tunes, like “Free,” and “Show of Life,” lifted high and stayed there, delivering far more than the pop tunes some Phish fans enjoy but often consider rest time from the incessant dancing that took place throughout the venue.
The second set openers were as good as it gets, starting with “Ghost,” where they turned the stage dark purple and sunk into a mysterious jam, followed by “No Man’s Land.” Here it seemed like they were done early in the jam, but suddenly lifted off again for one more glorious flight.
There were rowdy jams, melodic ones, soft, fast, and mellow ones. And then there was the truly maniacal and spontaneous jam during “Twenty Years Later,” that took on a dark, thrumming metallic texture — un-Phish-like — showing yet another quality to their collective imaginations.
Yes they had new electronic sound gadgetry, and fancy lighting sequences, but the band has to deliver musically for the tricks to be enjoyed. Tuesday night they were great.
Drummer Jon Fishman spent a surprising amount of time locked into the beat, keeping steady time more like a metronome than a live drummer. The band was best when he abandoned the beat and chased after the band members, crashing cymbals and cracking snares in and out of Gordon’s circular riffs. The players moved most when he pushed them around.
Before slamming into the finale, they reached several crescendos with the theme song from “2001: A Space Odyssey.” This melody, from a 19th Century symphony, is so dramatic it can’t fail, it can only excite. And while we all knew what was coming when the song began, it still raised the roof every time they hit the high note.
This led to the encore, “Harry Hood,” a favorite for many with prog-rock interludes and a buildup that swells and explodes at just the right time, every time.
The TU Center was packed, though sections behind the stage were not sold out. The crowd, which stayed on its feet the entire show, seemed more docile than usual, happy enough to dance to the music, some spinning, arms flailing, hips swaying to the beats.
Phish is an amazing band. They don’t age. They still aren’t afraid to step outside the song and create their own piece on the spot, in front of everyone. They could probably go through the motions more than they do, and get away with it. But they leap, take the risks, and do it for and with their loyal audience. They play again tonight at the Center. They will play different tunes, invent different jams, and deliver a completely different night. And that’s why their fans go see them perform as many times as they can. It’s almost always worth it.