Phish opened their summer tour at Bethel Woods Friday night with a rousing show that set a high bar for their 25-plus upcoming shows across the country. They came roaring out with “Tweezer,” settled into the song as a unit before front man Trey Anastasio leaped ahead to bring a quick crescendo that set the tone for the night. “Step into the Freezer,” they repeated in the chorus. And in we stepped with them.
While they didn’t surpass that moment until later in the first set with “Funky Bitch,” the show was filled with high-energy uptempo quick hits, like the bluegrass heavy “Poor Heart,” “My Friend My Friend,” and “Roses Are Free,” which threatened to launch, but both Anastasio and Gordon cut short.
Tunes like “Wolfman’s Brother” were high energy and exciting, but never traveled far.
For the intricate “Stash,” the band served up exactly what the sold-out crowd came to see. Here the stage darkened, Anastasio paced back and forth behind his mike while strumming circular riffs. The rhythm section — drummer John Fishman, bassist Mike Gordon and keyboardist Page McConnell — fell into a tight and patient pocket, sometimes moving ahead of Anastasio, sometimes falling behind.
Anastasio likes to watch the audience while he picks at his solos, as if he’s feeding off their energy. At his best he smiles and stares, unlike Gordon, who shuts his eyes when the real work starts. On “Stash,” both took these roles, Gordon alternating between pick and thumb, rumbling underneath the sounds.
For four guys, they make a lot of sound and power, and work hard to create their own adventures. Friday night was no exception, and their risk-taking can be impressive. Early in a second set jam, they seemed to work hard to trip themselves up, each sabotaging anything the other tried. It made for a very cool anti-jam before lapsing into a short spacey session. When in doubt, get spacey.
They covered Hendrix’ “Bold as Love,” which fit them in an awkward way, but that’s the charm Phish brings to most of its covers. They don’t sound like anyone, and no one sounds like them, so every cover gets turned on its side. Most work. But not all. The Hendrix cover was OK. But an earlier cover of Joe Walsh’s “Walk Away,” sung by Page McConnell, scored big.
The short, but light and fun “Bouncing Around the Room” offered challenging lyrics but a break from any effort at intensity. Gordon and McConnell sang several tunes, giving Anastasio a break.
Anastasio and company seemed very relaxed, healthy and happy to be there. They are well aware that they have nine hours on stage at Bethel in just three days before hitting the rest of the tour. So while they know how to pace themselves, they have incredible endurance, and how they’ll sustain the energy of Friday night is anyone’s guess.
Friday night was near perfect all around. Despite calls for thunder showers, the weather turned out to be beautiful. Bethel Woods is a spacious, placid setting with rolling hills and long-distance views. All in all, a spectacular and promising opening night.