Phish brought its circus to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center on Friday night, playing the first of three packed shows.
Opening with the up-tempo country tune “Run Away Jim,” they entered the song softly, then slammed into the second verse to emphatically announce their arrival at one of their favorite venues. They followed with the slower, funkier “Ocelot” — Phish wearing dark sunglasses — where keyboardist Page McConnell fed frontman Trey Anastasio thick and heavy piano chords with an occasional high-end tinkling to accompany the guitar solo.
Bassist Mike Gordon laid down the heavy stuff right from the start of the show and never stopped, nary a smile nor other expression from him all night, just the hard-driving caboose of the group. Drummer Jon Fishman rarely gets out in front to drive anything, instead acting to color, support and occasionally push the rest of the band to reach a little farther.
Anastasio was at his best, as were the boys, in middle of the first set after the speedy bluegrass-like “Back on the Train.” The lights went down for the first time, the group settled in to one other, Anastasio slowly pulled them up to a high point where he held one note for several bars, then held it again, bassist Gordon spastically pumping from underneath, the band following Gordon and then together passing Anastasio for a short moment.
While this may sound too subtle to notice, none of it is lost on a true Phish fan — they appear to dance in the aisles like lunatics but are deft listeners.
The band played “Tube” briefly before moving into the Talking Heads tune “Psycho Killer,” where the crowd exploded with elation — for real — drowning out the sound system with their emphatic chanting of “fa fa fa fa fa fa.” To be sure, it was fun.
At this point in the show, Fishman switched places with Anastasio and sang Neil Diamond’s corny “Cracklin’ Rosie.” Fishman wears a tie-dyed toga outfit at every show. For this put-on act, he tucked his toga into his shorts, ran around the stage smashing hand cymbals and singing with great ease. Not all drummers like to get out from behind their kit, but he clearly does.
Good fun, for sure, but any longer and it would have been too long. Phish fans want the deep stuff.
Occasionally Phish tackles complex, challenging arrangements, and “Stash” is one of them, leading to a strong jam with something of a Latin feel, followed by the light and playful “Bouncin’ Around the Room.” This song has the feel of a children’s song, with soft drug references like “crystal haze” and “the never-ending coral maze.”
There were a few quick ballads, too — to give band and audience members alike a break — but for the most part it was funky Phish, spacey Phish and upbeat jam-rocking Phish — with “Chalk Dust Torture” as a case-in-point.
They also covered Traffic’s quirky but rocking “Light Up or Leave Me Alone,” which sounded not far from the original, and a spacey “Carini.”
“If any young kids out there are choosing a career path, I recommend” Anastasio said at one point,
Yes, it’s good to be them, looking out over a swarm of people as far as the eye can see, feeling healthy, in full control, playing better than ever. They can choose to stop tomorrow. Or they can fill SPAC three nights in a row for 30 more years.
And they don’t even have to make one more record.