Phish gives a lot at its shows. Its members play hard and for a long time every night.
Some nights they give more than others, but Friday night at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, they seemed to give what forgiving fans expected on the second night of their summer tour and the first of three nights at SPAC — they gave enough, but they could’ve given more.
Opening with “Kill Devil Falls,” they hit it hard right away, and you thought this might be a magical night. But they paced themselves for the rest of the set, reaching their high moments only three or four times.
They pushed on the tricky “Moma Dance,” but effort alone doesn’t always do the trick for them. The happy and bouncy “Sample in a Jar” was nice to hear, and drummer Jon Fishman banged hard on his crash and slammed through triplets on the snare to infuse some excitement. The song stopped fairly abruptly to make room for “Roses Are Free,” which sent the crowd into a frenzy, as did most of the tunes.
These were all quick hits. For “Birds of a Feather,” the lights went to a dark blue and the boys fell into their ethereal pocket to slowly build a strong jam, exactly what the crowd was waiting for. They did this more deeply as the show progressed, with a jazzy “David Bowie” and a funky cover of Talking Heads’ “Cities” that should have went longer than it did, lead man Trey Anastasio cutting it short.
Phish has changed its stage lineup for this tour, moving Fishman into the center, still hidden by his cymbals, and bassist Mike Gordon to stage left. This of course is fraught with symbolic meaning for Phish fans, though it seemed to have little effect other than Anastasio having to walk further to speak to Gordon between tunes.
They took their time during “Bathtub Gin,” giving us a great jam before Gordon sang the three-minute bluegrass tune “Nellie Kane.”
The crowd went berserk for “My Friend, My Friend,” and Phish answered their call.
When rain threatened before the show, the venue allowed everyone with lawn tickets to take shelter in the balcony of the pavilion. When the rain cleared, the lawn-seat ticket holders, in true Phish spirit, cleared out voluntarily.
There are many amazing aspects to this band beyond its incredible synergy, such as its unique fan base. But what needs to be said is that the band members are all around 50 years old. They are playing three-plus hours a night, three nights in a row (the entire tour includes more than 20 shows). They are not running through an arranged set, instead creating new music every night that demands strong chops, intellectual focus, and emotion — the equivalent of jazz musicians on the hook to deliver all-out genuine intensity to a demanding arena crowd. When it’s not genuine — and it’s not always — this savvy crowd knows it.
They will play at SPAC again tonight and Sunday. A good portion of the crowd attends all three nights, so no two nights can have the same songs. Many were in Bangor, Maine, two nights ago, where the tour started.
What Phish didn’t give Friday, their fans know will be given over the next two nights.
It used to be said of the Grateful Dead that they are “not the best at what they do, they are the only ones who do it.” Phish, the most direct inheritance of the Dead legacy, are not the only ones who do it anymore — that is, jam bands are numerous today — but Phish is the best of them.