Phish opened its three-night run at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center Thursday night with a whimper — “Farm House” — but quickly gained its footing for a strong and fresh set that bodes well for the rest of the SPAC shows.
If the lifeline of a jam band depends on staying genuinely fresh — for the band and its fan base — then Phish appears healthy. Their first album in five years, “Fuego,” came out two weeks ago, but new songs do not spell fresh for their fans. In fact, old songs with fresh jams is the preferred formula.
Phish dished out both Thursday night, reaching back for a few surprises, like 1993’s “Mound,” a somewhat orchestrated tune with moving parts that stops and starts on a dime, beginning with a blues progression and eventually gaining the momentum of a jumpy bluegrass tune. Bassist Mike Gordon sang “Yarmouth Road” from his solo album, and keyboardist Paige McConnell sang the rare Phish love song “Strange Design.” These were both radio-short and sweet.
Most of the night was filled with staples, led by frontman Trey Anastasio, who howled early, starting with “Wolfman’s Brother.” McConnell took the first solo on this tune, but merely paved the way for Anastasio to light it up, allowing the crowd its first explosive moment of the night. Many fans will be seeing the band all three nights at SPAC, and this first big jam seemed to let off a relief valve for the band and the audience to settle in and get comfortable for six long sets over three nights.
During “Maze,” Anastasio jabbed in and out of McConnell’s organ solo with chords played in staccato style, increasing frequency until the two merged together, taking it to a decent height. When Anastasio takes off on the group, as he did often, with McConnell not far behind, bassist Gordon and drummer Jon Fishman lay down a solid rhythm for a while, until it’s safe to wander off themselves, which also happened a few times Thursday.
They took “Ocelot” to standard Phish heights, though more could have been done with it. They pushed harder with “Chalkdust Torture,” which their fans expect from them. Again, this was good, but their demanding fan base has high standards and the four guys will need to dig a little deeper through the tour to keep everyone happy. Fortunately, they did just that numerous times later in the night.
Phish songs are often silly, the lyrics often wise guy teenage stuff, making fun of real songs. There were few, if any, of these Thursday night, however. In “Ocelot,” Anastasio repeated over and over with sincerity, “If life was easy, if life was easy” before fading from the microphone and launching into a nice guitar solo, the first spacey jam of the night. It set the stage for a more spacey “Bathtub Gin,” and then some.
To understand the value of a live Phish show, it’s worth noting that the band also sells a live webcast of each night — 10 cameras shoot the show — as well as high-quality audio downloads after the show. These are far more important than a new record, except that new songs offer new vehicles for live jams.
They are an amazing group, coming up with idea after idea, sometimes together, sometimes apart. Their range is small, but they always find a way to invent new sounds, new concepts, new paths. They may or may not be the greatest group around, but they’re the only ones doing it at this level.