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Phish plays some surprises along with the expected

Phish plays some surprises along with the expected

The 36-year-old improvisational group keeps things fresh for longtime fans
Phish plays some surprises along with the expected
A musician plays the guitar hoping to entertain for a ticket and gas money before the Phish concert at SPAC Tuesday.
Photographer: peter r. barber/gazette photographer

“Every show is a chapter in a book,” a Phish fan said after the jam band’s performance at Saratoga Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, the first in two nights of the band’s annual appearance at the venue.

The fan was referring to the self-referential way that the band ties together its shows, rewarding the family of hardcore fans who hit multiple stops on a tour and pay close attention to the ever-changing setlists. 

For instance, the second song of the night was the high-energy “Tweezer Reprise,” a classic Phish tune sung by bassist Mike Gordon that referred back to Sunday night’s show in Camden, New Jersey, when the band surprised fans by playing the much-loved “Tweezer” without following it with the usual “Tweezer Reprise.”

If it all sounds fairly esoteric to the outsider, it is, but the 36-year-old improvisational group keeps things fresh for longtime fans by sprinkling sets with both obscure and well-loved songs, along with playful jokes at their own expense, so no two shows are ever the same. 

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It’s a world of symbols, shared meaning and communal experience that unites the crowd, along with a pairing of the unpredictable yet also the familiar. 

After opening with a light-hearted cover of the Everly Brothers’ “Cathy’s Clown,” which they had never played live before, guitarist Trey Anastasio joked the song was in tribute to Gordon’s orange and white striped pants, which looked like a leopard scratched them sideways. 

The general consensus among fans queried — including some who have seen the band 200 times and others who have seen the band nearly twice that number — seemed to be that Tuesday night’s SPAC opener was one of the band’s best shows of late.

“The whole first set was on fire,” said one fan of the first part of the performance, which included “Carini,” a darkly comic tune about the guitar technician’s lumpy head that ended in a space jam; “AC/DC Bag” and the writhing funk of “Moma Dance”; “Bathtub Gin,” with crowds getting ecstatic at the height of the jam; and set closer “Walls of the Cave,” a personal song about opening yourself up to the realities of the world.

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Anastasio spent time in Saratoga Springs back in 2006 in a court mandated drug program after a drug arrest near the Vermont border. He’s since been sober and stays in touch with rehab friends here. “He got sober here and always plays his heart out here,” one fan said. 

Second set highlights included the feel-good “Harry Hood”; call and response song “Wilson” that fed off audience energy; “Haley’s Comet,” a goofy little song that comes around once a season; the sprawling jam and muscular riffs of “Down with Disease”; and a rare triple encore featuring fan favorite “First Tube.”

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