It’s an unspoken rule of writing about Phish to lead off with some kind of quasi-intellectual summation using a favorite band lyric—as goofy as possible, or more importantly, as goofily poignant as possible. “I feel the feeling I forgot” is a popular choice, and bound to be even more so now that the first leg of Phish’s return tour has wrapped and the feedback has been not just fanboy positive, but also musically positive. Maybe too positive. I’ll take the less sentimental lines from “Back on the Train”, with its “when I jumped off, I had a bucket full of thoughts” hook-baiter.
Is it enough that the band has returned and is playing proficiently enough to satiate the glassy-eyed masses who watched Phish fade into a druggy shell of its former self back during the breakup concerts of 2004? Maybe. I was there for those sloppy sets at Coventry nearly five years ago, and my first Phish set of 2009—at the second of three Jones Beach shows—blew most of that away, even if the Jones show itself was conservative, unevenly paced and far from, well, vintage Phish. But you know what? It’s good to have ‘em back, warts and all. Let them grow back into themselves. Or, better yet, grow out of what they were and flavor the Phish stew anew with different spices. Make it part of the 26-plus year panorama. Make it work.
Maybe it’s the setting of expectations for a Phish concert that requires reexamination. I enjoyed Jones Beach to a degree: Its new songs, its placid, good-time vibe—even in a sticky rain—and its shared communion among Phishheads. I enjoyed the feeling of return, even if the music itself sagged a bit, like a once-sculpted set of abs declining, though not without good cheer, into pudge. All the pulse was in the first set, from the new song “Ocelot”—an infectious groover with a jammy middle section reminiscent of mid-‘70s Grateful Dead in its execution—to the night’s out-and-out highlight, a transcendent “Ghost” that yielded “Run Like an Antelope” as a brief and tasty cherry on top.
“Ghost” was the only song of the night that beginning-to-end felt like PHISH: The whole band—Anastasio, Gordon, McConnell, Fishman—driving the song through a number of different styles and flavors and pleasantries and digressions and darkness and terror. Phish-style, y’know? Nothing in the second set stuck with as much gravity, though “Waste” and “You Enjoy Myself” preserved the vibe and the band crackled through a “Rock and Roll” cover in the encore. By contrast, “Water in the Sky” slogged (appropriate as it was), and the new “Time Turns Elastic” was a bona fide bathroom break, the band unable to generate much late-inning run support. Still, it all felt Phishian, from the opening a cappella “Grind” on, and not least for how Anastasio claimed so much of the spotlight for himself and drew everything from that tasty “Ocelot” to “Squirming Coil” into his orbit, briefly handing “Coil” back to McConnell for his typical solo keyboard close. I enjoyed myself. You may have, too.
I enjoyed a gorgeous summer night at the Comcast Center (formerly Great Woods in Mansfield, MA) more—as much as any Phish show I’d seen since 2003, to be honest—and then proceeded to get lit up by some of my Phish-going pals and other Phisherati for how I “must be a newbie” because they were “off” at Comcast. Off? Yeah, fine, they were a bit off. Mansfield featured two of the strangest and most oddly stacked sets of the year so far, and yet I welcomed the contrasts and their promises of exploration, even if, with the exception of a pantheon-worthy “Fluffhead” and a sparkling “Prince Caspian”, they remained mere promises. Feeling those contrasts—being flung, that is, to the far corners of opposite ends of the Phish catalog—did give me some semblance of a feeling I had forgot. It did so in a way Jones Beach didn’t, even if, as repeat listens to bootlegs of variable quality confirmed, Mansfield was indeed musically loose. But I reveled in the odd balancing acts: McConnell crooning “Lawn Boy” after the haze of a protracted “Gotta Jibboo” subsided, for example, or a mesmerizing “Golgi Apparatus” shoehorned in between a rollicking “Back on the Train” and an apt “Sparkle”.
A lot of first set enthusiasts pulled out the “Golgi” or the frothy “Taste” as good exhibits. I gleaned “Prince Caspian”, which saw Anastasio’s playing move from insistent and anxious to laid-back and starry-eyed as the dreamy choruses gave way to a decently realized jam. And the second set was all like that: Restless giving way to easily grooving, and vice versa, culminating in a run from “Harry Hood” to a nervous “Possum” to a woozy “Bug”. “Fluffhead” was the takeaway—to some, the only takeaway—but I got at least as much out of “Scent of a Mule”, which found McConnell darting gingerly around the bass and drums lattice and having more than a little fun with it. They were all having fun. So were we, right? Here’s my defense: My expectations are low. Phish gets time to set them high again. They earned as much over the years, right?
And for that matter, what bearing does any of that analysis have on the cumulative effect of Phish’s return? What bearing does any review, nuanced or ejaculatory, have on this early stage of Phish 3.0? Not a whole lot. The point is they’re back, and back in a form strong enough to be considered encouraging. Parse the sets, friends, and find the gems (Camden, New Jersey and Bonnaroo, seem like the diamonds so far). Complain about what didn’t stick and extract the gold dust—the encore of “Fluffhead” and a ripping “Julius” amongst, to some, the Mansfield detritus—in hopes of salvaging something Phishian. Above all, enjoy yourself: The jamband messiahs have come to take you home again, and maybe you’ll get to take your kids this time, too.