Phish Trey Anastasio
Photo: Rene Huemer

Phish Torch the Greek Theater in Triumphant Return to Berkeley

Phish’s dazzling sonic alchemy in the improvisational second set shows why the Vermont tone scientists remain at the cutting edge of what live music can be.

It’s a Monday afternoon in Berkeley, and there’s a huge line of live music fanatics outside the Greek Theater at the University of California here on 17 April. Phish are back on campus for the first time since a memorable three-night run in 2010, a return many fans thought would never happen. It’s another three-night run with general admission seating, so fans are lining up hours ahead of doors at 5:00pm for one of the most accomplished college bands in rock history.

The August 2010 shows at the 8,500-capacity venue had such demand that an untold number of surplus fans were reportedly able to make their way in by paying off a side entrance gatekeeper or sneaking over a back fence. The influential jam rock titans, who formed at the University of Vermont in 1983, typically play venues twice the size in major markets, so the Greek was always a special event. When the band made five subsequent visits to the similar-sized Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco, it looked like the Greek was off the board. 

When Phish utilized their song “Crowd Control” as an opener three years in a row at the Bill Graham, it seemed to hint at the situation with rumor suggesting they’d been banned from the Greek due to the overflow crowd in 2010. Scheduling these 2023 shows for weeknights in the spring, rather than a weekend on a summer tour, looks like a strategic move to get Phish back to the Greek by cutting down on the number of fans who would make the trip. Tickets still sold out promptly, but the strategy seems to have worked to eliminate the excess horde.

Guitarist Trey Anastasio spoke of his fondness for the venue in a spring tour preview show on Sirius XM’s Phish Radio, citing the Greek as one of his top favorites due to how the design of the truly Greco-Roman style amphitheater enables him to see everyone in the audience. This, in turn, helps catalyze the fabled synergy between the band and the fans that has powered their intrepid sonic explorations throughout their storied four-decade career. Yet some critics will still try to dismiss Phish as “old white guy music” or assert that jam rock is not a “cutting edge” genre, apparently having missed the boat on the psychedelic rock counterculture’s ongoing significance in a world that ever tries to demand conformity.

Phish Mike Gordon
Photo: Rene Huemer

There may be a disconnect in some circles due to how influential Phish has been, spawning a legion of younger bands with space funk jamming styles that often lack the songwriting quality that makes great jams hit with deeper impact. Whereas Phish has been on a roll in recent years that’s largely unprecedented in rock history. The quartet aren’t like classic rock acts who tour on nostalgia, cranking out the same greatest hits set night after night. These four troubadours, who often seem to have a Jedi-like telepathy have continued writing new solid material to keep things fresh, while memes depicting Anastasio as Luke Skywalker alongside Jerry Garcia as Obi-Wan Kenobi remain ever popular in the scene.

However, a hoped-for spring heat wave has failed to materialize due to the coldest, wettest Bay Area winter in modern memory. This leaves temperatures in the 50s as fans enter to secure the Greek’s prime real estate. The band cranks things up early on with the hard rocking “Carini”, in dedication to a fan known as “Frenchie” who had just passed away from lung cancer. Bassist Mike Gordon powers a dynamic groove here, as the band sounds dialed in. A solid “Stash” jam helps power a serviceable first set, though the weather continues to grow more challenging as one of Berkeley’s famous fog banks starts rolling in. 

The soaring melodic lift of the jam in perennial fan favorite “Theme From the Bottom” caps the first set with an energetic finish, but then it’s a very chilly set break that makes sitting outside at the Greek after-dark border on feeling downright unpleasant. The chilly setting recalls a similar night from July of 2001 when the Trey Anastasio Band visited the Greek for a two-night stand, the first of which had been a warm and festive summer dance party. But then that cold fog rolled in the second night, and the vibe wasn’t nearly so festive. The fate of that show was in some doubt well into the second set until the band blew the place up with an incendiary 22-minute “Sand” to save the show, as the darkly heavy yet uniquely infectious groove lit up the night with a glorious jam for the ages.

It seems Anastasio remembers that night too and thinks better of waiting to light a fuse this time, as Phish opens the second set with a quick run through the high-energy blues of “My Soul” before dropping the bomb with a “Tweezer”. A coveted jam vehicle since the early 1990s, “Tweezer” is a song that’s varied widely in jamming styles over the years yet has soared to historic new heights over the past decade. This ascension has included legendary West Coast performances such as the 36-minute “Tahoe Tweezer” in 2013 and a 33-minute sonic journey at the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, California, in a 2021 show that was relocated from Tahoe at the 11th hour due to the horrific wildfires that were occurring.

Photo: Rene Huemer

“Tweezer” is certainly fitting since the lyrics speak directly to “Step into the freezer”, where “it’s gonna be cold, cold, cold”, plus the ever-groovy jam is sure to heat things up. The vibe is surging now as the Greek comes alive in a big way. There comes to be some question as to whether the jam will have legs or give way to another direction as the band spends some time searching for the sound. Yet this is part of the unique sonic beauty of Phish, as fans never know if the band is going to take a jam into the deep end or move to another song. There’s a mystical sense of adventure in traversing these sonic landscapes, as moving through the valleys is also what enables Phish to take their fans to sonic peaks that few other bands can reach.

The “Tweezer” jam seems like it might be about to flame out around the 22-minute mark as it drifts into a dark vibe that feels like it could be moving into Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter”. But then Anastasio utilizes that tonal passageway as a springboard to a cosmic wormhole that breaks through to another dimension before returning to the “Tweezer” riff to remind everyone that, yes, this is still “Tweezer”. Some trippy funky samples are triggered to elevate the vibe further before the jam moves into another new phase with some groovy syncopation that gets the crowd to “woo” in a call and response mode, clearly flashing back to the famous “Tahoe Tweezer” where spontaneous woos triggered the jam into a legendary euphoric direction.

Anastasio then seems to nod to the Shoreline Tweezer with some psychedelic modulator effects he started employing on that summer 2021 tour, which makes for a great moment in nodding to both of those classic Tweezers as this one keeps going. This is another aspect of what makes Phish so unique, as these savvy troubadours always seem to know what time it is. And the more familiar one becomes with the band’s history, the deeper appreciation can potentially be gained in being able to recognize when they’re connecting the dots between past and present as few – if any – other bands can.

A syncopated groove section with some melodious leads soars in a most uplifting direction. The Greek is fully lit now, and the vibe just keeps surging as the band segues into the anthemic “Simple”, another fan favorite with a more straight-ahead melodic sound. “We’ve got it simple because we’ve got a band”, everyone sings out in ecstatic unison, for it is this simple formula that provides so much joy and spiritual fulfillment. No one cares that it’s a damp chilly night anymore because Phish are turning that cold water vapor into wine with their wizardly sonic alchemy (with what turned out to be a historic 44-minute “Tweezer”, one of the longest ever.)

Photo: Rene Huemer

The “Simple” jam keeps the energy flowing in a most crowd-pleasing way for nearly 20 more minutes of melodious bliss, rocking increasingly harder down the stretch. Then the band hits a triumphant trifecta by pivoting into the Velvet Underground’s “Rock and Roll”, much to everyone’s delight. It’s yet another classic anthem that really solidifies the theme of the evening, with the tale of a suburban girl who’s bored out of her mind until one fine morning when she stumbles onto a New York radio station: “She doesn’t believe what she hears at all, Ooh, she started dancin’ to that fine fine music / You know her life was saved by rock ‘n’ roll, yeah rock ‘n’ roll / Despite all the computations, You could just dance / To that rock ‘n’ roll station, And baby it was alright (it was alright).”

Debuted by Phish on Halloween 1998 in Las Vegas when they played the Loaded album as their musical costume, the song became an instant anthem for both the band and the fans. It’s a song that encapsulates what rock ‘n’ roll has meant to successive generations who find that the music serves as a form of spiritual sustenance like no other in this world gone mad. It’s the perfect song to conclude this monumental set, in which Phish has conquered the adversity of the chilly weather with a performance of such sustained excellence so as to flip the script.

A “Miss You” ballad encore is clearly a poignant dedication to the departed Frenchie and also the first breather since the setbreak. Phish then makes yet another perfect choice by holding the obligatory “Tweezer Reprise” for another day and closing out the night with the scintillating “Sand” instead. The song ignites the Greek once again, but also with a deeper message for the powers that be — “If you can heal the symptoms but not affect the cause, then you can’t heal the symptoms…” It feels like a timely nod to venue history for locals who remember that very chilly night in 2001 when “Sand” saved the show for the Trey Anastasio Band, a heady move that conjures that inspiring moment again here on a very similar but even more epic evening.

Phish Mike Gordon
Photo: Rene Huemer

Fans are in ecstatic reverie as they exit the Greek on this chilly yet now glorious Monday evening in the People’s Republic of Berkeley. The debate quickly ensues about where the monumental “Greek Tweezer” ranks in Phishtory, with some quick to name it “best ever” while others aren’t even sure if it necessarily topped the Tahoe and Shoreline Tweezers despite being longer. Yet there’s a unanimous sentiment that this show has been one for the books.

Since Phish’s return to the Greek is a special event, there’s an aftershow party in walking distance with Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe playing at the Cornerstone in downtown Berkeley. It’s another fabulous synchronicity since Denson also played the aftershow party following the Tahoe Tweezer on that magical night of 31 July 2013. Did Phish plan to go this large on night one of the three-night run? Quite possibly not, but the weather forced their hand, and so they seized the moment as the improvisational adepts that they are.

The atmosphere at the Greek is extremely festive on Tuesday in the wake of Monday’s rager, despite the calculus that Phish is unlikely to reach the same heights. If the quartet could go that deep every night, then phenomenal shows like Monday’s wouldn’t stand out like they do when they happen. It’s just part of the tradeoff in the jam-rock world. But the temperature is slightly warmer, and there’s no more fog, so everyone’s ready for more fun. A stellar 23-minute “Bathtub Gin” is on par with Monday, as keyboardist Page McConnell catalyzes some sensational hose jamming with his flowing melodic lines. The second set features the tight groove of the Sci-Fi Soldier rocker “Don’t Doubt Me” from 2021’s Halloween show, a hot jam on “Fuego” that keeps the heady psychedelia rolling, and a cosmic funk fiesta on Sci Fi Soldier’s “The Howling”. 

Wednesday’s finale on 19 April’s hippie holiday of Bicycle Day has the best weather of the run, with the temperature finally reaching 60 degrees. 2020’s “I Never Needed You Like This Before” opens the show in rocking style before an extra jammy 13-minute “AC/DC Bag” from the band’s beloved “Gamehendge” cycle gets some extra hose sauce that seems to dip back into the previous night’s “Bathtub Gin”. A rocking but brief “46 Days” closes the first set in a somewhat anticlimactic fashion, though this suggests a big second set is surely in store.

Phish Trey
Photo: Rene Huemer

Opening the second set with “Mike’s Song” is like leading off with a home run as the Greek is plunged into electrifying psyche-rock euphoria, with lighting director Chris Kuroda going yard. Rather than go for a deep jam, Phish veers into the softer jazzy bliss of “Beneath a Sea of Stars”, an intriguing selection from Anastasio’s Ghosts of the Forest side project that closed its tour here at the Greek with a most memorable show in April 2019. When Anastasio sings, “We’re all here together, and the weather’s fine, dancing in a dream, and we’re free of time,” it feels like the Greek has been transported to a higher dimension of mystical transcendence. 

The band gets into a stellar space jazz foray here, with drummer Jon Fishman showing off mad skills in traversing a gorgeous sonic landscape before eventually veering into the raucous “Weekapaug Groove” to launch a funky dance party that lights up the night. A rare cover of the Velvet Underground’s groovy “Cool It Down” (also debuted at the legendary Halloween 1998 show) hits the mark just right, a song that wouldn’t have been appropriate on Monday but which makes for a great bookend tonight.

A 21-minute excursion through the anthemic “Set Your Soul Free” takes the collective “spirit family” on another magic carpet ride before giving way to the coveted spacey instrumental psychedelia of “What’s the Use”. A vibrant run through the Rolling Stones’ “Loving Cup” closes the set with a blast of melodic classic rock power as Anastasio tears it up on a tune the band has been crushing for three decades. A heartfelt “Waste” encore is then followed by that climactic “Tweezer Reprise” that some fans have described as “the most exciting two minutes in rock”. Chalk it all up as another big win for “the Phish from Vermont”, with the Greek Theater now seemingly back in play for future tours to boot.