Reviews

Phish: Walnut Creek

Jarrett Berman

Famous for their eclectic set lists (no two shows were identical), Phish tapes are a collector’s dream.


Phish

Walnut Creek

Subtitle: Walnut Creek
Label: JEMP
US Release Date: 2008-08-05
Artist website
Amazon
iTunes

It’s not hard to quantify Vermont’s top exports. The Green Mountain State boasts unparalleled fall foliage, plus the nation’s best cheese and ice cream. And if you’re lactose intolerant, well, there’s Phish. At once endearing and esoteric, the now-defunct jam band from Burlington was a musical phenomenon; a schoolboy experiment hatched in the gluttonous '80s which matured into a touring juggernaut during the halcyon Clinton years.

Famous for their eclectic set lists (no two shows were identical), Phish tapes are a collector’s dream, and stocking one’s vault is akin to sniffing out good wine. There are magnums meant for regular consumption (A Live One), obscure favorites (UC Santa Barbara ‘92), and priceless cellar dwellers (New Year’s Eve ’94). To the greenhorn, it’s all a bit heady. Walnut Creek isn’t a bad place to start. Like a decent Cabernet, it’s sturdy and approachable, easy to share, and has (with the exception of a few dodgy corners) aged well.

Collapsed in a fold-out case, the double-disc packaging is clean, if unremarkable. Viewers can indulge in their favorite tracks, jumping song-to-song through a convenient set menu, but there’s no bonus material. And while much of the DVD’s marketing collateral focuses on the weather offstage (Hurricane Danny swept through Raleigh, North Carolina on the night of the show), there’s almost no sign of it on film.

Disc one opens, rather unceremoniously, with the band already onstage, positioned four-across in their signature stance. No pomp and circumstance, just axmen Trey Anastasio (guitar) and Mike Gordon (bass), at center, bookended by pianist Page McConnell and drummer Jon Fishman. In fact, like the DVD itself, the ambience is spare; a stage bereft of all but a few monitors and lit candles. Trey strums the jangly chords of his original "Runaway Jim" as if it's a sound check. And, to wit, the first few songs of a live set often were.

Still, the foursome looks serious. “Jim” offers classic bait and switch – a few silly verses that inevitably melt into some of Phish's wildest improvisation. The band soon veers off course, as fingers of azure light descend over the crowd, offering a first glimpse at the ‘hippy shake’; that late 20th century dance so ubiquitous on tour. As a longtime shaker, it’s both nostalgic and mildly embarrassing to see this boogie caught on tape. Thankfully, the camerawork tightens on Fishman as he settles into the pocket; a picture of precision.

Ten minutes in, Trey’s scratchy wah-wah briefly moves “Jim” from funk into the honky-tonk intro of “My Soul” – the first of many such segues. On paper, the track is all filler, but Phish was the Stanley Kubrick of rock; capable of drawing blood from a stone. “Soul” rises above its humble beginnings and features some incendiary playing, with Page banging on his Yamaha almost indiscriminately.

Winking at the storm above, the band then circles into “Water in the Sky” an as-yet-unreleased tune that further showcases McConnell’s fleet finger work. The paint-by-numbers piece is catchy, but pedestrian, and viewers might begin wondering what all the fuss is about. Where are the ornate compositions, the trippy soundscapes? Knowingly, the torch-bearers of modern jam oblige with “Stash” – one of Phish’s most imaginative pieces. Its jazzy Zappa intricacies offer a glimpse of the genius behind the jesters. Privy fans clap in unison, colluding with the band while Trey deftly taps the strings and Fishman carves offbeat sounds from his wood blocks.

The rest is vintage Phish: Each player noodling about, trancelike, before slowly coalescing into an electric orchestra full of purpose; deliberately whittling “Stash” into a crescendo sharp enough to cut glass. When it’s over, you can see steam rising from their instruments. Was this their best version? Maybe so, maybe not. But it’s a flagship song, and always leaves the crowd satisfied.

Unfortunately, set one devolves into cloying harmonies (“Bouncing around the Room”) and meek experiments (Fishman’s “Bye Bye Foot”), before finishing with a fiery version of “Taste”. The closer kicks off with a thunderbolt, as Page quite visibly reacts to crackling lightning just above the venue. Inspired, the band works itself into a frenzy anchored by Trey’s blazing guitar. There’s a palpable recklessness here – that freefall feeling you get when someone else is driving too fast – and just as “Taste” seems destined to derail, it’s reined in for a thunderous close, Fishman’s toms literally popping like fireworks.

Shot in video, Walnut Creek looks something like an episode of Austin City Limits. It’s not a high-polished film. With its static, five-camera perspectives, the JEMP release comes from the band’s own production rig, and has none of the MTV-flash that buffs most concert DVDs. Purists might applaud such restraint, but here it fails to capture the spectacle that was Phish: Namely, the pulsing crowd and Chris Kuroda’s interstellar light show. Phish tour was always the sum of its parts – a summery, sylvan amphitheater experience – and Walnut Creek misses that vibe. Still, with 5.1 Dolby sound, you can crank the speakers, kill the video, and set your own mood lighting. No one will be the wiser.

Disc two begins much the same – the band already onstage, fidgeting – but the milieu is decidedly darker, as if somebody spiked the punch. To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And while Phish showed early restraint, second sets were their sonic playground – built for blowout jams. Sure enough, Gordo’s watery bass opens with “Down with Disease” to the delight of thousands. Trey is in excellent voice, inciting the throngs to sing along; teasing the “DwD” lick with his unmistakable Languedoc tone (a custom guitar he’d play, almost exclusively, from this tour forward).

Unsurprisingly, the high choruses begin to fade as Phish crack open the song structure to see what’s inside. Page’s Floyd-like Moog pulls the band into a dissonant spiral, where they orbit and overlap each other, deconstructing the song into tiny vibrations, as fractured as the melody will sustain. Then, in a languid transition never before heard, the familiar riff of “Mike’s Song” suddenly rings through the stew, bringing new focus to the piece. Gordon’s opus is a live staple – an improvisational that always promises gold at the end of the rainbow, as it’s often paired with the upbeat “Weekapaug Groove”. In turns funky and narcotic, “Mike’s” is also where fans (and sometimes the musicians) lose all sense of time and place.

Diving further down the rabbit hole, Phish cuts into “Simple”, with its bouncy beat and Sesame Street lyrics. Still no sign of closure, the band floats at the very edges of the song, before slipping into the breezy instrumental “I Am Hydrogen”, which serves to temper the second set monster. When the foursome finally fires into the cohesive, high-energy “Weekapaug”, it’s a welcome return. If you’re scoring at home, the set list would read “DwD > Mike’s > Simple > Hydrogen > Weekapaug”. That’s a staggering lineup. Unfortunately, as was increasingly the case post-1995, Trey grew weary of the rehearsed endings, stripping this 5-song bonanza of its giddy climax.

Phish downshifts into a Capella, ending the set with the classic “Hello My Baby”, a barber-shop quartet as corny as it is entertaining. And while the underwhelming encore “When the Circus Comes” drags, “Harry Hood” proves the band did nothing in half-measure. They just needed time to cool their heels, saving the best for last. Trey teases “Hood” with harmonics, tapping playfully while the song gathers strength. A slow-burning maelstrom, the strobe-rock closer swings from whisper to wildfire in ten minutes. As barnburners go, most will agree, it’s the goose bump finale of our time.

The year 1997 was seminal for Phish. It marked a new maturity for the band (no more vacuum solos), the dawn of the looped delay, and the christening of a Ben & Jerry’s flavor. It also saw the emergence of Trey-as-bandleader, a creative dominance that arguably came at the group’s peril. While still capable of sustained jams, their synergy was shaken; their ferocity, subdued. Many fans wondered if Vermont’s phinest were losing their mojo. Walnut Creek answers that question, for better and for worse. And while “the perfect Phish show” remains ever elusive, sampling the stock is still half the fun.

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