Phish shares jokes, jams and overall weirdness with Providence
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
“We’re gonna sing an old number for you now, it’s in the key of A-flat. Hit it, Page...”
This game repeated several times through the main set, with Trey Anastasio doing his best lounge singer impersonation before a song, followed by Page McConnell queueing up a sound straight out of your local cineplex circa 1989. It didn’t matter if it was a Jon Fishman vacuum showpiece or a Mike Gordon country number, Anastasio was going to do his Robert Goulet and McConnell was going to bleed that tone into the number.
I finally had to ask. I turned around and pitched the question to whoever behind me was willing to answer:
“This is weird, right? Like, even for them?”
The answer I got was both entirely unhelpful and appropriate:
“That’s a Phish show, man.”
It certainly was. It was confusing, and more so than I was expecting for my first time seeing Phish in about five years. There were some incredible moments of musical synergy on stage and plenty of outright fun to be had within the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence. I knew I’d be in for a bit of the unexpected after being away for this long, I just didn’t realize I’d be laughing my ass off in the process.
There’s something to be said for hitting on a solid joke and just pounding it into the ground until the very vehicle of the joke itself becomes an absurdist punchline. And that’s how it was with the THX noise, repeating and reappearing enough that, in the concourse, one woman shouted to anyone who would listen, “WHAT THE HELL IS THAT SOUND?!?” It punctuated both sets and kicked off nearly every song in the first, clearly some kind of in-joke that the band was half-sharing with the crowd to their utter delight and, eventually, the audience’s confused rapture.
Another joke was apparently “Plasma,” played in proper on the previous night, and reprised here repeatedly. It would come blasting out of wholly unrelated songs and jams, flying in without notice and again with a hearty laugh from the stage as well as those around me. I thought I heard the theme four times, but the official count seems to be just three — and in this case, I’ll certainly defer to the dedicated to get this number right.
And those dedicated are as fervent as ever. When I last checked in with Phish, everyone I encountered seemed delighted that I was back for the first time since their 2009 reformation, just happy to know that a stranger was about to have a good time. Tonight, it was a bit of a different response. It wasn’t negative, to be sure, but a bit confused — when I mentioned that this was my fourth time seeing Phish, most assumed I had discovered the band recently and therefore was working my way up into the triple digits (as some in our section had reached). But saying that I’d discovered the band in high school in the 1990s, and that A Live One was one of those mind-splitting records that turned all of us on our ears, well, that was confusing I guess. It seems there aren’t many casual fans of this band — and in my case, “casual” includes having every studio album, plus more than a handful of live documents.
But I understand. I have my furious dedications — one band of my own to which I dedicate those kinds of resources to travel and collect every sound I can, plus another dozen bands right behind them where bootlegs and deep chronological knowledge are required. There’s only so much space in my brain to dedicate to these bands.
For all the nonsense and stigma, however, this is an easy band to get behind. Their fans are nearly uniformly polite and enthusiastic, equal parts welcoming and ready to educate. And for all of the extra curricular activity in the seats, they are listening and re-listening to everything that emanates from the stage. On this night, there was plenty to take in, from the opening “Turtle in the Clouds” from their 2018 Kasvot Växt Halloween set, to a slowed-down take on “Llama,” to a version of “Harry Hood” that took multiple twists and turns over nearly 15 minutes before landing yet again on a THX cue and “Plasma.”
And then there was just outright furious playing. The solos through the middle of “Maze,” as expected, were fast and flying and showed the dexterity and creativity that makes these guys so engaging on repeated listens. “Stash” was a straight throwback to the days of A Live One, with Anastasio and McConnell trading passages until they flew back into “Plasma” and “Golgi Apparatus” to end the first set.
The encore took on an animalistic theme, with “Big Black Furry Creature From Mars” kicking things off after another lounge introduction and a brief moment to remember how to play it, and wound through until “Possum,” another band staple, and finally “Plasma,” wrapping up one of the many jokes fed to an eager audience, both longtime loyalists and newcomers floating through.
Even without the encyclopedic setlist knowledge and plans to travel with the band down to Long Island for the next show, fun is universal. And so is greatness. Throw in that level of joy and skill, and the masses will roll with the weirdness every time.
Email Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org