I guess one thing to know about me is that I don’t particularly care for “Birds of a Feather,” the 1998 single off Story of the Ghost that starts with a spasm of chords and dovetails into a slinky sing-along. Frankly, I thought the song itself nearly bankrupted the last Phish show I saw, back in October. Nearly. These are the sorts of mindless debates I get into with myself, a strange sports talk radio of the mind.
Who am I kidding?
It’s a foolish errand to try and preempt the natural curvature of life. To expect to know the contours of an experience. The trick is to get into a flow state with all things. Family, work, music, traffic. Let it be.
And so here we are, with Phish blazing through the early days of another summer tour. What’s important to bear in mind is that each tour is a narrative. In the last decade (since the band returned to the stage in 2009), the creative developments year over year have explained deeper layers of the story that Phish started telling a long time ago. And the years just keep sliding by, don’t they? (You ever notice that?)
This year, we’re watching the full integration of Kasvot Vaxt and Ghosts of the Forest material. The former is an album’s worth of new tunes Phish wrote under the guise of an obscure Scandinavian prog rock band (which band then appeared onstage in Las Vegas for Phish’s 2018 Halloween show). The latter is a solo record written by Trey to honor the life of a late friend; the songs are introspective and nuanced and deeply vulnerable. You’ve got your mix of goofy and heartfelt, and it’s all new, complex material for a band that’s been rolling for more than 35 years.
Clearly, Phish is loving this stride they’ve hit. They’re finding new ways of sharing the same message They’re saying: Listen. We’re all here together.
The band hadn’t played in Cuyahoga Falls since August 2015, right in the heart of what was shaping up to become one of Phish’s finest tours in the modern era. They came back last night — on the heels of a Toronto show that left wide swaths of the fervent fan base grinding their teeth over certain song selections and a ballad-heavy creative message. It’s easy to complain, I guess, when your passion for something transcends most other words. Easy to take things for granted. Phish, a band that once broke up for good, supplies a great lesson in why you shouldn’t do that.
I’ve seen Phish many times in many states. Two longtime friends and fans were in town to hit this show, and my fiancée came along for the ride to get a sense of what Phish is all about. It was a true joy to share this with her.
See a full slideshow of photos from the show here.
Last night’s first set was a healthy mix of frequent flyers and newer material. The “Soul Planet” opener was vintage 2019 Phish; the song debuted on Dec. 31, 2017, and has become either shorthand for guitarist Trey Anastasio’s more straightforward songwriting tropes or a promising platform for far-reaching jams. We landed somewhere in the middle, with Trey leading a brief in-the-box jam that foretold more creative leanings as the night went on.
“Everything is Hollow” (Kasvot Vaxt) and “About to Run” (Ghosts of the Forest) came back-to-back and served jointly as an anchor for this set. Again, the newer stuff is where you’re really seeing the band find new ways to speak to one another. Trey shredded the Ghosts song in legitimate rock-god style.
“Divided Sky” delivered a perfect early-summer outdoor vibe, and then came the humor: During “I Didn’t Know,” my fiancée was cracking up while Fish took his traditional vacuum solo. You can’t have introspection without a good laugh.
After what seemed like the shortest set break in history, Phish opened the second frame curiously with a languid “Stealing Time from the Faulty Plan.”
Then the band ran into the always-jarring opening chords to “Birds of a Feather.” I wasn’t sure how this was going to go, but isn’t that always the case then? There’s no way to know. There is no future.
The way it went was this: a multifaceted 23-minute jam that swerved beautifully into jungle-calypso territory and deep funk, all crystallized with tight percussion and buzzing energy. With Chris Kuroda turning the lighting rig into a self-regenerating aquarium of ecstasy, the music sprouted fins and swam through at least five distinct sections. The crowd was in awe. It was, not to put too fine a point on it, one of the best pieces of music I’d seen from Phish in a while. I thought bassist Mike Gordon was the MVP of the night, and he was shining throughout this jam.
This is also where keyboard player Page McConnell dropped a “Faceplant into rock” sample from the band’s 2018 Halloween set. We were immersed.
This is the point: Phish creates a space of mindfulness. The past and future evaporate, and you find yourself fully immersed in something that you can’t see, something you can’t even name. It’s like prayer.
The show closed with a classic pairing of “Chalk Dust Torture” and “Slave to the Traffic Light,” and I thought the last few minutes of “Chalk Dust” were a nice blissed-out coda to the “Birds” jam earlier.
Then, for dessert? Try the first “Split Open and Melt” encore since 1991. This was no humdrum wall of sound; the band has really been stretching the chaotic psychedelia of this song in the past year or so, and the Blossom rendition was no exception. What was once a grim tidal wave of maniacal jamming in the early and mid-90s grew tepid in the modern era. But Phish really reignited this song in 2018, and folks at Blossom were treated to a chunky, robot-factory anthem. The churning of an indigenous berserk. My fiancée turned to me and said/yelled, “I have no idea what’s happening!”
It’s hard to explain what was happening, but there’s no real need to.
Probably everyone who came to Blossom last night was looking for something: a kernel of inspiration, a fat 20-minute funk jam, the car keys they lost on the lawn at the 2015 show. Hopefully, you found it, or you found a way at least to keep looking and not lose your head in a fog of doubt.
When the band followed up “Split Open and Melt” with another Ghosts of the Forest song, the buoyant “A Life Beyond the Dream,” well, now, that was just a wonderful moment. Don’t give up hope. Don’t think too hard about it.
Set 1: Soul Planet > The Moma Dance, Kill Devil Falls, Your Pet Cat > Back on the Train, Everything is Hollow, About to Run, Divided Sky, I Didn’t Know, Walls of the Cave
Set 2: Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan > Birds of a Feather > Crazy Sometimes, Miss You, Everything’s Right> Chalk Dust Torture > Slave to the Traffic Light
Encore: Split Open and Melt, A Life Beyond The Dream