The guitarist for an unfamous ‘90s band signed to a cool record label once told me, “I’d rather cram a live fish in my ear than listen to live Phish.” It was a good line. Made me laugh at the time. Nearly 30 years later, I’ll counter: There’s no way I’d rather cram a live fish in my ear, after attending my first-ever Phish concert. The legendary jam-band kicked off their summer tour Tuesday night at a packed Orion Amphitheater in Huntsville, Alabama.
If you love live music, even if Phish’s live recordings and studio albums do nothing for you, if the band’s playing in your city of residence, go see them. At least once. The musical ESP singer/guitarist Trey Anastasio, drummer Jon Fishman, bassist Mike Gordon and keyboardist Page McConnell share onstage during their frequent improvisations is incredible. When they play actual songs, the tunes are better than you might expect. And Phish is way more engaging in-person than on tape.
The best surprise, though, was the Phish fans. Sure, there were some addled clowns not of this realm peppered throughout the amphitheater. But the vast majority of Phans I encountered were friendly, fun, welcoming and sane – and stoked to share their favorite band with a newcomer.
The first song of Phish’s first show of their 2023 summer tour was “Blaze On.” From 2016 album “Big Boat,” the tune’s grooves called to mind “Man Smart (Woman Smarter),” the Calypso tune Grateful Dead used to cover. It got the concert off on a festive foot. Led by Fishman, the band really swung on this one. And McConnell got the first solo of the night, a rollicking Professor Longhair-style piano spree that took Alabama to New Orleans.
As a singer, Anastasio lacks the charisma and tunefulness of Jerry Garcia. But he’s got an honest and conversational voice, not dissimilar from Frank Zappa’s. He connects with fans and gets the songs over.
As it often goes with successful rock bands, the bassist stirs the Phish sauce. Throughout the night, Gordon’s rumbling, melodic lines that made me think of the great Jack Bruce’s playing in Cream, and he added some occasional intergalactic effects too. The band also drops some doowop multi-vocal arrangements in there — a quirky hoot.
As a guitarist, Anastasio is underappreciated outside the jam-band world. During the band’s first of two sets at their summer tour opener, he did some acid-blues Hendrix-y stuff that shook my soul. Other times his lines were endearing playfully, skipping between the groove like a dragonfly skimming water surface. It takes a special guitarist to make around thousands of people achieve ecstasy at the same time. Anastasio did that several times Tuesday night.
Like hard-rock deity Eddie Van Halen, Anastasio’s secret weapon is his rhythm guitar playing. Driving. Ethereal. Chunky. Island-flecked. Seamlessly shifting from rhythm to lead and back without a second (or in the case of some bands, a third) guitarist to cover his ass.
Like many a jam-band, Phish is rock hardware running jazz software. Is Phish better at some types of jams than others? Absolutely.
Tuesday night, the astral-plane stuff was legitimately transportive. At these peak moments, especially second set after night had fallen, the playing called to mind a flame or an ocean. A living thing. While chasing tangents onstage, Phish often molts into sonic Salvador Dali. On the other end of the scale, some attempts at funk jamming sounded like white-boy caricature, devoid of the grit and sex that makes funk funky.
Did these elongated jams get old eventually? God yes. Maybe a third of the way through the second set, when they’d go into yet another jam, I’d compose a grocery list in my head (cat food, veggie burgers, nectarines, tissue.). Later, after leaving the amphitheater and getting back to my car, I couldn’t listen to some AC/DC fast enough.
That said, when Phish played their actual tunes they consistently killed it. Towards the end of the first set, “You Enjoy Myself,” an instrumental from the band’s 1989 debut album “Junta,” was gorgeous in its intricacy and shapeshifting. Set two closer “Chalk Dust Torture,” a fan-fave from 1994 LP “A Picture of Nectar,” evoked a supergroup spliced from Steely Dan and Rolling Stones. A bit earlier in the set, a raucous “Down with Disease” electrified the crowd, who boogied as one amoeba throughout the show, but turned it up to 11 on a handful of favorites. Set-one closer “Say It To Me S.A.N.T.O.S.” was a ‘70s-TV-cop-show-theme rebooted as a feature film.
Phish was formed on the streets of Burlington, Vermont circa 1983. The band broke big at the end of the decade, during the late ‘80s/early ‘90s jam baby-band boom created in the wake of the formerly piratical Grateful Dead’s late career mainstream stardom. But Phish’s oddball-ness (and lack of songs with choruses that stick with you) makes the Grateful Dead seem like NSYNC by comparison in term of commercial appeal.
The dudes in Phish have looked like they’re in their mid-40s for at least 30 years. Now 58, Anastasio with his glasses, slender build, tasteful clothes and beard, calls to mind Eric Clapton if Clapton preferred ping-pong to model trains. Fishman, also 58, could go as dress-wearing Replacements guitarist Bob Stinson for Halloween. Sporting an expensive haircut and long-slimmed-down frame, 58-year-old Gordon resembled a venture capitalist with a great personal trainer. From behind his keyboard phalanx, McConnell, 60, exuded English professor brainwaves.
A great thing about Phish is they don’t take themselves too seriously. During “You Enjoy Myself,” as is their wont, Anastasio and Gordon sharply executed a choreographed bouncing routine on mini trampolines roadies brought out. They never missed a note.
Phish’s summer tour stage set doesn’t feature a giant inflatable penis. Anastasio doesn’t dash around in a catsuit or cape. But a Phish concert’s visuals are just as impressive as the musicianship. This is because the band’s longtime lighting designer, Chris Kuroda, is a wattage warlock.
At Orion, the lighting dazzled with patterns and colors reflective of the music rather than bombastic brightness. The lighting rigs also moved around and reassembled in different clusters. Museum-worthy visual art. Even in broad daylight at the beginning of the concert (Phish performs sans opening act), the lighting was magic.
The 8,000-capacity Orion is smaller than many venues Phish play — like Wisconsin’s 37,000-cap Alpine Valley Amphitheater, or New York’s 19,500-cap Madison Square Garden, the latter home to a seven-concert stand later this summer.
Tuesday was the first of two nights in Huntsville, a city Phish had never previously played before. This summer, Orion Amphitheater will also host multi-night jam-stands by Widespread Panic and Billy Strings. Since opening last year, has booked several big artists’ debuts in Huntsville, a city known for its aerospace engineering, including: Robert Plant, Stevie Nicks, Smashing Pumpkins and Jack White. ’90s alt-rock icons Weezer recently rehearsed at Orion before launching their own summer tour there.
In their tour opener, Phish dropped several references to Huntsville’s space-centric identity. Pocket-protector rocker “Halley’s Comet” received an early airing. Set two opened with a fusion-fried version of “Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30,” Richard Strauss’ dramatic classical piece known for its use in sci-fi film “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
During his extend spoken-word intro to “Icculus,” the existential, amorphous number that heated up Phish’s encore, Anastasio riffed about rocket science, etc. As a bonus, they dropped Gordon/Fishman-sung groover “555,” cut in nearby Muscle Shoals for the band’s 2014 “Fuego” album, into the first set.
The day prior to their summer tour, passersby could hear Phish soundchecking at Orion. Gordon also ventured out into downtown Huntsville, including a visit to Honest Coffee and a colorful wall mural.
All told, Phish played for around three hours Tuesday night. The first set was maybe 75 minutes, then a 90-minute-plus second set, then a five-song encore. A testament to the fans, if any of them left during the 40 minute-ish intermission, I couldn’t tell. Phish’s second Huntsville show is set for Wednesday night at Orion.
Real talk. Some jam-band fans can be annoying — nitpicking about P.A. minutia, scoffing when a non-jam-band plays “for only two hours,” obsessing over setlists like a cure for cancer’s hidden in there, etc. But every musical scene has its wankers in need of levity.
At Orion, it was a sea of smiles and good vibes. And many there were getting their buzz on, as they should be — it’s a damn rock concert. Tuesday night, plumes of sweat-leaf punctuated the air above the general admission floor, where my tickets were. But most Phish fans I was around Tuesday didn’t have the tombstone eyes I remembered from many fans at Grateful Dead and Widespread Panic shows I went to back in the ‘90s.
Many of these ‘23 Phish fans looked more like hipsters than hippies. (So many dudes with ironic mustaches and wearing sunglasses poached from Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” video.) They probably make more money than I do at their jobs. At one point, I did get pelted with a green glowstick flung from the seats above. And of course, I got offered a puff on a J by headband-wearing dude with a neighborly smile. (”Thanks man, but I’m working.”)
Maybe 15 minutes into the Phish show, it seemed like something was missing. And that something was making the experience better. Then I realized, the vast majority of Phish fans are too busy dancing and enjoying the music to feel they have to document every other song on video with their smartphones. (In 2023, classic jam-fan dance moves are still in play: The Running Man, The Chicken Wing, The Interpretive Dance Recital, The Aerobics Routine, The Tribal Ritual, The Hippie Princess, etc.)
It was rad to have just a sea of fans and a band dominate my sightline at a concert instead of a fleet of amateur videographers with no self-awareness. Occasionally at Phish’s opener, a fan would get their phone out to snap a pic of the stage. Or vid part of a song. But by in larger the audience was in the moment the whole time — no surrender-your-phone-until-leaving-the-venue-artist-manifesto required. Just 8,000 music fans being here now.
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