STORY WRITTEN BY MIKE PRINCE
For 21st Century Media
Despite members of Phish having a number of ties to Philadelphia, the city has been oddly omitted from tour after tour over the last several years by the Vermont-based jam band which recently surpassed its 30-year anniversary.
With not a single show in the city since 2009 — as well as no shows in the general area since a one-night stop at Camden in 2011 — Phish fans in Philadelphia had been starved to see the improvisational group of musicians play in their backyard.
When they finally got that opportunity on Tuesday — the first Phish show in Philadelphia in five years, as well as the band’s first at the Mann Music Center since 1995 — it was fitting that fans had to continue to wait, as the show was delayed more than an hour due to storms passing through the area.
The wait was well worth it, however, as Phish came out for the two-night run and treated the crowd with an array of newer songs, classics, jams, a few covers and the usual visually stunning light show.
Despite Phish’s road crew urging spectators not in the gorgeous wood-shed pavilion to return to their cars during Tuesday night’s thunderstorm, Phish fans, as they so often do, did what they wanted, and ignored the warnings of hail and severe lightning in the area.
And at 9:22 p.m., a little over an hour after the band was expected to take the stage, the raucously energetic crowd, starved for some live music, enjoyed “Axilla,” the fast-paced rock song that turned into a huge release for those who anxiously braved the pre-show storm. A couple fan-favorites followed, as “Gumbo” and “Taste” featured guitarist Trey Anastasio and keyboardist Page McConnell leading the way. After “555,” a new song from Fuego, Phish’s recently released studio album, Phish broke into “Tube,” a funk-filled tune that saw the band let loose a little bit for the first time in the night.
The band played a combination of new and old tunes for the remainder of the set, including the crowd-pleasing “Camel Walk,” as well as “It’s Ice,” one of Phish’s strongest compositional pieces which debuted more than 24 years ago. “Walls of the Cave,” a structurally adventurous and multi-layered rager written to honor those who lost their lives on 9/11, closed what was one of the better first sets Phish have played early in this 25-stop summer tour. Before leaving the stage, however, Anastasio gracefully accepted a Philadelphia Flyers T-shirt from a fan in the front row, much to the crowd’s delight. Anastasio, who grew up in Princeton, N.J., is a well-known Flyers fan who once spoke about sneaking into games at the Spectrum in the 1970s.
After a 30-minute set break, Phish came out with a rocking, albeit short version of “46 Days,” and then followed that with “Fuego,” the title track from the band’s 12th studio album, a song which ended up being the highlight of the night.
“Fuego” featured nearly 26 minutes of improvisational exploration, a trait which most long-time Phish fans go into every show hoping to hear. In what was only the fifth time the song has been played live, Anastasio led the early part of the jam with some impressive pedal work leading to a bliss jam before McConnell and drummer Jon Fishman took over later in the jam, while bassist Mike Gordon laying down the beat until the final notes.
The set ended strong with a string of heavy-hitters, including “Tweezer” and “Ghost,” arguably Phish’s two greatest and most historical jam vehicles. What followed was a surprise to the roughly 14,000 people in attendance, as Phish dropped into “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” Deodato’s arrangement known by most from Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Despite Phish being known to cover various songs from night to night, covers (outside of “Auld Lang Syne” and “The Star-Spangled Banner,” played to honor New Year’s Eve and America’s birthday) had been non-existent for the previous eight shows. The fan-favorite cover, which was actually debuted at the Mann 21 years earlier, sent the crowd into a frenzy, dancing like they hadn’t all night.
After classics “Harry Hood” and “Tweezer Reprise” ended the set, Phish played the not-so-rare “Possum” in the encore spot, ending a show which featured more than three hours of music and went until roughly 12:35 a.m., well past the original midnight curfew.
The back-end of the two-night stop featured an overall similar tone to the previous night, but with a regular start time, much better weather and an overall tighter musical experience.
After opening with “Glide,” a rarer Phish tune which had not opened a show since 1992, faithful Phish fans knew they were in for another treat. The first set continued with a variation of newer songs and classics, including another rare treat in “McGrupp and the Watchful Horsemasters,” which was nailed by the four musicians who have arguably the most loyal and cult-like following of any active band in the world. “Run Like an Antelope,” a song which really needs no explanation if you simply look at the title, closed out the opening set in usual
An exploratory “Chalk Dust Torture” opened the second set, followed by a soaring version of “Wingsuit,” a rock ballad featured on the new album. To everyone’s surprise, cover songs were featured yet again, as the Talking Heads’ “Crosseyed and Painless” and Robert Palmer’s “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley” were played, setting off the grateful crowd a couple more times before the end of the night.
When all was said and finished, Phish had played nearly six hours of music over the course of the two nights, culminating in the funk-rock “Weekapaug Groove” at the end of Wednesday night’s encore, as fans gave one final standing ovation and cheer to the band before heading out to the parking lot to either beat traffic or continue to party by their cars.
Despite a few groans here and there for a few newer and less popular tunes and forced segues, the pair of shows were a success for the long-time band members and their fan base, one which will happily travel around the country to see Phish play a different set every night.
The Phish concert-going experience is more than just about the music, though, offering plenty of exposure for those in attendance. From those who were at their first ever Phish show to those who might have been at their 100th show to a select few who have seen the band several hundred times over the past few decades, the overall experience is different for all fans involved.
Between the free-flowing musical improvisation and the light show led by specialist Chris Kuroda, Phish’s two-night run had a lot to offer to it spectators, whether they were sober or just enjoying a couple beers, or whether they were up front in the pit, in the pavilion or on back on the lawn with plenty of room to let loose and dance for three hours each night.
While seeing Phish at the Mann may have been new to some, it was just another Phish run for many, full with thousands of glow sticks raining down on the crowd, a few long jams, plenty of dancing and enough silly lyrics and complicatedly-composed songs to make a first-timer leave the show with a completely different view of the band and its shows.
And despite the band getting up there in age, they’re still showing signs of dynamic greatness, and having fun whilst doing so. As a whole, Phish is still doing things on stage from night to night that most musicians could only dream of doing. On the other end, devoted fans who were without their favorite band for nearly five years are thankful to still have that experience, whether it means traveling across the country or just taking a quick ride down to Fairmount Park and braving a storm to see a band they’ve already seen many, many times.