Show Review: Phish at the Shoreline Amphitheater, 8/5/09

by Gordon Elgart on August 6, 2009

Staring down at their instruments, as they often do

Staring down at their instruments, as they often do

People ask me all the time, “which band have you seen the most?”  To this question, I answer Moxy Fruvous.  If they ask me who’s in second place, I can answer that it’s Phish.  Last night was the 22nd time I’ve seen Phish in concert, but for the first time in a dozen years.  It’s hard to “review” a Phish show; it is what it is.  Consider this a personal exploration into an evening of Phish.The first thing you need to do when you get to a Phish show is explore the parking lot.  An odd thing happened in the years since I had last been to a Phish summer show.  The traveling vendors have moved from blankets on the ground to tables.  The advancing years of the average Phish fan has made it hard for us to bend down to the ground to look at t-shirts, pipes, crystals and fan art.  We now have to have it at table level.

The quality of the vending has gone up as well.  I saw a lot more commercial-quality kitchens than I had seen in 1995 at Sugarbush, for example.  It doesn’t feel quite as much like an invitation to dysentery if I were to buy a grilled cheese sandwich in the parking lot.  The organic veggie burritos called to me as well, but their proud use of cilantro kept them out of my grasp.  I settled on just drinking a lot of beer.  And even the beer selections have improved.  An vendor from back east had brought cases of Magic Hat–a delicious Vermont beer–so I decided this fit the occasion.

The parking lot just feels more “commercial” these days, which is odd, because it’s hardly commercial.  Except for the Aramark guy walking around, selling Dasani and kettle corn.  I felt a little bad for him; he’s trying to sell tap water for $3 a bottle when beer is 2 for $5, and water is $1.  I didn’t feel that bad for him because I often enjoy laughing at the follies of large corporations.

I found Phish’s opening band in the parking lot.  What’s that you say?  Phish didn’t have an opening band?  But tonight, they did, because a local band from Berkeley, Antioquia, was there with their school bus and all of their gear, and they just set up and played a set.  They continually said things like “we’d like to thank Phish for inviting us.”  By just acting like the opening band, they all of a sudden were.  They’re a jammy tropical dance band, and they play around quite a bit locally.  Nice folks, too.

The "opening band."

The "opening band."

I finally went inside, found my seat, and immediately moved to better seats.  I like to refer to the seating at Phish shows as “fluid.”  Once you’re inside of a section, just find your favorite place to dance, be nice to your neighbors, and have a good time.  It’s rare to find someone who is in their own seat and cares about it.  Maybe the VIP folks do, but we upper reserved folk are a friendly bunch, and we’ll offer you a nice place to stand.  You might get offered other stuff, too, if that’s your thing.

As for the show itself, it’s so bizarre.  It’s hard to say a Phish show is good or bad.  There’s just different kinds of shows.  Ones where they play a lot of loud fast stuff, ones where they do self-indulgent jams, and ones that cover both areas.  No matter whether you think a show is good or bad, you’re probably going to have fun finding out.  And what you think is good, someone else thinks is bad.  And vice versa.

So this show started out as the kind of show I like (lots of old, high energy numbers with composed solos) and moved toward becoming the kind of show I don’t like (lots of self indulgent jams and unfinished songs).  I loved it! When the show was over, I was a bit saddened that there was not another show to look forward to.

Here’s what the setlist looked like in classic Helpful Phriendly Book style:

1: Golgi Apparatus, Halley’s Comet, Chalk Dust Torture, The Divided Sky*, When the Circus Comes, Time Turns Elastic, Ya Mar, Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan, Suzy Greenberg, David Bowie

2: Backwards Down the Number Line, Down With Disease -> Limb By Limb, Oh Sweet Nothin’**, Cities -> Maze, Mike’s Song > Simple, Weekapaug Groove

Encore: Let Me Lie, Bold As Love

Notes: * big cargo plane repeatedly flew over the crowd during the first set, including during the silent part of Divided Sky, with Trey hitting the note after it flew away. (See one of the flyovers.) ** long-awaited bust-out from Loaded (damned great song, and possibly a wedding present), but Page flubbed half the lyrics. 🙁

So it started with “Golgi Apparatus,” the song that features the classic singalong of “I saw you with a ticket stub in your hand,” which is a great way to start a show. The first set continued its high energy with only a couple of drop offs (“Time Turns Elastic” is a fairly mediocre multi-party song with some nice moments), but a killer “David Bowie” to end the set. And for me, any time I get Suzy and Halley’s in a set, I’m a happy guy.

I was right behind the fancy soundboard

I was right behind the fancy soundboard

The second set was mainly a disappointment when compared to my memories of great nights with Phish.  “Down With Disease” promised to get things going, but rather than play the rousing end of the song, it went into one of those self indulgent jams that don’t do much for me.  Some cover songs perked me up, but I noticed that my entire row was sitting down during most of the second set.  Sitting down at a Phish show?  This is pretty rare for one person, never mind an entire row.  It took a funky cover of the Talking Heads’ “Cities” to get people moving again, and finally Phish kicked it into gear for the rest of the show.

I’m not sure I would ever recommend a Phish show to anyone who hasn’t already bought into them.  Phish fans have such a bizarre relationship to the band.  Phish hardly says a word to the audience, mostly stare down and bob their heads as they play, yet the audience is completely engaged.  It’s interactivity without any interaction.

Gordon Elgart

A music nerd who probably uses that term too much. I have a deep love for bombastic, quirky and dynamic music.

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