Thursday, September 21, 2000

Phish jams to joyful crowd

By Larry Nager
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Phish is known for long concerts. But the king of the jam bands closed Riverbend's 2000 season Wednesday night with a sold-out show that started in the summer and seemed to end in fall.

        The Phab Phour serenaded a dancing, toking crowd of 20,000, as a cold front blew in on a wave of thunderstorms. Temperatures plunged, but not phans' spirits, as Phish played 2 1/2 hours of music spread over two sets.

        But as usual, the music seemed the least important part of the evening. Phish concerts are about the sense of community and connection between Phish Heads and the band. That's why so many in the crowd spend much of their summers following the Vermont quartet (and why many at Wednesday's show were leaving for Thursday's Phish date in Chicago).

        From the moment the house lights went down and Phish struck up a funky organ groove, the crowd — several generations of hippies and frat boys — exploded into joyful, elbow-flapping, loose-limbed dancing.

        Phish kept the wacky factor low in what, for the band, was a fairly straight-ahead show. Drummer Jon Fishman wore his trademark muu-muu, but he never played the vacuum cleaner or got naked. There was also none of the barbershop quartet singing the group has been known to break into. The most whimsical touch Wednesday was a hyper-punk segment in the second set, which managed to maintain the show's energy, even if it stumped the dancers.

        Phish's biggest weakness remains its lack of a distinctive vocalist and songwriter. For every memorable piece, such as the somber “Dirt” or the lovely “Wading in the Velvet Sea,” there was a forgettable ditty like “Gotta Jibboo.”

        Like too many other songs in the Phish pholio, the latter seemed designed to provide just enough of a hook to hang the extended jamming of guitarist Trey Anastasio, bassist Mike Gordon and keyboardist Page McConnell.

        The blandness of their own material was highlighted by their choice of a cover song to close the first set, George Harrison's “My Guitar Gently Weeps.” The contrast between that passionate bit of songcraft (featuring Mr. Anastasio's finest guitar work of the night) and the Phish originals was startling.

        But their audience seemed more than willing to cut the guys some slack as they try to master the art of songwriting. Meanwhile, they've evolved into an impressive band, creating the sort of subtle ensemble dynamics and ability to move their audience that hasn't been seen since the granddaddy of the jam band movement, Jerry Garcia's Grateful Dead. But Phish has one long, strange trip ahead before it can match the Dead's songbook.


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