Only one other large indoor venue stacks up against the Hampton Coliseum in terms of relevance to the band’s history through the years. From their first stop there in 1995, Phish has crafted an awesome reputation for greatness within the round room off the Hampton Roads. It was no fluke that the band chose the space for their return in 2009, and from the moment it was announced, this run has been seen as an important destination event for many fans, the third straight three night stand coming five years after their last visit.
Actually, while we’re using numbers... on the second night of their tenth year at The Mothership (the endearing nickname fans have given Hampton Coliseum, due to its resemblance of the spaceship from "Close Encounters of the Third Kind"), Phish performed their twentieth concert in the hallowed space. The numerological unlikelihood that this would be also be the 20th day of the 10th month of this year is surely just insignificant and coincidental. However, we Phish fans are certainly a very superstitious lot.
Some of the typical superstitions we hear recycled include that odd years are better than even years, Saturday Night Specials are the weakest night of the run, and the band rarely follows up a great show with another. Without a doubt, the list goes on and on. But, the band has now certainly put, at least, these three to the test so far in 2018.
The first night of the run saw the band digging into their Hyde side (see: Jekyll) with a ferocious exploration coming out of the second set’s sprawling nearly 24 minute “Golden Age.” Heralded by fans of the darker overtones of the band’s improvisation as some of the best of the form since the couple of years we collectively call 2.0 in 2003-04, it built upon a sonic approach they have been exploring with some regularity since The Baker’s Dozen.
Needless to say, the expectations for what the second night would entail were understandably high, and Phish delivered with a front-to-back well stacked show that, while lacking a specific nugget quite as on the same level as the first night’s “Golden Age,” gives the 19th sufficient competition as a complete package, thanks especially to a pretty heavy first set and the particular feel of the second frame.
The first set’s solid construction was topped by the first “Fluffhead” performed in The Mothership since it triumphantly opened the reunion run in 2009. Then, the second set’s “Tweezer,” five years to the day since the unforgettable Fall 2013 performance, added another version to stand proudly with its siblings from 1997, 2003, and 2013. And, those were by no means the only highlights worthy of your attention...
Opening last night’s show was the third rendition of “Llama” since 2015 to be performed in “a slow funk style,” an interesting approach no doubt to one of Phish’s fastest tempoed songs with typically rapid-fire lyrics. Here, Page gets the first at-bat to get the crowd moving with the clavinet, and he comes through for sure to set Trey up for a subdued but soulful little solo that remains respectful to “fast” “Llama” while showcasing the gnarly tone he’s been deploying of late. In the two slot is the first “Fuego” of the tour. Showing up in the first set for the first time since 2016, this “Fuego” remains on the rails until it dies away to set up the night’s first roamer.
“Runaway Jim” always seems like it’s just this close to being bust wide open even though in 3.0 it mostly stays around the house, and tonight it felt inevitable as soon as Trey found the melody in the ambience from the end of “Fuego.” While obviously not a second set behemoth, this version has an undeniable strength across both of its instrumental sections. The first one gets especially weird as Page lays a crazy synth soundscape for Trey to develop looping ideas that propel Mike and Fish, as well. When it slowly slides back into the “Runaway Jim” melody, it’s clear this version is not perfunctory. Trey’s solo in the second section features rich playing as well, with full complement from Page co-leading on the grand while the bass and drums stay lockstep with their ideas.
“Bug” as a landing pad after almost 30 minutes of dance partying is not a bad place to find that song in the first set honestly, much preferable at least for me than in the send-off slot as an encore. Dusting off “Mound” for the first time since The Baker’s Dozen, this version is mostly well-played and welcome at this point in the set. Continuing with another song in that category, “Tela” puts Page under the spotlight next, and of course he doesn’t disappoint. While not perfectly executed, as is too often the case with this rarity, it’s still beautiful and gives a lot of fans another one to add to their “songs seen” stats.
Now, if anyone was concerned with a deflation of energy in this first set, the next two songs certainly dispelled that impression. This “46 Days” does not sprawl as far as we have seen it go in the last few years, but you better believe this is one of those compact intense rides that leaves pants on the floor and faces in puddles. With Page bubbling the B-3, Trey, Mike, and Fish find a space in which they were clearly hearing each other well. With deliberate patience, the band builds this one into a tremendous peak before seamlessly finding the melody to finish the song, which is itself another exciting peaky workout.
It’s worthwhile to note that the vocal outro has a little extra mustard also, and this has been true more generally so far this Fall. Another good example is “Undermind” from the night before, among numerous others no doubt. Fans are definitely wondering if the surprises in store for Halloween in Vegas may have something to do with the notable improvements from the band vocally, especially Trey.
But, before people can collect themselves to question whether that was all for now, Trey calls for “Fluffhead.” It’s worth remarking on how awesome it is that here we are, nine-plus years after they began their reunion with this in 2009 in the exact same building that we have had so many great shows to enjoy. It’s almost unbelievable when one calculates the same number of years from the end of 1.0 backwards you arrive all the way in 1991, which seems like an altogether alternate reality, the year the band finally made it “all the way” to the West Coast. The stretch since the band last played “Fluffhead” inside The Mothership now accounts for significantly more than 25% of the band’s total time together. Furthermore, if you compare from about 1993, notwithstanding the time away from the road, exactly half of that time period is known as 3.0.
Anyway, about this “Fluffhead,” it’s by no means a sparkling example. They struggle with “The Chase” as well as the beginning of “Fluff’s Travels,” and the tempo is altogether slower than some of us may prefer. Nevertheless, as they wind their way through the song’s various movements, the whole is greater than the parts, but Fish’s antics during “Bundle of Joy” don’t really forgive them the complete stop they have to take to get the ending ready to nail. What followed was a long setbreak definitely well-earned.
As soon as “First Tube” kicked off the second set, I had a good feeling we were probably not getting a Saturday Night Special, that particular breed of show we associate with the Phish jukebox, complete with lagging segments pulled down by ballads where we wish they were not and “ripchords” in lieu of natural progression. “Tweezer” in the two spot of the second set just felt right, and the band delivered a kind of Dr. Jekyll (see: Hyde) to the previous night’s evil excursion. By no means simply a quick major-key jaunt, this expansive version nevertheless feels airy and open, pleasant in fact, pushed along by strong collective melodic ideas, particularly from Trey early, and a shared patience to let the space between them naturally close as it wound up to a more of a high plateau than a peak.
Trey found a small opening in the fade of the long jam to fit the lilting guitar line for “Dirt.” Certainly not a segue, the song fit well into the moment, carrying the groundedness of the set forward with delicate ease. “Backwards Down the Number Line” similarly found its footing quickly in the space at the end of Dirt. This “Tweezer” > “Dirt” > “Number Line” stretch was a powerful invitation for reflection. Having lost my first (Summer 96) tour compatriot this past month certainly shaded my feelings (RIP Bennett), and I know I am not alone in that experience. While I definitely prefer when the band takes us playfully to the edge of the depths of hell like on Friday, I can’t thank them enough for space in which to think seriously about mortality while sharing in the ecstatic joy of collective celebration.
As soon as “No Men in No Man’s Land” splashes to life at the end of “Number Line,” all resting bodies comes to life. This version is again notable for the quality of Trey’s vocal performance. “Something has changed.” Appropriate for the pace of the set so far, this has a slower tempo, and Trey’s focus on his vocal delivery carries over into a tightly focused section that eventually sees Trey pull back to make room for Page’s synth-swells, an ever more important part of the band’s sound, which filter out into a crazy wash of noise. The crowd was quiet, listening and adrift, when the song’s final chorus creeps out of nowhere. The first downbeat of “Cavern” hits like a splash of water to the face. This version makes it through safely without much embellishment. It does its job.
The third performance of “Gotta Jibboo” in 2018 comes next, continuing its run since 2014 as generally placed in the second set. “Jibboo” and “Suzy Greenberg” were used similarly on Sunday at Dick’s this year, but the inclusion of “Oh Kee Pa Ceremony” livens it up some, even if Trey defers to Page to carry much of the momentum. Page similarly handles “Suzy” like a boss, and Trey clearly appreciates it when he returns to deliver the last chorus. “Shine a Light” gets its first performance since the Dozen in its regular role as closer, and that’s it for the encore. “Tweezer Reprise” is left hanging on the moon for tomorrow, along with the excitement for another Sunday journey on The Mothership.
Fall Tour has begun with gusto, picking up exactly where Dick’s left off before Labor Day. Albany’s double header featured multiple noteworthy performances, and both nights so far in Hampton have left no one disappointed. So, while the heartbreak of the canceled Curveball lingers faintly still for everyone, the band clearly wants us to be happy. The momentum continues to accelerate as the band makes its way to their third straight Halloween in Vegas and tenth three-set special event.
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