Music News

Rock of Ages

Phish launched the second set of its summer tour opener at the Cricket Pavilion in Phoenix July 7 with the agile rocker "Birds of a Feather." The twentysomethings in the aisles looked thrilled, twirling and bouncing along to the song's opening chords. And, just like the old days, someone next to me gladly offered me a hit of his intoxicant.

It was good shit, homeboy said as he handed over his, er, gin and tonic.

So much for the college flashback. Looking around the crowd, it struck me that Phish's audience has aged along with the band. The post-Dead, utopian celebration has morphed into a dinner party. Some of the same kids who rode from town to town following the band while forgoing showers, shaving or other downer examples of responsibility are hitched now and gainfully employed. No wonder they can still afford tickets at $40 a pop.

Fortunately, maturity, theirs and ours, suits Phish well, so that this return felt like less of an intense, audience-participation event and more of an actual concert featuring supreme musicians. It's easier to appreciate this band without all the youthful shenanigans surrounding it. The show marked Phish's first summer outing in three years, the first since it lifted a two-year "hiatus" last winter. Prior to their hibernation, Phish's shows, the band's lucrative meal ticket, had begun to grow stale, as burnout and persistent worry about where next to take the live shows crept in, and once-prodigious, remarkably musical onstage jams veered toward aimless, space-invading mush. People who once swore by Trey Anastasio's ax proficiency and 40-minute freak-outs about some guy named Hood -- like me -- began to wonder, and to lament. In fact, I wanted badly to trash this reunion as another example of old-timers looking to cash in on nostalgia.

But it didn't unfold that way. The break, it seems, is exactly what Phish, and especially Anastasio, needed. The band sounded confident, mostly steering away from soup and toward some of its strongest work. They didn't tiptoe through the jams, and the set list, which to a Phish fan is like cheap meth, was as self-assured as it has been in recent memory. The intent was clear and surprising from the opening song. "Stash" is one of Phish's tightest, most jazz-inspired tunes, built on a light groove and fostered by Anastasio's snaking, expressive lead work. The band followed with "Sample in a Jar," among its simplest, riff-driven pop songs, and "Billy Breathes," a gentle country ballad also reliant on lead-guitar precision. All three are crowd favorites, and the selections conveyed a basic populism that had been missing before the hiatus, which Phish solidified later in the set with "David Bowie," their goofiest but most electrifying long jam.

This renewed Phish, though, likes to test its faithful's burgeoning maturity. Its songs have grown more sophisticated and deliberate over the years, favoring melody and complex chord progressions to the burn of acid rock or the smiles of white-boy funk and country ditties. The mother of all jam bands, to borrow that old Saddam standard, isn't so interested in the jam these days, as it proved with "Waves" and "Anything But Me," two songs from Round Room, its most recent album. While the former competes with the band's earliest work in terms of its ebb and flow and length, it is built around just one riff, so that the supple solos and piano excursions cannot stray too far from the source. It is disciplined and accomplished, not the requisite fodder for drug hazes. "Anything But Me" is a soul-searching, self-deprecating ballad that also leaves the wah-wah on the sideline. To dig it takes a sturdy listen -- a chore evidently for the fan behind me who yelled, "Let's rock!!"

As if to reward that guy, and the thousands of others like him, for their loyalty through all of the changes in their lives, Phish ended their night with three of their prime examples of how to successfully reconcile their musical growth with the need to rock. "Walls of the Cave," another Round Room cut, borders on Al Stewart-brand light rock, with a classical piano interlude and lilting melody, and then segues into a sloppy, searing guitar workout. "Prince Caspian" features Anastasio's most evocative riff, a beautiful eight-note sequence; by song's end, he blazes through a gorgeous solo. "Character Zero" is an ideal encore, an upbeat, riff-rocking sing-along. The band sent the fans home remembering why they adopted the band in the first place.

Phish may not represent the glorious excuse to indulge in pastel-colored stupidity it once was, but it's still one of the best bands in the world, one that, despite the higher ticket prices, should remain as refreshing as a well-mixed gin and tonic for years. -- By Christopher O'Connor

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Christopher O'Connor