Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Saturday Night At Wrigley, Phish Plays a Rather Strong Center Phield, Especially in the Dark -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Wrigley Field, Chicago
June 25, 2016 (also played 6/24)

Corresponding to last weekend’s pair of concerts by Phish at Chicago’s historic Wrigley Field were a good number of Facebook posts and comments that seemed to reflect the polarized reactions the erstwhile Vermont quartet tends to engender.

On one extreme were phervent Phish-heads who seem to follow the band with the devotion of a religious cult, seeing Trey Anastasio, Mike Gordon, Page McConnell and Jon Fishman perform every chance they can get, routinely traveling to multiple cities, attending every gig of multi-night stands and knowing every note & lyric of every song played in setlists that entirely vary from show-to-show.

And then there were those espousing that they “just don’t get Phish,” decrying the similarity of their songs, the endless noodling of long jams, the phashions and phunky dance moves of the group’s phollowers, etc.

As with many things in life, when it comes to Phish I find myself fitting comfortably between the two extremes.

They are a band that has made some music I’ve liked, and a lot more that I either haven’t heard, haven't remembered or haven’t cared for.

Musically speaking, I can’t say I truly “get” what all the fawning fanaticism is about, but I realize others could say the same about my obsessive enjoyment of Bruce Springsteen or other artists I more avidly relish.

I appreciate Phish’s longevity, the loyalty and ardor of their community of phans, and--as I wrote about The Cure a few weeks ago--it would seem their popularity and predominance in a particular niche should merit inclusion in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, rather than the seeming disregard by those who vote on such.

Largely because of the affinity friends have had for the band, and also because I love live music and like to know what I may be missing, I saw Phish in 2003 following their hiatus and return, and again in 2009. Just one show each time, neither of which did much to convince me that they were a band closely aligned with my tastes.

But with Wrigley Field being my favorite place on Earth, at least among possible concert venues, and a decent ticket in the first row of the top section of the upper deck—which meant I could sit all night as most others stood—to be had on StubHub for just $20, I went to see Phish on Saturday.

Especially with it being a beautiful night, with a good seat, relaxed vibe and no bullshit in the stands around me, I’m glad I went, considerably more so than on my past Phishing trips.

I am not now planning to follow Phish around the country, but the show was good enough--in sum--to entice me to see them again if the time and place were right. (They have often seemed to play Alpine Valley, which is more of a hike than I would bother with.)

But though the band's first set was far from terrible, I can't deny that during it I was thinking this may be the last time I need to see Phish. (And really, that's still the case, though I wouldn't mind another show with all the right variables.)

After the band came onstage at 7:45pm, opening with "Moma Dance" (a song I've heard before but mainly know by name), during the hour before the sun set Phish mixed tunes I found middling verging on boring--and likely rather emblematic of the "I don't get Phish" sentiments--with a handful of more upbeat tunes I liked much better.

These included "AC/DC Bag"--a song dating back to the mid-'80s--"Heavy Things" and "Cavern." (See Saturday's full Phish setlist here.)

I jotted down in my notebook that Trey Anastasio's guitar playing sounded great in the old ballpark, but also that perhaps his soloing was the most special thing about Phish.

And though their first set-closing cover of Led Zeppelin's "Good Times, Bad Times"--with Page (McConnell) singing (Robert) Plant--sounded great, it was to me, notably far better than any of their own songs yet performed.

So if I rated just the first set, I'd have bestowed @@@1/2 (out of 5).

Hence, that I have awarded @@@@1/2 means Phish really stepped things up a few notches in the second set, and during some sublime long--but not laborious--jams, I began to "get" why many phans find Phish so phantastic.

After a 40-minute intermission, with the sky now dark and the backdrop lighting design working much better, the band kicked off with "Carini," that whether coincidental or not features a guitar riff that reminded be of Zeppelin's "Kashmir."

Most of the rest of the set, including "Tweezer," "Fluffhead," "Wading in the Velvet Sea," "Harry Hood" and "Tweezer Reprise," sounded pretty terrific to my ears.

What Phish does may not be for everyone, nor always or fully for me, but the four guys--who have been playing together for 30+ years and employ no touring sidemen to bolster their sound--are clearly first-rate musicians who in pretty much defining a "jam band" probably don't get the credit they deserve as a "rock band."

Ending the evening with The Beatles' "I Am The Walrus," after concluding Set I with Led Zeppelin--and doing a sweet a-cappella cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity" the night before--showed how important Phish's influences remain to them while re-iterating that they've had a rather remarkable career themselves.

So though the second set felt far more electric than the first--and seemingly not just in a low-hanging fruit sort of way to please posers like me drawn by the venue--the night in full had me more hooked on Phish than any prior encounters.

It won't put me in the camp of those who worship everything Phish does, but by hitting a late inning Grand Jam at Wrigley Phield, they helped move me further from those who fail to see anything special about the band beyond the Phish Food flavor of Ben & Jerry's.

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