Concert review: Phish cranked out the old-school jams to a packed house at Chaifetz Arena, Tuesday, August 28
King of all jam bands, Phish, made its triumphant return to St. Louis last night — its first summer tour stop here since appearing at the Fox Theater in 2009.
After playing such an intimate and acoustically perfect venue, it was a touch disappointing that they chose the somewhat sterile Chaifetz Arena for this go-around; the band, however, was anything but sterile, putting on a jam-packed show that harkened back to the band’s early ’90s heyday.
With a first set that lasted nearly two hours, Phish catered to its diehard fans by concentrating on some of its oldest material (the exception being the seemingly out of place “Ocelot” from its 2009 album “Joy”). Starting out strong with “Punch You in the Eye,” the crowd could sense that the band was ready to bring its A-game. The scene was set as hundreds of neon glow sticks flew through the air, from the upper levels down to the packed floor, and the audience began to undulate, like one giant, groovy creature.
Frontman and guitar virtuoso Trey Anastasio threw down one of the night’s many incredible solos during the upbeat “Runaway Jim,” supported by bassist Mike Gordon, keyboardist Page McConnell and drummer/percussionist Jon Fishman (in his signature polka-dot muumuu). Classic “Reba” was inspired, taking fans on a journey through its quirky, rapid-fire lyrical story into its catchy chorus and moving into the long instrumental jam that is one of the best examples of Phish’s true essence.
Fishman stepped out from behind the drum kit to play his signature Electrolux vacuum cleaner solo on “I Didn’t Know,” Anastasio introducing him as the “John Coltrane of the vacuum cleaner.” The deep reverberations spread through the crowd like a roll of thunder before the band moved into the opening notes of “The Curtain.” Phish showed off its jazz instrumental roots with a cover of Frank Zappa’s “Peaches En Regalia,” and the room’s energy hit a crescendo during catchy favorite “Sample in a Jar.”
After the grand final notes of that tune, I was almost certain it was time for a set break; but the band had other ideas — continuing to push on full-steam ahead with three tunes that pre-date their earliest albums, “The Sloth,” “Camel Walk” and “Possum,” during which McConnell was killing it on the keyboards like the second coming of Jerry Lee Lewis. As if that all wasn’t enough, they closed the set with a happy-go-lucky cover of Bob Dylan’s “Quinn the Eskimo.”
In addition to the great music pouring from the stage, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Phish’s light show, which is quite possibly the best in the business. With literally hundreds of lights in a spectrum of colors constantly moving and changing formations in perfect time to the music, their shows are a feast of sight as well as sound.
After about a 30-minute set break (during which most fans expressed sheer awe at the first set), Phish returned to provide another full hour of non-stop jams, picking up right where they left off with “Chalkdust Torture.” The band showed its funky side during much of this set, digging into heavy grooves like the highly danceable “Sand” and “Julius.” A cover of James Gang’s “Walk Away” was pure classic rock fun.
The evening hit its peak during “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (aka the theme from the film “2001: A Space Odyssey”), Phish repeatedly building up the crescendo of this classical Strauss piece, then laying it down hard into the funkiest of jams. There didn’t seem to be a single butt in a seat at this point (or at any point, really) — everyone from the floor to the rafters on their feet moving to the rhythm.
Stage assistants rolled out the mini-trampolines for “You Enjoy Myself,” another funky fan-favorite from Phish’s first studio album, “Junta.” Anastasio and Gordon merrily bounced up and down in unison with their instruments, childlike grins spread across their faces. One of the things I appreciate most about Phish is that the players always seem to be having at least as much fun as the audience; the band exhibits a sense of pure joy that radiates from the stage.
After the non-stop jam of a second set, they took it down a little bit for the encore, a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Shine a Light,” which was good, if a tad lackluster considering the three hours of music that preceded it. There is really no way to complain about this show, however, which ranks among the best Phish shows I have seen since my first one in 1992. It had the kind of set list most fans dream of.
What Phish proved mostly is that, after nearly 30 years, the band is still, if not even more so, at the top of its game. Phish has enjoyed almost three decades of success that doesn’t show any signs of slowing down — in part due to an extremely loyal fan base; but mostly due to the exceptional musicianship of all of its members. And while they are each incredibly talented, it’s hard to ignore Anastasio as the standout king of this quirky quartet. A classically trained musician and composer, Trey isn’t just a good guitarist: He’s one of the best to ever pick up the instrument; he proves it with every piercing note while still wearing a humble and sheepish smile.
Fans who were lucky enough to be in the Chaifetz Arena Tuesday night will be talking about this show for a long time to come. Those who missed it can download the entire show (or purchase a good old-fashioned CD) at the band’s website.