Tuscaloosa, Alabama • August 2, 2015
By William Fuller
Downtown Tuscaloosa, Alabama has taken on a distinctly different flavor in recent years. Let’s be honest here, most out of state visitors find themselves in town to watch their favorite college football team lose. They may comfortably drown their sorrows in any number of bars without really pausing to consider the transformation that is afoot around them. But for semifrequent visitors (this author included), there is now a palpable buzz around the city, a feeling which seems to be rising almost as steadily as the high-rise developments springing up at every turn. The sense of excitement was magnified on Sunday, August 2nd, all in advance of an event which brought an entirely different flock of spectators to the streets of the Druid City. On that night, the eyes of Tuscaloosa were squarely trained on a four piece band from Burlington, Vermont.
For most of you, Phish needs no introduction. The band made their beginning playing in the empty bars of a college town over thirteen hundred miles away from banks of the Black Warrior River, a body of water that for all intents and purposes served as ground zero for the Tuscaloosa concert. Over the last three decades, Phish has morphed into one of the most successful touring acts in rock and roll. Much of their success can be attributed to the fact that the founding members (Trey Anastasio-guitar/Mike Gordon-bass/ Jon Fishman-drums/ Page McConnell-keys) all still play a vital role in the band’s creative process. Speaking purely from a fan’s perspective, I have developed a certain level of comfort in seeing Phish perform live. Strangely enough, much of that comfort lies in the unknown, or shall we say, the element of surprise. In my estimation, the ability to provoke those feelings is what makes the band great.
Coming on the heels of two very strong shows in Atlanta, fans had good reason to expect more of the same from Phish in Tuscaloosa. The show began with a straightforward version of “Sample in a Jar.” This song choice afforded concertgoers an early opportunity to slap hands and sing along, mostly while clutching multiple adult beverages (a necessity when facing long refreshment lines) and/or cursing the lack of WiFi at the venue (which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone this day and age). The dance party truly commenced with the opening notes of “Chalk Dust Torture,” a rollicking tune on which Anastasio takes center stage. Two fan favorites to start off had some of us in the pit area wondering if the show might be a bit on the “standard” side of the Phish spectrum. Next up was a much rarer cut, with Gordon providing vocals on “Train Song.” It is always a treat to catch that tune in the live setting. Although “Devotion to a Dream” would not be on my short list of songs to hear, I did notice quite a few smiles on faces around me. At the conclusion of “Devotion,” McConnell took a moment to acknowledge the crowd and the band’s over twenty year absence from the city.
The most interesting selection in the first set was another Gordon original – “Meat.” Prior to Tuscaloosa, this short, but funky number had not been played in over a year (Portsmouth 7/30/14) and only seven times total since the band resumed touring in 2009. The interplay between McConnell and Gordon here was one of the highlights of the entire show for me. In keeping with that thought, Fishman’s “Maze” intro got the crowd juiced up for what would be a blistering version of the song. This provided the first real opportunity for new faces in the crowd to see the quartet fully locked in and causing havoc onstage. A close friend of mine summed it up well with a casual remark: “It’s all about the tension and release.” I would have been content to walk away right then and there. While “The Line” is one of Anastasio’s more interesting stories lyrically, its placement seemed to cut the head off the beast, so to speak. There are only a handful of songs in Phish’s catalogue that I enjoy more than “Roggae.” For a band so well known for its bending jams, this is a strikingly patient arrangement, guided from the start by Fishman’s steady lead. And of course, there is this stunning reflection in the chorus: “If life were easy and not so fast, I wouldn’t think about the past.” When relistening to the show, I noticed that the closing notes of “Roggae” drew some of the loudest applause of the night, just as the band shifted into the “My Friend My Friend.” After a winding intro, Gordon hits his signature bass note on this one, signaling that it’s time to get down business, if only briefly. In my opinion, the “46 Days” placement was perfect, and after a quick look at the time, I figured it would close the set. This version had some extra spice to it, especially Anastasio’s screeching licks. But Phish wanted more, and quickly kicked into the always welcomed “Cavern,” which whipped the adoring crowd into frenzy as the band implored us to take care of our shoes.
Due to the fact that it not been played in four shows, “Down with Disease” was a pretty safe bet to open the second set, and so began one of the better second sets Phish has played so far this summer. The band’s modus operandi leading up to Sunday night in Tuscaloosa had been to start second sets with some heavy improvisation; the “Kill Devil Falls” and “Tweezer” at the Atlanta shows each clocked in at over twenty-five minutes. Suffice to say the bar had been set high for those attending a third consecutive show (For their sake, let’s hope said attendees took Monday off). This particular “Disease” fell just short of the twenty minute mark, but was not short on fireworks. My favorite moment came during the not so subtle “Piper” teases at around the halfway point of the jam. I whispered to a friend that “Piper” was sure come next, but I very happily ate my crow when the unfinished “Disease” segued into the sporadically played “Camel Walk.” It is one of the oldest Phish originals, dating all the way back to 1984, and had some of my fellow patrons strutting their stuff (Or just running into each other aimlessly). Earlier, I mentioned that Phish devotees are just that largely due to the element of surprise that the band brings on stage. In more recent years, the band has been giving the special treatment to songs that some fans aren’t necessarily used to lapping up (This is a reference to Anastasio in the 2000 documentary Bittersweet Motel. Be sure to check it out if you aren’t familiar with the title.) That moment came with the third song of the second set in Tuscaloosa – “Seven Below.” If you weren’t at the show and just want to listen to the audio, feel free to skip the first five minutes and dive straight in the heart of the matter. You must not miss Anastasio’s playing in this instance, as it is razor sharp. I’m very glad I stuck around rather than fighting the crowd in hopes of a bathroom break.
The set kept rolling with the title track off Phish’s latest studio album (Fuego – released in 2014). At this juncture, “Fuego” appears to have found a place in the band’s regular rotation of songs. While the lyrics may conjure strange imagery, it is no slouch musically. With that said, the version in Tuscaloosa didn’t really stand out compared to some others that have been played in the last year. What broke out next was a full on space age dance party. I’m speaking, of course, of “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” or as it’s more commonly referred to, “2001.” Walk up to anyone outside of a Phish show and ask them to name three songs that they are hoping to hear on that night. There’s a very good chance “2001” will make the cut for most. It’s one of those songs you can never really walk away from feeling disappointed with (Aside: If you’re reading this Trey, Mike, Jon, or Page, by all means feel free to drop some extended versions a la 1999. You won’t catch us complaining). After the band descended from its mid-set flight, it was time for one of the most quintessential Phish songs – “Harry Hood.” This may come across as weird to anyone who may be new to the band, but whenever I have the opportunity to see the song live I almost always wind up closing my eyes to take in the full picture. This particular version was tight at the outset, but came to a bit of an abrupt ending with Anastasio calling off the dogs. The energy was turned back up immediately with the set closing “Possum,” which often tends to give some fans a higher vertical than LeBron James. Glow sticks rained down from every conceivable angle as the band made their way through the classic.
Given that the show concluded prior to 10:30 p.m., I had high hopes for a multiple song encore, perhaps even a “Slave to the Traffic Light” to cap off the night. Instead, Phish opted for one of their favorite covers – the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” Overall, the show had its moments but lacked a bit in comparison to the aforementioned Atlanta shows. Even still, our group was riding high well upon departure. That special post-show feeling will keep me seeing Phish for many years to come.