Oh, what a beautiful buzz: Phish returns to Vermont

Kyle Martel photo

Originally published in the Rutland Herald on 9/20/11.

The last time Phish played in Vermont, it was a deluge. And it took another one to bring them back. Wednesday night marked Phish’s return to its home state of Vermont, giving fans a show that has been seven years in the making. It was well worth the wait.

The performance, which took place at the Champlain Valley Exposition in Essex Junction, was a benefit for the victims of Tropical Storm Irene, raising more than $1.2 million for the Waterwheel Foundation and the Vermont Community Foundation to aid in flood recovery.

The event drew an estimated 12,000 fans to the Expo — a far cry from the approximately 70,000 that descended on Vermont the last time the band played here in 2004 with its “final” run of shows at Coventry.

In contrast to the logistical nightmare that characterized the Coventry shows, Wednesday night was smooth sailing. Traffic, despite pre-show rumors otherwise, was hassle-free. Inside, both fans and security were respectful, creating a festive, easy vibe — exactly how it should be for an event of this nature.

Some in the press have criticized fans, and by extension the band, for throwing a party when so many Vermonters are still recovering from Irene’s devastation. While I understand this argument, I and the rest of the Restoring Rutland volunteers in attendance take exception with such a generalization. And I am proud that overall, fans seemed to respect the purpose of this show and conducted themselves appropriately.

Wednesday’s show was a strong outing in what has become a consistently high quality era of Phish. The band’s previous era (pre-Coventry) had been a mixed bag. At times, it was sonically interesting, complex and frequently dark (in a good way). But, too often, their playing was sloppy and unfocused — something the band had itself has acknowledged. Long gone are the endless jams and four-song sets that were the hallmark of their 2.0 era.

When Phish returned in 2009, they possessed a new energy and tightness that won back many a fan left jaded from past disappointments. But while Phish 3.0 has been solidly dependable, it wasn’t until last fall that I noted a true return to form.

Until then, they had been playing it safe, holding back. They kept the improvisation tight, getting right to the point. Conversely, this new tightness at times came at the cost of more experimentation and the full-band interplay, qualities that have made Phish, well, Phish.

But last fall all that changed. The musical conversation between band members got more interesting and playful, jams were allowed to develop and evolve without losing purpose. They were back. And while guitarist Trey Anastasio does still occasionally exhibit “Trey-DD” — abruptly starting a new song just as a jam is developing — the band’s overall playing is some of the best they done in years.

And Wednesday night was no exception. Prior to the show’s rocking “Chalk Dust Torture” opener, bassist Mike Gordon took the stage to welcome the crowd and introduce Gov. Peter Shumlin, who himself brought some genuine energy to the stage. It always makes me smile to see a politician out of his or her element — all awkward and trying just a bit too hard to not be a square — but Shumlin held his own. (I can only imagine how much more entertaining Jim Douglas would have been up there, though.)

Diving into the first set, the band was all business, delivering a high-energy setlist that was light on ballads — a danceable mix of straight ahead rockers, gritty funk and several old school fan favorites.
Closing out the set with an 11-minute “Julius” — the band’s bluesy nod to Caesar — Anastasio and keyboardist Page McConnell enjoyed some fun interplay before Trey let loose with some fiery guitar lines launching the band into set break in fine fashion.

After what felt like a uncommonly short break, set two opened with a dark and drawn out “Carini,” beginning an uninterrupted series of songs that would not wind down until mid-set. The band played off one another and listened intently, allowing room to expand and contract as songs morphed, abandoning form entirely before reconstituting around a new idea.

Throughout this excursion the band’s playing felt neither aimless nor rushed — themes and textures were picked up, played upon and relinquished organically. Gordon and drummer Jon Fishman held down bottom good as ever while Anastasio and McConnell created an alternately complex and sparse musical landscape.

Nearing the close of the set, two rockers took the place of where a low-key ballad might have otherwise dropped the energy level. “Susy Greenberg” allowed McConnell to shine on the keys and synth, making all the more true the “Page side, rage side” maxim of longtime concertgoers.

Anastasio, then, took center stage for the “Character Zero” set closer — a massive arena rocker that gave us one last bit of Rock Star Trey before setting us off into the night with a sweet and equally rockable cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Loving Cup” for an encore.

Oh, what a beautiful buzz, indeed.

On a second listen, this show holds up well. Often, the vibe of being at a show can cloud the objectivity of one’s ear. However, here Phish delivered in a big way. The music was tight, the vocals were clear and once again the band is playing with all their heart.

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