A weekend of Phish at SPAC, July 6-8

SPAC official poster by Rich Kelly

After almost a month of playing what has been hailed as one of their best in over a decade, Phish made a final stop in Saratoga for a truly amazing three night run at Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC). Fans packed local hotels, Lee’s Campground and the couches and floorspace of friends and family to prepare for the end to a great tour. Phish has had some good tours since they got back (Fall 2010, Summer 09 leg 2, NYE 2010) but as the tour evolved, it became clear that Phish had devoted time and effort into finding that 3.0 sound on a regular basis inside shows, as well as reintroducing an aire of unpredictability to their setlists. Practice and a more focused band generated best-of performances of songs, especially Carini and Sand, plus huge bustouts of songs long shelved, namely Little Feat’s Skin it Back, played for the first time in 24 years at Jones Beach on July 3rd. To both tour vets and new and excitable phans, the shows at SPAC were slated to ring out the tour with a bang.

Friday, the venue and sprawling parking lots were filled with fans of all ages, as Phish has become a true family affair, with parents bringing kids and phamily traveling long distances to see each other and enjoy some amazing music along the way.

The show started with Runaway Jim and progressed through first set crowd favorites before opening up Tube (finally!) for a rare appearance of Talking Heads’ ‘Psycho Killer’ which energized the crowd immeasurably. If that wasn’t enough, the organ of Argent’s ‘Hold Your Head Up’ presented us not with Jon Fishman, but Friar Tuck, the running name gag from Fish, derived from his tucking of his dress into his boxers, now in the same pattern as his iconic dress. Tuck brought out a large pair of cymbals which meant ‘Cracklin’ Rosie’, last heard in 1999. The crowd sang loudly with Tuck before he dashed around the stage and bowed over and over again. The rest of the set had Stash, a beautiful Corinna and excellent set closer in Light Up Or Leave Me Alone

Set 2 charged out the gates with three jam-worthy songs: Chalk Dust Torture > Carini > Sand. By the time the funk had settled, 20+ minutes had elapsed and we were all sweaty. If that sounds like sex, the reason is simple: thats what it is like when Phish performs at their best, something that satiated many a fan this summer. The set continued to roll with Roses Are Free > Punch You In the Eye > Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley -> Ghost > Suzy Greenberg, a set of songs with monster jam potential, capped with Tom Marshall and Steve Pollak onstage for the lyrics to Run Like an Antelope. Loving Cup capped a great show as fans meandered back down to their hotels and latenight plans.

Featured latenight Wyllys and NY Hustler Ensemble, took Putnam Den by storm, unleashing an energetic and powerful performance. Wyllys tore through albums and sweat bullets as he spun with hardly a break over two hours. Alongside him was Jennifer Hartswick on trumpet, Steve Molitz (Particle) on keys and Derek VanScoten on guitar. Ferocious jams grew from Wyllys’ mixing and generated a dance party of the gorgeous Phish female variety. Anyone who has yet to experience the Hustler Ensemble is missing great dance music and an eclectic combination of musicians blending their sounds together fluidly.

Saturday brought more of Friday’s heat, as well as NYS Music’s own Tabitha Clancy, who attended her first Phish show that (read Tabitha’s thoughts on the show in italics below).

The show got off to an interesting start with Grind, a barbershop quartet tune, followed by a well laid out set, including a solid version of Cities->Maze and Peaches en Regalia> Bathtub Gin.

“I meandered into the thick crowd weaving in and out and around whatever little pathway down the lawn I could find.  So far, in the parking lots, at the concessions, and on the lawn, everyone was jovial, pleasant, courteous and generous.  No sooner did I take my spot on the lawn, a four part vocal harmony broke out yonder.  Phish began a cappella and the entire crowd was at attention.  Another misconception was now proven wrong.  I always thought the Phish scene was for the drugs, not the music.  I was wrong, dead wrong.  These people loved their music first and foremost.  As the sun began to set, Phish and their fans were inching their way into my heart.”

The second set started with a bang, sandwiching the rarely played cover (last time in 1998) Blister in the Sun in between two parts of Down with Disease, which segued seamlessly into Boogie on Reggae Woman, TV on the Radio’s Golden Age and 2001, making for nearly an hour of jams and dancing for the eager crowd.

“Going into this not knowing any songs, it would be unfair of me to attempt any sort of set list review.  I can say this, I was immediately impressed with Page McConnell.  He had all his various keyboard equipment under his command at every moment.  He was boxed in but it was as though he only had to wave a finger on an ivory press, and bam”

A trio of songs for the weary to rest their feet and bodies followed: Backwards Down the Number Line> Prince Caspian-> Scent of a Mule, the latter with one of many Blister teases. A Mike’s Groove sandwiching Contact in between wrapped up the set, but not the show, as a tribute to fallen Beastie Boy MCA was in order, with a fired up crowd responding to the classic ‘Sabotage’

“All the musicians looked as though they were up there to do what they love.  I saw lots of smiles on stage.  The crowd added to the experience as well, they too are as much a part of the show as the music. And they know their cues.  For example, during “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” on the last peak in each instrumental chorus, the entire audience tossed up their glow sticks.”

The crowd left knowing there was only one more day for more Phish magic, one more day of bustouts and Type II jamming that defies explanation to non-phans; this is part of the power of Phish, where you can rage a show proper but explain it to a friend? Quite difficult.

“Much of what my assumptions were, have been proven wrong.  I enjoyed Phish at what has become their hometown turf.  I am doubtful I will become a die-hard follower, but I would definitely see them again nearby.  Overall, I was happy to be a part of what amounts to be an experience – one that everyone should have at least once.”

Once out of the venue and headed to downtown Saratoga, Putnam Den held a sold-out show with Dead Sessions, Vermont’s premiere Grateful Dead tribute band. The show doubled as a celebration of The Waterwheel Foundation’s 15th anniversary and a portion of ticket sales benefitted their work to keep Lake Champlain clean. Seth Yacavone, a gifted guitarist, took the lead on many vocals, notably Cold Rain and Snow, Alabama Getaway and Half-Step. Vocalist Christina Durfee added radiant harmony and danced onstage to the music, mirroring the full house. Post-shows are designed for the latenight revelers and unfulfilled dancers, both of which made Putnam Den and easy hot ticket this early Sunday Morning.

And now it was upon us: the end of tour. Sometimes bittersweet, sometimes long sought, the final show of this 19 show tour had fans on the edge of their seats, with a great number of songs possible and excitement teething from the lots to the pit.

Sunday Funkday began with AC/DC Bag > My Soul followed by Camel Walk. Sample in a Jar gave the crowd a breath before Wilson segued into Party Time. A rare and soft Driver followed Gumbo and Nellie Kane, landing into Foam. If I Could provided a soft interlude for couples and fans of this now-rare song off 1994’s Hoist and the one two punch of Split Open and Melt > La Grange (ZZ Top) got the crowd down and dirty, along with a smattering of “FUCK YEAH!’s” from the crowd when La Grange appeared for the first time in over 300 shows.

First-timer and Niskayuna resident Reece Taylor shared his take on his show experience (in italics below).:

“Seeing the band on stage was amazing. The five string bass laid down some groove work and Trey sung with his guitar. It was a first, watching band members bounce on a trampoline while still playing instruments or at all for that matter. The band sounds almost prog rock but showed they have many other influences. The cool crowd had a laid back persona for the most part”

Set 2 brought the heat and spacey jamming inside and out of numerous songs. Opening with Axilla > Light > Twist was a “we’re not done just yet” statement, segueing into every song and not stopping till David Bowie said so. A unique version of Kill Devil Falls > My Friend, My Friend was cooled down with the rare Swept Away > Steep which moved peacefully into Piper, a competitor for best SPAC Piper yet, rivaling 2004’s version. From there, Free moved into a spooky Kung, a stellar Harry Hood,  Cavern and David Bowie to cap things. Returning to the stage for the encore, Page gave thanks to the fans and their crew for the support and love this tour, and the band dipped into You Enjoy Myself, only the second version this tour of their most-played song. The crowd went nuts for much of the song’s 20 minutes, rising high to the occasion during the peaks and lyrics “Boy. Man. God. Shit.” letting their energy pour that one last drop to end the show.

The three nights of Phish at SPAC proved to be a highlight run of the tour, although the level at which Phish is playing these days, fans will debate the best show of Summer 2012 for quite sometime. This is due in part to a ‘something for everyone’ quality to the shows, as well as Phish fans willing to debate all aspects of the band, ad nauseum. All the bustouts of rarely played songs have added to anticipation among fans, because the best thing about all the bustouts is that they are ALL in play now. Expect the unexpected at Phish and don’t miss them next time they roll into town, its worth it every single time.

Photos by Andy Hill for NYS Music