Maybe it was because the run began on a Thursday night. Or maybe it was because of the delayed gate opening from the round of thunderstorms that rolled through Saratoga just before the venue was to open, but the Latin phrase ‘Non sequitur’ for “that which does not follow” can easily be used to sum up Phish’s first night performance at Saratoga Performing Arts Center on July 3rd, 2014.
Expectations are always high when Phish comes to play at SPAC. Phans based in the Capital District consider SPAC to be Phish’s summer home venue. Even the band themselves have said as much in media interviews. With one night of summer tour already under their belt, a new album from which to showcase material from and rumors that few covers were to be played this tour, the hard-core phans question was ‘How would the band handle song selection and position?’ The answer: Rather oddly.
The other oddity was drummer Jon Fishman’s scaled back drum kit with fewer cymbals, snare drums and the absence of the wood blocks under his hi-hat. Phishheads were lamenting the elimination of the woodblocks and various cymbals from which Fish draws distinctive sounds for certain songs like “Walls of the Cave”, “It’s Ice”, “Reba” and “Fluffhead”. Summer tour has just begun and already phans are in crisis mode: First, there may be no covers which traditionally serve as launch pads for exploratory jamming (think “Torn & Frayed”, “Cross-Eyed and Painless”, “Boogie on Reggae Woman”) and now the possible elimination of other songs from the repertoire because of the changes to the drum kit. Or perhaps new takes on old favorites from our favorite drummer with a less is more approach? You have to love a band that knocks you out of your comfort zone.
We were certainly knocked out of our comfort zone with the odd selection of “Farmhouse” as the opening tune. First songs lay the vibe for the rest of the set and a slow tempo song about cluster-flies and swatting them on what was turning out to be a damp, cloudy, and foggy night did make for an unusual statement. “Wolfman’s Brother” was funky as usual but delivered at a sleepy relaxed pace as if the band was still warming their hands and fingers up from the lingering drizzle. The band seemed to pick up the tempo with “Maze”. It was jarring enough to get our attention but a little rough around the edges in the interplay between Anastasio and McConnell. Would “Maze” prove to be the launch pad for the rest of the set?, one that flows with synchronized dark nasty jams or would it continue to be a disjointed mishmash of singles? We got our answer with the sleepy reggae of “Yarmouth Road” and another song with lyrics about insects. So this means “Bug” is coming, right? Nope, “Strange Design” was up next. But it is clearly making sense. The set-list is just strangely designed so that is why they are playing “Strange Design”.
Now that we are all feeling strange and sleepy about this set, Trey takes us to REM sleep with “Devotion to a Dream”, the first of four songs to be played tonight from Fuego. We are on a dreamy journey of the band’s 30+ year history. It seems to now be headed in the right, albeit strange direction which is beginning to seem by design . “Ocelot” begins the wake-up call and delivers with its usually jamtastic but too short ending. The alarm clock has sounded “Chalkdust Torture”. “Mound”, the dreamlike but awesome “Roggae” and “Possum” closed out an odd strange first set.
Set Two began with a 15-minute plus “Bathtub Gin” and a 12-minute plus “Limb-by-Limb”, which was by far the highlight of the evening. The almost half hour of music in Set Two’s first two songs makes up for the sleepy weird first set. Everyone is stoked for the energy to continue. But would “2001” make an appearance in the three spot? Nope, that’s a cover. Mon dieu and Merde! Instead, the second song from Fuego, “WinterQueen” bats third and allows those of us who danced and raged silly during the first thirty minutes to dial it down and catch a breath (not that we needed it after set I). My own personal feeling is that “WinterQueen” is a first set song and will hopefully find a home there. “The Line”, the third song from Fuego (for those readers unfamiliar with the story), is about basketball player Darius Washington, Jr., who as a freshman and Conference USA Rookie of the year and a 72% free throw shooter for the University of Memphis missed two of three free throw attempts during a game vs University of Louisville. Had he made all three attempts Memphis would have beaten the then sixth ranked Louisville Cardinals.
“Tweezer”, “Prince Caspian” and the playful and fun “Sparkle” are always fun and frolicking, but a not-so-special/best all time “Antelope” ended Set II. Phish returned to the stage and performed a two song encore: “Sing Monica”, which has a throw-back 60’s vibe to it ala the Beatles era, and Tweezer Reprise.
A brief recap of night one of Phish at SPAC would sound like this: Interesting song selection and placement in a definitely weird somnolent first set. The Fuego material is all worthy of being added into the rotation and the songs will find their homes. The show definitely left us with questions about covers, and how Fishman will get the same sounds in songs on his stream-lined drum kit. We definitely have something to talk about and ponder and as always the carrots were dangled that leave us wanting more. Just no clusterflies please.
Set 1: Farmhouse, Wolfman’s Brother, Maze, Yarmouth Road, Strange Design, Devotion to a Dream, Ocelot, Chalkdust, Mound, Roggae, Possum
Set 2: Bathtub Gin > Limb By Limb > Winterqueen, The Line, Tweezer > Caspian > Sparkle, Antelope
Encore: Sing Monica > Tweeprise