REVIEW: Phish in Augusta, ME

REVIEW: Phish in Augusta, ME
by Adam Perry for

Just imagine: It’s your first Phish show, and the band is full of smiles and energy in their home-base of New England; simultaneously, it’s your first time in New England and you’re at a Phish concert. All this describes my older brother’s experience in Augusta, Maine, last night—and his evening of firsts was great one.

Surrounded by the fantastic colors of Maine’s mid-fall foliage, the 7,000-capacity Augusta Civic Center was a perfect setting for the kind of intimate concert Phish was virtually unable to enjoy amid huge success in the late ’90s and early 2000s but now seems to insist on hosting. Indeed, the worst seat in the house would’ve been considered a premium spot at a now-classic Phish venue such as Madison Square Garden. Thus, pre-show excitement was high—and obviously shared by fans and band alike.

Opening with “Chalkdust Torture,” a rejuvenated Trey Anastasio and Co. got things going quickly with off-the-rails guitar rock a la 801, supporting Anastasio’s wild guitar maneuvers while flexing their newfound tightness during the song’s stop-on-a-dime transitions and conclusion. A meandering “Get Back on the Train” was followed by a gutsy version of the Rolling Stones’ “Torn and Frayed”—the lyrics of which, including “the guitar man’s got problems” repeatedly allude to Phish’s years past, when Anastasio’s substance-abuse problems affected the Vermont quartet both personally and musically.

The welcome additions of “Torn and Frayed” and “Shine a Light”—both from the Stones’ ’70s classic Exile On Main St., which Phish covered in full last Halloween—to Phish’s live repertoire especially make sense in tandem with songs from 2009’s Joy, as Exile was obviously a kind of role model for several songs on that rehab-themed album.

Joy was exactly the emotion exuded by the four members of Phish last night in Augusta, Anastasio and keyboardist Page McConnell repeatedly grinning at delighted fans and laughing at their silly handmade signs requesting obscure Phish tunes like “Dog Log” and “Guy Forget.” Just before launching into a spectacular version of “Bathtub Gin,” Anastasio pointed at a front-row fan’s “Bathtub Gin” t-shirt and asked, “Do you want to hear that one right now?”

“Yes!” the young fan exclaimed.

“OK, this one’s for you,” Anastasio replied.

Before a concise version of “Gumbo,” Anastasio also poked fun at drummer (and apparent “Gumbo” lyricist) Jon Fishman, who lives in nearby Lincolnville.

Speaking of the now-sober Anastasio, my brother later said, “I want whatever happy pills that guy is on.”

Giddiness aside, the first set in Augusta was all about big jams, from “Chalkdust” and “Gin” to “The Divided Sky,” “Possum,” and a blistering “46 Days.” Each one of these songs displayed how well rehearsed, connected and elated the four members of Phish are right now. Plus, the band’s impressive take on ZZ Top’s “Jesus Just Left Chicago” even gave McConnell ten minutes of blues to flash the growing skill and inspiration that’s made him arguably the most musically profound part of Phish since its reunion last year.

During the set break, my brother and I joked about our first concert together—ZZ Top in Pittsburgh, back in 1993, when I was 12. He said that Phish was “good…but the guitar player, his soloing is a lot looser than I thought he’d be.” Fair enough, but the second set left my brother mesmerized.

Leave it to Phish to possess the musicianship to make songs with lyrics as stupid as “I love meatballs” and “he runs like a junkyard dog with a brain of brass” sound like masterpieces, but that’s just what the foursome did during the second set in Augusta. I couldn’t explain to my brother why Phish sometimes seems apt to play hit-or-miss gigs at marquee sports arena in big cities and idyllic locations and then blow the roof off of quirky venues such as the Civic Center, an outdated basketball arena across from Wal-Mart in a town of 18,000 people, but it just seems to happen that way.

The second set in Augusta got going with “Fuck Your Face,” a demented (and long unplayed) ’80s Phish song, and peaked several times during deep group improvisations inside of “Mike’s Song,” “Light,” and “Harry Hood.”

“Light” found Phish entering some interesting atonal and Brian Eno-style ambient spaces—similar to where the group used to take the Round Room tune “Waves.” Also, representing one of very few low points, the poignant, romantic “Fast Enough For You” did seem out of place amid relatively silly lyrics and rampant experimentation—whether ambient/experimental or guitar-charged—but was followed by explosive versions of the bass-heavy songs “Weekapaug Groove” and “Free,” the latter showcasing Mike Gordon in a series of bass solos reminiscent of Jack Bruce’s legendary work on the Frank Zappa album Apostrophe.

After an exceptionally crisp set-ending cover of the Beatles classic “A Day in the Life,” which concluded with a noise workout that almost reached Sonic Youth territory, my brother turned to me and said simply, “That was awesome.”

For me, the real surprise—and a testament to the confident bliss inherent in nights like these during Phish’s ongoing revival—was the dual encore of “Reba” and “Backwards Down the Numberline.” Phish is known to encore with something short and strong, such as the Stones’ “Loving Cup” or their own “Character Zero,” but in around 20 minutes “Reba” transitioned from a remarkably executed Zappa-worthy composed section to truly different take on the improvisational part of the song, which strayed into ’60s rock jamming reminiscent of the Who’s “Sparks” and traversed not only the aforementioned “Eno space” but Fishman singing the lyrics to “Manteca.” Then, “Backwards” ended the evening, Phish’s first in Augusta, with another extended guitar workout.

Phish’s successful effort to market each of their concerts as a singular experience—by selling mp3s of every performance and show-specific shirts, posters, pennants, magnets, etc.—once again puts the group ahead of the curve in the new rock music business, where touring is king. But only a minimal fraction of the tchotchkes would sell if Phish’s four members weren’t delivering the musical goods as they did last night—here’s hoping they continue to do so.

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