One of the best shows of the year. There I said it. It was almost exactly 10 years since they last appeared at CCCC (December 7th and 8th, 1999 in the run of shows leading up to Big Cypress). What is surprising about their return to Maine? After all, they have played a total of 38 known dates in the state (though some early shows may be undocumented) most recently for a combined audience of approximately 130,000 at the IT festival at Loring Air Force Base in Limestone in August, 2003. What’s surprising is that Phish easily could have taken the date and added a fourth sold out show at the 20,000 seat Madison Square Garden in NYC- their next tour stop after 11/29. Instead, they decided to return to the cozy confines of the Cumberland County Civic Center, the home of several storied shows from Phish history. The venue seats approximately 7,500 people making it one of the smallest venues (if not THE smallest) that Phish has played since their return in March.
The concert went on sale in October and sold out in less than two minutes making it the fastest sellout in the 32 year history of the venue.
Knowing that this was going to be a tough ticket to acquire, I entered the online lottery at Phish.com and hoped for the best. The band makes a limited number of pre-sale tickets available via their website and uses a lottery system in an attempt to make it as fair as possible to all who want to purchase tickets. Considering the size of the venue, the Portland show was considered the toughest ticket to acquire on the fall tour and I was thrilled when I received my confirmation email.
I hopped in line at approximately 6:30 pm (showtime, according to the ticket was 7:30. The band actually came on stage at 8:10 pm) and found my way to secton CC. At this point, there were only a few hundred people inside the arena including security and ushers. I was a little surprised to see Maine State Troopers at the doors patting down concert-goers in an attempt to weed out those who may try to enter with contraband. When I arrived in Portland a couple of hours before, I noticed the police “Paddy Wagon” near the venue chock full of…some sort of alleged law breakers. I figured the city was taking the opportunity of a Phish show to crack down on people openly selling and/or using drugs. The officer at my point of entry was pleasant enough. As I was frisked and he patted down the pockets of my coat, he felt something in my left pocket. When I said “camera”, he said “digital?” I confirmed and was sent on my way without a search. I guess I look relatively harmless as some folks around me were forced to empty their pockets in front of the police. The following day’s news stories were full of headlines about fans arrested in and around the venue. What most of those articles and news broadcasts failed to mention was the fact that many people who were arrested around this concert had no intention of attending the show and would be probably be hard pressed to actually name a song by Phish. In other words, they were opportunist dealers hoping to unload some pot, LSD, Ecstasy or nitrous oxide. “Welcome to Maine. Enjoy the view of Portland harbor from your cell at the Cumberland County jail.”
Shortly before the show, a few crew members appeared from the backstage area (our seats were located near the band’s entrance and exit to the room) and one of them had his little dog with him. This little fella is touring with “dad” and the band.
And now, let’s get this show on the road. “Possum” opened the first set. This song (written by former member Jeff Holdsworth) is one of the oldest originals in the band’s catalog dating back to 1985. This version gave the band an opportunity to warm up on a tune that is both familiar and traditionally rocking. Thanks to YouTube member pryan who shot the show from the front row of the balcony. The entire concert can be viewed on his channel. Phish- Portland, ME 11-29-09
“Down With Disease” is always welcome in the setlist and this was a great version. Watching Trey jump up and down with anticipation during the intro was a welcome sight and something that we haven’t seen often enough over the last ten years. This was a tight, solid, guitar-driven rendition of the song.
“Nellie Kane” made a rare appearance next. Phish started playing this great bluegrass song (a Tim O’Brien song) in 1993 and prior to Portland had not performed it since July, 2000. It’s interesting to note that before that performance, it last appeared during Phish’s December 7th, 1999 show at the Cumberland County Civic Center. Maybe there is something about this song that reminds them of Portland?
What a joy it was to hear Trey’s opening from Mike Gordon’s “Weigh” as the next song. I’ve loved this song since first hearing it on “Rift” in 1993. “I’d like to cut your head off so I can weigh it. What do you say?” This was the first performance of “Weigh” since 12-30-03 in Miami.
“When The Circus Comes” was next and it was beautiful. This song (originally written and recorded by Los Lobos) has always had a tendency to either nearly bring me to tears or make me wince depending on how precise Trey is with his solo. There is something about the chord progression of this song that he has sometimes struggled with when it comes to crafting the guitar solo. Hit or miss in the past, the solo tends to be “spot-on” or a dissonant mess. The delivery requires concentration, sensitivity and precision. All of these were evident in Portland.
A new song, “Kill Devil Falls” was next and sounded great after “Circus.” I like the studio version on “Joy” but this song always sounds better live.
“Water In The Sky” appeared next in the set and while Phish sometimes has a tendency to toy with the arrangement of this one in a live setting (when it first appeared in ’97, it sounded like a vintage country song), this version was closer to the way it sounded on the album “Story Of The Ghost.” This is the song that opened the Big Cypress event on 12/30/99 because of the line “filter out the Everglades.” Subsequent appearances of this song would always elicit cheers from the crowd when that line appeared as many in attendance flashed back to that festival. I expected that to happen at the Portland show but for the most part, the crowd remained quiet. Have they forgotten? I hope not.
“Stash” was next and gave me an opportunity to examine the coordination of the audience when the time came to add our hand claps to Fish’s calypso beat and Trey’s jazzy arpeggios. We were a little off but not bad. Though a complicated song, no two versions are alike. This tune is a great example of how Phish uses “tension and release” as a jamming vehicle. Listening to the soundboard recording for this tune reveals how closely they are listening to each other again. During the jam section of the song, Trey is clearly listening (and responding) to the bass, drums and piano.
I was very surprised to hear another “Story Of The Ghost” song next. The opening notes of “Meat” took me back to when I fell in love with that album in October, 1998. Such a weird little song but so funky and fun. This was the first “Meat” since 7/21/03 at Deer Creek, IN. Trey introduces Mike as “the artist formerly known as Cactus and the artist presently known as…Prince!” I may be a vegetarian but I love “Meat.” I was hoping for a few false endings for this version (IE: 12/30/99) but Fishman wrapped this one up which resulted in a laugh from Trey.
One of the surprise highlights of the show came next with Undermind. This version went to new and surprising places and is easily the best live version I have heard for the title song of what we thought was the final Phish album in 2004. I’ve always kind of liked this song but most previous versions sounded fairly similar to me. The version at “Festival 8” seemed to take this song to a new level and I think the Portland version is even better.
“Mike’s Song” showed up next which was a surprise as the first set was already well over an hour long at this point. I remember looking at my watch thinking “Wow…if they do “Hydrogen” and “Weekapaug”, the first set will have been about 90 minutes long…amazing. And that’s exactly what happened to close out the first half of the show. The bridge between “Mike’s Song” and “Weekapaug Groove” varies and while I was hoping for the beautiful instrumental, “I Am Hydrogen”, I was a little nervous that it would be botched. So many 2003/2004 Phish performances of ‘Hydrogen’, suffered from missed notes from Trey. This is another tune that requires great sensitivity and a careful touch to play correctly. Prior to Phish 2.0, nearly every version of “Hydrogen” was solid and I chalk that up to (in part) Trey’s guitar processing. For years, his Ross compression pedal helped give him an element of control over his tone that seemed to be lost during the post-hiatus shows. When Phish returned on 12/31/02 after a two year absence, the Ross pedal was gone which gave Trey an edgier, darker tone and a final guitar signal that was clearly more difficult for him to control. Feedback was more prevalent as were missed or flubbed notes. The Portland version of “I Am Hydrogen” was played well and sounded close to pre-hiatus Phish. I’ve heard that he may have the Ross pedal back in his chain of processing which is possible. His 2009 guitar tone sounds like a cross between Phish 1.0 (1980′s, 1990′s through 2000) and Phish 2.0 (12/31/02 through August 2004). There is definitely some compression in there but it’s dialed down considerably in comparison to the good old days.
A stellar first set which gave us much anticipation for what was to come after a break. The first set began at 8:10 pm. They walked offstage at 9:40 and reappeared 40 minutes later for set two.
Special mention must be made of the art of Chris Kuroda , the genius behind Phish’s light show. Actually, the words “light show” do not do justice to the awesome spectacle this man creates at each concert. Even from our seats behind the stage, the lights were breathtaking.
The second set began with a tight, rocking and funky “Moma Dance.” While this song doesn’t vary much from show to show, this one was particularly good and I love the sound Trey gets from his wah-wah pedal.
With a very brief pause, Phish then launched into the classic “Rock And Roll” which they first played on Halloween night, 1998 in Las Vegas during that year’s ‘musical costume’ which was the album “Loaded” by The Velvet Underground. I was very happy to hear this song in Portland especially when it evolved into what might be the guitar jam of 2009. It’s overwhelming…almost too much. The official LivePhish.com download titles the second part of the song, “Portland Jam” but it’s really a continuation of the song as you can clearly hear Trey (off mic) singing “all right! It’s alright!” It really is an amazing 15 minutes of music and for me, the highlight of the night.
“Rock And Roll” evolved into a new song which is clearly about the changes Trey has made in his life since his much publicized arrest in December, 2006. When I first heard the song earlier this year, I felt indifferent about it. It wasn’t bad but it didn’t move me even though I am thrilled that Trey has directly faced his problems and has now embraced “the light” of sobriety. Musically and lyrically, it sounded trite to me. (kind of like that last paragraph!) “Light” has since grown on me considerably and I can now appreciate it for what it is…the musical equivalent of what it must feel like to shed addictions and get rid of the haze that comes with them. I wonder sometimes if it’s strange for him to play for an audience that is (for the most part) not sober.
What might have the biggest surprise of the night came next. “Crimes Of The Mind” is a song from The Dude Of Life (band friend Steve Pollack) and was first performed live not far from Portland. Steve sang his song with Phish at the legendary Amy’s Farm show on August 3, 1991 in Auburn, ME. It later appeared as the title track on the album Phish recorded with The Dude Of Life and released in 1994. Prior to its appearance in Portland, the song had only been performed six times over the years and each time, it featured a special guest appearance by its author to sing the lead vocal. For the first time, Trey sang it in Portland.
“Pebbles And Marbles” made a fairly rare appearance next. Probably the highlight of the Round Room album, this version was played very well.
I was wondering if we would get to hear a live “2001″ and sure enough…”Also Sprach Zarathustra” was next. I consider this another track where Trey’s precision on the guitar makes or breaks it. He nailed it in Portland. Every time I hear Phish do this track, it reminds me of the movie ‘Being There’ with Peter Sellers. As Chauncy Gardener takes a walk through the rough part of town, a funky/jazzy/disco version of the theme from “2001″ plays in the background and I’m guessing that Phish based their arrangement on this version. This is the track where Chris gives his lighting system the workout of the night.
As “2001″ came to an end, the band slammed into “Golgi Apparatus” a song that has caused many a flubbed Trey moment for Phish 2.0 and Phish 3.0. This version is almost stellar. Trey tackled the softer, melodic mid-section with no problem but there were a few missed notes early on. I can overlook that!
As Golgi ended, Cavern began and this was a tight, energetic version.Trey has gone on record as stating that he is not a fan of singing the lyrics to Cavern which might explain why he sometimes struggled to remember a verse here and there during Phish 2.0 shows. No problem with the memory on this night and this Cavern was all about the energy. I expected this to be the end of the set but I was wrong.
An intense “Run Like An Antelope” was next. I’ve heard dozens of versions of “Antelope” that I would consider “fantastic” but this was the best I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing in person. The energy and intensity of the building guitar solo is what makes this song and Trey played a blinder in Portland.
Set two came to a close and the band left the stage. After nearly three hours, I was cooked but very happy. How do these guys do it? I wondered, “After that, will it be a short encore? One and done?” As the four of them came back out, they gathered together near the front of the stage around a mic stand outfitted with three microphones. I knew we would get an a capella tune but which one? ‘Amazing Grace?’ ‘Grind?’ They did Freebird! The first a capella Freebird since December, 1998.
I love the fact that when Phish was approached to offer up a track for a Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute album, they offered their barber shop’ quartet version of “Freebird” and were turned down.
The fun was not over as they walked to their instruments and Trey started the crashing, opening chords of “Carini” …one of the most fun and insane songs in their catalog. Never thought I would get to see this live! Jon Fishman’s screams of “CARINI HAD A LUMPY HEEEADDD” had all of us laughing.
Finally, a third and final song for the encore. A beautiful version of the Billy Breathes ballad “Waste” to send us home just after midnight.