Monday and Tuesday, thousands of white people from all over the country gathered in the verdant splendor of Telluride to shout David Bowie’s name over and over beneath the mountains. In other words, after a much-needed five-year hiatus, the versatile, talented and amusing Vermont quartet Phish is back — and things have changed.
Gone are the drugs (at least for the band), embarrassingly sloppy transitions, hit-or-miss half-hour improvisations and unruly distorted-guitar sound the band featured their last time on the road together, from 2002 through 2004. Plus, Phish has somehow managed to escape the quagmire that doomed its two-set jam-band predecessors, the Grateful Dead, namely sticking to massive, distancing concerts in arenas, stadiums and ugly amphitheatres for audiences ranging from 20,000 people to 70,000.
Phish’s two shows in Telluride earlier this week (my first since Miami 2003) sold out in just a few minutes when tickets were released months ago, and represented the group’s first southern Colorado performances since 1991. Both the band and the city of Telluride took every precaution necessary to host one of the world’s biggest touring bands at a small mountainside fairground that holds around 9,000 people and coincidentally sits at approximately 9,000 feet above sea level.
The group’s management approved my press pass just days before Phish’s much-anticipated return to Telluride — its first shows outside of Vermont were in Telluride, circa 1988 — and when I made the (gorgeous) drive from Santa Fe to Telluride the morning of the first three-hour concert, I was impressed by the barricade preventing anyone without a ticket or proof of residency from entering town. I was also impressed — and excited — that a free gondola ride was necessary to reach the venue, which is a concert experience I’ll never forget.
The first night, Phish picked “Down With Disease” as their opener; the crowd-pleasing rocker, which earned Phish some rare airplay when it was released as a single in 1994, got the crowd bouncing, more than a few with happy kids on their shoulders. Sadly, the rest of the opening set was somewhat of a stinker, despite the absolutely immaculate outdoor setting, which prompted singer/guitarist Trey Anastasio to comment, “Yup, it’s still beautiful.” Two new songs, “Ocelot” and “Summer of ’89,” ran the gamut of unremarkable to downright terrible, and the intricate Latin prog-rock workout “Stash” (from 1991’s A Picture of Nectar) never really took flight. However, Phish redeemed itself throughout the first evening’s closing set, which featured clear and concise virtuosity from Anastasio and oddball bassist Mike Gordon during the heavy funk-rock of “Sand” and Stevie Wonder’s “Boogie On Reggae Woman.”
After a brisk, ecstatic version of “Piper,” a poetic avalanche of improvisation-seeped ascension that the group has been using as a springboard since 1997, the quartet got beautifully weird. This is the Phish I’ve always loved, and always tried to turn others on to: Instead of simply letting Anastasio wank on predictable blues scales and intermittently reach occasionally euphoric high notes while the rest of the band supports him, Phish sometimes uses the open spaces after songs like “Piper” to truly melt into a kind of deconstructed ambience. The music Phish spontaneously creates in these possibility-laden spaces often juxtaposes fusion-era Miles Davis, Brian Eno and the kind of wonderfully twisted instrumental rock made famous by bands such as Neu! and Sonic Youth.
To see Phish play an entire hour-long set of this dark, spacey improvisational music was a dream I had fulfilled at a show in Maine back in 2003, but these days Phish is more of a well-rehearsed rock band, for better or worse, than an experimentation-inclined outfit. Real group improvisation — outside of a song structure and outside of simply propping up Anastasio’s guitar solos — was relegated to perhaps 10 minutes of the first show in Telluride. The second set on Monday concluded with a spot-on version of the Beatles’ classic “A Day in the Life,” and that’s certainly nothing to complain about. It was incredible.
At least as incredible was a hike I took to Telluride’s wonderful Cornet Creek Falls before Tuesday’s concert while many people in town were hung-over or asleep. I was sober for both shows and found it … interesting … to witness not only the drug-fueled transformation that occurred each day for thousands of fans — some diehards following Phish from town to town on tour, but most not — but also the sight of these same unwashed, shabbily clothed trainwrecks at expensive bistros before each show. It takes a special person to ingest copious amounts of marijuana, psychedelics, cocaine and who knows what else until dawn and then spend $20 on a breakfast burrito and orange juice.
For the members of Phish, anyway, music has finally become the drug of choice. Anastasio did a court-ordered rehab stint a few years ago after getting busted in upstate New York, and many of the songs from the band’s latest release, last year’s Joy, reflect his humbling journey. “Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan,” for instance, a brutal new half-time dirt-rocker that falls somewhere between Gov’t Mule and Phish’s own “The Sloth,” was a highlight of the first set on Tuesday, with its cutting chorus of “got a blank space where my mind should be.”
It was a treat to be just feet away from Phish for the second show in Telluride, as the group operates without a setlist and up-close audience members can hear Anastasio call out the tunes he chooses and then watch the news run through the hierarchy down to drummer Jon Fishman, who is always the last to know what song he’s about to play. After a spirited version of the 1930’s work song “Timber (Jerry)” Anastasio called for Phish’s own 25-year-old irreverent-and-inspiring fugue “The Divided Sky,” only to be nixed by Gordon, who suggested “Let Me Lie,” off of Joy. That song’s recurring couplet “gonna take my bike out / gonna ride it just how I like” helps make “Let Me Lie” the single worst Phish tune I’ve ever heard. Honestly, it’s mediocre at best musically, but lyrically it’s literally embarrassing to watch someone sing it. Thank God “Let Me Lie” was indeed followed by a gorgeous version of “The Divided Sky,” complete with Anastasio intently gazing at the mountain sunset during his remarkable solo.
Though this will surprise those who have strong opinions about the band but haven’t actually heard its music, Phish’s two biggest direct musical influences have been Frank Zappa and the Talking Heads. Phish alternately pulls off the high-wire tricks featured in complex compositions such as “The Divided Sky” and “You Enjoy Myself” (which was also played, and played very well, Tuesday) and grooves on warped funk and rock with silly lyrics and profound music. Which made the band’s covers of the James Gang’s “Walk Away” and Ween’s “Roses Are Free” perfect follows-up to the tricky “Divided Sky.”
The unexpected musical highlight of the two shows in Telluride, however, was “Carini.” A hilarious nu-metal poke at Fishman’s drum technician Pete Carini, the song — which debuted in 1997 — provides a back-and-forth heavy-rock/ambient noise platform for group improvisation. On Tuesday night “Carini” descended into an explosive instrumental freak-out reminiscent of Adrian Belew’s early work with King Crimson, but was tempered by shimmering noise that recalled the aforementioned Eno and surprisingly found its way to the Phish hard-rock staple “Free.”
Watching four men in their 40s who have been playing music together since their college days over 25 years ago is a treat in itself, but it was doubly entertaining to witness Phish nailing challenging transitions in songs like “Run Like An Antelope” and “David Bowie.” In the two years of touring before their five-year hiatus from 2004 to 2009, it was not uncommon for Phish to literally stop during such complex tunes because of flubs by several band members; now, the transitions are tighter, the smiles are bigger (and straighter) and the jamming is not only shorter but less intense, more group-minded and creative — or at least it was for all but a few minutes of the Telluride shows.
Many Phish fans will agree that five minutes of fun, focused, coherent and energetic improvisation often trumps 30 minutes of scrambled drudgery. Still, listening to a Phish concert from Hampton, Va., circa 1997, on the way back to Santa Fe I had to admit that my personal preference is the old four- or five-song, hour-and-a-half set of improvised Phish madness, rather than the dozen-song sets that Phish often plays today.
I also had to admit that there are plenty of modern bands I’ve seen recently who are writing better songs and putting on better shows than Phish — who concluded Tuesday’s concert with The Rolling Stones’ “Shine a Light” — but there certainly aren’t many venues in the world more spectacular than Telluride Town Park.
Adam Perry writes a music-related blog at www.adamperrywrites.wordpress.com