After kicking off their first two nights of summer tour in high gear Phish rolled into Manchester,Tennessee to headline the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival for the first time since 2009. In years past Phish’s headlining festival sets have been packed with songs and lacked the improvisational super jams that keep Phish fans coming back for more (i.e. Outside Lands 2011 and Austin City Limits 2010). However, with word coming from the DCU Center that the band had come out of the gates with a fresh swagger, many people felt that their two sets at Bonnaroo would travel down a different path.
There is something unique about seeing Phish at a festival that is not their own. The high ticket prices and obscure travel keep many of the diehard tour rats at home. However, with 80,000 music lovers in attendance it is hard to deny the beauty of seeing Phish play one of the biggest venues in the country. Feeling the energy of the larger than life crowd, Phish stepped onto the stage and opened with a Down With Disease that got everyone in the crowd moving. A fairly straightforward yet high paced jam led into Funky Bitch, which set a funky tone for the rest of the first frame. Mike seemed to be feeling the grove as the forecasted rain began to descend upon the audience. Followed by another short, yet very impressive jam the band wasted no time in keeping the funky dance party moving. As the opening notes of The Moma Dance filled the moist Tennessee air, it was apparent that Phish had in fact found a new gear since their less than stellar New Years Run at Madison Square Garden last year. Furthermore, it seemed as though the band did not plan on playing another straight forward, song oriented festival show.
A very well-played Sample in a Jar had the audience singing along and kept spirits high as the sun began to set behind the Tennessee hills. The tempo was turned back up with a fiery Axilla. A little sluggish through the first few songs, Trey showed no mercy, tearing through the tune in fine style. As Axilla came to a close both crowd and band seemed warmed up and ready for anything, as the smiles in the audience match those on stage. The guys really seemed to be enjoying themselves as Trey introduced Kenny Rodgers. We all knew a sit in was coming and many of us thought back to Bruce Springsteen’s appearance the last time Phish played Bonnaroo. While Kenny Rodger’s The Gambler was a fun sing along for the crowd, it did not pack much punch. Nevertheless, the grin on Trey’s face was priceless and the cover was surely one to remember.
Moving right along with the southern rock and roll mood, the band dropped into Possum. As they entered the jam Trey dove back into The Gambler, continuing a heavy string of teases heard this summer. Unable to resist the call and response between band and 80,000 fans, Trey tore into a rocking version of Wilson. Next came the first Tweezer of the tour and they wasted no time finding the funk groove that continued to dominate the first set. Following an excellent psychedelic jam, the band segued nicely into Free. As a consistent mist continued to fall, the Tweezer>Free introduced the audience to the first substantial jam of the evening. Mike continued to draw the band toward funk-laced grooves as they tore through Free. Backwards Down the Number Line included a nice jam which seemed like it would end the set. However, Fishman quickly dropped into Cavern, leaving the crowd excited for what was to come in the second set.
During set break it was impossible not to wonder if Phish would open fire on the Bonnaroo crowd with the impressive jamming they showcased in Worchester or if they would take the more song oriented approach we had seen in festivals past. Following a solid Golden Age opener, the band quickly moved into a 2001 that had the crowd moving once again. A fast paced Chalk Dust Tortured followed suite, but the lack of improvisation in the opening of the second set had me worried. Nevertheless, a rocking Carini kept the energy high and Trey seemed to be enjoying the heavy rock theme he was delivering. After rocking through the song’s lyrical section, the band ventured into their first improvisational display of the second set. Trey led the band into a beautifully paced psychedelic odyssey. Venturing far from Carini’s structure, Trey waited patiently as Page and Fishman painted a beautiful musical landscape across the Tennessee hills.
Another seamless segue landed in Shafty and the dark lyrics radiated over the immense Bonnaroo crowd. It was now apparent that the band had something in store, and that Bonnaroo 2012 would be a show to remember. Coming out of the depths of Shafty came Rock and Roll. Similar to last years fall tour, Rock and Roll packed a punch as Fishman led a rocking jam on par with the high intensity theme of the second set. Page began an abrupt intro into Alaska, muffling the improvisational fire of the second set. A little sloppy throughout, the band’s new swagger did not shine brightly duringAlaska. The jam included little effort to diverge from the song’s structure and all four members seemed a bit lost.
Refocusing the improvisational endowment, Fishman directed the band into Harry Hood. Settling into a mellow jam, Mike led the way with smooth bass lines. As the jam continued to meld across the night sky, Trey took a detour into Light. Acting as the band’s premier jam vehicle for much of 2011, the crowd was eager to see where Light would lead. After toying with the song’s original structure, the jam moved into uncharted territory. Melting into an array of abstract bliss, one could not help but appreciate the beauty of the constant mist falling from the sky and the newfound patience from the band as a whole. Trey fired the tempo back up with the opening notes of Character Zero, and the crowd was back moving. Out of Character Zero came Rocky Top, the song everyone hoped to hear. Tearing though Rocky Top Mike had everyone dancing including many locals who had never heard of Phish but certainly knew every word of the tune.
After closing out the second set with a nod to the host state, the band walked off stage with plenty of time to close down Bonnaroo with a lengthy encore. As the opening notes of Show of Life lifted off into the night, the beauty of Phish began to set in. The lyric “we slowly make our way into the mist” fit perfectly as the steady rain falling from the sky provided an uncharacteristically cool Bonnaroo evening. A rocking version of Julius set the band up for a lights out Tweezer Reprise. Prancing around the stage with a vengeance, Trey tore through the song as Mike delivered deafening bass blows. Fireworks filled the sky as Kuroda blew up the What Stage with a massacre of lights. As Phish took a bow to acknowledge their most impressive festival set to date, the excitement of summer tour set in. With the band undoubtedly feeling something special the possibilities of summer are endless.
Set I: Down with Disease, Funky Bitch, Moma Dance, Sample in a Jar, Axila I, The Gambler, Possum, Wilson, Tweezer > Free, Backwards Down the Number Line, Cavern
Set II: Golden Age > 2001 > Chalk Dust Torture, Carini > Shafty > Rock and Roll > Alaska, Harry Hood > Light, Character Zero > Rocky Top
Encore: Show of Life, Julius, Tweezer Reprise