Let’s Take a Phishing Trip to Last Weeks Intimate Show in Beautiful Portsmouth, VA | JamBandsOnline.com

Let’s Take a Phishing Trip to Last Weeks Intimate Show in Beautiful Portsmouth, VA

Article by James D. McCallister

Photo by Chris Miller

Set 1: Tube, Kill Devil Falls, Slave to the Traffic Light, Lawn Boy, Poor Heart, AC/DC Bag, The Moma Dance > My Friend, My Friend, Cold Water[2], Bathtub Gin, Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan

Set 2: Wilson > Seven Below > 46 Days > Idea[3], Also Sprach Zarathustra > Simple > Joy, Taste, Theme From the Bottom>A Day in the Life

Encore: Heavy Things, First Tube

[1] By audience request [2] Phish debut (Tom Waits cover) [3] Debut (Mike Gordon original)

Phish, now in the third phase of their long career following an abortive 2004 retirement, chose to appear for the 4th show of the 2010 Summer tour at a new venue, the white-tented amphitheater known as the nTelos Pavilion at Harborside. At less than half the size of the band’s normal outdoor venue, this “shed” represents a treat for East Coast fans, and those fortunate enough to have gotten the hot ticket of this first tour leg arrive happy and excited. The Pavilion’s proximity to band- and phan-favorite Hampton Coliseum a few miles away, as well as a geographic incongruity in the midst of the group’s mostly Northeast first leg of the tour, only adds to the pre-show mystique and excitement. (That boat-owning attendees may motor up to the shore, tie off, and walk inside to a Phish concert makes for one of the most unusual venues on any tour, past or present.)

 The parking lots scattered among small parcels near the venue, along with the comparatively small size of the crowd, make for a “Shakedown” vending scene that, if it coalesces at all, is not in evidence to this reporter. With so-called General Admission seating entrance lines have formed early, but due perhaps to the much smaller number of phans in attendance, a decided lack of tension prevails.

 Another unusual, related facet of the pre-show scene: an apparent paucity of ticketless showgoers in evidence—tourheads, perhaps calculating the odds and the driving distance, may have thought better of making the effort. In any case, once the lines begin to move the diverse crowd of touring faithful and local music fans appear anticipatory yet relaxed. A minimal security screening, at least in my queue, adds to the generally chill vibe.

 Inside, phans are greeted with a decent selection of local craft beers, short waits for the bathroom, and a cozy venue with ample elbow room; the seat-free, open orchestra pit in front of the stage fills quickly with ecstatic, would-be rail rats. The warm air is leavened by breezes from the nearby harbor, with only a blazing, relentless Virginia sun peeking under the tent making the nearly two-hour wait for the band somewhat uncomfortable. In the grand tradition of such affairs, old friends are encountered, and new ones made.

 Coming straight from the airport there’d been no time for lunch, and having eaten several brownies in the parking lot—delicious but seemingly overpriced, the only food I could find for sale—I develop some sort of pulsing scalp irritation, and my eyes have become inexplicably dry.

 Noticing a blissfully-smiling concertgoer holding a Visine bottle, I ask if I could borrow some of the solution.

 “Sure, brother,” the tie-dyed, hirsute youth says. “Go for it.”

 “Thanks.”

 After taking two oddly oleaginous drops in each eye, my benefactor is amused, even visibly excited. “Damn dude. You are some kind of monster.”

 My eyes are stinging like nobody’s business, feel cold and crisp and clean. “How do you mean?”

 “Oh, you’ll find out.”

 A phan walks through the crowd holding up a sign, four simple letters cut out:

 T U B E

 The more I look at the sign, a reference to a beloved classic Phish song, the more apparent it becomes that he’s wired some sort of glowing neon inside the letters. Furthermore, the T and the E are apparently growing out of his wrists in place of normal human hands. I attribute this to some sort of genetic mutation—the band’s been playing for almost 27 years now, so certainly, I reason, it is possible for longtime phans to have evolved in this admittedly odd fashion.

 The vibration of life in evidence, the crowd, increasingly demonstrative, begins to pulsate with throbbing expectancy. As the blazing sun dips behind the bandshell, wildeyed sweaty concertgoers grip the backs of their necks and grin toothily at one another, rictuses of apparent glee that appear more febrile than pleasant. I note a woman in a flowing skirt levitating over the orchestra pit; a middle-aged man in a threadbare Grateful Dead shirt disintegrates before my eyes into individual molecules that are then borne away on the maritime breeze. I realize that I’ve lost my shoes and my Moleskine reporter’s notebook, can no longer feel anything above my neck, wonder idly if I’ve picked up a bug on the plane from the sneezy snotty Asian dude who sat beside me on the short flight from CLT to ORF.

 “Gamejoy,” I hear someone whisper behind me. I turn to see a grinning sprite sporting a rasta-colored tam, looking mischievous and self-satisfied, as though she’s been told a Great Secret from some unknown source.

 “What’s that you say?” My tongue’s begun to feel thick and useless. “You lost your Gameboy?”

 “Gamejoy,” she said. “The first set is going to be Gamehendge, and the second they’re going to do their album Joy song-for-song. Like the famous GameHoist show.” She flutters her tiny hands around like two small pink butterflies. “Or maybe the other way around. Joy-Game.”

 “Like GameHoist,” I repeat, grokking her reference to a legendary 1994 West Virginia[1] concert. “I highly doubt that, honey.”

 “Naw. Trey like told me that’s what they were doing in the hotel bar last night.”

 “Did he, now? That’s extraordinary that he’d give away such a big surprise to some random person like that.”

 “You’ll see,” in a singsongy lilt as she drifted away, absorbed in her fantasy.

 And then the band comes out. The crowd, exultant, surges and breaks against the bandstand like waves.

 Bandleader and principal songwriter Trey Anastasio, likely noticing the same anatomical anomalies as I have, notes the TUBE sign and addresses the crowd, who’ve begun chanting TOOOOOOOBE. Pointing at the sign[2] he says, “Are you asking for that there? It’s hard to hear what you’re saying . . . I think this is what you’re saying, it’s hard to hear, but we’ll do our best. We play requests, you know. We’re the all request band[3].”

 And so to an ecstatic roar they break right into a note-perfect Tube, as though they’d planned it that way all along. Bodies heave and dance; the air beomes thick with color raining from lighting director Chris “CK5” Kuroda’s arrays above the band. Another sign held aloft depicts the sentiments of the grateful crowd: THANK YOU.

 With high energy the ostensible order of the day, next comes what one may assume would have been the likely opener, Kill Devil Falls, one of the 2009 batch of new compositions and most certainly not a Gamehendge song. A strong, succinct rocker, the tune features no real improvisational jam other than that of the band laying down a peppy backing rhythm and Anastasio riffing over the top. The song, destined for this sort of tone-setting early set appearance (or perhaps rave-up set closer), is played with verve and spark, but by its nature isn’t designed to really take the listener and the band to otherworldly levels of intensity—it’s supposed to get you moving, and in this regard the Portsmouth version suffices.

 The audacious choice the band makes for the third song, however, takes matters to another level of meaning, sending the assembled phaithful into paroxysms of unmitigated joy: Slave to the Traffic Light, long considered more of a show-closing barnburner, here enjoys its earliest show appearance in 15 years, and also heralds a run of classic Phish tunes that would comprise the bulk of the set.

 Following the volcanic eruption that was the Slave buildup and release—Anastasio’s shredding guitar eruption nearly collapsed the bandshell and tent above, tiny dollops of energy flying from his fingertips like glowing juicy raisons, in his case raisons d’etre—keyboardist Page McConnell, long an attention and microphone hog, strides to the front of the stage for his ritual lounge singer act, Lawn Boy. LB, which for all its charms, remains after all these years but a novelty rather an exultant musical statement, and this version’s no different. Amusing but far from transcendent.

 Poor Heart, on the other hand, represents a welcome return to high energy in the form of the increasingly rare Phish attempt at bluegrass. Once a staple of virtually every show, the band seems to have wearied of their stabs at traditional Americana like Poor Heart, and in this writer’s opinion the repertoire has suffered for this lapse in musical judgement and taste.

AC/DC Bag, of late a show or set opener, here makes a mid-set appearance that continues the emerging classic-Phish leitmotif. Rather than an incredible mindmelting jam, however, this AC/DC deconstructs into an amusingly brief John Fishman-only drum segment upon which the band builds back up to the full shebang of intense peaking cascading notes raining down on us like a passing summer thunderboomer.

 Moma Dance follows a full-stop ending to AC/DC. A good funkable selection, Moma’s a tune that to these ears is only marginally interesting. “Serviceable” may sound like damning with faint praise, but that’s how this selection makes me feel. I feel positively enormous now, as though I’m a hundred feet tall, and held up by a rod of tensile steel driven through my spine. I want a set to match this feeling and Moma Dance is not bringing the majesty that I have in mind—I want Phish to charge over me in a golden chariot driven by a team of white stallions; I want to be trampled to death by this band, to be gored by the bull’s horns of their wicked cackling instruments. I want them to nuke the site from orbit, to obliterate the nTelos Pavilion, the surrounding area, the high rise hotel at which I’m staying with a convention of Methodists, the warships in the harbor nearby. I want there to be NO SURVIVORS.

 The perfectly adequate Moma dances its way into the 2nd (3rd?) surprise of the young set, the first 2010 appearance of My Friend, My Friend, which is performed with alacrity and spunk, the kind of spunk that unexpectedly explodes out of nowhere in thick ropy dollops and leaves you wishing for a Wet-Nap or three. An absolutely nasty, screeching build-up segment has naughty little hairs standing on end from Portsmouth to Virginia Beach. In the end, they all laugh like madmen—HAHAHAHAHA—and you know what, so do I, garnering odd disapproving looks from many of those in the surrounding area. I keep laughing for some time afterwards, for a long long time actually.

 Next, another surprise: the debut of Cold Water, a bluesy new cover. Featured on the well-known Tom Waits LP Mule Variations, this tune doesn’t portend any real potential for jamming, it’s Just Another Seemingly Random Cover song, like, say, Look Out Cleveland (likely one-off venue-specific nod to nearby city) but to my way of thinking unlike Instant Karma (well-known classic rock audience singalong destined to give Page another stab at the whitehot spotlight, therefore likely to be heard again), in other words a possible setlist anomaly and treat for the Portsmouth crowd.

 Hearing a Tom Waits tune makes me think of a cool story, how in 1987 I was on an elevator in New York’s Hotel Edison. The doors opened and there stood Tom Waits. We both hesitated, staring at one another. He didn’t get on, the doors shutting before I could say anything to him. Later, I saw him in the lobby pushing a baby stroller back and forth. Later still, like, 16 years later, I was sitting in Sofia’s downstairs at the Edison and saw no less than Mike “Cactus” Gordon walking around outside in the Saturday night theatre crowd. At the time, during the epoch known as the First Hiatus, he’d taken an office in the Brill Building around the corner on Broadway, a workspace where he purportedly wrote a new song every day for one year, just like the pop song scribes of old. By then that was my second unlikely sighting of the Cactus in NYC; on a trip the year before I’d stumbled upon him at Iridium (the original location, off Columbus Circle) watching a post-stroke Pat Martino work his way through a set of jazz guitar standards. That night I screwed up my courage and talked to Mike, who seemed so incredibly put-off by being recognized that I wanted to call him out for having wanted to be a rock star in the first place. But I didn’t, instead I just intently stared at him and his wife eating their food as quickly as possible and then exiting the club before Pat Martino had even finished one brief set. I felt bad but not that not bad. Anyone that gets up on a stage in front of thousands of adoring fans must understand that they’ll occasionally be recognized and spoken to by one of those fans, and just because I started peppering him with questions about when and where the hiatus would end—“I don’t know” and “I don’t know” were his answers, uttered in a small tightly coiled voice of annoyance and near pleading—there was no reason to refuse to make eye contact or invite me over to join them and all of that common courtesy stuff he chose to eschew.

 But in any case, thinking all this through during Cold Water I become entranced at the astounding synchronicity of the Tom Waits—Mike Gordon—Hotel Edison confluence and now the interesting occurrence that is Phish playing a Tom Waits cover until the whole notion actually ends up feeling like randomness rather than synchronicity, at best coincidental, and then I become worried that I can’t trust my intuition anymore . . . and what is intuition, I wonder, but some ridiculous manifestation of wrongheaded egoism anyway, a foolish concept about controlling or influencing the flow of time and history that’s a pipe dream, a fool’s errand. I experience in this moment a complete and total (and quite effortlessly willful) loss of ego, after which I’m then able to fully lose myself in the experience of the NOW, this time right here and now, and become fully absorbed in the music and the people around me; a warm glow envelopes us all, and happiness and fulfillment is actually visible rising from the heads of the band and the audience like steam from a lake full of the milk of human kindness and creativity, puffs of ephemeral mist drifting, languid, across the nTelos Pavilion at Harborside. This, thinks the reporter, is a vision, a tranquil vision perhaps harkening back to the beginning of all life itself, the stage now a pulsing blob of primordial soupy color. Crew members scramble around on scaffolding above the band like worker bees; they’re holding what seem to be Silly String® cannons, the crew firing writhing thick tubes at us, yes, tubes of Day-Glo™ iridescent color that arch upwards and, before dropping gently onto the heads of the audience below, slither snakelike along the underside of the huge white tent which is now rippling in a powerful yet unfelt wind to what simply must be the point of near-instability. No one is hurt by the plummeting tubes of color, though—on the contrary, when they strike they feel like a warm bath from a hosepipe.

 A teal one drapes itself around my neck and snuggles there, purring, but only until I acknowledge its presence by reaching around my neck to stroke it, after which it disappears; “The tubes are shy!” I shout out, epiphanic, with great urgency. “They don’t like to be touched!”

 A girl in a clingy purple dress turns around to look at me, troubled, because this isn’t a really loud rocking song at all and I think in retrospect that I must have kind of yelled really really loud because, I reasoned, if I let everyone know, then all the colorful comforting tubes wouldn’t get scared away. “They’re shy,” I whisper this time, nodding, pointing, reaching over and giving her hand a squeeze.

 “Your hands are like really sweaty, dude. And your sandals are down under my seat, here—” And she kicks my shoes back over to me, for which I’m suffused with gratitude, almost tearful.

 But now I notice that my hands are in fact perspiring, an unfortunate and definitely in extremis-type condition, one that becomes an all-consuming concern resulting in the wiping of said hands on cargo shorts over and over again for what seems like a lengthy interval.

 The five-minute Cold Water comes to an end and the crowd, becalmed, applauds. Not a tube in sight now, though, and my breath catches in my throat, that AH moment of realization that something’s been lost that might not be found again, the tubes frightened off by the blundering unengaged masses. But now I realize, comforted, that we’ll always always have the time that Phish did the Tom Waits cover for the first (only??) time, at Portsmouth, and in this moment of realization it is as though the doors to the elevator are opening again and Tom Waits is standing there, but this time he’s got Mike “Cactus” Gordon with him, and they both get on with me to take the elevator down to the streets of New York city, all three of us together until the rest of the band gets on, floor by floor, all holding colorful tubes and smiling openly and warmly at me, wrapping their tubes around me and making me feel not like some random stalking fan full of ridiculous unanswerable questions but rather like a brother in music, in creativity.

 “Here’s your notebook, too,” the girl in purple says, handing me the Moleskine, which now has greasy toe-prints on its black cover, and wrenching me out of the elevator and back onto the unyielding concrete of the nTelos Pavilion at Harborside. I burst into tears, mumbling an apology, to her, to everyone I’ve wronged, to the person who’d mail ordered a Portsmouth ticket but didn’t get one, because maybe that person was the also the biggest Tom Waits fan in the world for which this would have been an astounding, defining moment of synchronicity. The girl in purple hugs me, tells me to calm down, to maybe sit down, which I do, hard, on the edge of the seat, which shatters the tensile steel rod into many many segments affording reasonable freedom of movement, so I stand back up.

 And so, digressions aside, my eyes are no longer dry but now feel as though they’re bulging like that of a surprised Simpsons character, and I convince myself that I’m very very thirsty. But I forget all that because the band goes into the biggest baddest mo-fo of a Phish classic that any right-thinking superphan could want, Bathtub Gin. In some ways another show-offy opportunity for McConnell to do do his little virtuoso act, this Gin comes alive in the improvised segment of the tune rather than the composed, which is typically Phishy and twee in melody and lyrics, like a children’s song, which there’s nothing wrong with in the least. The jam gets wound up tighter and tighter like a Swiss watch, as Bobby Weir might say, spiraling upwards not on McConnell’s keyboard antics but rather a driving peaking climaxing descending Anastasio guitar hook like running down a short flight of stair-steps over and over, which winds back down into the Bathtub Gin hook, chugging to a full stop like a steam engine hissing and voiding itself of energy; it’s an excellent and exemplary peak of this set that’s on the whole very effectively acknowledged Phish’s power of dynamic range, their musical chops both as individual players as well as unit, with the deep repertoire they offer on full display, their “book” dense and rich enough to satisfy even the great and knowledgeable Icculus.

 But the set isn’t quite over, and Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan appears, then, as nod to the here and now rather than the classic origins of the band. The tune, like Kill Devil Falls from last year’s comeback album, seems an autobiographical snapshot, this reporter believes, of Anastasio’s experience during the hiatus as an unfortunate participant in the state of New York’s criminal justice system and the ensuing lifestyle changes that went along with the “strange demands” of being involved in drug court. One doesn’t wish to dwell too much on that very personal situation, and we do so now only in the most positive of contexts—in this case, that one of the results was the return of Phish, and the opportunity to hear them play.

 Stealing Time is a high energy number likely to appear in set-closing slots like Character Zero often has, a rocker with a strong guitar hook and a kind of ominous-sounding melodic line, a throwaway song neither lyrically nor otherwise. It’s a song that not only makes its own statement and has its own unique tone and place in the repertoire, but also portends in its minor key the darkness that an act like Phish can conjure to balance out all the joyful major chord rock and roll ecstatic peaks that make the concert goer experience bigger than life, bigger than merely listening to a record or watching a film—you are HERE you are experiencing THIS, and it’s hyperreal, in a sense, much more so than ordinary workaday reality.

 The band’s gone and it’s the set break, and while slightly more ordinary than when they’re onstage playing, it’s still hyperreal enough for me to feel moved and constantly delighted by the sights, sounds and smells of the jamband concert scene, the colorful outerwear, the smiles, the laughter, the sharp scent of smoldering exotic tobacco products. I walk around feeling light on my feet, not quite levitating like the girl from before, more like Wayne Coyne opening a Flaming Lips set in his big bubble, rolling around on people’s heads. My bubble lands on a quiet spot and  I scribble down everything I perceived and experienced from the first set, which takes just long enough that I realize the lights have gone down and, knowing they’re going to march right out and just blast their way back into the music, it is with Birkenstocks flapping that I race back around to my seat, flinging elbows, shoving people aside, wielding the Moleskine like a cudgel, fighting my way through the phans like a determined elf in a mass of murderously bloodthirsty Orcs.

 A familiar pulsing commences, and I look around for the GameJoy girl but she’s nowhere to be seen: Wilson, with its challenge, Can you still have any fun? The answer is yes, and Wilson rocks hard to get us moving again, a fist-pumping primal Phish experience that flows into 2010’s first Seven Below, which finds Trey note-bending and, rusty, clamming[4] his way through the lead line for a few bars before getting into the groove of the song.

 Seven Below’s got a percussive, catchy rhythm; it’s danceable and driving, with space for a decent improv. This one doesn’t go anywhere cosmic, however, merely galloping along the spine of the tune; rather than inspiring deep revelatory introspection, the song winds down and morphs into the hook for 46 Days, a Phish 2.0 composition and rare enough to be considered a treat. An opportunity for big guitar solos, Anastasio deliver said material, peaking the song to nasty screaming notebending eruptive satisfaction.

 46 Days becomes a pulsing blob of sound, throbbing, alive at its center, a little scary and possibly malevolent, and pointing in any number of directions . . . which in this case is a new Mike “Cactus” Gordon tune, Idea, or as we say where I’m from, Idear. Idear represents another typically awkward melodic line from the bass player. The standard by which most phans judge a song’s worthiness is, of course, not its catchiness but rather the inherent potential for jamming, which this one may or may not have—only time and repeat performances will tell. In any case, the song is played competently if in a slightly tentative fashion, with an assured bottom and rhythm end supported here by a guitar player and keyboardist feeling their way through the fresh material. Not bad, but far from inspiring, though an almost-funk jam develops after the last verse in which future grooves may one day take true hold. After an all-but full stop, I think to myself, “Here’s an idear, Phish, let’s get back to the tube-shooting classic Phish stuff we came for . . .”

 And we get it when a throbbing tone from Anastasio that explodes into the funky fusion of Also Sprach Zarathustra, a Phish staple from way back. Based on the version of the tune made popular by Eumir Deodato, of late this song’s been fairly self-contained and not much of a launching pad for cosmic exploration, but here it portends the hope for the set to regain some “phlow” from its prior condition known as new songus interruptus. But how wrong I am—instead of a long interpretive jam the song is five brief minutes of the familiar melody and hook built up to a fast screeching cacophony of a climax that’s hard-spliced into the anthemic arena rock power of Simple.

 Simple, a statement of purpose if there ever was. Does Phish have a saxophone? No, nor do they play “bebop” by any standard definition of the jazz sub-genre, and yet Simple as a song is somehow entirely and appropriately expressive of what Phish does, which is make complicated, challenging music into an oftentimes indeed simple matter of emotive connection with its receptive audience. As I said, it’s anthemic—it’s got a big melody, it offers opportunities for big guitar-hero antics, but in the end it’s more of a singalong than a dancing reaching swirling high-psychedelic peak of creativity, and in this regard the Portsmouth version doesn’t break any new wind, so to speak. In its 7-minute length, the tune obviously has no room to go into any unusual spaces, the melody winding down from the ringing voluminous high point to an almost ambient-feeling jam, one lasting just under a minute . . . and capable of going anywhere, becoming any song, any jam . . .

 And it’s Joy, a song which resonates emotionally with this writer on any number of levels, so here it is welcome rather than a disappointment, a lovely example once again of Phish’s control of dynamic range, moving from the arena rock bombast of Simple into this delicate, slightly melancholic song of hope, empathy, and love. It’s a beautiful tune, this, and anyone disappointed or disquieted by its appearance whenever and wherever Joy may occur lacks maturity and has an opaque, selfish misunderstanding about what makes a vital and prolific artist like Anastasio and his companions tick.

 Joy also seems a clear message to the audience, and a reinforcement of the symbiosis originally realized between the Grateful Dead and the Deadheads, a concept is the one and true element of the Dead’s philosophy that Phish has best carried forward. The rest of the details—the varied setlists, the mail-ordering of tickets, the following around in vans—is mere window dressing compared to the importance of the feeding of the artists on the energy of their adherents, which is crucial to the success of the performance. The lyric “This is your song, too,” probably means any number of things to Anastasio, but to me the message of necessary solidarity between audience and artist is here made quite explicit.

 So with the appearance of this lovely but tightly composed song, the set wavers on the precipice of where-to-go-from-here. “Where” turns out to be a triumvirate of familiar Phish selections, two originals tagged with a Beatles classic once frequent but now rare: Neither Taste nor Theme From the Bottom resonate much with this writer, and if someone had predicted that tonight’s show would more-or-less climax with a pairing of these two tunes, I’d have thought such a person foolhardy, their proposed scenario possible but unlikely. And yet, and yet. The songs and their performances here may be placed under a rubric of good-music-played-well, but for a man looking for Day-Glo™ worms to again start falling out of the ceiling like links of estranged DNA seeking to recombine, they are but adequate, reasonably passionate readings of very familiar Phish material. Nothing to complain about, certainly; Anastasio’s shredding, cascading solos in Taste indeed denote said passion, and are deserving of all due praise.

 After a dead stop comes the aforementioned Theme from the Bottom, which seems an odd, questionable choice for this point in a waning 2nd set, and makes for a restless journalist who suddenly feels very much still in search of a Big Story. Yes, we’re at water’s edge, so the concept of “swimming by” or “afloat in the ocean” is quite apropos, but how this makes for a cathartic end to a Phish set escapes me—I ask you why/if I’m swimming by/don’t you see/anything you’d like to buy? becomes in this moment a question most salient, in particular when Anastasio loses all control over the central riff during the key moment of its quotation, which he foregoes instead for a reasonably expressive solo that never quite matches the intensity of any number of previous lead lines on tonight’s menu of musical items. Phish, still swimming, yes, but with a half-hearted, merely adequate Theme from the Bottom in a highlight set position, perhaps falling short of winning the trophy at this particular swim meet, so to speak. Theme, another in a serious of short rather than expansive songs, eases from its vocal rounds into one last build-up, this one so brief and inconsequential as to be meaningless, an outro jam designed to get the band into another tune with efficiency rather than grace.

 The jam pulses and fades into the piano stylings of stagehound McConnell, an indicator of a strong Phish closer like Squirming Coil . . . but instead it’s A Day in the Life, which makes this showgoer 0 for 3 in the emotional resonance category. Let’s face it, folks, The Beatles, for all their crucial importance to popular music—in our little corner of the pop culture firmament alone, Jerry Garcia is on the record as stating that it was following a screening of Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night that the group decided to forgo its jugband genre for electrified rock and roll, which is no small event in the history of jam bands—have a book that’s been played so much by so many that numerous Beatles songs have acquired the sensation one gets when saying the same word over and over until it loses all meaning, all sense of itself. Phish here uses the tune’s two baroque sonic build-ups to good Phishy effect, with digital loop effects and noise, but then the song’s over and so’s the set and I can’t believe that’s that.

 But no Phish show is complete without an encore, and after a break of less than a minute the band returns with its would-be hit single of 10 years ago, Heavy Things. I’d just heard a Heavy Things from 2009 that, if it didn’t exactly go places in a psychedelic sense, at least built up to a powerhouse statement of theme that made for a fresh listening experience. But tonight I feel pinned down by this “small” song, which I have to admit does feature such a light-fingered, delightful guitar solo that it’s hard not to smile, to nod, to glance around at the bobbing heads and grooving bodies and think, ok, Heavy Things is fine, but this is Portsmouth, and we want something else.

 Which we get in the form of an apt, bookending First Tube, a song having nothing to do with Tube and everything to do with the fact that, if any band would have the unlikely recurrence of the word “tube” in their songbook, it would be Phish. Anastasio seems to know that Portsmouth deserves a loud, energized finale, one that goes out much further than Heavy Things ever could, and the bombastic bassline intro launches us into the spooky, spiky rhythms of a song first worked out by what’s now referred to as the classic TAB (Trey Anastasio Band) during the First Hiatus. In the years since, however, Phish has made the song its own, here played with confidence and fervency. First Tube sounds immediate and tangible; if it were a passing high-speed train, it’s one that you’d better grab ahold of or best get out of its determined way. I latch onto First Tube and pull myself aboard.

 Its thrumming power beneath my feet, I am carried along, my heart matching that of the pulsing backbeat, watching Anastasio throttling his axe as though trying to wrench the life out of it, in the end holding it aloft not so much for the assembled masses to supplicate themselves, but rather to say, here lies the body of this guitar—its role now is to sleep, phans, to rest, to regain its strength so that it may again sing to all of you. Slashing digital delay loops, swirling sound like waves of colorsplashed water lapping against the shoreline that is the line of demarcation between audience and rock stars, an organ flourish and one last screaming cathartic howl of artistic intent, and then a crashing resounding note of triumphant conclusion finishes the show—a good show, enjoyable, but certainly more workmanlike than revelatory.

 So, if the Portsmouth Phish show didn’t quite live up to some unreasonable expectations—speculation was rampant about special song appearances, including one phan who insisted that they’d soundchecked Col. Forbin at the prior Hershey Park show and were certain to play it tonight—the band indeed turned in two sets and a generous encore that, if not an all-time performance, is certainly worth hearing. The overall experience for this humble reporter was, to the say the least, an interesting one that continued onto the streets of Portsmouth and the brief ferry ride back across to Norfolk and points beyond on the long journey back home from my first Phish show of 2010. But those details, as compelling as they no doubt are, will have to wait for another review, another time.

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 [1] 6/26/94 Municipal Auditorium, Charleston, WV

[2] A photo of this moment is featured on phish.com’s “From the Road” album of media covering this tour.

[3] Transcribed from the LivePhish official concert recording.

[4] Listening now, his work sounds less “clammy” than him merely applying extreme instances of the above-mentioned note-bending within solos, a recent affectation that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t.

James D. McCallister, of Columbia, SC, is an imaginative novelist and free-lance writer whose latest publication is a short story featured in the Kearney Street Books anthology THE STORYTELLER SPEAKS: RARE AND DIFFERENT FICTIONS OF THE GRATEFUL DEAD.

One Response to Let’s Take a Phishing Trip to Last Weeks Intimate Show in Beautiful Portsmouth, VA

  1. […] shakedown up the hill, on the hunt for Portsmouth PTBMs. I don’t miss a Portsmouth show, as this expressive review from a number of years ago should demonstrate […]

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