Strange Design: Sullivan Hall, New York City, NY 8/22/8

With all the talk about a possible Phish reunion—a possibility that, thankfully, grows ever more certain (Phish reunited briefly for Brad Sand’s wedding reception this past weekend) — there are no doubt thousands of phans, myself included, jonesing for some live Phish. And we can only plunder the tapes so many times before the itch for the real thing becomes unbearable. Unfortunately, even as the rumor mill heats up, it’s unlikely that a reunion tour will happen before Summer 2009, and that’s a wishful projection. With the dissolution of Phix—until now the go-to Phish cover (or re-creation) band—there’s a dearth of live Phish to be found in the clubs and arenas across the country. Enter Strange Design.

Created following the dissolution of Phish in 2004, Strange Design sets a purpose similar to that of Grateful Dead re-creationists Dark Star Orchestra. The members—guitarist Matthew Chase, bassist Ben Markowitz, drummer Adam Chase and keyboardist Aaron Levy—don’t just play Phish tunes; they inhabit them. Also like DSO, they play entire shows exactly as they were played originally, fine-tuning each detail to ensure faithful reproduction.

The Friday and Saturday night shows at Sullivan Hall were billed as a “Weekend at the Hamptons,” featuring a pair of shows (11/21/97 and 11/22/97) from a venue that Phish nearly obliterated every time they visited. Sadly, I was only able to attend the Friday night show, but my buddy was nice enough to text me a song-by-song setlist on Saturday night, which, as most phans know, was a monster—any show that opens with “Mike’s -> I Am Hydrogen -> Weekapaug, Harry Hood” is sure to be memorable.

But Friday night was special in its own right, and Strange Design paid excellent tribute to an interesting show, launched by the debut of “Emotional Rescue.” Never one of my (or anyone’s) favorite Stones songs, it was nonetheless a perfect cover for Phish, with its in-the-pocket groove and quirky lyrical delivery. After dispatching with it in due time, Strange Design dropped seamlessly into “Split Open and Melt,” whose jam proved to be one of the most intriguing of the night. The rest of the first set was fairly standard, but Chase, Markowitz and company were spot-on throughout, demonstrating both the chops and enthusiasm to deliver a striking facsimile of Phish—even down to the digital delay loop jam that trailed out of “Prince Caspian” into the set break.

A four-song second set explored the depths of the ’97 groove, the deep funk that often churned across large portions of that year’s shows. The full setlist is below—most of us know it by heart and can chart the subterranean jams that emerged from “Ghost” and the always-transcendent heights reached in “Slave.” Suffice it to say that Strange Design nailed each song, nearly note-perfect, including the “Guyute” encore—definitely no small feat.

As the Phish machine hopefully gears up for another triumphant run across America, Strange Design offers a fantastic release for much of the energy that has piled up since Coventry. Quite simply, if you love Phish, you’ll love Strange Design.

Full setlist:

1: Emotional Rescue*-> Split Open and Melt, Beauty of My Dreams, Dogs Stole Things, Punch You in the Eye-> Lawn Boy, Chalk Dust Torture, Prince Caspian^

2: Ghost-> AC/DC Bag-> Slave to the Traffic Light, Loving Cup

E: Guyute

*Rolling Stones cover (first time played).  ^With digital delay loop jam.

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