Phish: Champlain Valley Expo, Essex Jct, VT 9/14/11

With first estimates of one million plus dollars raised from Phish’s Benefit for Vermont Flood Recovery on September 14, it’s going to be hard to quell calls for another such affair, especially in light of the flawless execution of the occasion (from announcement to ticket sales to actual show operations) plus the absence of any negative affects on the surrounding community the day of the concert.  After all there’s no shortage of worthwhile causes and the fanbase would certainly welcome a sequel given what they witnessed this full-moonlit night.

Phish themselves rose to the occasion with a flourish at the Champlain Valley Expo, playing two fiery, focused sets before a capacity crowd. And they ended up not just performing a gesture of grand generosity toward those afflicted with the effects of Hurricane Irene; the quartet simultaneously addressed lingering issues of their own history and in no uncertain terms.
No one came right out and referenced the semi-debacle that was Coventry in 2004, but, introduced by a tongue-in-cheek but nonetheless sincere Mike Gordon (“…the band is pumped!), Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin unconsciously alluded to the ill-fated festival in his reference to the seven year interim between Phish shows in the state of Vermont; it was a comment hardly lost on anyone in the audience or the group for that matter, which is no doubt why Phish hit the stage running, opening with what one wag in the audience said was the "fastest-ever" versions of songs like “Chalk Dust Torture” and “Sample in a Jar.”

Yet, it wasn’t so much the speed but the concentration the band brought to their playing. And the response they elicited from the crowd, even given theirs was an appetite hard to satiate, was almost as electrifying as the musicianship. In a late summer early fall setting of clear cool weather, the jamband icons put to rest (as much as the naysaying demographic will allow) doubts about their commitment to each other, their fanbase and their home state.

It’s almost as if the hiatus and the begrudging separation that followed had never happened and the glow stick wars never stopped. Then again, it’s probably more correct to say that those intervals in Phish history have had the intended effect in terms of enhancing the mechanics within a group where all its members are capable of playing at an equally high level.

Certainly, to hear Trey Anastasio keeping to a supporting role during “Funky Bitch” and its densely interwoven syncopation furiously spun by bassist Mike Gordon and keyboardist Page McConnell (on the clavinet), is a marked shift of emphasis. And, as evidenced by the nuances of “Julius” late in the first set, the fire that replaced the ice in Anastasio’s guitar tone circa Hampton 2009 has risen ever higher in the interim.  Even so, his restraint and self-discipline is evident, especially (and perhaps most logically so) when Gordon is as assertive as he was in the latter portion of the evening.

Phish had to regaining the momentum lost in playing the turgid “Alaska” roughly an hour into the show. This momentary stumble, however, didn’t find the four falling and by the time they returned to the stage and introduced “Carini”–in response to one of many signs in the audience or, as Trey acknowledged, in honor of “two dear friends”–the metallic clatter they conjured on this tune set in motion a progressive rise of intensity through show’s end.

Even granting the familiarity of the setlist, by the time “Suzy Greenberg” appeared, the dynamics Phish commanded were a marvel to behold. The only shift of gears drummer Jon Fishman did not steer throughout the evening involved the delicacy with which the foursome rendered “Slave to the Traffic Light:” the extended instrumental segment acted as a moment of reflection upon Phish’s own shared history as well as their collective bond with their community. A sharp acceleration into “Rock and Roll,” turned Lou Reed’s song into a purposeful statement bereft of the foursome’s usually broad sense of irony.

Even those viewing only via the webcast of the show were no doubt feeling their lives “saved by rock and roll” at this point.
Did the sign reading ‘I AM HAPPY’ just appear after Phish offered “Backwards Down the Number Line” as a direct message to its devotees? It’s a question worth asking as relevant as whether benefits for Vermont Flood recovery seemed to spring up all around the state in the wake of the band’s announcement post-Labor Day? Such conjecture about their cultural leadership matters less than those events are happening (though perhaps not with the lighting speed of this encore of the summer tour–within eight calendar days?!).

With the grandstand as packed (though perhaps not so densely) as the area to the front of the stage, and fanning out to either side of the Expo grounds, then into the beer tent, it seemed as if Phish played and sang straight to the audience for the encore of The Rolling Stones’ “Loving Cup:” containing just one of many not so idle reference to the roots of the group’s unique lore (“…I’m the man in the mountains…”), no sing-along of the night was so wholehearted all around as this refrain. ‘…What a beautiful buzz!…’ indeed as, in the midst of the crowd, more or less jostling in time to the music, it sounded like everyone was yelling in unison, performers and audience.

And in strolling back to the rolling hills that constituted a parking area from which traffic was already smoothly streaming, it seemed more than reasonable to consider September 14 yet another elevation of Phish’s integrity and credibility since their reunion two and a half years ago.

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