Phish Blend It Sweet & Dark at Hersheypark Night One (SHOW REVIEW)

Since their formation nearly 40 years ago, venerable jam-rock outfit Phish has had the honor of performing in hundreds of different venues across the globe (the exact number is somewhere around 832), from legendary outdoor wonders such as Red Rocks and The Gorge to infamous arenas like Madison Square Garden and Hampton Coliseum. However, there are very few, if any, locales that can offer up the same kind of surreal dichotomy as Hersheypark Stadium when Phish and its associated traveling circus comes to town.

There is something to be said about witnessing the convergence of two remarkably disparate groups of people: wild-eyed phans with fingers in the air on their way to the venue crossing paths with hordes of beleaguered familes heading to their cars after a long day of seemingly endless lines at the adherent amusement park. And while the two migrating caravans mostly kept to themselves and were remarkably civil to each other in their limited interactions – I did overhear a few confused-looking children asking their parents “what’s a Fluffhead?” – it’s still more than enough to make any sociologist drool.

And so was the setting this past Tuesday (8/10/21) as Phish kicked off a highly anticipated two-night run at Hersheypark Stadium in Hershey, PA. Coming towards the end of the first leg of a nationwide summer tour, the quartet returned to the familiar grounds of the Keystone State. There’s only a handful of states in which the group has performed more often – with a formidable pair of sets that mixed some of their oldest and most beloved material with newer compositions which proved that even with nearly four decades under their belt, Phish’s approach to live music is still as fresh & innovative as it’s ever been.

The band took to the stage a little before 8pm underneath a vivid rainbow – courtesy of some explosive thunderstorms that had just rolled through central Pennsylvania moments before – and immediately kicked things into high gear with the instrumental groove monster “First Tube” followed up by Trey Anastasio’s rocking ode to armpits, “Axilla.” The evening’s first real dose of group improv came during “Fuego”, which was punctuated by an effects-heavy psychedelic jam led by Anastasio before the quartet eventually segued into fan-favorite “Runaway Jim”, which featured Anastasio and keyboardist Page McConnell engaged in a melodic back-and-forth during the song’s signature jam.

The remainder of the opening stanza focused more on their “shorter” material – i.e. ten minutes or less – with quick takes on “Gumbo”, “Llama”, and Mike Gordon’s Caribbean-tinged “Sugar Shack” which was well-chosen for its confectionary surroundings. Steam”, the swampy rocker from the group’s most recent studio album Sigma Oasis and the badass dark sing-a-long-special “Death Don’t Hurt Very Long”, which has quickly become a bona fide show-stopper since its infamous Kasvot Växt 2018 Halloween show, were among the first set highlights before the energy wrapped up with a typically explosive “Run Like an Antelope.”

However, as with most Phish shows, the second set was where the band truly earned their keep as the four members became musical explorers, plundering the depths of their immense catalog and discovering new ways to interpret their material while seamlessly crossing boundaries from jazz to rock to reggae and touching on nearly everything in between.

“No Men In No Man’s Land” opened the second set and gave lighting director Chris Kuroda a chance to show off some of his new – and rather impressive – LED toys as the band stretched this funky romp past the fifteen-minute mark before transitioning smoothly into the Anastasio-penned “Soul Planet.” While “Soul Planet’s” cliche lyrics admittedly aren’t likely to be confused with those of the brilliant Robert Hunter, the song’s extended outro jam gives the band ample room to stretch their legs, usually resulting in remarkably strong improv. Tonight’s version was no exception with Mike Gordon & Jon Fishman holding down the low-end as all four members combined to create their own unique brand of controlled musical chaos.

A quick jaunt through the classic “NICU” preceded the evening’s first ballad, “Joy”, as well as an always-welcome appearance by Gordon’s bluegrass-oddity “Scent of a Mule”, which was highlighted by its trademark Russian-influenced duel between Messrs. Anastasio & McConnell.

Relatively tepid versions of TV on the Radio’s “Golden Age” and originals “Prince Caspian” & “Backwards Down the Number Line” set the stage for the first performance of the beloved Gamehendge number “The Lizards” since February of 2020. What “Lizards” may lack in terms of any sort of musical exploration is more than made up for by its breathtaking instrumental coda which is arguably among the most beautiful pieces of music that Anastasio has ever composed.

A raucous version of the fist-pumping “Character Zero” closed out the set before the group returned to encore with a quick, but spirited, take on The Velvet Underground’s “Rock & Roll” with McConnell belting out the poignant refrain “it was all right (It was all right)” as the first night in Hershey came to a close.

Phish Setlist Hersheypark Stadium, Hershey, PA, USA, Summer Tour 2021

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