Phish: The First Set

Sun Mar 08 2009

Please keep this in mind: I wasn’t there. I just went into Bose headphone seclusion and listened to Mr. Miner’s “no-spoilers” mp3s. I do realize it’s kinda different from actually being there.

It took one strum for me to realize in a rush who Fluffhead was. One more strum and I became aware that “Fluffhead” was a boast, an apology and a thank-you all at once. A second later I was caught up in the thrill of anticipation for all of those emotions to explode upon Arrival. Before the song had even really started, all Coventry-based fear was swept clean from my memory. I thought for a second about how happy every single person in that audience was. And then, how happy all the people were who KNEW it would be “Fluffhead”. Choice.

Already, in this first song, in a jam with barely any space to breathe, there was a Phish anti-groove, right before the end, very brief, but unmistakable. It might have been virtual clone understudies up until that moment, but now there was no doubt. And I couldn’t remember the last show that even had one of those. If you’re ever going to put a track from this set into a mix, it’s got to be this one, because even if nobody else understands its significance, what should still seep out is how everything about it was fucking perfect. Don’t argue. I’m not listening.

As the set progressed, I realized the fear had not completely left me. There were moments when conditioning prompted me to get nervous, fearing that the butcher this band briefly had for a guitar player was still lurking; faith once shaken takes time to steady. A couple of minor miscues on “Divided” had me on tenterhooks; the recovery was always quick, though. “Stash” brought on flashbacks of the ugly version from Alpine in ’04, but never fear; this one was no epic but it was interesting and it flowed. To even brave a modest jam this early on took balls. Where do these guys get off having any flow fresh out of retirement?

There were some odd, Trey’s-mouth-is-on-auto-pilot moments, during “Chalk Dust” and “Suzy”, for instance; there were other times when he seemed to just be letting the words tumble out however he happened upon them. Plenty of times you could hear a quiver in his voice--who could blame the guy for being a little nervous? It was hilarious how often he was startled by the crowd participation; you can’t rehearse that stuff. Those seemingly random outbursts must have been needles of nostalgia in a sense, but it was clear that he still loves it as much as we do.

It wasn’t hard to see that this setlist was indeed carefully (i.e., safely) crafted. By the time “Farmhouse” rolled out, I wasn’t holding out hope for a 30-minute “Ghost”. You don’t need that after four and a half years. You need a comfort-food set, and this was it. I can’t speak for all of Phishdom, but I missed the songs more than anything, and here they were, alive again. They were singing them. “Train Song”, “Water In The Sky”…I’m not saying those harmonies are complex, but this band virtually gave up on vocals ten years ago, so these tunes were downright refreshing.

I don’t care how much they practiced in private. They were scared little kids at an elementary school talent show, and we are their tens of thousands of parents telling them they did a fine job. The truth is, it was obvious that they were more worried about not fucking up than really stretching out. It’s about fundamentals now, proving to themselves that they can nail these songs. Before long they’re going to remember that they’ve done this twelve hundred times before, and when they do…look out. It was hard not to hope for real jams, but it was easy to forgive their absence. For tonight, after almost two hours…just chill, and hope that maybe Phish is the cure for Fluffhead's disease.
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