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Traffic slows to a crawl as hundreds of people, some heavily adorned in tie-dye and dreadlocks, roam up and down the tiny Gayley Street, one beaconing finger held high in the air, eyes hopeful and eager, as they search for that extra golden ticket to the final show of a three night stand by the legendary Phish at the equally legendary and most statuesque Greek Theatre. As the gate opening approaches, thousands more excited phanatics clog the sidewalks in front of the theatre, waiting in line to claim prime real estate in the Greek’s concrete, terraced basin. The theatre is located in the far, tree covered reaches of Berkeley’s University of California campus, across the bay from San Francisco. When the sun sets across the water, the lights of The City can be seen past the campus’s prominent clock tower from the Greek’s upper lawn. It’s modeled almost directly after a historical amphitheater in the Grecian city of Epidaurus whose round, semi-circle shape surrounding the stage was renowned for its incredible acoustics. Before Thursday’s triumphant return to the Greek, it had been nearly seventeen years since Vermont’s psychedelic quartet played their first and only show at the magical venue.
In the last year and a half, on what has been dubbed by their fans as the “3.0” era, Phish has scheduled a mere seventy-three shows in many of their massive stomping ground stadiums and sheds as well 50,000 or so person gathering last Halloween in the Indio, California desert. However, over these three nights, the 8,500 person capacity Greek Theater is part of a string, including their two nights in Telluride, Colorado, of their most intimate shows since their return. These shows come at a perfect time for Phish and their fanatics as the grapevine has been raving about their July 4th shows, only a month prior, in Alpharetta, Georgia which some critics are calling the best of the 3.0 tours.
Phish is quite arguably not led by anybody as each member takes chances to step up to the plate during different stages of the night or even different nights of the tour. Often times, all of the members, even the dress sporting drummer John Fishman behind his massive rig, seem to be playing their own separate melodies, all melding together to create a rock ‘n’ roll choir. On the keys is Page McConnell whose twinkling piano frills and funky organ and synthesizer riffs gracefully take the music between angelic peaks and dirty funky valleys. Bassist Mike Gordon has become major talk of the 3.0 era with his constant variations on pounding, funk-driven lines that could be said to be the engine of the foursome. However, the invariably recognized, rusty-haired front-man, with custom semi-hollow bodied guitar in hand, sometimes wildly jazzy and exploratory, sometimes Olympian and poignant enough to bring the house to tears, is unquestionably Trey Anastasio. Together, like a Captain Planet cartoon, they bring their powers together to create a musical force unrivaled by any other four musicians in existence. Riding on the continually shifting and rearranging beams of their more-than-honorary fifth member Chris Kuroda’s massive light storm, Phish’s music is a ride on the back of a winged dragon from the dark twisting caves, to the soaring heavens, it is a most intense and euphoric trip. The band, staying true to its jam band roots, has improvisational jams peaking with mystical energy. However, for Phish, it often seems to be more about the chase.
From the rocking “AC/DC Bag” opener that poured itself into the latin based, acid-jazz skewed “Foam”, the night was masterfully crafted with clever segues, patient improvisation and impassioned playing by all four members who always seemed just as into the music they were playing as the audience was. A funky “Gotta Jibboo” got the audience moving and singing along before breaking into one of their most ornate and involved composed pieces, “Reba”. The first section to “Reba” is a strange but humorous bopping account about a woman who makes a strange concoction in a bathtub and, somehow, sells it to the butcher. This is somewhat standard fare for a Phish tune which are often fictitious, cryptic or nonsensical tales that are perhaps open to the interpretation of the wired mind. The second half of the tune, however, is another spectacular Phish paradigm of writing long, intricate, composed opuses with very few repeated parts. All of this, is most certainly in the style of one of Anastasio’s notable idols, Frank Zappa.
The second half of the set consisted of five songs without a single break in the music, an unrelenting marathon. Page’s hearty blues number “Army of One” allowed Trey a most dramatic entrance for some passionate licks on his new guitar, built by his long time friend and luthier, Paul Languedoc. Without interruption the band followed Gordon’s thumping lead into the bluegrass drama “Poor Heart”, a quick pickup before settling into the bayou reminiscent shuffler, “46 Days” where Trey again detonated explosive guitar dynamite as Gordon followed along dropping deep funky bombs from his NASA grade, carbon-graphite Modulus bass guitar. “Tube” followed, opening with the words of a poem Anastasio supposedly found in Fishman’s journal humorously lamenting the ritual of being buried after death. More funky improvisation followed as the darkness allowed Kuroda to flex his psychedelic muscles as he sent the audience headlong down the barrel of a rainbow with his towering wall of lights. “Character Zero” followed to end a set which had the entire captivated audience moving as all five cylinders sizzled and sparkled to a most spectacular finish.
After the break, “Wilson” (King of Prussia), broke wide open the beginning of an exciting second set as the crowd riled into an early frenzy which was nurtured and groomed by the band as they snuck into their uplifting “Light”. A ten minute instrumental exploration followed which culminated in one of their newest introspections called “Twenty Years Later”, an emotional canon that releases into a spaced out, energetic platform where Gordon’s moving bass lines really shine as he kicks it into high gear with a funky envelope filter that shuttles the band into the jazz infused reggae of “Harry Hood”. An airy, somewhat tropical feeling jam ensues as the lights are turned low and glow sticks begin to fly by the hundreds from many different points within the audience. As tradition goes, a massive glow stick war ensues in response to the cascading glimmer offered by solos from both Trey and Page. As “Hood” resolved into hypnotic ambience, “Theme from the Bottom” emerged from Page’s keys. Striking vocal harmonies lead into another chance for the band to put it all on the table as Anastasio lights a sonic fire, accompanied with a growing urgency from Kuroda’s light’s that climaxes to a flurry of streaks and notes merging indistinguishably into each other before returning home to its harmonious barbershop quartet beginning.
The funky energy is re-ignited almost immediately as Fishman jumps into the breakbeat pre-party that leads their epic Space Odyssey: 2001 themed “Also Sprach Zarathustra” which layers the momentous theme song over the funked out base for a most exciting and dramatic piece of music. At the songs close, with a