Concert Review: Phish at Blossom Music Center in Cuyahoga Falls, OH
Concert Review: Phish at Blossom Music Center in Cuyahoga Falls, OH
This past summer, Phish jaunted from the East Coast to the Great Lakes states on a summer tour of average ambition, encompassing twenty-two pavilion and amphitheater shows in July and August. The band’s lightened schedule in the post-pandemic years results in each concert being more focused, unique and memorable. On August 2nd, the band returned to Blossom Music Center near Cleveland for their ninth performance at the storied wooden amphitheater that has been a favorite for Ohio concert-goers since 1968. Although this concert happened a few months ago, after successive re-listening it is worthy of review as the most memorable concert this reviewer attended this year (King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard being a close second). Of the 45 Phish shows this reviewer has attended since 1993, this performance was one of the best in recent memory.
While the group has performed minimal cover songs since their record-setting “Baker’s Dozen” concerts at Madison Square Garden in 2017, when performing in or near Cleveland they traditionally perform at least one cover of a legendary rock band as a nod to the nearby Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame. So before the show began, some concert-goers pondered which classic cover or covers the band would include.
As Phish took to the stage, they huddled in barbershop quartet formation around a compact set of vocal mics at front center stage, as the band occasionally does when singing a capella. Their fans didn’t have to wait long to see which vintage rock song would be featured, as the
As Phish took to the stage, they huddled in barbershop quartet formation around a compact set of vocal mics at front center stage, as the band occasionally does when singing a capella.
foursome crooned a vocal version of the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever.” It was an endearing albeit pitchy rendition, as the quartet displayed a goofy demeanor while trying not to take themselves too seriously, performing the song for just the second time in their history.
The Phabulous Phour retrieved their instruments – the ‘four food groups’ guitar, keys/organ, bass, drums – to get the ball rolling with “Crowd Control.” This happy-go-lucky, AOR-friendly song is relatively unambitious and not a fan favorite, but it serviceably got the crowd dancing with a cheery Languedoc guitar lead by guitarist/vocalist Trey Anastasio.
“Punch You in the Eye” elicited a roar from the near-capacity crowd, as well as the requisite cheers of “Hey!” Anastasio and bassist Mike Gordon sashayed through the salsa-influenced bridge, grounded by Page McConnell’s Cuban-flavored piano and Jon Fishman’s polyrhythms. They punctuated the song’s staccato off-beats with snarling disdain for Wilson the king of lizards, their fantastical nemesis and perpetual antagonist.
The band settled into a celebratory groove with “46 Days,” allowing the band to musically break formation and jam for the first time. Trey’s fiery guitar claimed the customary lead role as the star of the show before reprising the last chorus, after which the band descended into a meandering jam driven by McConnell’s Fender Rhodes electric piano.
The fans strapped in for the musical rollercoaster “You Enjoy Myself,” one of the band’s oldest originals that dates back to 1986 and the band’s first album Junta. Emblematic of early Phish, “YEM” is jazzy with Spanish semitones and syncopated instrumentation that swells dynamically from moments of near silence to majestic peaks. Anastasio’s proclivity for single note domination was on full display as he stretched the final glorious note of his guitar lead over 15 seconds.
Phish is sometimes derided for their lyrics, which can vary from simplistic to incongruent to nonsensical, especially in their 80’s and 90’s era originals. As is the case with many of their earlier compositions, the lyrics of “You Enjoy Myself” seem to serve merely as a placebo or placeholder to remind the band where they are in the song. In this case, the lyrics only consist of “boy, man, god, shit” – alternately a metaphor for a rock star’s trajectory or the abbreviated Phishtory of evolution – and “watchu uffizi and drive me to Firenze,” presumably providing directions to an Italian taxi driver.
Anastasio and Gordon momentarily levitated on trampolines during the jubilant jam as is customary, while lighting director and “fifth member” Chris Kuroda accentuated the stage with pulsating lemon yellow LEDs. Gordo’s flanged bass and Trey’s bombastic guitar fireworks
Anastasio’s proclivity for single note domination was on full display as he stretched the final glorious note of his guitar lead over 15 seconds.
were in full effect before resolving to the brief “watchu uffizi” vocal jam, which lasted only a minute before surrendering to the flow of McConnell’s clavichord and endless array of keyboards.
They suddenly crashed into “Tube,” an upbeat, energetic rocker that always elevates the fans’ enthusiastic elbows. The band quickly settled into white man’s funk, with a jam highlighted by impressive interplay and dueling between Anastasio and Page “chairman of the boards” McConnell. Naturally Trey won the lead battle, though Page provided lively clav and piano during the bluesy half-tempo bridge.
“Shade” provided the evening’s first and only ballad, permitting a pause to the lively dancing crowd. With its pensive chorus “I only like the shade when you’re blocking the light,” the song is lyrically a good example of how Phish’s newer compositions – usually penned by Tom Marshall – have matured in lyrical depth and introspection in recent years.
Up next was the fan-favorite “Reba,” a classic from the band’s 1990 album Lawn Boy. “Reba” was requested on this night by Aiden Cohen, a budding teenage guitarist who had the rare privilege of playing guitar with the band onstage during their pre-show rehearsal earlier that evening. Aiden and his father Matt are proponents of Phish’s charity The Waterwheel Foundation, and they often pay tribute to the band in their online “Cohen Fam Jam Room.” (Coincidentally, Matt Cohen was a former bandmate of this reviewer in the early jam-band STATION, circa 2000.)
“Reba” was relatively tight on this night, aside from the occasional brown note from Anastasio. The band served up an ill-advised recipe that includes “apple core, worms galore, a can of some corrosive, coconuts and chloroform, some wicker and some cork, toxic waste, some purple paste she hoped was not explosive.” Meanwhile, drummer Fishman hilariously included pre-programmed samples of “uhhh-huuuh” and a cow ‘moo,’ highlighting the absurdity of their 1989-penned lyrics that were never intended to survive into the next millennium.
The tightly-wound jazz bridge of “Reba” was performed flawlessly, with Anastasio and McConnell instrumentally chasing each other’s tails. Trey’s voyaging guitar lead provided all the feels, building effectively to a crescendo before including the on-and-off-again whistling and final chorus to conclude this fine rendition.
The band concluded the first set with “Cavern,” a call-back from 1991’s A Picture of Nectar. The rapid-fire lyrics were only occasionally dropped by Anastasio, while Fishman used his sampled drum pad again to hilarious effect during the false ending. Meanwhile, even the most
The set break gave the band’s phans time to process that timeless wisdom and the group’s best-known advice – “whatever you do, take care of your shoes.”
hardcore Phish fans struggled to sing along with “Cavern’s” brand-new sentences which are only redeemed by their rhyming convention. “Give the director a serpent deflector, a mudrat detector, a ribbon reflector, a cushion convector, a picture of nectar, a virile dissector, a hormone collector.” The set break gave the band’s phans time to process that timeless wisdom and the group’s best-known advice – “whatever you do, take care of your shoes.”
As Phish reclaimed the stage for the 2nd set, there was the sense among the elated crowd that the best was yet to come. This intuition was validated as the band started with the liberating launchpad “Free.” Following the glorious, redeeming refrains, Mike “Cactus” Gordon’s funktified bass took center stage while Kuroda’s lights resembled an alien spacecraft descending on the stage, invoking the band’s “Sci-Fi Soldier” alter-ego.
“Free” continued with patient, unbridled noodling that soon entered “Type II” exploratory territory. Phish’s Type II jams are signified by their uniqueness in spontaneously changing the established key, rhythm and/or tempo, rendering the jam indistinguishable from the song itself. Essentially, even the most ardent fan could start listening approximately 7 to 10 minutes into the track without being able to recognize the song that it originated from.
On this memorable night at Blossom, Gordo and his flanged bass led the band into a rare “Type III” jam that resembled neither “Free” nor the Type II improvisation that immediately preceded it. For several minutes the jam climbed as a DNA helix structure winding around McConnell’s Moog synthesizer, while Anastasio planned his next chess move. After his guitar theatrics brought “Free” to oft-denied second and third climaxes after including a “YEM” call-back and “Wolfman’s Brother” tease, Page’s organ swells concluded “Free” a whopping 25 minutes after starting the 2nd set opener.
McConnell’s organ unexpectedly hailed the intro of the circus-like “Esther,” a forgotten nugget from Junta which the band rarely revives in their live repertoire. While Page tickled the piano ivories, the band gravitated between lighter and darker motifs in this cautionary carnival tale.
Sensing a lull in the crowd, Phish launched into their quasi-Caribbean stoner anthem “Blaze On,” instantly re-igniting the band as well as their fans’ combustible substances. The following jam successfully rejuvenated the crowd as well as Kuroda’s cascading light display. The carpe diem theme of “Blaze On” reached Type II with an ethereal interlude that could have stretched longer into unknown regions, however Anastasio abruptly pulled the rip-cord and forced the band into “Scents and Subtle Sounds.”
“Scents” starts like watered-down reggae and gets worse as it de-evolves into a pedantic Phish parody worthy of Spinal Tap. Not a fan of this song at all – it has few redeeming qualities aside from its brief tease of “Harry Hood,” which would have been drastically more welcome in this slot. As light man Kuroda brought the LED spaceship back to the stage, the momentary mediocrity started to elicit “beam me up” themes until the jam took hold.
Ten minutes into “Scents and Subtle Sounds,” it actually gets really good with a ripping guitar lead that melts our minds into forgetting the skunky scents that preceded it. Trey tears it up and spurs the band to let loose, and in doing so justifies the inclusion of this otherwise stinky song. It’s the conundrum that I call Schrödinger’s Jam, where a live performance of a below-average, forgettable song occasionally results in an inspired, synergetic jam that is greater than the song itself, validating the song’s existence (see also, “Soul Planet”).
Fishman’s straight-forward drum beat launches into “2001” and instantly all is forgiven for “Scents,” without which these jams might not be possible. Officially titled “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” Phish’s prog-rock re-imagining of Richard Strauss’s iconic composition from 2001: A Space Odyssey has been a favorite of Phishheads ever since the band introduced it to their live repertoire back in 1993.
“2001” led flawlessly into “Split Open and Melt,” another perennial crowd favorite that has endured since its inception in 1987. Also a tight arrangement from Lawn Boy, “SO&M” was proficiently played on this evening. As the band concludes the bridge with the words “down, down, down,” the dynamics gradually trend up, up, up for the final foray of the 2nd set. The clock is clearly ticking as they immediately enter a Type II jam with less patience than before. Trey starts randomly stomping on his effects pedals like they just appeared in front of him, leading to a deranged, frenzied foray of psychedelia. As Kuroda’s spaceship horizontally wipes in and out of existence, it is McConnell’s demented Moog synth that brings the band crashing back down to Earth. Even Fishman was momentarily dazed before re-engaging his drum kit, as the band banged out the final notes of “Split Open and Melt” before taking their bow.
After a momentary break, Phish returned to the stage one more time for the requisite encore. On this night, “Bathtub Gin” claimed the encore spot for only the fourth documented time in the band’s 275+ performances of the fan-favorite song. On this third original from their classic album Lawn Boy performed this night, the band served up yet another questionable concoction and satisfying 10-minute jam that made the most of the remaining time before curfew.
All in all it was a fine, fun-filled performance by the Phabulous Phour. Although every Phish show is unique in featuring an exclusive setlist never to be repeated, this evening’s song selection, placement and execution resulted in a remarkable night at Blossom Music Center.
The quartet performed flawlessly together as always, a testament to their thirty-five years together with no change in the established lineup of Anastasio, McConnell, Gordon and Fishman. Phish has increasingly become Trey’s band in recent decades, nearly as much as the Trey Anastasio Band excepting the band name. He has mellowed a bit in his past decade-plus of sobriety and newfound purpose; however he still has the “I am the main character” syndrome, choosing and singing essentially every single song. After the a capella opener “Strawberry Fields Forever” Trey dominated the vocals on each song containing lyrical verses. Absent were the songwriting contributions of McConnell and Gordon that typically add diversity and depth to the band’s live performances, and this was the evening’s main flaw. But despite the lack of vocal variety, it was an enthusiastic, exalting performance that overjoyed most Phishheads in attendance.
After a recess this past autumn, Phish returns to New York’s Madison Square Garden this week to conclude 2022 with four consecutive nights leading up to and including their typically revelatory New Year’s Eve concert.
PHISH 8/2/2022 Blossom Music Center, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio
Set I: Strawberry Fields Forever, Crowd Control, Punch You in the Eye > 46 Days > You Enjoy Myself > Tube > Shade, Reba, Cavern
Set II: Free > Esther > Blaze On > Scents and Subtle Sounds > Also Sprach Zarathustra > Split Open and Melt
Encore: Bathtub Gin