Phish: Portsmouth 6.20.12
nTelos Wireless Pavilion
Words By Benjamin Wilkerson
Photos By Justin Scott
Phish takes the stage for night two in Virginia as blank and full of potential as a sheet of paper that would hold their set list for the night – if they made one. In true free-form philosophy that matches their musical stylings, their trick is ‘to surrender to the flow’. Though often made, the only substantive comparisons between this band and the Grateful Dead would be the rabid following, and as Phil Lesh remarks regarding their similar spontaneity, they ‘play the crowd’, or that is to say there is some symbiotic connection made between audience and musicians. Classic rock icon Santana once said to a young Phish in 1992 that when watching their show he ‘was picturing the audience as this sea of flowers, the music was the water, and you guys were the hose.’ That pretty well sums it all up.
Set 1: Sparkle, Ha Ha Ha, AC/DC Bag > Divided Sky, Dog Log, Undermind > Mike's Song > I Am Hydrogen > Weekapaug Groove, Cities -> Ya Mar, Bold As Love > Julius
Set 2: Rock and Roll > Tweezer > Free > Guyute, Birds of a Feather, Harry Hood -> What's the Use? > Wading in the Velvet Sea > Possum
Encore: Sleeping Monkey > Tweezer Reprise
 Sleeping Monkey quotes from Fishman.
To begin, guitarist Trey Anastasio gingerly strums a few opening chords beneath the roar of those in attendance, and the progression from their jumpy jig “Sparkle” quietly pokes her head out of the shadows to signal the rest of the band. With the vocal content matching the music and volume, ‘the pressure builds’ as the lyrics note, and ‘erupts into your lung and heart/you laugh and laughing, fall apart’. The crowd goes wild. Next, the brief rock-mock song “Ha Ha Ha” is slid into for a fitting companion piece to its predecessor and continues to leave the audience smiling, knowing with all but certainty that this will be a extra special show amidst a longer series of more of the same. Also noteworthy, the only other time Phish has ever opened with “Sparkle” was a four-song show as the first act of Buckwheat Zydeco’s tour in March of 1992 that was also taped for airing on West Virginia’s iconic NPR radio show Mountain Stage.
After playing a rousing “AC/DC Bag”, the soaring journey through “The Divided Sky” has a brief pause in the music before the portion of blossoming lead guitar riffs where silence is held only momentarily, but the appreciative Portsmouth crowd cheers and screams applause for a one and a half-minute duration for this, just the fourth song of the day, before they were cut off by the musical rise once again. This crowd loves their band.
When faced with a barrage of posterboard by fans up front in the orchestra pit, Trey says ‘alright there’s enough of those damn signs up there”, and cranks right into the request on the numerous signs reading “Dog Log”. A welcome recent addition to their repertoire, they follow with the perhaps underrated “Undermind” and this gives us an noticeable appearance and a portion of prominent Page McConnell work on keys and vocals. The bassist is up next with his own “Mike’s Song”, and this gives way to an exceptional fast-paced improvisation by Trey as they begins another recent Mike’s Hydrogen Groove with seamless segues into the short and sweet “I Am Hydrogen” before the popping funk bass of “Weekapaug Groove”. With the majority of the three songs being musical segments, the combo provides substantial space for jamming, and delivers, so if you have to gloss over the recording make sure to aim for these.
It’s interesting to consider the Phish version of the next song when compared to the Talking Heads version, as the former plays about half as many beats than what is on the original, while still maintaining approximately the same tempo and vocal timing. The result is a less frenetic but equally enjoyable rendition of “Cities” which makes another repeat appearance from Atlantic City (6/15/2012; night one), but for five shows in six days that’s not bad especially when most bands play nearly the same show every night.
The grooving island melodies in the subsequent “Ya Mar” sway through as Trey yells ‘play it Leo!’ to cue an organ solo (similarly to their song “NICU”), and Page complies. For another notable treat of the evening, the band strikes up the second Jimi Hendrix song in as many days with “Bold As Love”. To close out what feels like an intimate set despite the thousands of people around, the walking-blues rocker “Julius” solidly finishes out with everyone dancing to every last second before taking another step.
Phish has a Halloween tradition of donning ‘musical costumes’ by performing an entire album of another bands’ work as part of their 10/31 shows, and at least one song from these extended shows frequently seems to be loaded into their canon as big set two openers. This includes songs such as The Who’s “Drowned”, Talking Head’s “Crosseyed and Painless” and today’s opener “Rock & Roll” originally by The Velvet Underground. The airy improvisations on this number land us in “Tweezer” for a funked-up take that ensures the night will close well. “Tweezer” sees a few dropped out bars before the verses finish, as well as laser-charged guitar loops that surface when they come back in, making for a noteworthy version. The jam goes towards a “David Bowie”-esque dark place (the song, not the performer) and sees some hefty low strides from Mike Gordon before he sports some slaps that resemble his other characteristic tones in “Weekapaug” which later loosen and become interlaced with Trey’s airborne samples once again, and this musical movement flies us into “Free”. "Free" sees some more wobbly funk grooves that link it with tonights' other songs before being released into the weightlessness of the resounding chorus.
Since being exposed to the particular mesmerizing rotation of lights during “Guyute” in Camden, NJ on 6/7/2009, I’m always curious to see what radiation 'lighting-guy' Chris Kuroda will have in store during this tune, and although it is hard to linguistically translate for our purposes, trust he peaks right along with the band. “Birds of a Feather” rocks us again as the thoughtful phrasing in this version's guitar solo lead to the first unfinished “Harry Hood” in recent memory, which also consists of many woven ambient layers that then fall into place for a segue to the slow, melodic instrumental “What’s the Use?”. As a perfect continuance on the current thematic flow, “Wading in the Velvet Sea” appears, and for a few short minutes the color-washed crowd becomes the vibrant, waving waters which the band sings of as the notes wade through.
Next, the pace is jumped up for the road-worthy, driving rhythms in “Possum” as this ten-minute version closes out an interesting, front-loaded second set. After a short tease of the Star Wars theme which nods to yesterday’s lightsaber hijinks, the band takes a bow today with shirts untucked. But, the silence from the speakers doesn’t last long as they once again takes the stage for Fishman’s final tucking of his mumu into his underwear while singing “Sleeping Monkey”. Next, the amplifying bookend “Tweezer Reprise” finishes big and then scorches with a squealing, digitized, Jedi-guitar finish to close out two days that could never be repeated even if Phish tried. Thanks in part to the relentless fans, we are shown what ‘the hose’ is all about, that Santana spoke of so eloquently. Afterwards, the fans pouring out the gates once again say of the Vermont stars, “Phish is on fire right now”.
Notes: Trey introduced Dog Log with "There's enough of those damn signs out there." Dog Log was last played on August 2, 2003 (172 shows). Hood was unfinished. Prior to Sleeping Monkey, Trey teased the Star Wars theme and said "Fish, when you get to the end of this beautiful song, one last time for all of us. One final tuck." Trey added that "it's been a beautiful two days, but It wouldn't be complete without seeing Fishman tuck his dress into his underwear one last time" and "I'm singing this one right to you Fish, because I am your father." Trey proceeded to sing to Fish using Mike's mic. Tweezer Reprise contained Sleeping Monkey quotes from Fishman. (Courtesy of Phish.net)