“Fish? Who are all these people coming out for fish?”
It was an honest question from the older gentleman as he scanned the crowd outside Harvey’s, smoking his cigarette in his blue Hawaiian shirt and white, Panama Jack fedora. At that moment, almost to emphasize his point, a bull of a man walked by him in a sequined cape and a pink rocketship onsie, burning sage as sweat trickled down his quiet and content face. He looked like intergalactic lint from an alien washing machine and there were thousands more dressed in similarly goofy ways, all streaming to the entrance of Lake Tahoe Outdoor Arena at Harveys.
All these crazies swelling Stateline, Nevada, Tuesday evening were a glorious assortment of Phans here to celebrate one of the biggest days of the year: the opening show for Phish’s summer tour. The legendary jam band carries the torch of the Grateful Dead with its odyssey-like concerts and devoted fanbase. Concertgoers will spend all summer following the band around as it crisscrosses the country on a 24-date tour, transforming each stop into its own two- or three-day festival. It’s the start of a wonderful marathon and Stateline, birthplace of the historically epic “Tahoe Tweezer” in 2013, was a perfect setting for the starting line.
Phish is as much a cultural experience as it is a musical experience and there was a satisfaction in being in the familiar throes of a Phish pre-game; bootleg tour T-shirts in the parking lot, the hopeful row of Phans looking for that miracle ticket at the gates, every other street musician and band in the area playing in the bars and alleys before the show, certainly now able to say they opened for Phish. Once you got in, you could see people with signs calling for favorite songs, the tapers mingling with each other as they waited to hit “record” and a long line of people in front of the merch tent who got there early in hopes of snagging a special edition poster.
Not a drop of precipitation was in the air and the sun beat down on the jubilant crowd through a thin, smokey haze from forest fires in the region. There was a hot excitement from the sold-out crowd and every single inch of the general-admission space was taken up, security constantly having to scooch people over safety lines and keep the masses moving along in the aisles. When Trey Anastasio (guitar), Jon Fishman (drums), Page McConnell (keyboards) and Mike Gordon (bass) finally nonchalantly strolled onto the stage shortly after 7 p.m., a collective roar erupted from their followers as they audibly uncorked the hours, days, weeks and months of anticipation in the span of a few seconds — the moment everyone had been waiting for was finally here.
Phish kicked off its 2018 summer tour with the first charging chords of Phan phavorite “Free.” The quartet rolled through the intro two times before jumping into the verses.
Gordon, whose intergalactic sleeveless shirt and pink-checkered pants surely kept the eyes on him as much as people’s ears, held the song on a slow, measured boil while Trey peppered it with tasty licks. The arena echoed the ecstatic call of “free” in the chorus and the raised hands and curling smiles made it evident the lyric spoke to everyone’s current state of mind.
The band then slipped into the dopey cruiser “Possum.” The song’s crunchy, funky-country jamming and goofball lyrics make this ode to roadkill a quintessential Phish number and the crowd embraced the wackiness, strutting their oddball stuff as Page and Trey kicked up dirt in their solos. “Moma Dance” was next, giving the players their first opportunity to delve into some funky stuff. They played the verses and chorus with the bump and grind of a half-decent early ’90s R&B band, then the solid lines of the melody eroded away and the band flowed into a voluminous current of vibrant, cool hues.
Fishman’s pocket groove served as the anchor and Trey, Page and Gordon took the opportunity to wade in the musical waters, their individual notes rippling around each other in unison. It was the first time Phish really took a song to a different place from its origins and it felt like the band had taken a collective deep breath, finally settling into the music for the night.
The musicians kicked into “Ghost,” quickly morphing from the verses to the jam, almost as if to keep the creative momentum from “Moma Dance.” A pointed opening section dissipated into a floating and gentle jam, Page’s keys fluttering with Trey’s tonal notes. Gordon’s breezy touch kept the atmospheric jam moving as the sun went behind the mountain peaks and a coolness swept over the crowd.
An upbeat “Funky Bitch” strung into a technical “Stash” and the band ended the first set with a spirited “Character Zero.” Standing in the bleachers provided quite the sight, with the orange and yellow clouds painting the sky and 9,000 people pumping their fists in unison in the Phishbowl below. That could have been a set for the ages by any other band, a show to hang its hat on. But that’s the magic of Phish — it was just getting started.
“No Men In No Man’s Land” opened the second set, a cut from the band’s latest studio cut “Big Boat.” A lot of fans seem to agree a song’s potential is really never found until it’s played live and Phish took this one on an extended journey, with Page providing some intergalactic synths to jet set the music into space. With the sky dark, one could really start to appreciate the dexterity of the multi-tiered lighting rig, which could morph and shape itself into a multitude of configurations. A strobe pyramid above the band quickly descended into a quarter moon convex that dropped low and framed the musicians magnificently.
The untethered and dark end section of “No Men In No Man’s Land” drifted out into oblivion before the sky came crashing down in a hail of glowsticks and the fierce riff of “Carini.” The heat from Trey’s frets was melting faces all over the arena and it burned the song into a hot, exploding star, bursting into a celestial quietness of keys and bass.
“Slave To The Traffic Light” and “Bouncing Around The Room” were straightforward and welcomed, with “Soul Planet” providing another chance for Phish to go to weird and different places, as glittering guitar and slinky keys delivered the musical tracers zipping through the song. “Steam” tacked on some robustful jamming, but the highlight of the night was a set-ending “Harry Hood.” The beautiful composition glided on crystalline notes as the players patiently leveled-up the excitement with each passing section. No notes were wasted and they all seemed to have a foothold in the groove, pushing the song forward to its ever satisfying climax.
A spry “Contact” and rocking “Julius” closed out the night in a energetic dance party. It was a solid tour opener that probably shocked some Phans for how well they hit it off, measuring tight jams with heady excursions in a balanced and potent way. Expectations will be high for the second night of the tour, but fans who came Tuesday night were given a treat that will leave a sweetness in their mouth for years to come.
–– Garrett Bethmann
Lake Tahoe Outdoor Arena at Harveys, Stateline, Nevada, Tuesday, July 17, 2018
- SET 1: Free > Possum, The Moma Dance, Ghost > Funky Bitch, Stash, Character Zero
- SET 2: No Men In No Man’s Land > Carini -> Slave to the Traffic Light, Bouncing Around the Room, Soul Planet > Steam, Harry Hood
- ENCORE: Contact > Julius
- Wednesday, July 18, 2018
SET 1: AC/DC Bag, Martian Monster, Ass Handed, Everything’s Right > 555, The Wedge, Lawn Boy, Back on the Train, Ocelot, My Sweet One, Theme From the Bottom > Bathtub Gin
SET 2: Down with Disease > What’s the Use? > Blaze On > I Always Wanted It This Way > Joy, Limb By Limb > Also Sprach Zarathustra > You Enjoy Myself
ENCORE: Suzy Greenberg