[Editor's Note: We'd like to welcome guest contributor David Goldstein for this recap.]
For individuals of a heady persuasion, the Summer of 1995 was a morass of mixed emotions, to say the least. Uniformly excellent Phish concerts dovetailed with uniformly awful Grateful Dead ones; the now infamous “tour from hell” that culminated in the only possible way it could have. But for the rock starved kids of Connecticut, 1995 was also notable for another type of live music milestone; The Meadows Music Theatre in Hartford was officially open for business. Epic drives to outdoor sheds in New Jersey or Massachusetts were no longer entirely necessary; now Nutmeg State high schoolers had a parking lot of their very own in which to get into Zima-fueled fist fights before Dave Matthews shows. I was 16 years old at the time and felt like I spent every weekend there camped out on the lawn catching up on the classic rock cannon; The Allman Brothers, Santana, Doobies, Steve Miller Band, and every post-Jerry incarnation of The Dead imaginable, including the first Furtherfest, which left me permanently scarred because not only did I watch the entire show next to a hippie mom intent on sharing bowls with her 9-year-old son, but Mickey Hart “rapped” Fire on the Mountain.
Phish has played The Meadows (or Xfinity Theatre if you prefer) only five nights since it first opened, and none since 2010, which is somewhat surprising given its southern New England location. Yours truly skipped the ’00 weekend to attend a wedding, and passed on the 2010 shows to “volunteer” at a craft beer festival; it’s no exaggeration to say that many a Nugget Nectar was spilled in shock when every wook in the house received the exact same text message stating they just missed their favorite band encoring with “Tweezer Reprise,” TWICE! But I did manage to attend the 8/14/09 Hartford show, which between a large concentration of Gamehendge rarities, “Reba”-fied “Down With Disease” and a “Psycho Killer” bustout folded into a fantastic “Ghost,” is a legitimate contender for a Top 20 show of 3.0.
We have a saying in Connecticut; “When New England Brewing Company advertises the availability of Double Fuzzy Ducks IPA, you proceed to acquire said IPA, preferably in large brown jugs that can be transported to a parking lot for purposes of consumption.” My party did exactly this, and arrived on lot at4:45 on what can best be described as a pleasantly gray day. There was no sun to speak of, but at 65 degrees and a slight breeze, there was also none of the oppressive heat associated with summer Phish, and save a brief squall that brought back Jones Beach 2013 nightmares, the rain held off. Furthermore, unlike the lot scene in Great Woods and/or SPAC, it was not imperative that one restrict their alcohol consumption to the red Solo cup; lot security was friendly with exposed bottles and cans in abundance, and Shakedown was en route to the venue and easily accessible. I kept bumping into high school friends from twenty years ago that hadn’t seen a Phish show since the last time they played Hartford, and there’s something oddly comforting in knowing that after all those years, Trey and the boys are still the best way to blow it out on a Saturday night in Connecticut.
The festivities kicked off at 8:10 with “Pigtail,” the jaunty C major rocker last witnessed in Minnesota that serves to screw up everyone’s opener call while being considerably catchy and highly reminiscent of another C major jam I wouldn’t mind seeing revived, “Energy.” Competent versions of “Moma Dance” and “Birds of a Feather” gave way to the rarely seen “Meat,” an early set highlight. This “Meat” benefitted from extensive use of Trey’s Echoplex effect, and a general degree of added funk; let’s call it dry aged with caramelized onions and a dollop of blue cheese if you will. My buddy was quick to call it “the best version of that song I’ve ever heard, man,” and while its hardly a tune of which I can recall standout performances at will, he may not be wrong. “Vultures” is never unwelcome the one or two times it surfaces in a year, but I still used it as a bathroom break because I know what “Vultures” sounds like, and the aforementioned Double IPAs weren’t going to drain themselves. “Free” was completely fine, albeit more memorable for me dropping my five-dollar pretzel, leaving a forlorn puddle of honey mustard in its salty wake.
Here’s a fun fact about “Let Me Lie;” the Bar 17 version on Spotify is actually labeled as “Let Me Die.” Really! And it is indeed necessary to distinguish it by versions as Trey Anastasio has recorded the song for three separate albums; Phish’s Party Time, Trey’s Bar 17, and the heavily produced Trey solo album Traveler, notable for containing husky backing vocals from The National’s Matt Berninger, as if adding a dose of Brooklyn indie-rock gloom was the final key to unleashing its full potential. Phish played “Let Me Lie” in Hartford for the first time in nearly six years, and this fact didn’t make Trey’s ode to therapeutic biking suck any less. “Halley’s Comet” was “Halley’s,” and “Julius” contained an initially raunchy edge that had many thinking it was actually “La Grange,” in addition to extra torrents of Page organ to close out a relatively short first set. Or so we had assumed. “You Enjoy Myself” hasn’t been taken for a first set spin since 2014, and this one featured instrument switching during the improv jam; Phish’s currently preferred method of getting instantly wacky. Mike had already exhibited his rock guitar chops during Friday night’s “Cities,” so he opted for Page’s clavinet tonight, while the latter took over on bass, exhibiting a bent knee pose and finger picking ability that Geddy Lee would no doubt appreciate. Trey plays the Marimba Lumina to justify its existence, and the groove was surprisingly supple; a fine example of how the instincts of schooled musicians can still make them sound highly skilled on instruments not necessarily their own.
The word that kept coming to my mind to describe this first set would be ‘textbook;’ albeit a very interesting textbook that you save from your college Poly Sci course and keep on your bookshelf to look intelligent, like The Federalist Papers or de Tocqueville’s Democracy In America.
In Phish 3.0, “Down With Disease” is as ubiquitous a second set opener as “Scarlet Begonias” was for the Dead throughout the 80’s. While I can’t help but wonder if it would kill them to place it somewhere else from time to time, it’s seldom less than fantastic, and Hartford’s version was a show highlight. Clocking in at 19 minutes, it has a 2016 cousin in the Wrigley Field “Disease,” as both feature dark jamming in E minor, and the heady rush of driving down a darkened Autobahn at an unsafe speed. The jam was anchored by Trey playing a sinister six note melody, exhibiting excellent use of both space and patience, before ripping off torrents of showy notes towards the song’s conclusion. My only written notes for the ensuing “Sand” consisted of me writing the word “CLAV” three times in ALL CAPS letters. When Page stands up, we get down, and what this “Sand” may have lacked in length, it more than made up for by being a straight-ahead funk bomb.
Prior to this evening, I had seen Phish play “Tela” exactly once, on November 24, 1998 in New Haven, CT; an evening also notable for an encore in which The Dude of Life spontaneously added lyrics to “Tweezer Reprise.” I considered myself lucky as many of my friends had never seen “Tela” at all, and didn’t exactly appreciate how Trey basically played the opening riff at the second Wrigley Field show before opting for “Divided Sky” instead. I can think of roughly twenty close friends in attendance at Hartford who got their first “Tela” last night, and it was played flawlessly, which is seldom a given with that song.
So at this point we’re roughly 40 minutes into a very solid second set, and Phish should by every measure want to blow the roof off with a monster “Carini.” However, this one petered out with a Trey ripcord after a mere seven minutes, despite a particularly playful composed section with added Fishman howling and Trey tacking on “yes he did!” to the ends of the verses. “Twenty Years Later” sounds fantastic closing Joy, but I contend it’s still never really found a comfortable footing in a Phish set (Reading ’13 excepted), and the ensuing “Antelope” was Type-I standard to a tee, if tightly played. “Backwards Down the Number Line” has somehow morphed into Trey’s answer to “Sugar Magnolia;” a bouncy set closer that’s as affable as a golden retriever and even more eager to please; at this point even the most curmudgeonly of Jaded Vets has to garner some kind of enjoyment from it, and this was an excellent version with an unusually quiet mid-section giving way to the expected trilling at the end.
While there was little in this Phish show that scaled the staggering heights of the tour best “Ghost” >”Light” combo from the evening prior, any show with a first set “YEM,” 19 minute “Down With Disease” and friggin’ “Tela” steers clear of the dreaded Saturday Night Special tag fairly easily. I’d have gladly swapped out “Twenty Years Later” for another ten minutes of “Carini,” but a high level of effort was clearly evident throughout, something that could not necessarily be said for last weekend, and that’s even before you factor in the beautiful buzz of a “Lizards,” “Loving Cup” encore. And leaving the lot was somewhat more simple than it had been at Great Woods, aided in no small part by our particularly aggressive driver whose post-show ritual involves blasting the Hamilton soundtrack at ear rupturing volume with the windows down, treating sloppy wooks with the same disdain that Hamilton once had for the British infantry.
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