[Thank you to user @twelvethousandmotherfker, Willie Orbison, for recapping last night's show. -Ed.]
As we follow the lines going south on this little west coast spring swing, we Phish fans find ourselves at one of the most beautiful and historic live music venues in the country, the venerable old Hollywood Bowl, where heads of all shapes and sizes have been gathering for over a hundred years to take in their favorite performers on a shady hillside under the California sky. It’s a privilege (and not just because of the ticket prices) to spend an evening here, and on what was the warmest, sunniest day of the year after a cold and rainy Los Angeles winter (feel free to cry us a river), everything felt extremely right making the long walk up the hill toward the show.
Surprisingly – or perhaps not, considering what appeared to be an ongoing battle with the sound throughout the night – this is only Phish’s third-ever show at the Bowl. And the first in almost ten years. It could be that the dignified, museum-like quality of the place doesn’t necessarily lend itself to a down and dirty psychedelic rock concert, but after three nights of a tarp-fest-free-for-all up in Berkeley, maybe the highly-stratified, capitalistic layout of the Bowl is a welcome change of pace. Maybe so, maybe not. But it was a joy nonetheless, after foolishly taking the multiple emails of warning from the ticketing powers-that-be seriously and arriving at my seat a good ninety minutes before the band would actually go on stage, to watch the vast amphitheater slowly fill up as the sun went down behind us.
The band took the stage under the iconic white bandshell shortly after 7:30 and kicked things off with “The Moma Dance.” The first repeat song of this mini tour, this ever-funky opener got the people moving and grooving as an absolutely colossal cloud of weed smoke billowed into the Los Angeles night. Trey seemed to be having some issues with an inner ear monitor, which correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think he usually uses – and he registered his frustration by ripping a few extra fierce phrases during his solo.
When the proverbial fog lifted, it revealed “Sigma Oasis.” A popular call for the opener, at least according to the few folks milling around the tragically truncated shakedown street (it used to be the heart of town), the titular song from everyone’s favorite pandemic album was a perfect fit for the night’s natural setting. With Trey and Page leading the way, the song lifted off from its sturdy roots gracefully and let us take to the air for the first extended moment of improvisation of the evening. And despite a growing number Phish lyrics telling us exactly what’s going on and what we’re supposed to be feeling in these glorious moments (see: “Everything’s Right,” “A Wave of Hope,” “Blaze On,” “Drift While You’re Sleeping”), the music is still the thing. And it’s still great.
After a few words of welcome from Trey, it was “Party Time.” And while I have literally nothing against this song and would never in any way disrespect its author, current tour MVP Mr. Jon Fishman, for me, “Party Time” meant potty time. It’s always a bit of a thrill to traverse a Phish show in full swing. Especially at a place like the Bowl, which beyond the boxes up front is basically just a glorified lawn. It’s life-affirming somehow to see everyone on their own trip, dressed up in their hetty finery, dancing their asses off, enraptured by spectacle before them. The glowing crucifix on a nearby hill notwithstanding, there is a revival feeling to a show like this, and we are #blessed to be a part of it.
At this juncture, I would like to shout out the guys having the time of their lives in the bathroom. From what I could surmise, it seemed like a group of friends all ate the same bad mushrooms and were pooping their brains out while simultaneously laughing their asses off. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, I guess. I hope they got out of there okay. I’m sure they did.
Anyway, when I made it back to the seats, the last of the dying sunlight was giving way to a sliver of a moon and a sea of stars as the band dropped into “Strawberry Letter 23.” It was a truly beautiful sight to see an entire hillside of people bathed in rainbow light and the sultry sounds of Shuggie Otis’ 1971 classic. Popping up once a tour or so since making its debut at the Bakers Dozen, “Stawberry Letter 23” has become a stalwart cover song that showcases Phish’s mature musicianship in a subtle and refined way. It’s not a rocker, but it has a shockingly luscious vibe – especially coming from a group of late-middle-aged white guys from Vermont.
Speaking of late-middle-aged white guys, up next is “Everything’s Right.” Which, as previously mentioned, features some pretty on-the-nose lyrics about how we might want to feel as we listen to the song (“Focus on today, you'll find a way / Happiness is how rooted in the now / Because everything's right, so just hold tight”), but once we break loose of the shackles of language and enter the world of the jam, we are able to leave the literal realm behind and find our own way to those important existential conclusions ourselves.
It helps, of course, to have Chris Kuroda as a visual spirit guide on our collective journey as Phish fans. My God, what a genius. It’s especially cool to see what he can do on a limited canvas like the one at the bowl. Without the typical amount of physical space in which to work his magic, he was able to distill the flying light rigs to their essence and create something classic yet altogether new. He turned the concentric arches of the bandshell into a technicolor Looney Tunes rainbow that not only evoked a bygone era of Hollywood history but electrified our sense of communal nostalgia.
Back to the music. With Trey pushing the issue and Mike responding heavily, “Everything’s Right” became the highlight of the first set. Approaching twenty minutes, the jam built toward a triumphant climax that even seemed primed to sustain an extended ecstatic moment, but as we reached the peak, Trey decided to go back into the chorus, and the wave of energy crashed and receded back into the ocean.
Much like Dark Helmet pumping the breaks on Ludicrous Speed, the abrupt transition from “Everything’s Right” to “Shade” left a few folks feeling disoriented. But in the dark of the night and the clouds touching the mountains just right, “Shade” felt like an appropriate cool down song for the time and place. If you’re into that kind of thing.
But the light was blocked only ever so briefly as Trey then launched into the opening bluesy riff of Son Seals’s “Funky Bitch.” And though it wasn’t the most organic of transitions, the engine turned over and the party was back on. As a workhorse cover dating back to Phish’s early days, “Funky Bitch” is pretty damn reliable in getting the people going. It’s also especially enjoyable to listen to Mike, Phish’s most provocative sartorialist, sing about fancy clothes.
And then from out of the chaos a wave appears in the moonlit confusion, “A Wave of Hope” emerges to close out the first set. A relatively new entry into the Phish catalog from Trey’s pandemic album Lonely Trip, this song feels like it was written with that claustrophobic sense of longing and wanderlust we all felt when we were cooped up in our houses back in 2020: “I have grown wings, I am flying / Ascending now, I am soaring / Untied my wrists, and flew away / This too shall pass, this too shall pass.” It’s almost as if the lyrics are trying to reassure the writer rather than the listener that things are going to be okay, and now that they are okay (at least in a Covid sense), I’m not sure that they land in the way they were intended. Regardless, it’s an enjoyable Phish song, if not a particularly exploratory one. The jam section felt a bit perfunctory with each member of the band reaching into their bag of tricks to ratchet up the energy without searching too hard for uncharted territory.
At setbreak, the word that came to mind to sum up the first set was “professional.” Maybe there was something going on with the sound, but rock and roll music was played – and played well. There wasn’t anything too fancy, nothing too crazy, nothing too mind-blowing or rare, but from an audience perspective, as far as nights spent on Earth go, this was definitely a good one. And with most of the would-be chompers and haters diffused across Southern California at Coachella and Skull & Roses this weekend, the vibe at the Bowl was one of Phish-centric celebration and gratitude. Everyone seemed happy to be there and to be with each other and the band, which after all we’ve been through these last few years, is good enough for me.
The prevailing wisdom heading into set 2 was that we would get a big, fat “Down With Disease” to start things off. It was a bit of a surprise then when the opening chords of “Sample in a Jar” rang out to restart the proceedings. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some “Sample in a Jar,” but at the beginning of set 2? Maybe they were easing in to test any changes they made to the mix – or you know what, maybe they just wanted to play “Sample in a Jar” – but whatever the reason, we wheeled around and before long those bass notes started rumbling.
A lot has been made of Mike’s new bass, mostly by Mike himself, but he or it seemed to get a little bit of stage fright once under the spotlight of the “Down With Disease” intro. It’s kinda sweet to see a master of his craft like Mike struggle with a song that he’s played literally hundreds of times (309 to be exact, according to this very website), but as usually seems to be the case, a little flub makes the needle skip from the well-worn groove and makes things interesting musically. This “Down With Disease” is no exception. With Trey taking the Michael Scott high harmonies on the verse for some reason, the song gives way to the iconic Disease solo and then launches us into a jam that starts in familiar territory before getting spacey and moving into a more electronic mode reminiscent of Trey and Page’s new January album. Trey gets into his effects a bit and Fishman works a cascade of tom fills before dropping a heavy Metal-adjacent beat that breathes fiery new dragon life into the jam. Angry Phish is good Phish. The dragon stomps and puffs its way around before settling into a dark and stormy conclusion.
In this murky quiet, Trey calls for “Mercury” and the band kicks into the intricate, multifaceted composed prog rock think piece that features, among other things, an absolutely beautiful Marimba Lumina solo by the aforementioned tour MVP, Jon Fishman. But before the subsequent minor-key jam can get into orbit, Trey modulates into a more major place and encourages us to “Blaze On.”
Besides being another song whose lyrics remind us exactly what we’re doing – with Trey changing them to “you’re in the bowl, so blaze on” just for good measure – “Blaze On” has become an honest-to-goodness Rod Carew-level jam vehicle. Once we break free from the typical structure, the jam enters a lilting dream space punctuated by relentless syncopated fills from our MVP. His insistence eventually inspires Trey to come up with some soaring leads that takes the song into an unexpected melodic space and builds to a kind of contrapuntal “Limb by Limb” esque dance peak between Trey and Fishman before resolving back into the chorus.
And before we have a moment to think about what’s coming next, the opening notes of “You Enjoy Myself” twinkle into the starry night, and we are in for one of the great joys of being a Phish fan. As someone who is only able to go to shows once or twice a year, I have had the great good fortune of catching a number of tasty YEMs. The song encapsulates so much of what I love about this band – originality, virtuosity, choreographed trampoline dances – I mean, who else comes to the Hollywood Bowl and basically ends their show with an extended improvised vocal jam? Aside from Andrea Bocelli, obviously. Phish is fun, plain and simple. Throw in one more choreographed dance number in “Cavern” – which, let’s be honest, has become a fun song again now that Trey is able to read the lyrics – and everyone is slipping into the night with a big smile on their faces.
In summing up, the moral seems a little bit obscure. I had a fantastic time, but was it the greatest Phish show I’ve ever seen? No. This first night at the Hollywood Bowl felt like a microcosm of this spring swing tour thus far – a precursor of big things to come. Whether we’ll get it this weekend, or later this year, we can take heart that Phish is still thriving as a creative force forty years into its existence. And when a “Drift While You’re Sleeping” encore bids us goodnight, it’s a good reminder that when it comes to this band, at least for me: “It's love, it's love / It always was / And it is and it always will be love.”
If you liked this blog post, one way you could "like" it is to make a donation to The Mockingbird Foundation, the sponsor of Phish.net. Support music education for children, and you just might change the world.
You must be logged in to post a comment.
Phish.net is a non-commercial project run by Phish fans and for Phish fans under the auspices of the all-volunteer, non-profit Mockingbird Foundation.
This project serves to compile, preserve, and protect encyclopedic information about Phish and their music.
The Mockingbird Foundation is a non-profit organization founded by Phish fans in 1996 to generate charitable proceeds from the Phish community.
And since we're entirely volunteer – with no office, salaries, or paid staff – administrative costs are less than 2% of revenues! So far, we've distributed over $2 million to support music education for children – hundreds of grants in all 50 states, with more on the way.