Live Phish 02.28.03
Live Phish 07.15.03
Live Phish 07.29.03


As it's widely known, Phish's "extended hiatus" ended at the end of 2002 with the release of the excellent studio album titled Round Room. Then, a series of concerts kept the group busy in 2003 - there were also the individual members' solo projects, which seem to also have the function of helping the musicians avoid the danger of having their joint enterprise becoming stale (in their recent tours Phish have played fewer dates than in the past). The announcement that the group's new studio album will be produced by Tchad Blake - the highly ingenious engineer and producer whose name needs no introduction, and who is expected to mix the album in Peter Gabriel's studio, Real World Studios, in UK - seems to imply that the new work will be significantly different from the "carefully casual" atmosphere which was typical of Round Room.

A lot of people paid to see the group play live in 2003 - which is only logical, since the group has always been said to have their best moments on stage, where they cultivate the spontaneity which made Phish an anomaly, then a mass phenomenon. During the hiatus, they also started releasing multiple CD sets (triple or quadruple), in a joint effort with Elektra, the record company which so far has released and distributed the group's recorded material. Called Live Phish, the series is now made of twenty volumes; especially interesting are those volumes from 13 to 16, since they officially document for the first time those famous Halloween nights when the group wore a "musical costume", dedicating their second set to playing their version of a famous album: The Beatles (the "white album"), Quadrophenia by the Who, Remain In Light by the Talking Heads, Loaded by the Velvet Underground.

Always technically avant-garde, Phish started an interesting experiment: all the 2003 concerts have been made available by means of paid downloading at a very convenient price directly from Phish Dry Goods. And it appears that the experiment has been quite successful. Of course, those who didn't have an easy access to a broadband connection - or were not technically in the know - were left out. And this is why three new (physical) triple CD sets have recently been released (again, with no involvement from Elektra). These concerts have been said to be among the best the group played in 2003.

The February 28 concert proved to be my personal favourite, mostly for an almost-magical musical interplay. If interplay is obviously a quality we take for granted in a group that's been together for twenty years (I'd like to say that in these three CD sets the vocal parts - never the main reason one listened to the group - are richer and more in tune than usual), that night must have been quite special, mainly for the interplay between Page McConnell's keyboards (especially his acoustic piano) and Trey Anastasio's guitar. Opening the first set (and the first CD) is Birds Of A Feather, and then everything is alright, from the miniatures Horn and Bouncing Around The Room to the very long Bathtub Gin and Back On The Train, where the instrumental interplay is quite moving - and definitely rare these days. Closing the set (and the first CD) is a beautiful version of Walls Of The Cave off Round Room, a track that was born to be played live. The second CD opens with a very long version of the live warhorse Tweezer here sounding very fresh, then we have a cover of Soul Shakedown Party by Bob Marley and a long and successful version of David Bowie. Other nice surprises on CD three (full of good material) are Round Room and Mexican Cousin, fresh off the then-new studio album.

Though it has its share of interesting moments, the concert from July 15 is in my opinion the least interesting of the three. There's a very good first set, from AC/DC Bag and Ya Mar to Theme From The Bottom - off the Billy Breathes album which failed to make them superstars (I think it was then that the commercial music press simply lost interest) - to the rocking Saw It Again. There are two very nice ballads, Two Versions Of Me and Secret Smile. The second set doesn't take off - with its half-hour length, Mr. Completely (off Trey Anastasio's self-titled first solo album) is an interesting choice but doesn't jell. The set gets better with CD #3, with nice versions of Walls Of The Cave, Golgi Apparatus, Slave To The Traffic Light and the encore Sleeping Monkey. This is as good a place as any to say of Mike Gordon's beautiful bass work (quite subtle, and easier to appreciate in headphones, just like McConnell's electric keyboards) and of Jon Phishman's versatility that's never showy.

The CD set which presents the July 29 concert is the longest and the one that offers the most varied program - there are covers of songs by the Velvet Underground, Los Lobos, Talking Heads, Elvin Bishop and Argent alongside originals such as Gotta Jibboo, Scent Of A Mule, Harpua, the long Pittsburgh Jam and Thunderhead off Round Room: a repertory that's representative of the celebrated multistylistic face of Phish; in closing, the encore: Farmhouse. Here the group has wisely added three long excerpts from concerts from the same month which open a window on their more "open" moments: Piper and Twist (from the album Farmhouse), then a very long version of Seven Below, off Round Room.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2004 | Jan. 27, 2004