Believe it or not, 2018 marks the first time since March 1993 that Phish has played consecutive nights in Los Angeles County. Typically, the band swoops in for a hot one-off at the Hollywood Bowl or the down at Forum, their SoCal venue of record for the past three West Coast tours. This time, Phish plays two in the shadow of a multi-trillion football stadium under construction, and amid the pop-hiss of nitrous balloons which apparently run rampant in Inglewood.
Taking in two or three nights of one band is a hallmark of improvisational rock, something unique to jam bands. It’s wonderful to experience Phish shows in diptych: Vermont’s jam-rock torchbearers offered two distinct flavors of music Friday and Saturday night. It marked a welcome change of pace for a city with an on-again, off-again relationship with the band.
Friday night found the band in an exploratory mood. Guitarist Trey Anastasio plumbed the depths with dropped-octave whammy pitch shifting, and envelope filtering effects. His tone has a molasses-like viscosity that purveyed throughout both sets Friday evening. The setlist largely included tour mainstays albeit approached with added pep and a sense of adventure. “Wolfman’s Brother,” about halfway through set one, set the tone. The delightfully dark excavation of “Twenty Years Later” that unraveled into an atypical rock-out treatment of the cow-funk standard “Sand,” represented the climax of the first set, and it came covered in Wolfman’s bite marks.
Saturday night the band delivered pure energy in a more straight-ahead rock fashion. A cover of Bob Marley’s “Soul Shakedown Party” hit in the cleanup spot, and by that time, there was no doubt we had a rager on our hands. Bassist Mike Gordon, who took the stage with white pants and a white denim jacket, bombed the low-end during the reggae instrumental break. Following it up with 12-minute “Kill Devil Falls,” a high-BPM barnburner reminiscent of “One More Saturday Night” by Grateful Dead, added kerosene to the engine. Then the ever-svelte Gordon removed his jacket to sing “555,” revealing a tight-fitting metallic seafoam button-down shirt..
Whereas Saturday was decidedly party time, Friday night felt like a kickback with a few close friends—a craft beer and kind bud type of trip. The instrumental interplay between Anastasio and keyboardist Page McConnell sounded conversational, the two trading lead lines back and forth throughout the evening. The newest jam vehicle in their arsenal, “Everything’s Right,” surprised even the jaded curmudgeon-y veterans. The set two “Ghost” was the best story told this weekend in my estimation, a democratic “type II” jam that always serves as a litmus for how well the band is communicating at any given point on tour.
And whereas Friday felt like a night out with the bros, Saturday was definitely date night. The explosive excitement of the first set took a turn for the sensual. Set two opener “Gotta Jibboo” burned slow but intensely, as the band layered grooves into neat plateaus, like mesas on a desert horizon. After turning in a solid “Fuego,” the staccato sextuplets of “Birds of a Feather” called the audience to attention for an up-tempo romp. As the improvised section edged toward a climax, the band backed off and took out the “Meatstick”—a tune rife with penile entendre, replete with a sexy-dad choreographed line dance. With McConnell punishing the Yamaha CS-80 and clavinet, the funk break was nothing short of XXX-rated.
Both nights had their misses. Friday night’s “Rift” was definitely one: this quick-tempo compositional tune from the band’s proggy early-’90s heyday felt rusty. Phish has largely shelved songs from this period and before—The Forum heard zero songs from their 1988 debut Junta—and it seems weird not to hear those former mainstays. No “You Enjoy Myself,” “David Bowie” or “Divided Sky” the entire weekend.
There was a lyrics gaffe in “Cavern” on Saturday night; Anastasio laughed off forgetting a verse to the closing number of set two when he directed the microphone at the floor audience to fill in and sing for him. All offenses forgiven. Now that Phish is a part-time band, it’s understandable that some of these older tunes fall out of rehearsal. The band’s chosen direction, from the sound of it, is an honest and admirable one—write new tunes, tweak the gear, and find new ways to improvise in different contexts.
Another miss, suffice to say, is the Forum floor and security staff. $25 to park. Passing through the metal detectors required a 45-minute wait in line—and from some accounts longer than that. Beer service seemed slow on the draw. All the red shirts just seemed in the way as opposed to helpful in any regard. But damn are those chili cheese dogs delectable.
Despite the door hassle, from a view and sound perspective, the Forum is a fabulous place for Phish. From stage right I witnessed Chris Kuroda’s stunning lighting rig, a monstrosity that moves with fine automated precision, resembling a wriggling caterpillar at times, and an alien spacecraft other times. Fantastic from up close, but truly mind-bending at distance. If you’re not on the floor I recommend viewing Phish dead-center from the balcony to get the whole effect.
And finally, I’m not sure if LAPD doesn’t understand what’s in those “$10 ice cold balloons!” after the show. It’s so obvious you have to wonder if the fix is in and they’re in cahoots with the vendors. The highly orchestrated nitrous hustle takes place right out in the open—and it’s not just here in SoCal. I’m no teetotaler by any means. But nitrous oxide? Come on, people. There are so many better drugs to do.