Review: Phish, Mansfield, 6/7/11

The placement of last night’s Great Woods Phish show, sandwiched between stops in Cincinnati and upstate New York’s Darien, had some fans dubbing the only scheduled New England show of 2011 as this year’s “skipper” show and had hopes high for a show worth remembering.

Rolling up from the Hartford area, I entered last night’s show knowing that my sixth show would be my only glimpse of Phish this summer and fall, so long as they hold true to their promise of no more scheduled concerts until possibly the winter.

Last night’s Phish represented a continuation of what 2011 has seemingly had to offer most nights: a band playing better than it has ever been playing since its return in 2009 and setlists dipped in musical creativity that are carried on by execution of performance to win fans over.

The shed slowly began to fill, with anticipation for the lights to drop growing with every fan that found his or her seat. Phish opened the show with spotless “Llama,” the song I wanted to hear open my first Phish shows last summer in Hartford. From there, the group plunged into a slow and deliberate “Moma Dance” before hitting up the old reliable “Possum” that helped initiate a good and energetic mood amongst the band and the crowd.

Trey would then plunge the band into a series of covers beginning with a rendition of Talking Heads’ “Cities,” one of the songs I’ve most wanted to catch in my six shows, and while this wasn’t in the same league as a few other versions of the song the band has performed in the last year, this still stellar version amped me up on reputation alone.

Following was John Lennon’s “Instant Karma!,” which while fun to hear and a great singalong for the crowd, wasn’t my preferred choice. But still, it’s a nice first set song while the sun is still trying to set itself and things have yet to get dark musically.

The highlight of set one came when Fishman began what would be a lengthy cymbal intro to “David Bowie” while Trey played kickball with a few balloons that found their way on stage. “Bowie” would be the band’s first real musical slaughtering of the night. Dropping in at over 13 minutes, Trey lead the band through a nicely structured section with some really nice licks dropping into play at the 8 minute mark. Trey’s play would dominate a lot of what Mansfield’s “Bowie” was all about. This is a song they could play every damn night and I’d be happy.

A strange follow-up to the blistering “Bowie” was the debut of the Al Green cover “Rhymes.” Unfamiliar with the song myself, I wasn’t sure if it was a new Mike tune, as he lead the vocal arrangement, or a cover they so brilliant pulled out of left field. Despite this, the tune had a nice upbeat flow to it and is something I could see fitting in very well in future first sets. Trey plays the lead guitar lick with an addictive flair and it’s something I want to keep hearing instead of the previously played “Instant Karma!”. Mike on vocals is perfect and any other decision would have led to disaster. Instead, with the help of show MVP Page we’re treated to a bluesy, soulful and very Phishy rendition of the Green tune.

A no-flub version of “The Divided Sky” helped end the set along with another nailed “Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan.” It might be a crime to say I don’t enjoy “Divided Sky” all that much unless I’m in person witnessing the true beauty of it all, but that’s the fact of it all. When Phish nails the lengthy tune right in front of your eyes and hears, it’s one of music’s masterpieces. Recordings don’t do this tune justice but a terrific live and in person rendition helps define what the band is all about. “Stealing Time” continues to be one of my favorite Joy tunes. Trey destroys it every single time but never has the desire to push it further in length, which is okay, because it’s makes for a nice set closer just the way it is.

Set two would begin strong. The band put “Back on the Train” back in a set leader spot, the first time since 2009. And instead of opening the set with “Rock & Roll,” the band dropped it into the two spot, a position it would hit a homerun with. After a blistering and high energy cover that the band has been long-known to be able to deliver, patience took over an on-fire Trey, who allowed things to progress naturally. The ensuing jam would be complex, structured and layered, with Trey providing lift off for the rest of the band.

At around the 3 minute mark of what Live Phish dubbed the “Mansfield Jam,” you hear Trey enter a riff brighter than the scorching exploratory and cosmic themes explored earlier in the tune. It’s beautiful, and Mike accompanies it with a few bass  meatballs of his own. This is the night’s highlight tune, setting off what would be a tremendous second set, and one of the best jams of 2011.

Getting dark, Trey would bring light to the Great Woods crowd, segueing into The Mango Song.” Played for the first time in 2011, it was an immediate crowd pleaser as fans greeted it with cheers. More importantly, the band seriously nailed the song before heading into a fantastic version of “Bug.”

In the silent space after “Bug,” the Boston crowd started a “Let’s Go Bruins!” chant that, while my New York Ranger fan blood hated, got a kick out of. Then when the band started playing along with the chants I cracked a smile. It was a nice touch, showing how in tune and aware this band truly is with its fans.

After the crowd got its enthusiasm for the Bruins out of the way, the band dipped into “Pebbles and Marbles.” Like the previous two tunes, all four were on point again, and this was just another example of how tight Phish’s playing is at the moment. They took a song they’ve hardly played since their return in 2009 and killed it. The pace for the song seemed amped up, quick and fast to the touch, but not rushed. Although maybe that was just me being so amped to have it dropped in the thick of my second set.

Fans will remember that “Halley’s Comet” was finally given the jam it was due at night two in Bethel. Unfortunately, last night didn’t produce the same. And while I was hoping for results like Bethel, I won’t use the word aborted like many others. They don’t need to jam every single time and I certainly don’t need to hear a jam to have fun. Instead of letting the comet flow, Trey forced a segue into “Meatstick,” an ultimate crowd pleaser.

The song was sublimely standard and just how I like my meatsticks – hot and fiery. Trey ripped through the solos with malice and along with Mike got his dance on during the Japanese lyrics. The only negative to the song was the fact that the half bro/half wook to my right decided it would be a good and considerate idea to do the dance with a lit cigarette in his left hand. So while I much enjoyed getting down to the meat, I had to be careful to dodge his fire.

Busting into a set-closing “Run Like an Antelope,” Trey would keep the meatstick going, teasing licks from the previous tune which  got the crowd even more excited than it already was. Meatstickalope, Run Like a Meatstick…whatever you want to call it, was awesome and I was thrilled to finally hear my favorite Phish song after six tries. The teases would mix through the rest of the ripping version of “Antelope.”

The encore saw meatsticky-ness brought to “Suzy Greenberg” in a curfew-breaking version that brought us once again inside Page’s house. The band was inspired on this one, didn’t seem to care about making that 11 p.m. deadline, which was amazing to see. When Trey commanded Page to take us to his house, he did, and we were left seriously funked.

I don’t know where to rank this show with others. Hell I don’t know where to rank it with other shows I’ve been to. I prefer to judge each on its own, and this was one hell of a fun time.

The best $40 I spent was the one I dropped on the private lot. I heard all the parking lot horror stories before hand and was glad I ponied up, because the people sitting in their cars while hundreds of thousands of people crossed in front of them looked like they’d be stuck there for quite some time – not something I’d want to do by myself when I have to drive two hours home and wake up early the next morning.

Of note: when a cute parking attendant casually asks you how the show was, despite it being true, don’t tell her it was the first time Phish really brought it at Great Woods in 3.0. Yeah, I overheard that.

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