Just under six weeks after the band wrapped up an extremely memorable summer, last night Phish took the stage at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, CA to kick off their fall slate.
This tour felt like it snuck up on me a little bit. There has been a surprising lack of buzz surrounding it. The excitement this summer was overwhelming, and with good reason. We all needed Phish and they needed us. And somehow the band exceeded expectations as they traveled their musical circus across the country. But last night’s show didn’t sell out. I didn’t see much mention of it across social media. And if you’ve paid attention to Phish throughout their career, you know they love to over-deliver when the venue is undersold. But trying to predict what this band will do is mostly a foolish exercise. When we expect them to zig, they almost always zag.
Opening a show for the first time, the band started the night with a laid-back version of the already laid-back Kasvot Växt tune, “The Final Hurrah”. Although they eventually and effortlessly hit a nice peak, this one had a bit of a soundcheck vibe, like the band was making sure their gear worked and they could adequately hear one another. Keyboardist Page McConnell leaned on his Wurlitzer for the duration of the song, ensuring the band wouldn’t venture too far from home.
Then, in a move I’m guessing absolutely no one saw coming, Jon Fishman hit the familiar opening drum notes of “Harry Hood”. Since Phish’s reunion in 2009, this is only the fifth time “Hood” has been played in a first set. Two of those times were at Bonnaroo, and once was at the Austin City Limits (ACL) Music Festival, all shows when the band played only one set. Though not a show-stopping rendition, it was solid and the band was tight throughout.
For the first time since 12/30/19, in the third slot Phish delivered the beautiful Taj Mahal tune, “Corinna,” followed by a curiously placed “The Squirming Coil”. Though no stranger to a first set, it’s rare for it not to close the frame. As the last few notes of Page’s solo rang out, bassist Mike Gordon launched into the dark “555”. Though this song always feels like it has the potential to stretch into Type II territory, it never does, and this one was no different. After that, Page showed some nice range while singing “Army of One”, but guitarist Trey Anastasio had a little trouble in the middle section.
The Del McCoury Band’s “Beauty of My Dreams”, played for only the fifth time since the year 2000, and the first time since 11/2/18, landed in the seventh slot. The band stumbled a bit early but the short and sweet bluegrass tune gave way to what would become the highlight of the set, “Mercury”. Though measured to start, the band eventually built a foundation from which they could launch before melting back into the coda of the song. To wrap up an oddly paced first frame was the ever-reliable closer “Character Zero”.
After their customary 30+minute set break, the band returned to the stage. Complete with the intro, “Scents and Subtle Sounds” opened a back half for only the second time ever (12/4/09). Very early in the mellow “SASS” jam the band segued into “Plasma” and wasted almost no time slipping back into the drippy mellowness. It eventually evolved into a minor, “Stash”-like jam but things never really came together before Trey pulled the plug back and jumped back into the “Plasma” riff. As the last few notes rang out, Trey chugged the opening chords to what would become a thick and juicy “Free” that contained some nice licks from the guitarist.
“Billy Breathes” landed in the fourth spot, a fitting choice given Friday marked the 25th anniversary of the studio album of the same name. Though he sometimes struggles with it, the composed solo in this song is some of Trey’s finest and most transcendent work and he did a fantastic job with it last night.
Jam vehicle “Piper” followed and it brought the energy up higher than it had been at any point previously. Drummer Jon Fishman was really the star of this one with his fancy hi-hat and snare work. He was unrelenting during this “Piper” and once Mike locked in, Trey and Page danced on top of the musical wave created by the rhythm section. Things eventually evolved into a washed-out “Simple”-type jam before a clean segue into “Ghost”.
This “Ghost” had potential to be big, but it seemed like Trey wanted to steer it into the ether so they could segue into one of the biggest debuts in Phish history. Never played live until tonight, the beautiful instrumental “And So To Bed” only appears on Phish’s The White Tape from 1986. The band moved through it effortlessly as if they’ve been playing it for years.
“Sigma Oasis” followed and Trey laughed through some lyrics he couldn’t remember while Page showcased some new ethereal synth-pads before landing on the piano and taking this one up a notch.
Continuing the night’s trend of the unexpected setlist, a late second set “Tube” took the baton from the earlier “Piper”. During it Trey teased Smokey Robinson and The Miracles “The Tears Of A Clown”. This version was more relaxed than is customary, but surprisingly it was unfinished. Before the band could dig into the bluesy connection back to the form, Trey guided them into only the third “Brother” in the last decade and the first since 12/30/17. Unfortunately, they butchered it so badly they had to stop after the first verse, leading Trey to laugh into the microphone, “Well it’s been a while since we played that one.” After regrouping for a few seconds, the band followed Fishman back into it, and thankfully the effort that followed was dialed in, leading to one of the more fun jams of the night.
— DidTheyJamOutTube? (@TubeJamUpdate) October 16, 2021
“We wrote that ending ourselves,” said Trey before asking the audience, “A little trivia question for those of you that have seen the band Phish before … what other song ends with the pulling of the neck? Page, what song would that be?”
“I believe it’s ‘Rift’”, said the keyboardist. “Ten points for the keyboard player Page McConnell, zero points for the audience,” joked Trey.
After a nice pass through the Los Lobos tune “When The Circus Comes” the band ended the set with another traditional closer, “Golgi Apparatus”.
For only the second time in the song’s history, “Sand” appeared in the encore of a Phish show, flummoxing the unsuspecting audience once again. But it gave the band one final opportunity to deliver their classic brand of raging tension-and-release improvisation.
As far as Phish shows go (and tour openers in particular), it was difficult to summarize. The audience was kept on their toes all night, as almost nothing about the show was conventional. The song choices and placements were impossible to predict. Because of that, the flow and pace of the show felt a bit disconnected and the band never really got into a rhythm. That said, it was a fun night and I expect some fireworks this weekend in San Francisco.
Phish’s fall tour continues tonight, October 16th with the first of two shows at the Chase Center in San Francisco. For tickets and a full list of tour dates click here.
Setlist: Phish | Golden 1 Center | Sacramento, CA | 10/15/21
Set One: The Final Hurrah, Harry Hood, Corinna, The Squirming Coil > 555, Army of One, Beauty of My Dreams (The Del McCoury Band), Mercury > Character Zero
Set Two: Scents and Subtle Sounds -> Plasma > Free > Billy Breathes > Piper > Ghost > And So To Bed > Sigma Oasis > Tube -> Brother, When the Circus Comes (Los Lobos), Golgi Apparatus
 Restarted after the first verse.
This show featured the debut of And so to Bed which had been previously been released on The White Tape 35 years earlier. Tube was unfinished. Brother was restarted after the first verse and was performed for the first time since December 30, 2017 (107 shows).
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