Phish 3.0 is an interesting creature -- even though the lineup hasn’t changed in 25 years, there are subtle complexities to the latest re-incarnation of the Vermont foursome that set it apart from the band’s first and second go-rounds. Gone (at least for now) are many of the exhilarating jams and idiosyncratic antics that defined much of the band’s stage persona for their first 16 years; also missing, thanks to a clean-and-sober lifestyle that the band has embraced in the wake of guitarist Trey Anastasio’s 2006 arrest and subsequent rehab, are many of the prosaic, directionless outings that marred the post-hiatus years of 2003-04.
Fresh off a historic four-night stand at Colorado’s famed Red Rocks, Phish settled in for its first one-night performance at Shoreline since 1997 (the band played two-night runs in Mountain View in 1999, 2000 and 2003). Many fans viewed Shoreline as the “sleeper” of the tour, wedged between Red Rocks and two shows at the majestic Gorge Amphitheater in Washington this coming weekend; add to the mix the fact that Shoreline was the band’s only California appearance this summer and the expectations ran high.
While it may not have been the barnburner the diehards may have been expecting, Phish certainly didn’t disappoint the faithful, mixing a healthy dose of classics ("David Bowie" and "Maze") with newer material (more on that in a moment) and an ultra-rare performance of the Velvet Underground’s “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’,” last played when the band trotted out the entirety of the VU’s classic album Loaded as their musical costume for Halloween 1998.
Phish aptly showcased three songs from the upcoming album, Joy (out September 8): the raunchy, bluesy “Stealing Time from the Faulty Plan,” the growing-up anthem “Backwards Down the Number Line,” and “Time Turns Elastic,” a 16+ minute multi-segmented epic that takes its time getting going, and (believe it or not) ends too soon -- about halfway through, the band locks into an ascending riff that functions as a chorus of sorts and has potential to stretch into vast experimental territory (if and when Phish decides to take it there).
Oddly enough, the concept of holding back is prevalent in Phish 3.0; with the exception of a sublime, exploratory “Down with Disease” that highlighted the 2nd set, there was a relative absence of chances taken (as there has been all tour, with a few notable exceptions). Heading up the list of missed opportunities was a truncated “Halley’s Comet” that showed up early in the 1st set -- in the past, the song had been a springboard for outstanding group improvisation, but the “new” Phish appears reticent to push the boundaries of the jamming style for which it set the bar so high early in its career (at least for now).
As with most of Phish’s large amphitheater shows this summer, Shoreline tickets were plentiful -- “miracles” abounded as people who’d scooped up LiveNation’s four-ticket maximum back in March were stuck either unloading their extras for a fraction of the face value or simply giving them away. Even those who had to eat a $60 ticket or two didn’t seem disappointed with the outcome, however, and as the masses streamed from the venue after the band closed its encore with Jimi Hendrix’s “Bold as Love,” it was clear that when (not if) Phish returns to Northern California, the faithful will return, again and again.