In an exciting, continually unpredictable and playful opening to its monthlong fall tour, Vermont progressive-rock band Phish enhanced its reputation as one of the most talented of today’s major touring bands. The group offered a balanced, top-notch perform-ance split among new songs, material from its vast catalog — all of which was subject to long, improvised jams — and a couple of select cover tunes.
“The circus is the place for me, with bears and clowns and noise,” sang guitarist Trey Anastasio during the gig’s second selection, “Roggae,” a laid-back, bluesy new number whose lyrics use the big-top as a metaphor for dreams and possibility, and which appropriately summed up the attitude prevalent at this festive (though very chilly) show.
Much of the first set was filled with some of the quartet’s more intense and mellow material, including the obscure “McGrupp,” with its piano-led instrumental battle, and an acoustic-oriented segment that featured the unreleased “Driver.” However, such charged efforts as current single “Birds of a Feather,” with a sparkling Anastasio guitar solo (and as heard on Letterman last week), and the rousing “Character Zero,” which closed the 70-minute set, were full of dance-in-the-aisles energy.
Each of the four musicians was impressive on an individual basis throughout the three-hour show, with each taking what could be considered at least one spotlight turn.
But Phish was most superb when the musicians were performing as a whole, on the fly, like during an extended “Limb By Limb” (with its four-part vocal harmonies).
Usually reliable percussionist Jon Fishman (clad in his usual sunflower dress) was scolded by a bandmate for messing up a particularly complex drum fill near the end of one song, so he went back and played it two or three times until he got it right, as the rest of the band watched and laughed.
After a 45-minute intermission, the second act picked up where the first one left off, with the animated “Possum” and “Moma Dance” — a song from Phish’s new Elektra album, “The Story of the Ghost” that sprung from an old live jam — putting everyone’s feet in motion.
As is often the case with this bunch, things got progressively stranger as the show’s second half unfolded. The bizarre and wonderful 1990 “Reba” nearly de-evolved into an entirely new, guitar-based composition as it went along, then segued into the hard-rocking “Walk Away,” the Joe Walsh-led James Gang tune, which hasn’t been heard at a Phish show in three or four years.
Other notable developments during the latter part of the evening included more four-part harmonies during a cover of Neil Young’s “Albuquerque,” the instrumental workout of “David Bowie,” from the band’s 1988 debut album “Junta,” and an encore take on the Beatles’ “Something,” featuring keyboard player Page McConnell nicely handling George Harrison’s tender lyrics.
For many fans, the show at the Greek began in the afternoon, during soundcheck, when dozens of people — most of whom still needed tickets for the sold-out show — gathered in the parking lot to hear the band run through a number of songs that wouldn’t be in the evening’s set list, including a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Money.”