by Doug MacGunnigle, WPRO
The immensely popular jam-band Phish and their loyal army of fans descended on the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence for two nights over Thanksgiving weekend, starting their run of shows leading up to the their traditional New Years Eve residency in New York City.
Phish had played at the Dunk 6 times prior to this weekend, with the first time being in December of 1994, and the last time being in October of 2010. The band also played two strong nights as a part of the fabled 1998 “Island Tour,” so named because that mini-tour only played 4 shows – two in Rhode Island and two on Long Island at the Nassau Coliseum.
The long sold out concerts were a tough ticket to obtain- many were left outside the venue, either unable or unwilling to cough up the inflated ticket prices that were being offered outside the venue.
Outside the Dunk, the streets were filled with revelers, both local and from out of town. Local bars and restaurants no doubt did big business downtown this weekend – the scene outside of Trinity Brewhouse was a chaotic street party and like a homecoming weekend or reunion to many of the fans who travel across the county to catch the band perform and meet up with long lost friends.
Those who made it in were treated to two solid nights of music – with the edge going to Saturday night’s show, which was more playful and centered on many of Phish’s most beloved jam songs, including “Bathtub Gin” and an incendiary take on “Harry Hood.”
There were highlights on Friday night as well – instrumental show opener “First Tube” displayed the technical prowess of the band, while the takes on Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire” and The James Gang’s “Walk Away” were crowd pleasing set-enders that were lots of fun.
“Bye Bye Foot,” sung by drummer Jonathan Fishman, made it’s first appearance in over 20 years on Friday, and “Plasma,” a tune from guitarist Trey Anastasio’s solo catalog, weaved its way through Friday’s second set and Saturday’s show as well.
Bassist Mike Gordon took a couple of well received solos on Saturday night, notably during keyboardist Page McConnell’s crooner “Lawn Boy,” as well as during a slowed down take on “Llama.”
Drummer Jon Fishman took a trademark vacuum cleaner solo as well Saturday – yes, he makes sounds with a vacuum hose held up to his mouth, much like Peter Frampton’s classic ‘talking guitar’ effect.
The highlight of the weekend was Saturday’s second set – while the first set was fun and goofy with Anastasio’s song introductions (something the band rarely does) and keyboarist McConnell’s “THX” sound effect beginning each song (a gag that continued through the second set) – the band really opened up in set two – the aforementioned “Bathtub Gin” and “Harry Hood” anchored the set, with “Hood” especially providing some transcendent moments. Also of note was a strong take on “Alaska,” and the reappearance several times in the show of the main theme from Friday’s “Plasma.”
Phish closed out the weekend of shows with an encore consisting of a ferocious “Big Black Furry Creatures from Mars,” “Kung,” “Wombat,” and finally “Possum,” capped off with, of course, the main riff of “Plasma.”
If you are one who follows the band to every show, you’d likely have a take that differed from a first-timer – there was lots of talk outside the venue Saturday before the show that Friday was not one of the band’s strongest efforts – but one would have to think that even the most die-hard fans would find something to love in the Providence run of shows.
Phish is an acquired taste, both the music and the scene, but there were many thousands of happy revelers in Providence this weekend, and the local authorities seemed to find the right mix of enforcement – unless someone was acting like a real jerk people weren’t getting cited for open containers or marijuana consumption.
Police did crack down on the sale of nitrous balloons by Saturday, although they were prevalent around downtown on Friday. It was also entertaining to see the folks in town for other reasons to interact with the Phish community. While people were generally respectful, there was no doubt that when the band comes to town, they take it over. There’s also no doubt that the spike to local businesses downtown made this a welcome event for the city of Providence.