Set the Controls...
UIC Pavilion - Chicago
November 7, 1998
First Appeared in The Music Box, December 1998, Volume 5, #12
Written by John Metzger
Act I: Close to the Edge
Phish is on a roll. Throughout 1998, the band has been shaking up their setlists — introducing many new original and cover songs to their repertoire, moving familiar selections to unexpected locations, and bringing back old favorites.
Despite their sometimes zany stage antics, Phish are forever the consummate professionals, determined that both they and their audience walk away from the performances deeply satisfied. This is, of course, no easy task given the band's tendency towards improvisational risks. But the members of Phish seem to thrive on living close to the edge, and their efforts to up the ante this year have certainly worked. Their concerts have been full of surprises, and the band sounds rejuvenated and very much alive.
After a brilliant performance at Farm Aid in early October, Phish began their Fall tour in Las Vegas where they performed The Velvet Underground's Loaded in its entirety. Over the next few days, guitarist Trey Anastasio and bassist Mike Gordon performed at an open mic night at a small bar in Utah, and on the following evening, the band performed Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon in its entirety in one of the smallest venues the band has played for a long time.
On November 7, the band pulled into Chicago for a rare, three-show run at the UIC Pavilion. This also was an intimate venue by Phish standards, and they made it feel even smaller as Anastasio picked up his acoustic guitar and rendered tender versions of Driver and the beautiful Beach Boys-inspired Brian and Robert.
Over the years, the band has matured and learned to put as much emphasis on the song as they once did on the ensuing jam. The first set of this opening night was clearly designed to focus on the band's outstanding songwriting ability as they scattered ten songs over the course of 70 minutes — with only three of the songs clearly jammed. In addition to Driver and Brian and Robert, Phish turned in the rapid-fire bluegrass strains of Beauty of My Dreams, a bass-driven jazz of Fikus, and a soothing and beautiful Billy Breathes.
Perhaps the strongest song in the first set was the chunky reggae of Limb by Limb. Anastasio and keyboardist Page McConnell tied their musical excursions in knots and Gordon's bass danced in intertwining rhythmic motions with Jon Fishman's driving cadence creating a swirling groove that made it impossible to stand still. The light show only enhanced the stratospheric mood of the music as the stage was transformed into a massive, hovering spaceship.
The second set opened with a brisk AC/DC Bag, which quickly gave way to an intense, funky jam. As the band wound circles around the song, they allowed it to mutate and gradually slowed down its pace. A cascading lava lamp light show reflected behind the group as they churned through a Pink Floydian groove that touched upon Us and Them. The rhythm and blues beat of Ghost erupted from nowhere as Anastasio and Gordon braided a melodic melody.
Throughout the evening, Phish even managed to draw quite liberally from Yes' Close to the Edge album. Not that they performed any of the songs, but they did draw the sheer essence of Yes' symphonic excursions. The interplay on the group jams of Reba, Guyute, and even Mike's Song contained orchestrated segments that gave way to total chaos and hinted quite strongly at the sounds created by Yes on this classic album.
The evening ended with a nearly perfect rendition of The Beatles' While My Guitar Gently Weeps. At times, Anastasio's vocals eerily resembled George Harrison's, and his guitar licks were straight out of the Eric Clapton songbook. It was a fitting ending for the evening and only served to further build the anticipation for act two.
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Copyright © 1998 The Music Box