Annually, the town of Worcester is taken over by hordes of teenagers and young twenty-somethings in big pants, dreadlocks and various states of sobriety. The cops spend three days directing traffic and the townies sit, bemused, in the outdoor food court of the mall across the street from the Centrum. Worcester is not a born-again hippie town, but for a weekend every year, Phisheads make it their own.
While not even in the ballpark of the summer exodus to Limestone, Phish followers do travel from far and wide to crowd the Centrum to full capacity. Representing New York, Pennsylvania, and most of New England as well as various farther points of origin depending on the faithfulness of the followers, this year's crowd got to Worcester early and stayed late.
Phish attempted to turn a corner in their music this year, as they moved from previously rehearsed and recorded songs to songs based mostly on improvisation. Their latest album The Story of the Ghost is made up mostly of their jam sessions. Giving their music a slightly less polished but much more heartfelt edge, their extended jam sessions have improved over the years as the connection among band members has strengthened. Guitarist Trey Anastasio and keyboardist Page McConnell were especially in synch the weekend after Thanksgiving, working off of each other to increase the enthusiasm of a crowd that was pumped enough to riot the moment that the band stepped on stage.
Although Anastasio and McConnell jammed for most of the night, drummer John Fishman controlled the pulse of the audience and led everyone on the musical journey. Fishman seemed to know just when to intensify but, more importantly, when to slow things down if mass hysteria seemed to be threatening the 16,000-odd people filling the Centrum. Phish is more raw in the late nineties than ever before, and their jams tend to be faster and more rock-based than in the past. However, they have retained the ability to direct the mood of the audience. From the first furious moment of guitar virtuosity by Anastasio to the final moments before intermission, when he introduced an "old friend from Vermont," the band seemed connected with each other and with the audience.
"Old friend" Seth Jakominski brought a new style to Phish's playing that provided interesting variety to the show on Sunday night. Looking like an unlikely candidate for blues guitarist extraodinaire, he strolled onto the stage and proceeded to take over. While not expecting a blues show in the middle of the night, the crowd took it in enthusiastic stride and was praising Seth's playing for the rest of the night. The rest of the band adapted well to the new style and Anastasio and Jakominski seemed to connect as both jammed blues-style for the end of the first half of the show. Including a cover of Eric Clapton's "Layla," the moments in which Phish added their old friend from Vermont as a fifth band member member were some of the sweetest of the night.
Intermission was a dangerous mob scene that underscored the fact that Phish is better outside. Cries of "I need to get out of this space," and "please, please let me move" abounded as the painfully packed-in crowd tried to get to the bath-rooms and concessions en masse. Good feeling resumed, though, as soon as someone started a collective "moo" to which the mob took better than the pre-show wave that died a quick death.
While indoor intermission is a mess, something must be said for Phish's light man, whoever he is, for making everyone feel like they were taking hallucinogens, and for making those crowd members who were feeling psychadelic very, very happy. The light show itself was almost worth the waiting and pushing that it took to get into the building, but not quite.
The second half of the show was somewhat of a let-down at first, as Phish gave the crown little time to warm up before expecting them to keep up with impossibly fast beats and long jams. Although most of the audience members tried to keep dancing, many were having a seat and taking a break after the first few songs or so. The end of the show brought back the mellow lyrics that have won Phish acclaim in the past. Phish is now experimenting with a new style that sometimes leaves longtime fans in the dark, but their concerts are still an experience worth a try.