There’s an old adage in Phish fan lore to “never miss a Sunday show.” The idea is that the enduring jam band can conjure up some kind of musical magic on a Sunday — often the end of a multinight run at one venue — that eludes it the other six days of the week.
At the band’s two-show Merriweather Post Pavilion stand last weekend, that sentiment proved especially true. If you were one of the “phans” who attended both sold-out concerts in Columbia, Md., on Aug. 11 and 12, you could immediately sense a difference in energy from the opening notes of Sunday’s show. Where Saturday’s show was laid-back and never quite took off, opening with a fine but flat take on the newer, New Orleans-inspired “Blaze On,” Sunday’s burst out of the gate with a fast version of “Llama,” a ’90s-era song with a bouncy beat, rapid-fire lyrics and expressive organ work.
Things only picked up from there, with a playful and thrashy “Big Black Furry Creature From Mars,” an especially silly song that had guitarist Trey Anastasio cracking up before he joked that the band was going to “speed things up a bit” for the groovy “Meat,” sung by bassist Mike Gordon. It wasn’t long before Anastasio launched into the crunchy arena-rock riffs of “Tweezer,” one of the band’s most revered jam vehicles, and the real fun began.
The music is only one part of the equation at a Phish show. The phans, among the most knowledgeable, opinionated and seemingly happy-just-to-be-there fans of any band, are a huge part of the experience. Before both shows, attendees transformed the parking lots of Merriweather into a party zone, complete with a makeshift market full of bootleg T-shirts, burritos and booze. It sounds corny, but there’s a feel-good vibe at Phish shows that’s rare and hard to ignore.
Phish feeds off that energy, whether it’s the crowd erupting in cheers and tossing glow sticks in the air as “Tweezer” began, or “woo”-ing along with “Twist” during Sunday’s show. When an improvised jam — the main draw of any Phish show — hits a peak, you can feel the crowd’s energy rise with the band’s.
Then there are the lights, helmed expertly by longtime lighting director Chris Kuroda. At first glance, Phish’s lighting rig may not seem that crazy but once the show gets going, it really comes to life. Last year, Kuroda added moving trusses to the rig — one set of which literally hung over the orchestra pit — that blink and shake, moving up and down and around the stage in ways that make it seem like the lights are dancing along to the music. It’s easy to get lost just watching them, especially during a jam.
A good Phish show, like Sunday’s at Merriweather, is also just plain fun. Phish is a goofy band at heart and Anastasio, Gordon, drummer Jon Fishman and keyboardist Page McConnell relish being silly and doing things they’ve never done before. (Last year, for example, Phish spent the summer taking up residence at Madison Square Garden for an unprecedented 13-show “Baker’s Dozen” run, in which the band repeated no songs, built thematic setlists around different flavors of doughnuts and debuted strange covers, like an a cappella take on Tay Zonday’s “Chocolate Rain.”)
To keep things interesting on Sunday, the band kicked off the show’s second set with “Tweezer Reprise” and returned to it two more times: first, organically building out of the jam in “Piper,” in what elicited the biggest spontaneous roar of the night, then, somewhat predictably, to end the encore. (Perhaps this was a nod to a 2014 show at Merriweather where the band segued in and out of “Tweezer” at least five times.) In between, Phish played expertly improvised, high-energy versions of fan favorites like “Harry Hood” and “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and the newer jam vehicle “No Men in No Man’s Land.”
Saturday’s show, which did include solid versions “46 Days” and “Ghost,” along with a wild four-song encore that ended with a fist-pumping “Golgi Apparatus,” just didn’t reach the same heights. It’s almost as if Phish, closing out a summer tour that began in Nevada in July, needed time to get comfortable at the venue, which has undergone a series of upgrades (including a new roof and redesigned pavilion) since the band last played there in 2015.
The differences between the two nights ultimately illustrated why so many people went to both shows, and why so many people still plan vacations around Phish runs. Despite being 35 years into their career, you never know what Anastasio, Gordon, Fishman and McConnell are going to do when they step onstage — for better or worse. It’s a thrilling feeling that never gets old, whether you’ve seen the band five times or 105, on Tuesdays or on Sundays.