Better than: The record, as always.
As comedians Harris Wittels and Scott Aukerman concluded in their hilarious and thoughtful Analyze Phish podcast, Phish is an objectively silly musical phenomenon with an undeniably infectious appeal, mostly owing to the band's grand spectacle of a live show. Over the course of the four-episode podcast, die-hard fan Wittels attempts to convince a skeptical Aukerman of the merits of Phish with an introductory analysis of songs curated by Wittels. Not only does Wittels not succeed, song by song he frequently undermines his own love of the band, realizing that their inane lyrical themes, marathon song lengths, and earnest but strained vocal delivery are just not objectively attractive to the critical ear.
And yet the climax of the podcast finds both gentlemen at a Phish concert enjoying themselves, concluding that the whole manages to be substantially greater than the sum of its parts. Indeed, a live Phish show is a wholly unique experience whereby the band's substantial catalog of hundreds (thousands?) of original songs, covers, and other apocrypha are always fair game under the peerless light show of long time visual coordinator Chris Kuroda.
Although their fans' enthusiasm is easily won, it's curious how things got to be that way. One possible explanation could be that a vector of Phish fandom resides in the part of the brain that memorizes baseball stats or comic book continuity -- every concert is a page in an encyclopedic exploration of 20th Century song. You're never just enjoying the band, you're participating in its omnivorous appreciation of the disparate state of modern music, taking in styles like funk, bluegrass, showtunes, and blues in order to churn out that singular bouillabaisse. Just last month, the band performed ZZ Top's "La Grange" for the first time since September 1999, which fact was duly noted by one of the many websites devoted to the band's nightly setlists. That is all to say, Phish's unique appeal is much more than any one of its songs can represent.
On Friday, the band began the first of two mammoth sets with the obscurely titled, "AC/DC Bag." The wildly eclectic evening moved from anthems ("Chalkdust Torture", "Down With Disease") to mercifully tranquil ballads ("Wading in the Velvet Sea") to Caucasian prog-funk ("Sand" and "The Moma Dance"). For a band frequently accused of dilettantism, it was fairly convincing in all modes. As a wildly successful outfit without a hit song to its name, there's virtually no such thing as a Phish deep cut. The band's audience consists mostly of ardent completists who get a Pavlovian thrill from nearly any song the band chooses. That said, there are certainly tiers of enthusiasm, and tonight's was frequently at the highest.
This owes mostly to the quality of epic expansions the band deploys, known to the layman as "jams." Indeed, there were far fewer songs played than the Herculean three-hour run time suggests. Yet the cohesion, fluidity, and telepathy of Phish is of a much higher order than the typical jam band, trading an exploratory aesthetic for a highly intentional mode of improvisation decades in the making. The vessels for Phish's more dramatic flights tend to be the more skeletal compositions. Songs like "Possum," "Tweezer," and perennial fan favorite "Run Like An Antelope" were positively thrilling rides of sonic confluence veering in and out of various thematic and dynamic chasms with the fluency of a bebop quartet. Drummer John Fishman deserves special mention for alternately anchoring and subverting the band's deceptively simple rhythmic core, suggesting new sonic avenues for his bandmates with subtlety and precision.