Quarterly tours and concerts numbering in the hundreds each year was once the modus operandi of Phish. Formed in 1983 in Burlington, Vermont, the quartet cut their teeth playing likely every single college town in the northeast. By the mid-90s, this sui generis jam band had graduated to large clubs and theatres. Later in that decade, their popularity soared to such heights that they were the first to host festivals with themselves as the sole band on the bill, playing multiple sets of music each day. These multi-day festivals drew so many that they could only be accommodated on decommissioned US Air Force bases and airports in New York State and Maine. Just prior to taking a necessary rest in 2000, they were selling out 20,000 seat venues as swelling numbers of fans traveled with them from show to show. After a couple of years off to redefine and recharge themselves, the band began touring and releasing albums again in 2002. The band had the 15th highest grossing tour of 2003 but the enormity and the darkness behind their touring entity expanded beyond safety. Due to this, and lead singer and guitarist, Trey Anastasio’s declining health, they ultimately needed to break up in 2004. Anastasio was arrested for drug possession in 2006, an occurrence that he praises as life-saving. His recovery was in part the catalyst for the band’s reformation in 2008.
Altogether new in attitude and in musical direction, this latest incarnation of Phish has taken touring to a much mellower schedule. Due to this change, and Anastasio’s legal issues, the band only previously played Canada twice in the last decade. Armed with new vigor and dozens of more seemingly straightforward songs than their classic long-form structured pieces, they’re playing at a new level, to fans new, and like myself, vintage. Since 1992, I’ve seen the band 22 times, playing in hotel ballrooms, convention centers, dingy clubs and theatres, as well as arenas, at the bottom of a fan-carpeted ski hill and the aforementioned air force bases. Their ability to connect musically with their audience regardless of venue size and vice versa is a feat that keeps their tours sold out and their shows interesting. There’s a unique excitement that’s shared with the band when there’s no setlist and often, no idea of what swerve any given song may take.
Their 2019 summer tour brought them back to Toronto after almost 6 years, to again play the Budweiser Stage, named the Molson Amphitheater at last visit. Locals and touring fans packed the bowl on June 18th as Phish ripped through two sets of repertoire-representative songs. Highlights of their classic tunes included opener AC/DC Bag, Stash, You Enjoy Myself, Sample In A Jar and jazzy-crooning Lawn Boy. They also debuted Ruby Waves off Anastasio’s latest solo album, Ghosts of the Forest. As is typical, the band’s second set songs settled into their adventurous improvisational side. Augmented by ‘fifth member’ of the band, lighting designer Chris Kuroda, his fluid, otherworldly displays gave the mostly-enhanced audience a visual portrait to explore above the aural landscape painted by the band.
Phish wind their way around the east side of the continent until the end of July before playing their usual 3-night stand outside of Denver, CO at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park over Labour Day weekend.