DETROIT -- The old adage that absence makes the heart grow fonder certainly proved true during Phish's concert Wednesday night (Nov. 18) at Cobo Arena.
A bunch of flowers from the front row sticks greeted the Vermont quartet, regrouped after a nearly five-year hiatus, as it strolled onstage for its first Detroit area appearance in the decade (it last played these parts in December 1999 at the Palace of Auburn Hills). It was the opening night of Phish's fall tour, and many of the 10,500 Phishheads came from out of state, as far away as California, expecting something big.
They got it with a typically epic Phish performance, three hours of music plus a half-hour intermission, plenty of instrumental fireworks, a tripped-out light show that was "played" as much as the music itself and a 24-song setlist that, as is Phish's wont, will never be repeated.
What was particularly clear on Wednesday was that the band, which had reportedly warmed up with a 90-minute rehearsal/sound check on Tuesday (Nov. 17) at Cobo, is happy to be back together and is aurally and visibly having a lot of fun. Where Phish has lapsed into mere noodling in the past, at Cobo it was on fire -- tight, aggressive and focused, with guitarist Trey Anastasio providing most of the highlights but not to the point where he eclipsed the rest of the band.
Phish started strong with the rootsy groove of "AC/DC Bag," declaring "let's get this show on the road," with balloons and showers of glow sticks adding to the festive feel in the arena. The jazzy flavors of "Foam" gave Anastasio and keyboardist Page McConnell plenty of soloing space, while "Stealing From the Faulty Plan" and a nearly 10-minute romp through "Kill Devil Falls" offered a sample of Phish's new studio album, "Joy."
Though there's nary a radio hit in its repertoire, Phish did deliver some of its "big" songs to the Cobo crowd, including "Bouncing Around the Room," the anthemic "Free" and "Sample In a Jar." "46 Days" and "David Bowie" closed the first set with nearly 12 minutes each of galloping rock, while the funky workout "Down With Disease" stretched to almost 15 minutes and "Weekapaug Groove" rambled through a lively series of solos over its 13-plus minutes. Phish also displayed a touch for pretty, mellower fare on "Mountains in the Mist, "Waste" and "Wading in the Velvet Sea," and "Mike's Song" was among the many displays of a dynamic sensibility that brings pronounced prog rock and jazz influences into the "jam band" world of which Phish is reigning royalty.
The group members, of course, does their talking with their instrument, and Anastasio only spoke once, offering thanks at the end of the second set and assuring the crowd that "we had a great time." The feeling was mutual -- as were hopes that it won't take another 10 years for Phish to make its way back here.
Recordings of Phish's Cobo show are available at www.phishlive.com.
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