Jam band juggernauts Phish are in the midst of the West Coast leg of their extensive Summer 2018 tour. Fans have been wowed by the sheer diversity of setlists, unexpected arrangements, and intriguing chemistry. After the triumphant Bakers Dozen run at Madison Square Garden last summer, the quartet demonstrated their desire to explore far-off realms and keep their repertoire both expansive and tight. After intriguing performances in Tahoe and The Gorge, in particular, Phish returned to fan-favorite venue Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in the heart of downtown San Francisco. While Mike Gordon, Trey Anastasio, Page McConnell, and Jon Fishman have now played fourteen shows since 2002 (according to Phish.net) at Bill Graham Civic, the venue was well established as a magical space for exploratory music previous by Grateful Dead, who threw legendary gigs at there from 1983-87.
Bill Graham Civic is an intimate venue for Phish, who was just shy of selling out the 21,000 capacity Madison Square Garden for thirteen consecutive shows in 2017. Last year’s BGCA shows bolstered further creativity, bust-outs, and strange. This year was no different. Thanks to an anonymous benefactor who donated his general admission ticket to Grateful Web, I was able to attend and cover the much-coveted show for the first of two nights in San Francisco. The first set offered a wildly diverse spectrum throughout their expansive catalog while the second set undeniably toyed with themes of lightness and darkness.
When the boys walked onstage, they beamed with joy as the crowd welcomed them in an uproarious embrace. Right out the gates came the entirely unexpected opener of “46 Days.” Trey utilized those watery tones that have conspicuously touched each show of the summer tour while Page came in hot out-the-gates at the top of the mix. In great humor noting the unusual setlist placement, Fishman chimed after the opener, “Can we play that again?” To the visible delight of the band, they launched into the uncommon Tom Marshall/Anastasio arrangement “McGrupp and the Watchful Hosemasters.” The primordial tune dates back to April 1985. Continuing an earnestly hilarious inside joke, Fishman quipped, “Perhaps Mike should stay,” clearly excited to play unlikely arrangements and placements. The TAB staple “Pigtail,” came next, only played by Phish a handful of times that gained momentum as the tune moved along. A commonly appreciated groove-tempo cover of Talking Head’s “Cities,” was sang-along with by the crowd as Trey brought a feisty rendition.
During a show full of bombshells, Gordon led the band through a romping electrified cover of Tim O’Brien’s “Nellie Kane,” yet another example of the diverse backbone of this set. A hearty “Gumbo,” followed with an unusual clavinet outro from Page, diversifying his usual piano ragtime finale. “Guyute,” began themes of light and dark to be explored in the second set deepened by the “Axilla 1,” transition. In spirit of the unexpected, the band busted out “Dogs,” premiered as part of the “Chilling, Thrilling” Halloween 2014 themed second set. A slower paced “Dirt” displayed Trey’s diversifying arrangements, tone, and pace. A rocking “David Bowie” closed the first set with a memorable solo from Page, in all showcased enthusiasm.
The second set continued setlist infrequencies with “The Moma Dance,” kicking things off with an audible cheer from the crowd during the opening notes. “Song I Heard The Ocean Sing,” solidified those light and darkness themes previously insinuated. “A shining light in darkness deep” harkened back to the first set and the darkness to come with perhaps the most committed moment of developing a multi-faceted jam so far. During the seemingly final moments of the song, Fishman takes the reigns on dispatching the into SIHTOS drums again, taking the rest by surprise and prolonging previously established themes. The “Mercury,” that came next used the same altered effect in the tour opening “Free,” in Tahoe, previously noted during the “46 Days” opener. “Carini,” the jam highlight of the night, contained astonishing looping effects from Trey intertwined with vibey clavinet from Page. The crowd appeared all focused during this fluent groove that demanded all attention. The blissful climax jam was the must re-listen moment of the evening. Transition into “Maze” affirmed that we hadn’t escaped into the light yet. The peak ending brought the crowd back into the light at the first halt since “Mercury.” The welcomed funk of Stevie Wonder’s “Boogie On Reggae Woman,” transitioned the mood from dark psychedelia to funk, bringing that ebb and flow which Phish does better than no one.
The peak opus of the evening came with the show-stopping “Harry Hood,” which stretched over the twenty-minute mark including a variety of jamlettes rocking the crowd gently with purple and blue hues after a sinister red-light evening. "The Squirming Coil" encore packaged the show beautifully with a perfectly peaceful piano outro from Page as he practically whispered goodnight to the loving ovation from the crowd. Phish revealed to San Francisco once again why it’s a good ticket to have. Thanks to the folks behind the Phish scenes for the photo accessibility, an anonymous benefactor for miracle ticket, and Ryan Dennie for his specialist insights on setlist and form.