Phish Gives Fans a Good Excuse to Make a Midweek Ohio Trek
CUYAHOGA FALLS, Ohio — Who in their right mind would travel for hours to Northeast Ohio in the middle of a work week with the threat of downpouring rain … just to see a concert?
Judging from the capacity crowd that flocked outside Blossom Music Center on Wednesday night to see Phish, plenty of people from all parts of Ohio and beyond had no doubt in their minds where they wanted to be for this highly anticipated midweek gathering. In fact, it was probably a night considered by most of the fans on hand to be a highlight of their summer.
Despite severe thunderstorm and flash flood watches that day, Mother Nature blessed the huge mass of jam-band enthusiasts with blue skies at show time, as the crowd’s favorite foursome from the great state of Vermont made its way to the only area stop on a red-hot summer tour.
Phish had just made a splash with their headlining performances over the previous weekend during two nights in Manchester, Tenn., at one of the nation’s biggest annual music festivals –The Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival. A show in Toronto followed before the band headed to Ohio, where the crowd was ready for Phish to make its triumphant return to Blossom for the first time since 2015.
As many music fans in the region may know, the Blossom Music Center is a classic outdoor amphitheater nestled within the wooded Cuyahoga Valley National Park between Akron and Cleveland. It’s about the same size as most major metropolitan outdoor concert amphitheaters — with a capacity of about 23,000 (about the same as KeyBank Pavilion, formerly known as Star Lake Amphitheater in Burgettstown, Pa.) It’s got a big, bulky pavilion roof, and a seemingly small stage for a venue of its size, complete with all wooden stage floors and back walls that make it look like one big piece of furniture with a stage inset in it.
The earthy, organic backdrop and unexpectedly perfect weather made for a cozy setting for a night of live music. Most would agree the wooden interior of the pavilion created a nice canvas for the always eye-popping light show that is known to accompany Phish concerts.
Phish is known not only for delivering unique shows with totally different set lists each night, but also for making each show uniquely special for the fans — leaving a lasting mark on a moment by debuting a song for its first live performance, bringing a song back to the stage for the first time in many years, extending a song with long and intense improvisation or just doing something totally weird to make each night memorable for everyone in attendance — even if it’s a fan who has experienced dozens of Phish shows. So it makes sense that some Phish fans, much like fans of the Grateful Dead did decades ago, take to the road and follow the band for multiple shows – because it’s a totally different experience each night!
The band brought a mixed bag of everything to the Cuyahoga Falls show, offering plenty of nuggets from guitarist Trey Anastasio’s side projects, – and bassist Mike Gordon’s, too – interwoven between a wide variety of Phish fan favorites and oddball deep-tracks from several different albums.
Anastasio’s “Soul Planet” opened the show and was followed by “The Moma Dance” for a musical tide that ebbed and flowed but never ventured too far out to sea or made a huge tidal wave. “Divided Sky” got the crowd energized before “I Didn’t Know” brought drummer Jon Fishman out for a trademark Electrolux vacuum cleaner solo/lead — a true treat for the fans. A first-set ending “Walls of the Cave” was elevated into one of the night’s most spine-tingling and intense improvisational moments.
As night fell on the second set, the visual spectacle by renowned lighting designer Chris Kuroda heated up, and the band did, too.
“Birds of a Feather” kept fans dancing and morphed into something completely different for several minutes — driven by guitar noodling, ever-moving bass walks, Samba-style groves from Fishman and Latin-flavored keyboard riffing by Page McConnell, with leftover cat screams quoted from the first set’s “Your Pet Cat.” The song drifted into space-out segments for a total running time of around 23 minutes. “Is this still ‘Birds of a Feathter?’ some of the still-dancing fans in the crowd asked each other. The band kept going until they apparently decided the jam had wandered way too far off to even try to make it come back to the original structure of the song.
(The whole thing can be seen and heard in full HD here courtesy of Live Phish: https://youtu.be/rQrcvXAZL9M )
Gordon’s “Crazy Sometimes” was a fun (and aptly titled) addition to the set, and the mellow and heartfelt “Miss You” changed gears for a welcome dose of sentiment and variety. “Chalk Dust Torture” saw Anastasio laughing off a fudged verse before “Slave to the Traffic Light” ended the second set.
Few bands today demonstrate the kind of musical chemistry the members of Phish do. They leave little doubt why they’re the biggest jam band on the road today.
It is a band that works for its fans. There are some folks who just don’t like them – some are even hardcore music fans from the jam band scene. Maybe it’s the quirky lyrics or occasionally less-than-awesome vocals. Maybe it’s their popularity that’s a turnoff to some. But I don’t understand the haters. In my opinion, Phish deservingly took the crown from the Grateful Dead when that legacy came to an end in 1995 with the death of Jerry Garcia. No other band has come close to achieving the same kind of following, fan loyalty, unique and magical concert tours and festival experiences, and full-tilt improvisational live rock’n’roll shows like they have.
The crowd was full of energy for the entire show at Blossom, and the band was loose and playing in top form, but the signature of the night – the thing that made this show stick out among others – appeared to be the fact that it was such a patchwork variety of everything. Nothing went too crazy. While there were some great moments and a few points at which the band initiated lift-off, most of the jams took the fans into the stratosphere and bounced off the top of the clouds, occasionally drifting into the weightlessness of space before floating and meandering back into the sky. But my favorite Phish moments in concert – and probably most other Phish fans would agree – are when the band ignites the adrenaline-fueled solid rocket boosters and blasts the audience with full force into outer space, leaving behind a smoking crater where the venue once stood! (Figuratively, of course). But alas, I assumed the flurry at the end of the first set must have been that moment.
Being a midweek evening at a venue two hours away from home, I decided to say my goodbyes to concert-going friends from Northern Ohio and start my (literally one-mile) walk back to the car during the beginning of the encore … in order to beat the traffic.
As I made my way out of the gate, I heard applause as the members of Phish returned to the stage and launched into “Split Open and Melt” — a song they’ve apparently not played as an encore since 1991.
The crowd went wild.
And there it was — the signature song, subtly fading in volume as I continued my walk of shame into the parking lots — too late to turn back, as there was “no re-entry.” I could picture in my mind the crowd going berserk as searing guitar-driven energy crescendoed step-by-step chromatically into mass hysteria and ripped a hole in the fabric of space and time for fans who were smart enough to stay. I imagined the light show probably was so intense it made the pavilion look like a space ship getting ready to lift off for the far reaches of the galaxy, taking 20,000-plus dancing, smiling, bliss-stricken hippies with it.
The night (reportedly) ended gently with a live Phish debut of Anastasio’s “A Life Beyond the Dream,” complete with the fitting line “I had to turn away, I didn’t want to leave.”
But I did. I missed the best moment of the night … in order to miss the traffic.
But I saw a great show that I’ll not soon forget. And then, like clockwork just after the show ended while I started to drive away in a hassle-free exit, the downpour that held off at show time finally arrived.
Phish Set List, Blossom Music Center, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, June 19, 2019:
The Moma Dance
Kill Devil Falls
Your Pet Cat
Back on the Train
Everything is Hollow
About to Run
I didn’t Know
Walls of the Cave
Stealing Time from the Faulty Plan
Birds of a Feather
Chalk Dust Torture
Slave to the Traffic Light
Split Open and Melt
A Life Beyond the Dream