The last time Phish performed in Minnesota, Bill Clinton was still president, St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center had not been built and — a good time marker for many of the band’s fans — marijuana was not yet legal anywhere in the United States.
As much as things have changed in the 16-year drought endured by local Phish Heads, however, not much has changed within the Vermont-reared psychedelic jam band, a point that hit home when Phish hit Xcel Center on Wednesday to kick off its latest summer tour.
The quartet, still made up of the same four original members, still plays a lot of the same quirky, lengthy songs it did in its ’90s heyday. It’s not still drawing quite the same size of phanatical audiences, though. Wednesday’s crowd of 13,000 was down a few thousand from the sold-out Target Center that greeted Phish in 2000, and ticket prices had been slashed considerably on resale sites such as StubHub.
Still, inside the arena Wednesday there was a decipherable air of pent-up demand that those jammy vets more than satisfied in the end. Not that Phish fans are the type to demand anything. There were so many high-fives and hippie hugs in the crowd, if one person at the show had a flu bug we all probably do now.
The band also followed the same two-part performance model as before: One 75-minute set, followed by a 90-minute set, with a dazzling light show and video backdrop but otherwise little to no stage gimmickry. In Phish’s case, the half-hour intermission was less a smoke break and more a break from the smoke that wafted throughout the two sets.
That first segment was surprisingly fast-paced and action-packed for Phish. Twelve songs is a lot in this case, a pace set right off the bat with the light, bouncy, quick fixes “Pigtail” and “Wolfman’s Brother,” a newer tune and an older ’90s fan favorite.
Set 2 was a lot heavier on the long jams and the looser grooves — which, in turn, spawned the giddier dances and more excited cheers from fans. The place really got moving as frontman Trey Anastasio’s guitar soloing peaked about nine minutes into “I Am Hydrogen,” and it did so again when the band launched into “Bouncing Around the Room” two songs later.
With healthier lives and more focus and versatility among its members than in 2000, Phish actually may have gotten better with age. Both of Wednesday’s sets were stocked with impressive musical changeup and some well-written newer tunes that showed more depth and less cartoony silliness than in “Undermind” and “Stash” (both played in the first half).
In Set 1, the band really hit a roll in the hard-rocking, space-trucking instrumental “The Dogs” and finished strong in “Walls of the Cave,” wherein fans started throwing their neon glow sticks around the room as if on some kind of unspoken cue. Set 2 started out on a, um, high note with the New Orleans funky jammer “Mike’s Song” (one of several with bassist Mike Gordon on lead vocals). Fans got an especially rich bit of Deadheady jamming toward the end in “No Men in No Man’s Land” and “Bathtub Gin.”
Also per usual, there were some fun covers thrown into the mix, including the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence” early on (sung by keyboardist Page McConnell) and a lush version of the Velvet Underground’s “I Found a Reason” midway through the second set.
The band genuinely seemed to be happy to be back on the road. “This feels soooooo good,” Anastasio enthused a few songs into the concert, one of the few things said between songs.
Phish’s next stop is a big gig at Wrigley Field in Chicago, the kind of outdoor setting favored by its crowds. (One explanation for the long Twin Cities hiatus is our lack of a big local amphitheater.) Having the band indoors didn’t kill the buzz, though — and, in fact, some of that buzz might be still lingering in the air on Tuesday for Selena Gomez’s teeny-bopper fans to catch a whiff of when they arrive at the X.
Here's the full Phish set list from Wednesday night:
SET ONE: Pigtail / Wolfman's Brother / Daniel Saw the Stone / The Dogs / Undermind / Dear Prudence (Beatles cover) / Stash / Round Room / Horn / Uncle Pen (Bill Monroe cover) / Halfway to the Moon / Walls of the Cave
SET TWO: Mike's Song / I Am Hydrogen / Weekapaug Groove / Bouncing Around the Room / Ghost / The Line / Simple / I Found a Reason (Velvet Underground cover) / No Men in No Man's Land / Billy Breathes / Bathtub Gin
ENCORE: Water in the Sky / Character Zero