"But I don't think our fans do happily lap it up [when Phish plays badly]. I think what happens is they get on the Internet, and talk about how it was a bad show."
—Trey Anastasio, in the 2000 film Bittersweet Motel
Well, here I am to talk about it on the Internet. I went to my first Phish show in five years last night, and it was unquestionably the worst of the six or eight I've seen over the years. For me, it was still a really great time, and I'm very glad I went. I was disappointed that the three first-timers I brought with me had what I know to be a subpar experience.
And just to head off what I know will be the first criticism, let me say this: I saw Phish pre-hiatus and post-hiatus, and I liked both. I saw them in late 1997, a period during which they are generally understood to have been at their peak, and I saw them at the very end of their 2004 run, when they are generally understood to have been mailing it in. I liked both eras—a lot. So I'm not one of those whiny "Things ain't what they used to be" fans. This show was a genuine dud for a couple of reasons.
The major issue was the sound. I do not know how much of this to attribute to the fact that Darien Lake Performing Arts Center is a notoriously bad-sounding venue, or how much blame Phish's new sound tech should get: let's just say you could find people complaining about both with a quick Google search. Either way, Trey's guitar was piercingly loud—often to the point of physical pain. Page's piano sounded as if it had been EQed by someone who was underwater; meanwhile, his organ was barely distinguishable. The drums alternated between impossible to hear and thumpy with no high end. Changing our spot on the lawn helped some of these issues, but it was never good enough to cease being a distraction.
And on top of the sound, the band really seemed off. The setlist included an unusually high number of Phish staples, but it felt like they could never get into a rhythm. Just when they settled into something ("Possum"), they would follow it with a complete whiff ("Farmhouse," which I would say was probably the single worst performance I've ever heard at a Phish show).
There were moments of sheer brilliance. I was completely lost in the music in parts of "Wolfman's Brother," and it was a particularly smoking "David Bowie." The "Darien Center Jam" was pretty solid, and "Antelope" was quite nice. The problem was that there was no sustained rhythm to the whole thing, and let me stress again that the sound was so poor as to be a constant distraction.
During the Yankees' heyday in the late '90s, Joe Torre once said of an injured David Cone that 75% of Coney is usually still going to be better than 100% of the other guy. This is true of Phish. The show was still a blast, and a worthwhile experience. I don't think they've "jumped the shark" or sold out or lost their touch. This was not like seeing DMB on the Everyday tour—nothing to make me want to swear them off. It was a dud, plain and simple. Better luck next time, assuming there is a next time.
[Update: I saw them again in November, and they were spectaular. Read that review here.]