Live At Alpine Valley, 2010
(DVD-V + CD)

Well, it looks like this time Phish are back for real (but maybe it's better to knock on wood, just in case). And Phish came back in the manner that's quite typical of the rock quartet from Vermont: with a very fine album, Joy (2009), which didn't really sell, as per their usual; and with a whole series of well-attended concerts, though this time the group's scheduled concerts were fewer than it had been their custom in the past, maybe in order to avoid a burn-out. Meanwhile, the members' solo activities go on as usual.

A group that has always proclaimed - and practiced - the necessity of "DIY", today Phish find themselves in the enviable position of having acquired an extremely loyal fan base, while technical progress makes it possible for them to have a "direct link", a pipeline for news and goods of all kinds. So, in a way, we could maybe define the excellent Live At Alpine Valley, 2010 as a document whose over-the-counter availability makes it an ideal item for those who - in spite of their feverish passion for Phish - still have a kind of not-terribly-up-to-date attitude towards modern technology.

Let's get rid of all technical minutiae. The material featured in this tiny box was recorded and filmed on August, 14th and 15th at the "Legendary Alpine Valley Music Theatre", East Troy, Wisconsin. A very big place, as it's easy to see looking at the pictures. Good quality video and audio (both stereo and 5.1). The box features two DVD-Vs and two CDs. At about 3h., the concert from August 14th is featured in its entirety on the DVD-Vs, and almost entirely on the CDs. As bonus material, we have about 75' of highlights from the concert which took place on August, 15th. Some shots for the audience, but this time the cameras' attention is for what happened onstage.

From left: Page McConnell's keyboards, Trey Anastasio's guitar rig, Mike Gordon's bass rig, and Jon Fishman's drums, which after a long time go back to that unusual position they had in the past, which is obviously the one that works best for the group when it comes to all matter of communication. McConnell and Fishman look the same to me, the same being true of Gordon, who has the inscrutable face of a Zen statue, while Anastasio... well, he looks both older and healthier, if you know what I mean.

Let's start from the end. The concert is very good, the group sounds as being reborn. A group feeling bordering on telepathy, fantastic instrumental performances, a prodigious ability in making many disparate styles sound believable. On acoustic piano, Hammond organ, and Hohner Clavinet D6 (there's also a crystal-clear-sounding Fender Rhodes electric piano), Page McConnell is perfect in his counterpoint role for Anastasio's melodic guitar lines (it's still a Paul Languedoc guitar, but this time it's a new specimen). Anastasio still has does impeccable fingering work on the fretboard, and he still sounds fresh (check the various types of side-of-the-pick harmonics he gets from his attack, from Garcia to Zappa). Mike Gordon's omnipresent bass lines are just perfect. And it's only the appropriateness and ease of Jon Fishman's drum parts that sometimes make one forget he's there.

When it comes to Phish there's no "the same concert, twice", and this is the reason why I'm hesitant in saying something about the lack of any "space" moments where McConnel's synthesizers used to shine (here, he sparingly uses what - to me! - look like an old Yamaha CS70, and a recent monophonic by Moog, the Little Phatty - the limited edition, of course, with wood sides, and blue light coming from under the wheels). As we'll see in just a minute, the material performed here could not be more varied: there are covers of tracks performed by Los Lobos and Little Feat; precise performances of complex, "prog", old pages; ballads; and those "absurd" moments penned by Gordon. And this is a very demanding music, both for the mind and the hands: just check the rotating wrists, the stretching of hands, just before the encore (the Dylan-penned Queen The Eskimo, Mike Gordon on lead vocals).

The first set of the first concert starts with a funky Tube, starring the Clavinet. Then we have the brief, country-flavoured The Oh Kee Pa Ceremony. Then, the vivacious-sounding Suzy Greenberg, with nice solos from guitar and piano. Funky Bitch is sung by Gordon, it has a fine Hammond solo, and a fine guitar solo. Reba is appropriately complex, with intertwined arpeggios from piano and guitar, inspired unisons, and a fine solo by Anastasio. The brief, "metal"-sounding, Fuck Your Face is a nice surprise, Gordon on vocals. Alaska sports a lazy "Southern rock" groove, and the same can be said of Back On The Train. Taste is the best track of the bunch, with a colossal solo by Anastasio. There's a fine cover of When The Circus Comes by Los Lobos in a fine interpretation by Anastasio. Lawn Boy, Sparkle, and Gumbo take the listener to a very fine performance of Run Like An Antelope.

I really don't know what kind of coffee they serve backstage at the Alpine, but I bet it's very strong. After the intermission, Phish get on stage like they are a different group: gone is the somewhat tentative approach of the first set, here the group practically own the stage. Phish start very fast with The Sloth - "prog" la High Tide - then run through the seventeen minutes of Down With Disease, which takes off, then lands in the still atmosphere of What's The Use, where the guitar borders on feedback (just check the way Anastasio gradually lowers the volume of his guitar by turning the pot using the right hand pinky). Different moods, but the same attitude, for Scent Of A Mule, with a "Greek" interlude; and Mike's Song, with a fine guitar solo. The melancholy-tinged Dirt is a sad ballad of the kind the makes the character Phish more complete: fine vocals and guitar by Anastasio, a solo part by Gordon, subtle piano by McConnell. Then it's back to funk, with a cover of Sneakin' Sally Thru The Alley, starring the Clavinet and wha-wha bass. Then we have a fine version of Weekapaug Groove, with a fine guitar solo. In closing, the fine, complex ballad Bug, with excellent string bends.

But there's still more to come (!), with those excerpts from the concert from August, 15th. AC/DC Bag is ably dispatched, while Little Feat's On Your Way Down - McConnell on both vocals and Hammond - is really fantastic, Anastasio shooting harmonics la single coil, 80s, Zappa (and just have a look at the ecstatic expression on McConnell's face at the end of his Hammond solo). Divided Sky receives an excellent reading, with a real "handkerchief" moment that one could place side-by-side with the performance of The Lizards that closed IT. Then we have the recent track Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan, and a perfect reading of David Bowie, with a letter-perfect crescendo.

Then there's the material on the other DVD-V. We have an excellent opening in the "cool funk" of Ghost, with Clavinet, piano, and fine vocals. There's fine ensemble work in the well-known Theme From The Bottom, and appropriate levity from Big Black Furry Creature From Mars.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2011 | Mar. 24, 2011