I saw the future of rock 'n' roll Monday night, and it sure sounded a lot like 1974.
Hearkening to rock's past--as the group Phish did at the Coach House on Monday--usually is a piece of bad news, since typically it just means that a band is bereft of its own ideas and so is donning the superficial garb of some justly dead era.
And reaching into the progressive rock of the early '70s might seem a particularly sour idea, given the bombastic excess, studio-pro smugness and hippie portentousness that marked so much progressive rock.
Listening to Phish perform, one can hear traces of the Dead, Frank Zappa, Yes, Larry Carlton, early Genesis, Gentle Giant, Santana (with whom the group has been touring) and other icons. But the Vermont-based quartet sends those influences into a centrifugal spin with a vengeance, separating out the bad parts of the music and accelerating the good. Those good parts, one might recall, include adventure, intelligence, interplay, musicianship and the idea that a song can be a voyage instead of a package.
The band put all those elements into play during its marathon three-hour Coach House performance--and in place of the leaden seriousness one also associates with progressive rock, played with the rambunctious glee of NRBQ and an intensity that could easily stand alongside the Meat Puppets and Firehose.
Who knows if such a free-flying outfit will be allowed the radio access to actually shape rock's future, but Phish's music at least suggests that rock might have a future--that instead of the minimalist dead ends being charted by many recent bands, there is still room for the music to expand.
Phish has three albums out. Only one, this year's "A Picture of Nectar," is on a major label, but on its own, the group has developed a large and intensely loyal national following. Like the Dead's, some Phish fans follow the band around the country.
The youngish tie-dyed crowd packing the Coach House spent the entire lengthy performance on its feet, dancing nonstop and nodding heads in collective disbelief at the music pouring off the stage.
Phish consists of guitarist Trey Anastasio, who writes a majority of the songs, bassist Mike Gordon, keyboardist Page McConnell and drummer Jon Fishman. Though not out of their 20s yet, they all play with remarkable dexterity and range. Just within their first three songs, they jumped from the blues changes of "Buried Alive" to the wild country hoedown of "Poor Heart" to the Latin samba feel of "The Landlady." They also do a wildly swinging jazz medley of the Flintstones' theme, "Take the A Train" and "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."
Each member is a musical monster, executing tortuous lines effortlessly and making them ring true emotionally. While this writer gladly would take a pickax to most purveyors of speed-demon fusion music, Phish made all the difference by infusing its playing with passion and the exhilaration that comes with great invention. On the longer jams, the playing would often rise to crescendos that hit the ceiling, only to tear it off and keep spiraling upward.
It wasn't just the music making jumps: Anastasio and Gordon spent the better part of one number bouncing on trampolines. During another song, drummer Fishman, wearing a polka-dot summer dress, took center stage to sing into a vacuum cleaner.
The group isn't entirely prepared to levitate. It seems incapable of lyrics that dare any emotional weight (Frank Zappa's great curse). Instead there are obtuse sci-fi scenarios, glib wordplay and middlebrow humor ("look who's in the freezer/Uncle Ebenezer") by Anastasio and by outside writer Tom Marshall that get left in the dust by the music.
Some lyrics are better than others, though, notably those of the encore closer "Squirming Coil," a story-song that reminded more than a little of the early Genesis, even down to Anastasio's Steve Hackett-like sustained-note solos.
The show was opened by Vermont expatriates Ninja Custodian, whose pummeling but offensively unimaginative set demonstrated that talent is not a geographical attribute.