Review: A sea of fans greets Phish for their first Arkansas show (and their first since the pandemic started)

 

I find the cult of Phish fandom a little intimidating. No other band generates the kind of “here’s how to enjoy them” coverage that gets published about Phish. There’s a Reddit page dedicated to the subject. A book, published in the name of charity, chronicles the set list of each concert the band has ever played. You can even read about how the band uses hand signals to communicate with each other instead of sticking to a published set list.

In the weeks leading up to the Phish concert at the Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion in Rogers, there was a considerable cascade of web traffic from all corners of the United States. Ticket prices on third-party sellers were well into the triple digits. This would have been a big event for Northwest Arkansas under normal circumstances – Wednesday (July 29) was scheduled to be the band’s first-ever appearance in Arkansas.

But it’s clear we’re nowhere near “normal” circumstances. Rogers hosted the first date of Phish’s Summer Tour 2021, which was rescheduled from the 2020 run that was nixed due to concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of being in the middle of their 2021 run, the Arkansas show was the band’s first live performance in a year and a half.

Next at the Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion

Who: Lady A
When: 7 p.m. Aug. 6
Where: Arkansas Music Pavilion, Rogers
Cost: Starting at $20 plus fees (price only valid through Aug. 1, courtesy of the Live Nation Return to Live promotion)
Tickets: 479-443-5600 or visit arkansasmusicpavilion.com for information.

It comes under a cloud of renewed uncertainly thanks to continued spread of coronavirus generally and rising caseloads in our area, specifically. The band knew this, too. Prior to the show, the band posted a plea on their website for fans to get vaccinated against the coronavirus and wear masks to the show for the tour dates. I don’t know about the first request, but not many took them up on part two. Of the nearly 10,000 fans in attendance at the sold-out concert, perhaps a few hundred wore masks.

The band’s other acknowledgements of the strangeness of the circumstances were no less subtle than a direct plea for vaccines and mask usage. The first song Phish played after a 521-day hiatus was “I Never Needed You Like This Before,” the first time they have ever played the song live. They kicked off the second set with the song “Down with Disease,” a clear nod to the moment at hand. And early in the set, the band dug out “Free,” which contains the lyrics “I feel the feeling I forgot.” The line received an approving roar from the crowd.

Much of what the band did on Wednesday received wild applause, or at least knowing glances between friends who have made habits of attending Phish concerts together. I don’t have a frame of reference for past shows, as this was my first Phish concert. If they were rusty after their time off, I wouldn’t know. But I don’t suspect they were.


What I say beyond this point is subject to special scrutiny from the Phish army, which as I mentioned, feels insular to me. If you’re looking for a technical breakdown from a Phishhead, this is probably your stopping point. You can, for instance, go and read about the show’s average song gap, a metric that measures how long it’s been between performances of certain tunes. The answer, by the way, is 6.6. Is that good or bad? I don’t know! Before you exit, please know I mostly enjoyed myself and everyone was very nice to me (if a little close for comfort). The lights were great, too. Are we cool now?

To those that remain or are otherwise curious about a rookie’s opinion: I’m a little surprised by the minimalism of the experience. The band started at about 7:30 p.m. and played until nearly 11 p.m. There was a full 30-minute break between the two sets. The band came on, offered little banter, and just went for it. There were no costume changes, and I don’t believe that guitarist Trey Anastasio or bassist Mike Gordon ever used a different instrument than the one they started the night with. What they had was good enough for all moods and explorations.

And there were plenty of moods and explorations. Phish is renowned for their ability to fluidly move between songs and genres. There were elements of reggae, funk, rock and more. Sometimes they reminded me of the Talking Heads; other times Primus. Certainly, the Grateful Dead comparisons are apt but far from complete in describing what Phish does on stage. There were some wildly compelling moments – their playing during “Wolfman’s Brother” was particularly inspired, and the second half twosome of “Runaway Jim” and “Rift” offered some blistering moments.

I found myself gravitating toward these more propulsive jams instead of the mellower explorations of themes. I would describe many of the jams as “conversational” – operating at a calm demeanor and carrying a mood, but never particularly sparse or agitated. It just … moved.

So too did the lights. They were a character in the conversation, down or even backlighting the band during subdued songs and vibrant and swirling during the more robust moments. The colors were as crisp as Trey’s notes – if that’s not too much of an insider’s idea. He’s a very good guitar player, and his sustain is something to behold. Based on preconceived notions, I expected a bit more solo noodling from him, or from any of the band members. But there were no drum-only solos or anything of the sort. Phish operates as a unit, one that’s clearly played together for nearly 40 years.

I also expected a bit more of a video presence. There was none, not even on main video boards on either side of the stage. Perhaps this is common at Phish shows, but I can’t remember the last time those boards weren’t used at the AMP, if ever. It means that if you were at the rear of the lawn, the musicians would have appeared as mere ants drowning in alternating washes of red and purple lights.


There were plenty of people on the edges of the lawn, and in every nook and cranny of the venue. The new Choctaw Plaza at the north end of the venue was well used, too – it has ceiling fans, for goodness’s sake, and that no doubt helped on a sweltering evening where air refused to move. A considerable number of concertgoers ignored their seats in favor of dancing in the aisles or in the walkways in between the seated area and the lawn. It was a party, and evidence of the pre-show tailgating could be seen all through the parking lot in the form of crushed cans. (Side note: Phish fans prefer IPAs to cheap domestics, based on the remnants I walked by). There was plenty of marijuana to go around, sure, and I do know that at least one fan was treated in an ambulance after the show. But I can’t imagine that differs from any concert held at the AMP, or that fans don’t have to be given medical attention after any show where the temperatures hover in the high ‘80s. If you’re looking for a review that tells you this show was a drugged-out mess, you’ll have to read that somewhere else, too. It’s simply not what I observed.

The crowds instead were mostly blissful. They were happy to see their favorite band or to see any concert at all, frankly. As it was for Phish, I suspect it had been at least 521 days since most of the people in the audience had attended a concert.

It was indeed good to see a show again. I hope that our current surge in cases doesn’t hamper our ability to see live music again in the near future. A year and a half is a long time to wait between shows, and I’d rather not do it again.