If you don’t get lost at least once during a Phish SPAC run, then you’re doing something wrong. When it’s one of those perfect nights in Saratoga, the park becomes an enormous if not infinite spiral of trees, archways, pavilions, fireworks, sidewalks to nowhere, and a glistening haze of lights in the distance that makes seeing further than 20 feet in front of you a seemingly insurmountable task. Oh, you parked at the Gideon Putnam and aren’t sure which way to walk? Well, I know Milwaukee is due west from here if that helps.
As the decades continue to roll by without an adequate venue in Vermont to house the state’s preeminent sons, we’ve all taken to thinking of Saratoga Springs, NY as the designated locale for the band’s “hometown” shows. In fact, it was a Sunday night second set at SPAC in 2004 that caused the bittersweet tears of farewelling to stream down my face – not the subsequent disaster that happened in the Green Mountains later on in that week. And yes, after seeing this band for 20 years and 200 shows, nothing feels more like home than walking into a Stewart’s Shop to buy a case of beer to drink around a motel pool. Who’s got the boombox?
Thursday night started with the kind of thunderstorms that make those stuck with lawn tickets seriously question what exactly they’re doing with their life. Luckily it turned to more of a steady trickle as the gig got underway, and the rest of the weekend would be nothing but pure, perfect Summertime bliss. The first set was overly “first-setty” – odd song placements, under-stretched potential jam vehicles, and the solitary bliss of “Roggae”. In the bathroom line at set-break I really wanted to correct the bro in front of me who kept saying that “Row-Gay” is his favorite song, but it’s hard to tout the merits of a soft “G” to a guy non-ironically sporting an American flag bandana.
Most likely due to this year’s downplay of cover songs, “Bathtub Gin” finally made its way back into the second set, and found its place in the opening slot position for the first time since Hampton ’98. The jam took on some ideally sinister undertones before melting its way into “Limb By Limb” which itself got downright dangerous. Next came Fuego’s “Winterqueen” which garnered the most lukewarm reception of the evening albeit an oddly placed eruption when Trey sang “the prince of music plays guitar.” “The Line” came next and even the crowd’s biggest Fuego enthusiasts seemed to agree that back-to-back new cuts was an odd call. A rudimentary “Tweezer” would follow, dissolving too quickly into the still maligned “Prince Caspian,” which itself collapsed into “Sparkle,” which half of the crowd seems really excited to hear for some reason these days. Things continued to yada-yada-yada from there, so let’s get to the Fourth of July.
The “Star Spangled Banner” opener immediately stirred up debate among those fans who tend to take every word Trey says as gospel, and thus interpreted his “less covers” comment as a guarantee of no covers being played all Summer. Thankfully, the following weekend’s Randall’s Island run stopped all that talk, and relegated cover tunes to the position they used to hold – welcome surprises. Once we all settled into this SPAC first set though, it became a beautiful thing. “Reba” always sounds great in a summer shed, and this one served as an omen of the open expansion that would come in the second set. I really like “Waiting All Night,” but standing alone in the first set is not the place for it. It deserves to be the decompression drift out of something huge. “Runaway Jim” came next and featured an extended take on the pre-explosion percolation section which is always one of my favorite moments at a Phish gig. There’s nothing like getting really low on that part. Ahhhh… nothing. “Split Open and Melt” took a plundering stomp through the pines that everyone thought would end the set, but nobody argues when the ever-rarer “Squirming Coil” dropped in to push the firstt set near the 10:00pm mark.
The 2014 SPAC “Fuego>Down With Disease.” Despite an equally massive “Fuego” coming a few days later in Philly, we’ll be talking about this 33 minutes of music for years to come. The new tune that everybody had been waiting for the band to take to big places got launched into the ionosphere for America’s birthday. First venturing into the spooky, minimalist territory, it eventually wound its way into an ascending attack riff from Trey that sounded so perfectly massive that I half-thought it could have been a new composed ending to the song. It morphed into ethereal goo before landing in “Disease” in what may have been the most ideal transition into “DWD” that I can ever remember. It was perfect – one of those band/crowd blurred line moments where even the gabbiest set talkers were in an entranced hush. The brilliant pocket of the “Disease” jam infused my brain with one of those, “I can keep this up as long as you guys can” moments before ending up in “Twist.” Then a great “Light.” Then a solid “Theme From the Bottom.” And then came the soul-sucking intro to “Backwards Down the Number Line.” Not only could you feel the entire life get sucked out the shed, you could literally see it. A solid hour-plus of the hypnotic hold shattered in an instance – you could even see the frustrated smirk roll slightly off of Trey’s lips, which makes me wonder why even he wants to still play the song. As has become more usual, the jam went absolutely nowhere – nothing more than an extended strumming of chords – hopefully serving as the last great example to folks who say “at least the jam is good.” “First Tube” tried to regain some of the energy, but there’s only so much that song can do. That being said, the final 60 seconds of feedback couple with Kuroda’s explosion of light is one of the more intense things any human may bare to witness.
I’d be willing to wager that at least 50% of those in attendance on Friday saw the sun rise the next morning, which made Saturday one of those days where the ball gets rolling really slowly. I myself didn’t leave the woods of SPAC until 4:00am but that’s a whole other story. Saturday’s first set was fun, highlighted by Fish’s marimba lumina solo on “Scent of a Mule.” The novelty of “Wombat” works much better in a first set position, so I was stoked to hear it. Although I’m more interested to hear the soundcheck jam of “Wombat>Manteca>Wombat>Can’t Turn You Loose” – anybody tape that? But after “Undermind, “Song I Heard The Ocean Sing,” “Foam” and “David Bowie” all in the first set, I was feeling fairly rejuvenated for the upcoming final set of the run. Now, nothing was enormous in this second set but it’s hard to argue with the setlist. The “Carini” opener got unexpectedly delicate, which was great, but things felt a tad too drifty when it made its way into “Waves.” “Wingsuit” continued its battle for consensual validity, and most likely will be a fan-favorite across the board by the end of summer. “Piper” was the fiery victor of the evening – never getting too far out there but also never letting up once. Everyone was content with a well-placed “Fluffhead,” but it’s the “Slave>Yem” to close out the run that led my fiancée to say “Maybe we should just fuck our adult obligations in life and go out on tour again.”
So sure, for your younger kid on the lot, SPAC may not feel like home. If you’re not smart you’ll get a drinking violation, and the expansive park draws a lot of the magic away from any type of a centralized Shakedown. But for some of us who have been around the block more than a few times, SPAC is home. Hotels within walking distance. The lack of pre-show chaos. Bars open til 4am. Grateful Dead music being played somewhere til the wee hours of the morn. Bloody Marys by a pool. The acknowledgment that anyone from the greatest parts of your life growing up in the NorthEast could be just around the next tree. Not only will I be there every year until the cows come home, SPAC almost makes me never want to see the cows again.
Thurday July 3
Set 1: Farmhouse, Wolfman’s Brother, Maze, Yarmouth Road, Strange Design, Devotion to a Dream, Ocelot > Chalk Dust Torture, Mound > Roggae > Possum
Set 2: Bathtub Gin>Limb By Limb.Winterqueen, The Line, Tweezer>Prince Caspian>Sparkle>Run Like and Antelope
Encore: Sing Monica> Tweezer Reprise
Friday July 4
Set 1: The Star Spangled Banner, 555, Kill Devil Falls, The Moma Dance > Reba,Waiting All Night, Runaway Jim > 46 Days, Rift, Split Open and Melt, The Squirming Coil
Set 2: Fuego > Down with Disease > Twist > Light > Theme From the Bottom,Backwards Down the Number Line, First Tube
Encore: Character Zero
Saturday July 5
Set 1: Crowd Control > My Friend, My Friend > Scent of a Mule, Undermind, A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing, I Didn’t Know, Foam, Wombat, Divided Sky, Wading in the Velvet Sea > David Bowie
Set 2: Carini -> Waves, Wingsuit > Piper > Fluffhead, Heavy Things > Slave to the Traffic Light, You Enjoy Myself
Encore: Suzy Greenberg