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Phish breathes life into a Dead tradition

Phish performed Wednesday night at Starlight Theatre.
Phish performed Wednesday night at Starlight Theatre. The Kansas City Star/RSUGG@KCSTAR.COM

Dozens of members of the audience at Phish’s concert at Starlight Theatre on Wednesday wore T-shirts commemorating the Grateful Dead’s farewell shows that took place earlier this summer.

Trey Anastasio, Phish’s guitarist and primary vocalist, filled in admirably for the late Jerry Garcia at those events. Anastasio and his band mates in Phish have been the Dead’s de facto understudies for more than 25 years. Now that the Dead is officially defunct, Phish has become the world’s preeminent jam band.

Wednesday’s sturdy performance indicated that the four members of the band from Vermont intend to live up to their lofty new status.

Phish performed for two hours and 45 minutes on Wednesday, not including a 35-minute intermission. Most of that formidable block of time was dedicated to creating pleasing party music. A few minutes were truly spectacular.

The first set was dominated by lighthearted dance songs including the simmering Southern funk of “Kill Devil Falls” and the Meters-style boogie of “Back on the Train.”

The live Phish debut of bassist Mike Gordon’s exceedingly unpleasant “The Last Step” offered sinister counterpoint to that breezy material. A fleet rendition of the extended composition “Divided Sky” began with a Frank Zappa-esque freak-out and transitioned into a light jazz fusion segment that featured a thoughtful Anastasio solo.

The second set was dominated by the similarly complex “You Enjoy Myself.” The piece included a progressive rock workout, a funk interlude, a psychedelic a cappella vocal coda and a synchronized trampoline demonstration by Anastasio and Gordon. Anastasio also put his guitar aside to showcase his interpretation of the arrhythmic dance moves favored by many Phish fans.

“Down With Disease,” the evening most assertive selection, showed promise before Anastasio’s meandering solo extinguished its momentum. Partly because it relied on collaborative riffing rather than extravagant soloing, the hallucinatory funk jam “Sand” provided the concert’s most transcendent moments.

Many in the audience of almost 8,000 were oblivious to such subtleties. Phish concerts are social occasions. Carefree conversations and the careful consumption of illicit substances were the priority for many in the back half of the venue. Phish’s performance often seemed incidental.

The unseemly behavior of disengaged fans is partly why Phish’s detractors dismiss the band’s output as a sonic affront to sober people. On Wednesday, Phish fully engaged both woozy and clearheaded members of the audience who were willing to listen.

Set list

Gumbo, Kill Devil Falls, Back on the Train, Bouncing Around the Room, Divided Sky, The Last Step, Blaze On, Waiting All Night, 46 Days, Gotta Jibboo, Twist, The Wedge, Down With Disease, Sand, Joy, You Enjoy Myself, Bug