Review: Phish plagued by muddy sound at Tuesday Mohegan Sun Arena show

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As the houselights went out Tuesday in the sold-out Mohegan Sun Arena and 10,000 Phish addicts roared, a dude with dreadlocks and a do-rag, descending the steps on the aisle next to my seat, turned to a guy wearing a white-sparkle cape, clapped him on the shoulder and said, "Have a good show, brother!"

They didn't seem to know one another, they definitely weren't in the band, and the comment was expressed with a sense of solemn camaraderie you'd maybe hear from one fighter pilot to another as they climbed in the cockpits of their respective jets to bomb Berlin.

There is very much that sense of shared mission and fellowship amongst the loyal subjects in the Kingdom of Phish. While each concert is indeed a celebration — a pagan ritual, really — and there is much joy, it's also true there's a tangible, cult-like vibe in the air.

Or so it seemed to me. Several polite ticketholders asked if it was my first time to see the band — it was — and guaranteed me the experience of a lifetime. They were very welcoming, and I felt as though I was being granted citizenship without taking the exam.

It's an infectious and energized vibe, that's for sure, though, looking around at three generations of Phish People, I felt like I was the only one in the arena who hadn't been bussed down as part of a field trip from that Circus College in Brattleboro. At various and overlapping times, it all reminded me of a comic book convention, Burning Man, and that eerie live-feed audio tape of Jim Jones giving orders to his followers on Kool-Aid Day.

Why am I paying so much attention to the crowd and the atmosphere instead of writing about the band and the show? Two reasons. First, the social contract between Phish and the music and the fans is hopelessly intertwined in a mythos that nurtures all involved and goes beyond the normal band/fans dynamic. There are onstage directives in the form of audience cues, secret languages, choreographed responses and illumination from the outstanding light show, and even, to me, a bizarre sense of crowd competiton in which some audience members appeared to be trying to out-Phish each other in terms of their individual and nonstop dance styles.

Second, the sound was horrible. I was seated in the lower balcony stage left, overlooking bassist Mike Gordon and drummer Jon Fishman. Guitarist/vocalist Trey Anastasio was next and, across the stage, was keyboardist Page McConnell. For the entire 90-minute opening set, I clearly heard Anastasio's fluid and melodic guitar lines and some of Gordon's burbling counterlines. The drums were mushy and snare-heavy, and McConnell may as well have been taking a nap for all I could hear. Toward the end of the set, on the bluegrassy "Things People Do," his fluid and witty barrelhouse-like lines were suddenly audible, but otherwise ...

I might add that, during intermission, I ran into a friend who's seen Phish about two dozen times; he confirmed that, from his seats elsewhere in the venue, the sound was also very bad. Independently, we both left the show early because of the sound.

This is a shame because the musicians are clearly excellent, incredibly well-rehearsed and attuned to the patterns that dictate when to blast off from formal song structure and into the e'er mutating improv sections — all of which, in turn, key off of intricate and the sort of instinctual chemistry that comes from thousands of gigs and hours spent playing and trusting one another.

I've owned two Phish albums in my life; I didn't recognize many of the songs in the first set, though a quick check of any of the exhaustively maintained Phish online archives indicates they played: "Energy" (an Apples in Stereo song I mistook for an arrangement of Jackie DeShannon's "Put a Little Love in Your Heart"), "Weekapaug Groove," "The Moma Dance," "Lengthwise" segueing into "Maze," "Petrichor," "Things People Do," "Sample in a Jar" and "Bathtub Gin."

I particularly liked "Petrichor" and "Bathtub Gin." They seemed like hooky tunes that served as more than musical launching pads. As far as Anastasio's playing, he has an incredible sense of melody in a free-form situation — a bit like Dickey Betts — and doesn't fall back on speedy scales for the sake of it. I can't tell you what anyone else did.

Phish is scheduled for another show at the Sun Arena at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday. Hopefully, the sound will be improved as, given the band's status as stadium headliners, two nights at the Sun is quite a booking coup.

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