Concert Review: Phish @ SPAC, 08/25 & 08/26/2023

In the Wake of the Flood

Phish and special guest guitarist Derek Trucks buoy the spirits of flood victims in packed SPAC benefit shows 

An already electric Phish second set was punctuated by a surprise appearance from slide-guitar virtuoso Derek Trucks on Saturday night.

Trucks joined the band mid-set for a soulful cover of TV on the Radio’s “Golden Age” that drove the already fired-up crowd into a glow-stick tossing frenzy. Trucks’ presence amplified the goodwill espoused by the benefit concert, which raised thousands for flood victims in Vermont and Upstate New York through ticket sales, merchandise, and an online fundraiser.

Photo by Jim Gilbert

Trucks’ presence clearly energized the Vermont jam band and elevated the musicianship of Phish’s four original members, who celebrated their 40th year together this year. The dueling lead guitars of Phish’s Trey Anastasio and Trucks (Allman Brothers, Tedeschi Trucks Band) may indeed be the highlight of the SPAC summer, somewhat ironic considering this event wasn’t even on the calendar until a July announcement from the band (and the relatively amazing coincidence that SPAC wasn’t yet booked on the popular Travers Stakes weekend of horseracing). Leave it to the improvisers!

Saturday’s first set started with some of Phish’s greatest hits and really took off during “Maze”, the third song of the night. Page McConnell’s electronic keyboards and clavinet were a true highlight for much of the evening. A very pleasing first set only stumbled briefly during the new song “On Pillow Jets,” which fell flat for me. Maybe as an English teacher, I just can’t really get behind the metaphor “pillow jets of sound”, which feels mixed to me (though I do love “conjurers of thunder,” so maybe it will grow on me). A relatively brief “Tube” was followed by a couple of Saturday night audience appreciation classics: “Twist” (which featured even more great Rhodes playing by Page) and “Harry Hood,” which hadn’t closed a first set since 1999.

Photo by Jim Gilbert

But, it was the second set that was one for ages, and not in the way you might expect. If you were looking for a spaced-out, dark jam set, this wasn’t for you. This was purely a drop-the-g-rockin’ set that reminded me that “jamband” is a pretty dumb moniker for any band that has a song catalog as deep as Phish’s. While some of their newer songs suffer because their simple structure makes them feel like they only exist as jam vehicles, many of the band’s classic, road-tested tunes are pure rock n’ roll. “Down with Disease”, which opened the second set, was riff-rock at its finest, and in the subsequent “Ghost” the band did stretch its legs a bit with Trey finding some of his most beautiful sustained tones of the night.

The band reached another gear on “Also Sprach Zarathustra” which showcased the talents of lighting designer and de facto fifth member Chris Kuroda (honestly, aside from a pretty cool Roger Waters show I saw last year, there isn’t a light show in the same league as Phish’s). The theme from “2001” continued to display Page as a sneaky MVP of the first half of the night.

Then things took a crazy turn, which all began when a roadie rolled out a stack of unfamiliar amplifiers. Dressed elegantly, the ponytailed Trucks emerged from backstage to the delight of anyone who has ever liked the guitar. It’s funny to see Trucks enter middle age because I will forever picture him as the kid prodigy. But then again, I am middle-aged myself, but I still picture myself as a 22-year-old on the lawn at SPAC. I’ll admit it: I usually hate special guest appearances. They often ruin whatever tight playing I am hoping to see from the band I’ve paid to watch. But there are exceptions – and Derek Trucks is an exception. The man is so musical, so humble, and so captivating. He only adds to whatever is going on, and he has such a refined ear that even when something might be a little loose, it’s always going to be interesting.

Photo by Jim Gilbert
Photo by Jim Gilbert

I’m no stranger to emotional moments when listening to music, but Trucks’ dynamic and soulful solo in Golden Age moved me from ecstatic bliss to near-tears in a few measures. I’m thankful I was there to see it. After COVID took concerts from us all, I don’t take moments like that for granted anymore.

The reassurance of the lyrics in “Everything’s Right” fit the spirit of the two-show weekend event that was often quite on the nose (from Fishman’s life preserver dress to a number of songs that referenced the water). “A Life Beyond the Dream” and “First Tube” closed out the set, but basically they could have been playing anything because the show became the guitar playing of Trey and Derek, who often faced off in true stadium rock stances. There was a “Blue Sky” tease in there somewhere and they played harmonic guitars on “First Tube” so that, for a moment, everyone could ponder what Phish would sound like if they were from Georgia. It was cool to even think of such a thing.

The guys were pushing the curfew, but that didn’t stop them from dishing up a rousing encore dish of “Possum”. For the first time in my life, I thought that “Possum” sounded less twangy and more like “One Way Out” by the Allman Brothers. It was that Trucks guy’s influence again. But lest he be outdone, I thought Trey had one of his best solos of the night in the encore as he ripped out some incredibly clean and dextrous bluegrass-inspired lines.

When a band has played for forty years with the kind of success that Phish has experienced, there are an awful lot of the “I can say I was there when ____” nights. That said, all of us in Nippertown who bought the ticket can say, “I was at the best show of summer tour 2023,” and we can say it with pride.

Friday Night

While Saturday’s show was the clear winner, there were plenty of great moments in Friday’s show as well.

The end of the first set on Friday caused the most buzz among the heads in attendance. The band broke out “Punch You In The Eye” for only the second time this tour, and the crowd loved watching Trey do his little dance. “Punch” was followed by a “Sand” that will probably be remembered far beyond this weekend for its inclusion of The Wizard of Oz “Welcome to Munchkinland” teaser. Yes, this sounds weird, but if you missed the show, try to find this performance because it was emotive, melodic, and strangely beautiful. I’ll admit I didn’t catch the tease right away (other than thinking it sounded familiar), but I do love the Phish internet. Within minutes, my whole row knew what we had initially missed. Apparently, Friday was the anniversary of the release of The Wizard of Oz. The first set closed with a Page-sung cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Rock and Roll,” which ended the set just as the energy peaked. Much like the Dead, Phish are masters of setlist energy manipulation.

Photo by Jim Gilbert

Set two feels overshadowed now by what will probably be called “that sick Derek Trucks set” for the rest of time. But the Friday set did have some good spacey moments, which were largely missing on Saturday. While I’m not a huge fan of the song “A Wave of Hope”, nor am I a big fan of singing songs about waves to people who have sadly had their homes and businesses damaged by a flood, the song did launch into an outstanding jam that got a little darker than anything else played this weekend. The collective improvisation in Friday’s second set was a true reminder of just how great of a drummer Jon Fishman is and how he often steers the ship just as much as Trey. Those two also really listen to one another on another level. Fishman can play in any style, and his sound truly fills an arena. I noted jazz/fusion stuff, his Latin influences, and just how much of a beat conductor he really is back there.  

The second set ended with a great “Chalk Dust Torture” that mirrored the high-energy “Rock and Roll” set closer. “Wading in the Velvet Sea” was another interesting “water-themed” song as an encore. I know some phans didn’t love hearing it as an encore, but it has a special place in my heart because I remember downloading it back in high school off of Napster (it took three hours to download…and it was the short studio version). “S.A.N.T.O.S.” closed the night with a bit more positive energy. It sent us all to the lot with an appetite for a grilled cheese and another night of music. 

SPAC Near and Far

When the good folks at Nippertown gave me the go-ahead to write this one up, I wanted to do something that went beyond the traditional reviews you can find on other sites. So, I did a little experiment. What if I had really good pavilion seats for night one and then sat on the lawn on night two? I like to call this Grover journalism (near and far) instead of Gonzo journalism.

Photo by Ross Marvin

Shakedown wasn’t nearly as big as it was for Dead and Company, but I enjoyed browsing the “Twitter Reprise” hats and “YEM” t-shirts during a sun shower. I’d forgotten my rain jacket, but I sheltered under the branches of a maple tree next to an embracing couple. A guy passed and complimented my purple corduroy Phish hat – the weekend was off to an auspicious start.

I stood in the admissions line behind a nice couple from who live near Jay Peak in Vermont. They were there with their kids, and I started chatting with the patriarch because the guy was wearing a Baltimore Orioles hat. I’m a huge Orioles fan who moved up to Nippertown from the Baltimore area when I was a middle schooler. I’m currently basking in this great season the O’s are having, so I had to chat this guy up, and it turns out we were born in the very same hospital in Annapolis, Maryland. This was just the first confluence of events that cannot be entirely explained. The nice guy behind me in line was adamant that he wanted an “Ocelot” from the band, and I sent him positive thoughts when it showed up in the third slot on Friday.

When I got to my superb seats in section three, I was the first one in the row, but soon I was joined on my left by Jackson, a young 20-something from Hyde Park who grabbed a ticket at the last minute and bolted up the Northway to see his favorite band. Jackson just graduated from the Culinary Institute and is about to move to Napa to work at The French Laundry. Jackson, if you are reading this – godspeed. 

Sitting to my right was a guy named Pete, who was attending his 338th and 339th Phish shows. That’s nearly a year of his life! And it turned out that Pete and I knew each other about 16 years ago when we both wrote for the same humor newspaper at Union College.

Photo by Jim Gilbert

Maybe these are the things that make Phish feel like a cult that is actually relatively healthy. Sure, there is a lot of bad press about Phish bros and the like, but my experience this past weekend was mostly one of kindness. People offered me beers (and other stuff), they laughed, and they were respectful of my space. There were old 1.0 phans, locals, casuals, kids, and a new generation of interested musical explorers. There are a lot more men than women at Phish shows, but the culture does not seem to be overtly toxic. I did, however, overhear an appalling accusation on one trip to the SPAC restroom. A man ran down a security guard to advise him that “that guy over there in the blue just assaulted that woman and knocked her out.” And there were some confused, lost souls that were lying on the end-of-season lawn (I did see some nice folks check on these people, to their credit). There were kids excitedly talking about nitrous (though in my entire weekend, I only saw a single tank. I think the park police were cracking down). There’s a seedy underbelly, but mostly, there were a lot of people who are dedicated to their favorite band. And people like to compliment one another for cool hats, t-shirts, and glow apparatuses. The crowd seemed far more “custy” than “wook” as evidenced by an exceedingly long line for posters. 

I determined that “Lees Campground Core” might be a good name for the predominant fashion of trucker hat, cool graphic t-shirt, water-repellant shorts, and athleisure shoes that look both futuristic and vintage at the same time (or substitute with Crocs). I’ll admit I didn’t look too different from most of these guys, with the exception that many appeared to be in good shape and to have expensive haircuts. Phish has filled arenas for summer after summer and its members are rich. The fraternity brothers that watched the band in the nineties are now our lawyers and dentists. At least for this weekend, their money helped a worthy cause. Some folks spent $700 for “Foundation Tickets” which allowed for a private concert of the Trey and Page duo. The setlists for both mini shows looked phenomenal, but alas, Foundation tickets were not in the cards for a humble public servant such as myself.

But Nippertown came through with a generous upgraded ticket in trade for my journalistic efforts: I’d never been closer to any Phish stage than I was on Friday. I quickly realized why so many rail riders wear sunglasses to the shows. The lights are BRIGHT. And beautiful. And they strobe in such a rhythmic manner that I wondered if I was doing any permanent damage to my retinas (or if I might succumb to a seizure). Up close, Phish is a powerful, sensorial presence that is nearly overwhelming. Mike Gordon’s slap bass is more visceral, and Fish’s snare snap can be felt in your vagus nerve. But most of all, it is the lights. The design for these shows reminded me of delicately rotating tic-tacs that strobed in every color of the roadside rainbow. Between the band and the lights, I basically forgot to do any people watching on night one. It would have been too much.

On Saturday, I grabbed a lawn chair and lined up early so I could get a decent spot on the lawn. I wanted a different perspective, and I was hoping to people-watch. At Dead & Co, the lawn was so packed that I was reduced to watching John Mayer do his best Jerry Garcia impression on the big screens. I didn’t want to do that for Phish. Once again, I waited in line with some very nice people who offered me a beer (I declined so I could be clear-headed for you, dear readers) and regaled me with stories of Magnaballs past. There was a lot of talk about previous shows, setlist desires, and the recent Madison Square Garden run. I don’t think people are consciously showing off, but there is a performative aspect to just being part of the crowd that goes beyond, say, the typical Philadelphia Orchestra enthusiast.

Getting in was rather easy on Saturday despite the fact that a larger crowd was on hand, and I set up camp near one of the walkways. For anyone who has a hesitation about the SPAC lawns due to the sight line obstructions of the pavilion and balcony walkways, I think my advice might be a decent thing to consider. Sitting along the walkways next to the barricades allows for decent sightlines and has the added benefit of a convenient large screen with hanging speakers right in front of you. You can also watch people dance down the walkway all night – my favorite was a bald guy that I nicknamed “baby dinosaur dancer”. He would take the tiniest of steps, grooving up and down the walk all night. It never ceased to make me smile. He was having his own experience, and I was having mine.

Photo by Ross Marvin

The sound on the lawn is quite impeccable, considering the distance from the stage. In fact, I preferred it to my pavilion experience. Up close (front and center, really), Fish’s drums were very loud, I had trouble hearing the vocals, and Page was buried in the mix. From my good spot on the lawn (yes, you have to arrive early to get one for a popular show), the sound was not distant at all, and the mix was noticeably better (though I still struggled at times to hear Page’s acoustic piano). 

I also think I picked the right night to be out on the lawn – a Saturday show. From start to finish, it was an audience participation party full of dancers, unison yelling of “hey”, glow stick tossing, and balloon beach ball. I saw a lot of people smiling, and there was far more good in that crowd than there was evil. 

I left into the quiet darkness of nature in the state park, hopeful that Vermont will rebuild. Summer is coming to an end, but Autumn doesn’t have to be a time of decay. The crowd was abuzz with talk of the upcoming school year and plans to see Phish a few more times on the Colorado run. The flood victims in Vermont and New York will have some help now so they can build something new. Phish has new songs and might surprise us with a new album. There will be another summer tour in ’24. 

Hope was the common theme, inside and out.

Phish, Friday, 8/25/2023, Vermont Flood Benefit Concert Night 1

Set I:

  • Kill Devil Falls
  • The Moma Dance
  • Ocelot
  • The Wedge
  • Mull >
  • Punch You in the Eye
  • Sand (w/ Welcome to Munchkinland jam)
  • Rock and Roll (Velvet Underground cover)

Set II:

  • Evolve
  • A Wave of Hope >
  • Simple >
  • Fuego >
  • Chalk Dust Torture


  • Wading in the Velvet Sea
  • Say It To Me S.A.N.T.O.S.

Phish, Saturday, 8/26/2023, Vermont Flood Benefit Concert Night 2 

Set I: 

  • Free
  • Wolfman’s Brother
  • Maze
  • Sigma Oasis
  • Pillow Jets
  • Tube >
  • Twist >
  • Harry Hood

Set II

  • Down with Disease
  • Ghost
  • Also Sprach Zarathustra (Theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey) >
  • Golden Age (TV on the Radio cover with special guest Derek Trucks on guitar)>
  • Everything’s Right (w/Derek Trucks)
  • A Life Beyond the Dream (w/Derek Trucks)
  • First Tube (w/Derek Trucks)


  • Possum (w/Derek Trucks)

Notable Hats & T-shirts

  • Needs Salt
  • Full Sail Brewery
  • Aiko
  • Don’t Trip
  • Phoenix Fire Department, Londonderry, VT
  • Adirondack Thunder
  • Mental Vacation
  • Goosebumps
  • Eat the Rich
  • Save the Bay
  • Enjoy Myself
  • Nectar’s
  • Jesse & The Rippers
  • Jah Volunteer
  • Vermont Naturally

and the winner of the weekend…

  • Definitely Not a Narc
  1. Rudy says

    NIce write up Marvin. Marvin, I agree with you on the sound @ SPAC for rock shows, They sound much better on the lawn than in the ampitheater. The ampitheater has its challenges, as it was designed for orchestras rather than rock. I’m not a sound engineer, but I imagine it is quite a challenge to mix. At Indoor rock concerts at our great halls, the engineers take a while to dial it in right. Taking guesses at what it will sound like with the audience inside the hall rather than empty are quite different, Great pics as usual Jim.

  2. Lance says

    Spot on. Really captured the vibe of the entire weekend right down to the cops and their lustful pursuit of the nitrous hiss. Great pics from Jim as usual. I hope that amazing Harry Hood to close the set doesn’t get buried amongst the rest of the amaziness. It was pretty special.

  3. KWB says

    Nice pics Jim

  4. Carini Reprise says

    Nice write up man. First, real quick – GO O’s!!!!! …From my couch (in Baltimore), these shows really were something special. They were playing with a Super-ChunkyCrunchy-Dark-Loud-Phat-Funk sound, driven by Trey playing as if he was pissed off (imagine a pissed off Trey – weird!) ..and the rest of our boys from up north seemed to exert the same energy and devotion to musical bliss, or even perfection (my dream). …THEN… as the CK5 showoff session that was Phish’s rendition of, Deodato’s rendition of, the 2001 theme, was ringing it’s last epic note – (and while I was giggling over another Also Sprach Zarathustra mind-blow) – I look up and who is on stage with them… DEREK Phucking TRUCKS!

    The rest of the show is already in the top tier of 40 years worth of amazingness. MAGIC. …My highlights >

    Friday – KDF opener-(Called it!!) …PYITE>Sand>Rock’n’Roll | Skyballs and Saxscrapers …Chalkdust …Wading in the [wake of the flood]
    Saturday – Free opener (for FREE webcasts!!) …Tube>Twist>…HOOD [set closer!!]… | DWD>Ghost>2001 > ‘The Derek Trucks Set”

    Friday was crunchy phunky phun time. Saturday was one of the best shows ‘The Phish’ has ever performed.

    Thank you Phish 🙂

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