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Review: Phish, in the first of three nights jamming on the Atlantic City beach

The Trey Anastasio-led jam band kicked off the first night of its "threezer" three-night stand on the ocean side of the boardwalk.

Phish lead guitarist Trey Anastasio, drummer Jon Fishman, and the band, perform on the beach in Atlantic City Friday night.
Phish lead guitarist Trey Anastasio, drummer Jon Fishman, and the band, perform on the beach in Atlantic City Friday night.Read moreVERNON OGRODNEK / For The Inquirer

The first person I asked to go see Phish on the beach in Atlantic City said it would be too much to deal with Shore traffic on a Friday and drive back after a three-hour show. Not for Phish, anyway.

The next person I asked lives at the beach so didn’t have the logistical hassle excuse. She let her distaste for the Trey Anastasio-led jam band decide. “Maybe just for the spectacle, but I don’t think I could stand more than about 10 minutes.”

My third option succinctly put the others’ thought into words: “I hate Phish.”

Of course, lots of people like Phish. So many, in fact, that the quartet that includes keyboard player Page McConnell, drummer Jon Fishman, and bassist Mike Gordon drew over 37,000 fans to the stretch of sand north of Arkansas Avenue on Friday, Atlantic City Mayor Marty Small Sr. said Saturday morning.

The show was the first of three consecutive nights the band was set to play on a stage set up on the north side of the Playland Pier, a structure anyone with a long Atlantic City memory still calls the Million Dollar Pier.

Phish and Atlantic City have a history. Though the group that has taken on the Grateful Dead’s mantle as the preeminent American jam band was founded at the University of Vermont in the 1980s, Anastasio grew up in Princeton. (Also: Fishman was born in Philadelphia.) The band played three shows in town three times before — though never on the beach — in 2010, 2012, and 2013.

Call it a “Threezer,” a play on the band’s song “Tweezer,” which played out as a 22-minute jam Friday. The concert poster for this threezer featured an artist’s rendering of Margate landmark Lucy the Elephant — a reference to the “Lucy had a lumpy head” lyrics in the band’s song “Carini” — perched atop a crumbling Marlborough-Blenheim Hotel, which was demolished in the 1970s.

Friday’s show began a few minutes after 8 with “Cars Trucks Buses,” a loose-limbed jam with a title inspired by signage on the New Jersey Turnpike, which Anastasio introduced as “a little hometown favorite to start things off.”

It was followed by “AC/DC Bag.” When the lyric “put ‘em in a field” was changed to “put ‘em on a beach” the crowd went wild.

Why do people hate Phish? Because their studio albums tend to be wan and mild, and songwriting is not their strength. And because they’re a “you have to see them live” band. Doing that requires a marathon immersion among true believers who wiggle with delight every time a song like “Blaze On” starts off with a robust three or four minutes before carrying on for three or four times that length.

If you’re not a Phan, do you really have to see them? No, but even though the show often felt more like something to be endured than enjoyed, my first-time experience was more rewarding than I expected. I didn’t wiggle, but I couldn’t help but bop along to “Wolfman’s Brother,” “Funky Bitch” and “Harry Hood,” with the latter two including snippets of the Ohio Players’ “Fire.”

The crowd was gleeful, with tie-dyed skateboarders grabbing trams for a cruise down the boardwalk and swimming permitted until nightfall, with lifeguards brought in by the band. Intermission music was classy: Hard-bop jazz, including Sonny Clark’s “Cool Struttin’ ” from 1958.

» READ MORE: Atlantic City has a new non-casino music venue, with South Philly ties

Phish has announced an attendance policy that requires either proof of vaccine or a negative COVID-19 test, but that doesn’t start until shows later this month in Washington state. The beach shows encourage vaccines and masks but don’t mandate them.

I was fortunate to be watching from an uncrowded, cordoned-off press area, so I felt relatively unstressed, until leaving the show that ended at 11:10 p.m. (It did last three hours, but that included the 40-minute intermission.)

It was a bit of a cattle-chute crush getting back to the crowded boardwalk, and masks were in the minority.

And what about the music? The point of comparison with Phish is always the Dead, who established the template for building their brand by never playing the same show twice and making live recordings free and shareable. Phish’s audience multiplied after Jerry Garcia died in 1995, and Anastasio played with surviving Dead members during their Fare Thee Well shows in 2015.

In my limited experience with Dead (and Dead-related) shows, though, I’ve always found the band to be sluggish and the long evenings to turn into a sleepy slog. Phish shows, by comparison, are crisp. The group’s songs are typically fleet and frisky, or at least they start off that way before drifting, and the musicianship is precise.

The four players are deeply relaxed and super simpatico. Anastasio is a marvelous guitarist who can make his instrument skronk or sound like a police siren, or pick country-style like Merle Travis, and McConnell is equally versatile.

And they can all sing, as they demonstrated on the goofy, nearly a cappella “I Didn’t Know,” in which Fishman played a solo of sorts blowing into a vacuum cleaner hose, if I was seeing that correctly.

Phish falter in the Dead comparison when it comes to the songs. As impressive (and a little annoying) as their eclectic aesthetic is — moving from a country train song to dub reggae in a blink — I didn’t walk away from the show humming any Phish tunes, like I had just heard “Casey Jones.”

Instead, the ones that stuck with me were the covers. “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” the Strauss fanfare from 2001: A Space Odyssey, took cues from Eumir Deodato’s 1973 disco hit. It sounded (and with the light show, looked) glorious. And with a crescent moon hanging over the pier on a summer night, the show closed out in style, too, with a spirit-lifting encore to the Rolling Stones’ “Loving Cup.”