On Wednesday night, Phish finally returned to the stage at Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion in Rogers, AR. The performance, which kicked off the band’s re-shuffled 2021 summer tour, marked the band’s first time onstage in 521 days and first live show in the U.S. since 2019—the longest break for Phish since the band reunited in 2009.
Countless comments had been cast on posts and online forums debating what song might open the band’s first show back in action. The one that got the call, “I Never Needed You Like This Before”, turned out to be a debut for Phish—though not quite a “new” song for fans.
“I Never Needed You Like This Before”, an Anastasio collaboration with Tom Marshall and Scott Herman, was among the first in a string of tracks released by Trey from his Manhattan apartment in the earliest days of the pandemic. The DIY nature of the recording was emblematic of March 2020: doing what you can, using what you’ve got, trying to stay positive, trying to stay connected. Along with his home video for the song, Trey shared a photo of his sophisticated camera rig—a cell phone taped to his living room wall.
A few months later, the song was featured on Lonely Trip, an unplanned album of quarantine solo songs, which he called his “message in a bottle during this time.” Less than two weeks later on August 11th, 2020, Trey became the first in-person musical guest to perform on any late-night show since the shutdown when he linked up with The Roots on The Tonight Show to play, you guessed it, “I Never Needed You Like This Before”. Jump a couple months forward, and the song once again received prime placement with TAB on Night 2 of The Beacon Jams.
Now, the song has finally taken its place in the Phish repertoire where it belongs. Even beyond the song’s title and lyrics, it felt on many levels like a perfect bridge from the uncertainty of 2020 to the, well, somewhat-less-uncertain uncertainty of 2021.
And make no mistake, 2021 is uncertain. This nascent tour has been adjusted twice due to a global health crisis, and it kicked off amid a worrying spike in cases of the more contagious Delta variant in a state that currently ranks among the highest in the country in new cases and among the lowest in the country in vaccinations.
Prior to the show, Phish addressed that uncertainty in a plea to fans to take extra precautions against spreading the virus on tour this summer. The band urged fans to get vaccinated, to wear masks at shows, and to stay home if they were experiencing symptoms or had been exposed to COVID-19.
While the coronavirus continues to loom over the proceedings more than a year later, we now have tools to mitigate it. The virus is still spreading, but vaccinated people have largely remained safe from serious symptoms. As the band said simply in the pre-tour note, “the best thing you can possibly do before coming to a show is to GET VACCINATED!”
Perhaps that layer of uncertainty reined in the release of energy many expected at the first Phish show back. Make no mistake—the cheers were thundering. The smiles, enormous. Yet it didn’t quite match the euphoric howls of 12/31/02, when Phish returned from its first hiatus, or 3/6/09, when the band reunited after a five-year breakup. On those nights, the band and fans had made it through the woods after a long journey and were finally letting loose—no impediments, no caveats, all clear ahead. On 7/28/21, it was more like we had finally found a passable clearing in the woods—and there may be snakes in the grass.
The opening tune was followed in quick succession by “Tube”, the line “I’d rather give myself to science, I felt that I could help” mirroring Phish’s plea for fans to get vaccinated for the greater good. Out of the brief “Tube” popped the “Free” so many fans had predicted, Anastasio taking visible joy from the wave of cheers that met “feel the feeling I forgot.”
The cheers during the first break in the music grew even louder as Trey professed his gratitude: “Thank you, thank you for being here with us. Thank you for having us here. Thank you for saving our lives. Thank you.”
“Bouncing Around The Room” came next, allowing fans a moment to appreciate the new additions to Chris Kuroda‘s light rig. Thin strips of LED lights now line the branches of his marionette-like setup, allowing for pulses of color, motion, and volume within the usual methodical waves. Well played, CK5. We can’t wait to see the spectacle develop over the course of the year.
— PhishatMSG (@PhishatMSG) July 29, 2021
Kuroda wasn’t the only one with new gear to break in. Anastasio also used his new “4.0” Languedoc guitar throughout the night (calm down—that’s not a comment on eras, nerds, that’s just what Trey called it).
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“46 Days” saw the band methodically work through the song’s groove and build to a modest peak before shifting to “Limb By Limb”. While the band seemed to tip-toe around the edges of a jam but never quite dive in, the song did end with beautiful piano flourishes from Page McConnell and some amusing jibber-jabber from Jon Fishman—a sign that the band was loosening up and settling in.
Phish rode that jolt of silly Fishman energy into perhaps the highlight of set one, a “Wolfman’s Brother” featuring some sparse, funky jamming propelled by a sinister, plodding bassline from Mike Gordon and a big, Trey-led build. From there, “NICU” and “Drift While You’re Sleeping” closed out the fun if relatively unremarkable first set.
The band returned for set two with yet another oft-guessed, thematically appropriate song, “Down With Disease”. The jam showed promise as the band broke things down to amorphous, watery synths and tones—and even some vague hints of the Dead’s “Let It Grow”—but Anastasio eventually pulled the ripcord and directed his cohorts into “Simple”, appropriately leaving the “Disease” unfinished (we see what you did there).
Another celebratory return-to-action song, “Simple” offered more time for cheers and sing-alongs and more space for some bright and airy-turned-heavy and menacing improv before giving way to “Fuego”.
By the time the band reached the song’s a cappella lyrics and ensuing crowd response, whatever hesitation may have lingered during set one had fallen away. The band laughed heartily as they belted out “world’s greatest dad” after so much time home with their kids, and the crowd responded with hearty approval. Fishman was feeling it here, peppering in shrieks and howls of excitement as the reality of the situation set in: Phish was back.
“Plasma” was up next, showing moments of gurgling brilliance and measured percolation before sliding into “Runaway Jim”. While this “Jim” looks compact on paper, that didn’t stop the band from fitting in a surprising detour through “Weekapaug Groove” midway through. Even with the unexpected interlude, the band managed to make it back into “Runaway Jim”, hit its searing peak, and slide into some elegant and flowing improv space within just over seven minutes. The entire segment, while brief, provided a glimpse of what we’d missed: nestled within something old and familiar, something new and exciting can once again emerge in the moment.
The embers of the “Runaway Groove” ignited an upbeat “Rift”, as the band took visible pleasure in indulging some of its more “Phish-y” traditions, like the song’s closing throat-wobbles. The rare and beautiful “If I Could” then served as the night’s final breather before the band rode into “Rise/Come Together” and a climactic “Slave To The Traffic Light” to close the set.
Phish – “Slave To The Traffic Light” [Pro-Shot] – 7/28/21
Fishman seemed to sum things up as the band returned to the stage for a “Say It To Me S.A.N.T.O.S.” encore, exclaiming, “Oh my god, it’s good to play again” to clamorous cheers.
“This is our first time playing Arkansas, we’ve always wanted to,” Trey added. “It lived up to every dream we had of coming here so please invite us back. Mike, your number is public right? … Call Mike and invite us back” ([Note: 212-330-9092, in case it’s not in your phone already].
And so it begins. After 521 days away, we are once again on Phish tour. Sure, this wasn’t the greatest show ever (few tour openers are), but this day was better than the previous 520 days for that one, big reason. Welcome back. Be safe. Be smart. See you in Alabama.
For a full list of upcoming Phish shows, head here.
Below, check out a gallery of photos from Phish’s 2021 summer tour opener via photographer Peter Wallace (Wallyography).
Setlist: Phish | Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion | Rogers, AR | 7/28/21
SET 1: I Never Needed You Like This Before, Tube > Free, Bouncing Around the Room, 46 Days, Limb By Limb, Wolfman’s Brother, NICU, Drift While You’re Sleeping
SET 2: Down with Disease -> Simple > Fuego > Plasma > Runaway Jim -> Weekapaug Groove > Runaway Jim > Rift, If I Could, Rise/Come Together, Slave to the Traffic Light
ENCORE: Say It To Me S.A.N.T.O.S.
 Phish debut.