Hippie rock has been back for a while now, epitomized by a Spin Doctors/Blues Traveler circuit with a loose jamming feel that's great for about ten minutes, until the players hit their skill plateaus and start relying on dulled synapses and feel-good accommodation to carry them through the next hour and a half. When the slide starts, don't look to the lyrics to save the experience. They're dumb.
Phish gets lumped in with the hippie-rock thing as often as not, largely because about 150 people like the music enough to follow the band around the country. And because Phish jams.
But while some bands will jam just to give you enough time to find that next joint, Phish plays genuine improvisational rock, and if they're burdened by an instrumental skill plateau, you can't hear it on Hoist (Elektra), Phish's fifth release.
Another drawback to most hippie rock, oddly enough, is a lack of imagination. Armed with a format designed for embellishment, lesser groove disciples opt to spread out and go to sleep. Hoist uses Phish -- Page McConnell (pianos, vox), Trey Anastasio (guitars, vox), Jon Fishman (drums) and Mike Gordon (bass, mandolin, vox) -- as the bedrock for embellishments by Bela Fleck's banjo, the Tower of Power horns, the Richard Green Fourteen Strings, the Ricky Grundy Chorale, the angel-voiced Alison Krauss, and Jonathan Frakes (yup, The Next Generation's Riker) playing trombone on the free-junk lark "Riker's Mailbox."
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That makes it a hell of an album, but then, these folks aren't on tour. Which I suppose leaves the live experience open to question. Unless, of course, you've already seen the live show, in which case I'm quite sure that you don't need to be told to check it out.
-- Brad Tyer
Phish performs Friday, May 6 at the Tower Theatre, 1201 Westheimer. Tickets cost $12.50. Doors open at 8 p.m. Call 629-3700 for more info.
*Carrie Newcomer at the Satellite Lounge, Thursday, May 5
*Horsies at Rudyard's, Friday, May 6
*Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel at the Arena Theatre, Saturday, May 7
*Monte Warden at the Satellite Lounge, Saturday, May 7
*Isley Brothers at the Arena Theatre, Sunday, May 8