There was a late-inning comeback at Fenway Park on Friday night.
The Red Sox were busy out in Detroit, beating the Tigers. But Phish was in the midst of the first of two shows in the Fens, ostensibly home turf for the jam band monolith that was based in Burlington, Vt., for much of its history and retains strong ties there.
Though Phish played Fenway once before, a decade ago, stadium rock is not its natural milieu. With an extensive array of Fenway-specific Phish merchandise on offer — much of it sold at a pop-up shop nearby for which scores, if not hundreds, of fans lined up by 9:30 a.m. Friday morning — the show got going not with the sense of a triumphant hometown throwdown, but something more like a summer festival whose attendees’ band allegiances are mixed.
A touch-and-go first set bore the sense of a band feeling out its audience and determining the extent of its home-field advantage. Yet after the sun dropped, and Phish started its second set with a groovy but unspectacular “Sand” and a strangely placed hard-rocker in “Axilla I,” the band confidently dropped into “Mercury,” a twisty, prog-rock essay that culminates in a grooved out, 7/4 strut with the potential to go deep on any night.
Debuted in 2015, “Mercury” is Phish’s best new song since the band returned to action in 2009 after a “breakup” that was conceived of as permanent but wound up lasting fewer than five years. But it’s a dense, mood-shifting piece of work.
It was the point on Friday when you could sense Phish start to swagger. The song’s jam refracted colors suggesting a synthed-up, space-age form of psychedelic rock, without lapsing into the musical cliches of millennial-era jamtronica. For perhaps the first time this night, there was the sense of a band in full control of the outsize moment.
Though the concert’s first half did not exude the sense of shared-secret intimacy that Phish often generates with its fans even on the largest stages, the quartet did push some runs across in the show’s early going. A delightfully funky “Tube” broke free from gravity and sailed for a spell on melodic lead guitar lines by Trey Anastasio. “Everything’s Right” shifted out of its casual, vacation-vibe groove to emerge as a major-key rocker that unexpectedly led into the ever-chipper chestnut “Runaway Jim.”
Nearer to the close of the show, Phish wove a high-energy jam out of “Fuego” (another standout composition from the band’s late era) that charged roughly into sublimely silly stomper “Say It to Me S.A.N.T.O.S.”
This was Phish at its most gratifyingly, purposefully ridiculous. The song is part of an album’s worth of material Phish debuted in a playful musical hoax last Halloween, presenting 10 songs as a supposedly long-lost classic record by a forgotten (actually, fictional) Scandinavian prog-rock band called Kasvot Växt.
With a ballpark full of fans singing along to the song’s preposterously head-banging chorus — “This is what space smells like/ You will always remember where you were” — we were reminded that Phish can play to the cheap seats and to its most devoted fans in the same moment.
It’s that merger of grand spectacle, improvisational edge, and self-effacing sense of humor that still defines this still-hungry band. Even at Fenway Park.
At Fenway Park, Friday. Continues Saturday.Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at email@example.com.