SARATOGA SPRINGS — Page McConnell sat in his office, at stage-right of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center stage. His hands floated across his black-and-white ivory desk, delivering on his promise made to the phanatic Phish crowd just moments before: One more song.
It was only the first set of the first day of the band’s three-day SPAC stint from July 1-3, but the song — “The Squirming Coil” from the 1990 album “Lawn Boy” — did not go unappreciated. After Trey Anastasio’s vocals subsided, McConnell’s solo was underway.
For what seemed like an hour, and, being Phish, the length was likely not much shy of it, the patrons swayed in the lawn to the pianist’s oeuvre. With a skyward gaze and a substance-influenced daze, the audience watched the large video board, grinning in unison at the keys bouncing under McConnell’s fingers and the absurd talent of it.
An ovation followed. One set was completed and five more were to be played in the weekend. If any gripe had been directed at the band for its absence from SPAC in 2015, it was quickly forgiven. The group’s much-awaited return to the venue was an undisputed success.
The band’s shtick is much-established: unpredictability. With not a song repeated over the weekend and each set-list original and unique, the style gives Phish more variance in its shows than any other musical group.
Even the individual songs differ wildly each time they are played live. On the 1992 album “A Picture of Nectar,” the song “Chalk Dust Torture” has a track-length of 4:35. In the SPAC Day 1 performance, the jam lasted over 22 minutes.
Midway through the song, Anastasio set down his guitar and grabbed a pair of mallets, showing off his marimba skills. Soon after, bassist Mike Gordon abandoned his native instrument to join McConnell at the piano, creating a three-man key-striking huddle at one side of the stage, improvising on top of each other as the paying visitors lost their minds at the sight and sound.
The band’s headman is much-established too: Anastasio. With his greasy, wind-swept orange hair and his Steve Jobs glasses, he has more the look of a ski instructor than a rock star, but his guitar told a different story. With an upbeat rendition of “Juliet” off the band’s 1994 album “Hoist” near the end of Day 2’s second set, he demonstrated his six-string prowess. From country-influenced riffs to sounds that bordered on reggae, and all the progressive rock in-between, Anastasio led the way and the crowd followed. With a single strum, returning to the chorus from an ever-lasting jam session, Anastasio could light the wick of all the glowstick fireworks in the lawn.
But the star of the weekend was McConnell. Aside from his memorable “Squirming Coil” solo, the keyboardist channelled his inner Paul McCartney with a cover of The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” — one of 10 covers in the weekend — to close the second set of Day 2, ending the tune on its iconic final chord, joined by his bandmates to continue the convoluted harmony for nearly half a minute.