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Live review: Phish at Empire Polo Club in Indio

November 1, 2009 | 10:34 pm

The band's three-day Halloween weekend blowout leaves its loyal legion of fans heated up and happy.

Besides the Rolling Stones, U2 and Bruce Springsteen, it's hard to think of many rock acts that could crowd the Empire Polo Club in Indio for a three-day festival featuring no supporting acts or other live entertainment.

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But the legendary Vermont jam titan Phish has long operated outside the realm of normalcy, with a rabid fan base closer to addicted acolytes than casual admirers.

When long-gestating message board rumors were finally confirmed months ago, Phish fanatics instantly began making preparations to trek to the site of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, where the band held its eighth festival -- the first in five years. This weekend's performances also marked the quartet's first return to the Southland since reuniting in March for a series of shows in Hampton, Va.

Naturally, the event's momentousness wasn't lost on the crowd (estimated by officials to be between 30,000 and 40,000) who hailed the band rapturously when it opened its first of eight sets with "Party Time," a lissome funk-workout portending surprises and fun to follow.

Indeed, the band's first night rarely disappointed, with the 26-year veteran delving into its back catalog to render favorites such as "Prince Caspian," "Wolfman's Brother," and "Down With Disease," with a rubbery danceability -- the Polo Field at times looking like a fluorescent wave of bobbing heads, twirling glow sticks and flailing limbs.

The following afternoon, the band ripped through cuts from its '90s songbook (typically considered its studio zenith), a thank-you of sorts to longtime fans willing to weather the vicissitudes of a storied saga filled with acrimony, addiction and sundry inconsistencies.

Yet throughout the sweltering Mojave afternoon, Phish seemed to conserve energy in preparation for Saturday night's second set, a start-to-finish rendition of the Rolling Stones' classic 1972 album, "Exile on Main Street."

Glow It was the band's special Halloween Show, the first it's done in 11 years and only Phish's fifth such performance ever, following earlier versions of the Beatles' White Album, Talking Heads' "Remain in Light," the Who's "Quadrophenia," and the Velvet Underground's "Loaded."

Against the soft pink lights and palm trees, the band reworked the Stones' rotgut-blues opus with symphonic syncopated groove, backed by the celestial harmonies of Sharon Jones and Saundra Williams and a three-piece horns section.

It was a masterful stroke and contrasted with the band's acoustic set the previous afternoon, revealing a versatility surprising only those who haven't followed the band's career closely.

Though saddled with the pejorative implications of being a "jam band," Phish revealed that behind its goofy harmonies and giddy sessions, it brews an intoxicated funk music removed from its trappings and reappropriated to fit the group's earthy, laid-back Vermont origins and psychedelic inclinations.

Clearly in thrall to Frank Zappa and the Grateful Dead, the band inherited the legacy of the latter when Jerry Garcia died in 1995 and has rarely looked back over the course of 14 studio albums, thousands of live performances, and a fan base of old and young willing to follow it to the Earth's ends.

Songs are rarely just that, with nearly every tune boasting its own labyrinthine lineage. All weekend, cuts from the band's latest, "Joy," were interspersed with the vintage catalog and drew a positive but comparatively muted reception -- understandable considering  they lack the extensive road-testing and history.

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The surroundings were arguably as compelling as the music, with both the band and event promoter Goldenvoice turning the grounds into a city unto itself -- complete with a cafe, movie screens showing vintage Halloween and horror films, a Bloody Mary bar and microbrewery, and a 100-foot Ferris wheel lighting up the cold, clear desert sky.

With an estimated 75% to 80% of festival-goers camping, the fields were a 24-hour hive of activity, with a joie de vivre and communal bond unimaginable to the unconverted: all-night campground dance parties, jam sessions and widespread amity.

(The band played two final sets Sunday night, ending too late for The Times' deadlines.)

-- Jeff Weiss

Photos: (Top) Bassist Mike Gordon, right, of Phish plays a special Halloween set for their fans, doing a cover of the Rolling Stones album "Exile on Main Street" during the Phish Festival at the Empire Polo Club in Indio, California over Halloween weekend. (Middle) Glowbot and Glow Witch fans listen as Phish plays a special Halloween set. (Bottom) More colorful fans.  Credit: Jamie Rector / For the Times.

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