Amfibian 10/28/00 Hopewell, NJ

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Date: Tue, 31 Oct 2000 14:13:41 -0800
Subject: REVIEW: Amfibian 10/28/00 Hopewell, NJ
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        You probably weren't even aware of this show, the second of
Amfibian's new incarnation as a seven-piece. It was on private property and
only publicized by word-of-mouth.
        If you missed it, don't worry. What's important is that the band put
on another stellar performance that bodes well for their "formal" shows,
which begin this weekend (Friday at the Upstage in Philadelphia and Saturday
at Wetlands in NYC.) Those, you should not miss.
        The Amfibian sets were part of a Halloween party at Stu von Olsen's
(forgive me if I've botched the spelling) barn in Hopewell, NJ, near
Princeton. Stu throws these sorts of parties a few times a year and he was a
generous and gracious host as always. There was plenty of entertainment in
addition to Amfibian, from bonfires to hayrides to beer kegs. But my friend
Dan and I were transfixed by the music.
        It's not often that you see improvisational music performed this
tightly by SEVEN people. (Phish lyricist Tom Marshall on keyboards; Chris
Harford, Scott Metzger and Andrew Southern on guitars; Matt Kohut on bass;
and Peter Cottone and JP Wasicko on drums; all but the drummers also sing.)
Even more impressive, all devote the bulk of their time to other projects,
be they music, school or work. Yet they sound like they've been together for
many years.
        The band took well to the casual setting, in which hay bales served
as seats. They had more room to spread out than at John & Peter's a few
weeks ago, even setting up a percussion set in addition to the two drum
kits. The playing reflected the relative spaciousness. While not quite as
intense as the John & Peter's performance, it was more fluid. Tom's keyboard
was more prominent in the mix than it was in New Hope, and Andrew played
acoustic guitar in addition to electric, for a greater diversity of sound.
        The setlist:
        Set I
        Elevate Me Later
        Olivia's Pool
        The Way I Feel
        Ribbon of Sun
        Set II
        Jam ->
        The Wedge
        Back to Mesopotamia (w/Ed Wilson)
        Drunk By Noon
        If I Can't Turn to You, To Whom Can I Turn?
        Brian & Robert
        In Love with This World
        Face in the Crowd
        Ribbon of Sun (again)
        Unless You Wanted Me To ->
       To Be Real 
        Olivia's Pool (again)
        "Elevate Me Later" (the Pavement song) was a frequent show opener
for the 1998-98 version of Amfibian. Then, it was a short, punchy number
used to get the crowd going. Here, as with the "Way I Feel" opener at New
Hope, it was an instant jamming vehicle for the band. Chris and Scott traded
leads but left plenty of room for Tom, Matt and the drummers to shape the
sound as well. They were playing like a true unit.
        "Olivia's Pool" was standard. "Appreciate" benefited from Andrew's
acoustic playing and Chris' hushed singing. "Dirt" was every bit the stunner
it had been in New Hope, if made a bit mellower by the prominence of
acoustic guitar and piano.
        Then Chris retreated to the percussion set and joined the drummers
for a lengthy interlude, which was actually the intro to "Flare." I love how
the guitar and bass come in with power riffs to start up the song, a hard
rocker. This one is going to be a monster.
        When they started up the opening chords to "The Way I Feel," we
figured we were in for a long jam, and we were right. It turned into a
three-way guitar duel, with the unusual sight of Andrew playing lead for a
while.  But as at New Hope, it did not descend into wanking; Matt, Peter and
JP kept the song flowing and the guitarists focused. A mellow "Ribbon of
Sun" closed the hour-long set.
        The first set was similar in sound and approach to the New Hope
performance. The second set would be a whole 'nother thing.
        The band came out firing with a jam that kept going, and going, and
going, picking up momentum along the way. I don't recall anyone playing
flashily. Rather, it was a case of seven instruments that seemed to meld as
one. After they built it to a huge climax, someone gave a signal, and they
brought it down to a chunky rhythm. Andrew approached the mic, and he and
Tom started to sing "The Wedge"! They submitted a recording of this song for
the Mockingbird Foundation's upcoming Phish tribute album, "Sharin' in the
Groove," but they had never performed it live until now. It was well worth
the wait, capturing the groove that makes the Phish version so wonderful,
and upping the intensity a bit. And then, to top it off, they added an extra
verse - "descending" was the only lyric that I caught - that is not part of
the Phish version. Whether this was an original lyric that Phish decided not
to use, or a new addition, I dunno. But regardless, it was thrilling.
        (As an aside, I'd like to mention I had the privilege of working on
the Mockingbird Foundation's book project, "The Phish Companion: A Guide to
the Band and their Music." It's coming out soon, and even if you don't want
to read more of my writing, you should get it because proceeds go to fund
music education for children.)
        What came next might have topped even that. Chris put his guitar
down, grabbed a lyric sheet, and began to sing from it as the rest of the
band started to groove. This was "Back to Mesopotamia," a brand new song,
and it is the crown jewel of this new batch. It reminds me quite a bit of
"Sand." The lyrics (which I don't remember) appeared to be a series of
koans, and come with a catchy but slightly ominous melody sung compellingly
by Chris.  The music was by far the funkiest of the night. But it was very
different from Phish funk - no walls of sound or loud effects. Instead, it
was a clean and consistent groove, and no one could resist dancing.
        We were already at the orgasmically good level of sound, and then
things got insane. Ed Wilson came onstage and strapped on Chris' guitar. To
the continued funkified backdrop, he began a series of jaw-dropping guitar
solos. Just when you thought he couldn't top himself, he started soloing
with his teeth! I bet this is what early Funkadelic with Eddie Hazel sounded
like in concert. Or maybe the early '70s Isley Brothers when Ernie Isley was
at the peak of his guitar-hero powers. Chris retreated to the percussion set
to add to the groove, and after awhile he moved to one of the drum kits,
switching places with JP.
I don't know much about Ed - the "family tree" on Harford's web site lists
him as playing with "just about every band in town" - but he is certainly
worth hearing.
        After numerous false endings the song wound down. As if Chris hadn't
displayed enough versatility, he then took over bass duties and Matt went to
guitar for the next song, "Onion." I was very happy to hear this, as it is
one of my favorite songs on the "Amfibian Tales" album.
        Next was a loping, demented country tune sung by Chris and Scott,
"Drunk By Noon." I don't know if it's an original or a cover, but it has the
kind of cracked lyrics that someone like Loudon Wainwright III writes; the
main premise is "if my life lasted only one day, I'd still be drunk by
noon." On top of all this, it contained a whistling solo (!) by Matt.
There's nothing else even remotely like this in the Amfibian repertoire.
Good to see them expanding their horizons.
         The power chords of "If I Can't Turn to You, To Whom Can I Turn"
signaled a return to rocking. I think this sounds a lot like Pete
Townshend's "Gonna Get Ya," which is about as fine a rocker as there is, so
it's in good company.
        The mellow "Brian and Robert" was followed by the even mellower "In
Love with This World." You know the former. The latter has a memorable
melody sung almost lullaby-like by Chris.
        Then came the slow, angular riffing that marks their arrangement of
Tom Petty's "A Face in the Crowd." Similar to the New Hope version, this
arrangement showcases the band's improvisational skills at slower tempos.
        As at New Hope, that was followed by "Ribbon of Sun" (making its
second appearance of the night) and "Unless You Wanted Me To." The latter,
in lieu of its anthemic climax, segued into "To Be Real," the only one of
their new songs that they hadn't played yet. As that was a bit subdued for a
closer, the band launched into another version of "Olivia's Pool," this one
with more spark than its first set counterpart. With that, the nearly
two-hour-long set, and the evening, came to a close.
        Once again, Amfibian gave it their all, taking chances, trying a
range of genres, but always keeping the playing tight and cohesive. They put
on quite a show, which I will try to catch as many times as I can. You
should too.
Erik Swain
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