Amphibian, New Hope, PA

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Date: Thu, 5 Oct 2000 23:46:42 EDT
Subject: REVIEW: Amfibian 10/3/00 New Hope, PA
This is not your, er, older brother's Amfibian.
I had the pleasure of taking in the kickoff show of their tour Tuesday night
at John & Peter's in New Hope, PA, and believe me I will be making every
effort to catch more.
You may conceive of Amfibian the way I did when I first heard about them in
1998 - as little more than a curiosity or a means for Tom Marshall (the
lyricist for Phish, in case you didn't know) to test his musical chops. I did
not attend any of the shows during their 1998-99 incarnation, but the tapes I
have heard reveal a band that, while playing well and having fun, very much
sounded like it was just getting its feet wet.
No more. Just the first 15 minutes of Tuesday's show surpassed everything I'd
heard from them previously. The tentativeness has been replaced with
confidence. And confidence leads to thrilling experimentation.
Aside from Tom on keyboards and vocals, the band includes Peter Cottone and
JP Wasicko on drums, Matt Kohut on bass and vocals, Andrew Southern on rhythm
guitar and vocals, and Scott Metzger and Chris Harford on lead guitar and
vocals. Harford, a bandleader and producer in his own right, is new to
Amfibian, and his presence makes a world of difference. One, he can handle
frontman duties when Tom doesn't feel like it. Two, he is an excellent singer
and songwriter, as some new songwriting collaborations between him and Tom
showed. Three, he really knows how to drive a band and whip it into shape.
Four, he is able to provide a second lead instrument, producing some
thrilling duels with Scott. His stage mannerisms occasionally recall
Springsteenian cliches, but every single one of them is heartfelt and real.
He provides a foil for the cerebral Tom, the youthful and exuberant Scott and
Andrew, and the steady Matt, Peter and JP.
Some show background: After waiting in the bar for the band to finish its
soundcheck (thanks to Danny for chatting with me), my friends and I were
among the first of the general public let in to the stage area - but almost
all the seats were gone. John & Peter's is tiny and it was already almost
filled by family and close friends of the band. (When it isn't crowded, it
feels like the artist is playing in your basement.) The three of us crammed
into a booth bench made for two, and most everyone else had to stand. Don't
worry, I would think future venues will be a little less congested. In any
case, the anticipation was as thick as the density of the crowd - and on the
stage, which is miniscule and could barely hold the drum sets, keyboard and
amplifiers for seven guys.
Harford's own band (Chris Harford and the Band of Changes) was supposed to
play first, but because of some sort of scheduling issue, Amfibian played
first. This actually worked out well, as some people left after Amfibian's
set and you could breathe again. (Thanks to Andy Navarro of Furry Thug for
giving me the heads-up about that.)
The setlist:
The Way I Feel
Olivia's Pool (aka Oblivious Fool or Shafty)
Brian & Robert
In Love With This World
If I Can't Turn To You, To Whom Can I Turn?
To Be Real
Face in the Crowd (Tom Petty cover)
Ribbon of Sun
Unless You Wanted Me To
"The Way I Feel" was, I kid you not, about 30 minutes long. It was a
statement of purpose if I've ever heard one: We are Amfibian, and we kick
ass. After wading into the bouncy groove (from Trey Anastasio's "One Man's
Trash" album) for a few minutes, Scott and Chris wasted no time getting a
guitar duel going. There was a brief return to the words, and then another
guitar jam started up... and kept going... and going. This could have been
boring, but it wasn't. It was as incendiary as any Stills-Young guitar duel
on my CSNY bootlegs from '69-'70 (or, for a more modern reference, the
Young-Trey duel at Farm Aid '98). They were constantly changing moods and
challenging each other, and the other five were feeding off them. They also
had a keen sense of when to allow the other some space; guitar jams quickly
degenerate into muck if that doesn't happen. The same could be said about
Matt's bass playing; it was driving and insistent without being repetitive or
overwrought. I can't really describe it any further; if a tape of this
circulates, get it! One last note: Scott teased the "breakdown" segment of
"Smile," a song by his and Andrew's other band, RANA. That song and that band
really deserve to be heard.
Then came three straightforward songs, "Olivia's Pool," "Appreciate" and
"Brian & Robert." The former and the latter did not sound too different from
how Amfibian played them in 1998-99. With some tight power chording from the
guitarists and some fine singing by Tom, "Appreciate" made an excellent
transition from the "Amfibian Tales" album to the stage. I love that disc and
would have liked to have heard more from it; maybe on future dates we'll get
"Onion," "Mud" or "Taciturn," or see if their onstage approach to "Eggshells"
differs from RANA's.
The next four songs were not familiar to me. At least some of them (I think
"If I Can't Turn..." and "Flare") were new songs written for Amfibian by Tom
and Chris. All were poignant and melodic, reminiscent Matthew Sweet's best
work. "Flare," with some tight guitar work, was the one that stood out. One
of them began with a drum solo, if I remember correctly.
I've always loved Amfibian's rendition of "Dirt" and this was no exception.
Longer than Phish's version but just as heart-wrenching, it featured guitar
playing that was gorgeous and emotional. The same could be said about Tom's
They then began a languid, elongated guitar break. A guy next to me thought
it was going to be Neil Young's "Cortez the Killer." I thought it sounded
like the opening to Pink Floyd's "Have A Cigar." Then Chris started singing,
and I said, wait a minute, this is a Tom Petty song! This "A Face in the
Crowd" couldn't have been any different from the four-minute version on
Petty's "Full Moon Fever," though. The tempo was slow and Chris seemed to
emphasize every word. After the verses, there was more of that slightly
spacey, elliptical sound, but soon it evolved into a full-fledged jam, with
Scott and Chris back to dueling as they had on "The Way I Feel." Even Andrew
(who was playing electric as opposed to acoustic as he did in '98-'99, and
who plays bass in RANA) got in a few modest lead lines - if he wants to learn
how to be a lead player, he's certainly got two personal tutors. It finally
wound down after 20 minutes or so. A jammed-out version of someone else's
four-minute folk-rock song? This band certainly is thinking "outside the box."
Chris introduced the next tune as "the newest Amfibian song," and to prove it
he displayed the lyric sheet he was going to have to read from. "Ribbon of
Sun" was every bit as good as the other new songs. After that came the
anthemic "Unless You Wanted Me To," which had a great melody and a series of
spine-tingling crescendos, making it a perfect set closer. Sadly there was no
The band certainly tried the unexpected, and pulled it off. Nearly half the
set was spent on two songs whose studio versions combine to be about six
minutes. Much of the set was loud and incendiary, but some of it was graceful
and melodic as well. Only two minor quibbles: Tom's keyboard was sometimes
drowned out by the three guitars (which may have been due to the venue's
less-than-great sound system); and Andrew didn't do enough singing (he has a
great voice). But nothing could detract from this special night. My favorite
artists (e.g. Phish, Neil Young) are the ones who can play well in many
different styles, even fusing them, and are never afraid to take chances.
Judging from this night, Amfibian has those qualities as well.
I stuck around for part of the set by Harford's band, which included some of
the guys from Ween. As always, it was supercharged rock and roll with great
songs to back it up. I wish I could have stayed for the whole thing, but at
1:20 AM it showed no signs of ending anytime soon and I had to get up for
work the next morning.
All in all, a thrilling night. Can't wait for more, in Philadelphia and
Erik Swain

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