Hampton Comes Alive
Elektra Records, 1999
REVIEW BY: Mark Feldman
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 11/30/1999
In theory, it's a good idea. Take a band known not for any individual song, or even album, but for their hordes of get-a-life show-tapers, throw them into an arena with great acoustics for two nights, make sure they play a completely different set each night, make sure the non-originals they do are instantly-recognizable titles to the consuming public, package the unedited tapes into a six CD set with cool photos, an attractive magnetic box, and a funny title (a poke at Peter Frampton's multi-million selling 1976 double live album Frampton Comes Alive for those of you under 25 who don't get the joke), and voila, who needs bootlegs?
Well, I fell for it, not realizing that as tight and professional and awesome musicians the four members of Phish are, six live CDs are still no substitute for the real thing. But at least when it comes to Phish, six live CDs are better than one, so it is only fair that Hampton Comes Alive be recognized as a far superior statement as to what Phish are all about than either of their previously-released live sets, the single disc Slip Stitch And Pass or the double disc A Live One. The former of those suffered from poor song selection and brevity, while the latter suffered from some ridiculously long tracks, even by Phish standards. Hampton Comes Alive is two actual full-length shows, with no track longer than 15 minutes, and a reasonably diverse set of material, from all of Phish's seven studio albums, many non-album favorites, and many cover versions that they seldom play.
There are a few gripes Phish fans will have though. First of all, the non-album tracks included are many of the same non-album tracks included on the two other live Phish CD releases - "Simple," "Harry Hood," "Wilson," and "Weekapaug Groove." Phish perform a seemingly-bottomless smorgasborg of original jams that never make it to their "official" studio CDs, and could have thought a little more about this. Only the bluesy hoedown "Possum" and the Zappa-ish "Big Black Furry Creature From Mars" provide significant excitement in the way of novelties. And the cover versions reveal little in the way of new interpretation. The Beatles' "Cry Baby Cry" is kind of sloppily done, Jimi Hendrix's "Bold As Love" is extremely tame, and Stevie Wonder's "Boogie On Reggae Woman" is remarkably un-boogie-like.
What Hampton Comes Alive does do that very few of rock's great live albums have done in the past, and that no Phish album has done since their 1988 debut Junta, is showcase the talent and the attitude of these musicians. Phish's "songs" may often be little more than vehicles for 10-minute improvisations, but they have always avoided accusations of self-indulgence, due to their tightness, their refrain from self-centered upstaging of each other, and their refusal to take themselves too seriously.
The extended jamming on all six of these discs may be good background music, but it's also good music to stick in your bedside boom box, while you relax, close your eyes, and pretend you're there. You can almost smell the pot. And Phish's sense of humor is finally incorporated into a live album - who else would have the chutzpah to bookend six CDs with covers of Gary Glitter's "Rock and Roll Part 2" and Chumbawamba's "Tubthumping?" Or to use the hallmark organ riff from Argent's "Hold Your Head Up" in an instrumental entitled "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It?" Or to stick a bizarre "Ha Ha Ha" chant in the middle of a song called "Free" on a six-CD set that costs upwards of $50?
This brings us to the downside of this album, which is the sad reality that Phish have gone corporate. And the even sadder reality that although they are still second to none as a live act, one can't help but get the feeling that song-wise, they are coasting somewhat on their past glories. About two thirds of the tracks on Hampton Comes Alive that originally hail from Phish studio albums hail from pre-1994 Phish studio albums. Disc one is case and point - Phish launch headlong into "Guelah Papyrus" and "Rift," both tried and true Phish oldies, like there's no tomorrow, but on comes "Meat" from their most recent studio album the Story Of The Ghost, and not only is the audience dead, but the band sounds truly uninspired. We are rescued by - you guessed it - another tried and true Phish oldie, "Stash," which still induces perfectly-rhythmic clapping from the crowd, and the most hypnotic interplay between guitar and bass on all six of these discs. "Not as good as your old stuff" is one of the worst insults you can give a musician; Phish seem to be giving it to themselves.
But alas, it's true; among the songs here that were actually written in the latter half of this decade, only "Guyute" (and "Character Zero" to some extent) holds its own as a quintessential Phish classic. To put this in perspective, at the risk of incurring the wrath of many a Phish-head, it may be necessary to invoke the Phish vs. Grateful Dead comparison one last time, if only for the purpose of pointing out that the Dead too went through a period of self-redefinition; in the mid-'70s, they released a few lengthy (and costly) live albums of lasting value only to those who need to have every recording with their name on it, took a bit of a break from touring (which Phish are planning on doing in 2000), and then reemerged with a new sound and a new lease on life. Ladies and gentlemen, we are now officially in Phish's very own mid-'70s. Please take young children by the hand.