There are good reasons why very few Phish tribute bands exist on the scene. The challenge of playing such a wide array of intricate compositions is daunting enough. Winning over the notoriously critical fans is a whole other thing. Don’t even bother stepping up to the plate unless you know you’re going to hit it out of the park. You have to put in countless hours of practice on top of a lifetime of obsessing over Phish. Then you have to present their music in a soulful way that doesn’t come across as robotic. Oh, and you can’t just play the songs. You have to dissolve them into transcendent jams and bridge them together seamlessly…NBD.
When I saw Chum at the Divine Fall Festival in Santa Barbara on Labor Day weekend, I was instantly taken by their wizardry in capturing the precision mechanics of old school Phish, the tactical nature of present-day improvisation and an overriding, playful spirit. Nevada City has a voracious Phish contingent so it seemed like an obvious fit to bring them to the Crazy Horse. The band doesn’t venture from the Bay Area too often so it was a treat to see them bask in the adoration our crowd generously dishes out.
There was a palpable level of excitement circulating through the air mixed with a bit of skepticism. One friend told me it was worth it to pay the cover just for the sake of fulfilling his curiosity. After warming up with “Divided Sky,” Chum fired its first shots across the bow, launching into “It’s Ice.” It’s perfection or bust with this cut off 1993’s Rift which embodies the prog-jazz mode of that era. Thus the reason why Phish themselves hardly touch it these days. If it wasn’t enough to deliver the song impeccably, they flaunted their creativity by sandwiching “Halfway to the Moon” in the middle.
Chum’s desire to incorporate several “3.0” songs into the well-balanced setlist reflected their reverence of Phish’s gargantuan repertoire. The band told me before the show that devising the setlists is the most difficult part about what they do – a process involving “spreadsheets, voting and vetoing.” “Halfway” has received a lukewarm reception by Phish-heads on the whole, making it a risky choice. Sung gracefully by keyboardist John Greene, it opened up into a euphoric jam space that was hard to argue with.
Eyes closed with Zen focus, guitarist Eric Schiff showed his ability to open a sonic portal while merging his expansive talent with a clear emotional connection to the material. Akin to the magic that exists between Trey Anastasio and Page McConnell, his interplay with Greene was notable throughout. You have to be an extremely keen listener to play this music, as all four guys simultaneously operate as independent entities and complimentary elements of a single organism. Similar to Mike Gordon and John Fishman, bassist Chad Kimner and drummer Alex Bowman paint layer after layer onto a fluid foundation of complex rhythms. Rather than serving as anchors, they are countering the melodic forays with colorful accents, pushing the jams in provocative directions.
When they followed “Ice” with the fan-favorite “Reba,” there was a collective sense of, “This is how it’s going to be?!” Masterfully utilizing the toys on his Death Star of a pedal board, Schiff warped the solo into a watery realm before evolving into fret-fanning cascades reminiscent of the song’s ’95 heyday. (CLICK HERE FOR VISUAL EVIDENCE) Throwing the ball around the horn just like Phish, Kimner commanded the room with lead vocals and joyous thumping on “Possum.” The crowd had now waved the white flag, surrendering to the undeniable power of the presence at hand.
The set was just about to hit its improvisational peak with an escapade through “Set Your Soul Free.” Only introduced in the last year, it instantly became a jam vehicle for Phish. It was here that Chum checked off another box, finding their exploratory muse in seemingly effortless, organic fashion. Kimner spearheaded the assault with a warped axis of liquid groove. Greene summoned his best baby grand impression, sounding just like McConnell while setting the stage for Schiff’s inevitable climactic release. Later the keyboardist wowed us again as he unexpectedly led “The Squirming Coil” outro solo into the barroom rag of “Alaska.” There was something about hearing these songs in the cozy confines of the Crazy Horse that felt remarkably warm and comforting. This was as close as most of us will get to seeing Phish in the early days.
If I say everything that can be said about the second set, we might be here all day. It was in the second frame that Chum exhibited its excellence with the hallmark of many a classic Phish show – crafty segueways, morphing one song into the next. They didn’t stop playing at any point, Tetris-ing endings into beginnings. They busted the place wide open with a relentlessly funky dance party when they found their way from “Gotta Jibboo” into “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Ally.” Just about every face in the room sported an ear-to-ear grin as limbs went akimbo. Operating with the utmost swagger, they dropped into my current crush – “Mercury.” It was borderline surreal as they marched through the multi-part composition with its profound, cosmic lyrics.
The set then took a turn for the sinister side with the minor key monster, “Carini.” The ensuing jam – short but impactful – saw Greene experimenting with spacey synth tones contrasted with crisp piano runs. Schiff then cleared the path home in the barn-burning manner any phan would crave. Kimner’s bass bombs steered the quartet into “Meat” – a thoughtful selection Phish would never opt for at this point in the show. Taking us further down the rabbit hole, Chum had the nifty notion to mash this up with a song that was only just unveiled at the band’s Halloween odyssey – “Death Don’t Hurt Very Long.” After this funky, bluesy romp, it was time to get back to the meat and potatoes.
“Harry Hood” is arguably the holy grail of the Phish universe. No matter how many times one hears it, the song never fails to spark a primal, emotional response and ignite the flames of nostalgia. Looking around the room as the jam gradually ascended towards its blissful climax, nothing in the outside world mattered at that moment. Another scene imprinted in my memory bank encapsulating the legendary vibe of our venue, the power of live music in such an intimate setting and the camaraderie that exists between people who share a common love.
“Harry Hood is going down at the Crazy Horse.” I never imagined that happening when we started having music here six years ago. I also couldn’t have contemplated the scintillating “David Bowie” exclamation point that followed and certainly not the victory lap of an encore – Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream.” Originality is irreplaceable, but sometimes putting this much passion and dedication into another artist’s work is the most noble endeavor a band can take.
Encapsulating Tyler Blue
If you have walked through the door during a show at the Crazy Horse over the last five years, you've probably been greeted by Tyler Blue. When we are truly moved by music, the feelings are hard to describe. Tyler's words crystallize emotions and illuminate reflections while bringing the spirit of a show back to life.