The six-CD ”Hampton Comes Alive,” which documents a two-night stand at Virginia’s Hampton Coliseum in 1998, is Phish’s third live album in four years, and, per usual, it shows them as smart, playful, technically accomplished tricksters with a deep affection for their fans. It also shows a band whose goofball virtuosity limits its emotional range. If a typical Dead show is, as one critic put it, half baseball game and half church, Phish shows mostly play out like half baseball game, half Comedy Central. Their music is long on entertainment but short on full-spectrum empathy.
That said, ”Hampton” is a detailed, satisfying portrait. Alongside the trademark wit (welding Argent’s proto-metal anthem ”Hold Your Head Up” into ”Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It”) are moments of delicacy (the spiraling jazz-fusion coda of ”Stash”) and poignancy (a sweet take on the Beatles’ ”Cry Baby Cry”). As a band whose lyrics are populated by kleptomaniacal pets, space monsters, winking drug references, and Psych 101 queries into the nature of consciousness, Phish speak most articulately through their jams and cover versions, which are well represented. In fact, disc No. 6 — which begins with the Beastie Boys’ ”Sabotage,” adventures through the band’s own ”Simple” and ”Weekapaug Groove,” and finishes with a hilariously triumphant ”Tubthumping” — may be the best single Phish CD ever.
For layfolk, a six-CD boxed set may seem like overkill, and admittedly, this sags at points. But for a band whose art is about live improvisation and stylistic breadth, the scale makes sense. And trust me: When the Internet eventually makes every show that every jam band has ever played downloadable, these discs will read as masterpieces of concision. B