Let's get this part out of the way: Kenwood Dennard is an amazing drummer by anyone's standards, and he's one of my favorites. "Drummer" doesn't even begin to cover it... he's an amazing musician. His list of credentials speaks for itself, but don't bother reading it. Just spend three minutes watching this guy play the drums... and keyboards ... and sing. SIMULTANEOUSLY.
OK, now that we're all on the same page with regards to Mr. Dennard's musical prowess we can move forward. On Saturday night in Worcester, Kenwood Dennard sat in with Phish. I've seen Phish a lot ... in fact, Saturday was my 50th show (it was my wife's 52nd, and she likes to rub that in). I love that these guys are unpredictable... usually.
The show followed its normal formula... two sets, and then the band came out for an encore. They took the stage and started up their cover of Stevie Wonder's, "Boogie On Reggae Woman." I noticed that their drummer, Jon Fishman, called over a technician and said something to him, then the tech left the stage, pointing to something off to the side. My attention drifted until suddenly I was jarred by ... something. I looked on stage and saw that Fishman had left the stage and Kenwood Dennard was behind the kit. At first he was standing (I think Fishman's stool was too low for him) and then he finally sat down, playing the whole time.
What I observed next was very enlightening. Here's this drummer that, by most accounts, would be considered a better drummer than Fishman, but the whole room stopped bouncing quite as much. Dennard played just fine, and his groove was fine, but it was also very different. And the crowd as a whole had trouble settling into this groove after three hours of being locked in with Fishman.
They played a second encore, "Possum," for which Dennard stayed behind the kit. On this one he came up with a groove that wound up being a half-time version of what Fishman normally plays. This was clearly an unrehearsed situation, but the band adapted and went with it... still, the crowd — especially at this point of the show — never really locked in the way they normally would.
Had Dennard been behind the kit all night I suppose things might have gone better, but even then... I'm not so sure. Again, he's a great drummer (one of the greatest alive today!), but perhaps not for that scenario.
A drummer myself, I've certainly been in gig-time situations that involved a spontaneous fill-in (with me either as the fill-in or as the guy relinquishing the throne for such an occasion), but I believe this was the first time I'd solely been a spectator at such an event. It was enlightening to witness, and I will very carefully consider future decisions to participate in a drummer fill-in scenario. If there's a happy crowd already up and moving, the best plan is likely to stick with whatever drummer they're already used to feeling.