On Saturday night Phish rolled in to Merriweather Post Pavilion for the first of two weekend gigs at one of the oldest sheds (circa 1967) still in operation – if you are in any doubt, visit the bathrooms, they are exactly the same as on opening night. Yet another venue where Phish has a proven track record of performing amazing shows (see especially 8/8/98 and 6/27/10), and following an uneven night in Camden with spectacular highs and baffling lows, anything was possible. Grab your popcorn!
For the third straight show, Phish opened with a traditional / bluegrass standard, and again one that was apparently played in response to a fan sign: “Daniel Saw the Stone!” This was by far the biggest bust-out of the tour to date (last played at IT on 8/3/03, 137 shows). Then we move into a more traditional opening sequence of a compact “AC/DC Bag” and then a soulful, patient, and well-above-average “Ocelot.” “Access Me” follows, and given the precision of the performance (see 10/26/10 for a stark contrast) plus the fact it was only the fourth ever performance can safely qualify as the “Best ‘Access Me’ Ever!” The often-requested but infrequently played of late “Vultures” follows, a far from perfect – it is a difficult song, even for Phish – but still enjoyable version.
The first set starts to gather steam with a strong “Wilson” followed by an even stronger “Sand.” The “Sand” doesn’t stretch out from the core structure, but this version is a prime example of the strength of Trey’s playing these days: confident, attacking yet patient, well-thought-out phrasing, few discernible crutches, etc. A great version with innovative mid-set placement. Ween’s “Roses Are Free” is next and offered just a hint of the ‘90s-style jamming extension that so many hope for... but it wouldn’t be a recap without “the ripcord.” The beloved classic “Reba” follows and stands alongside “Ocelot” and “Sand” as the clear highlights of this very strong first set. The composed section was nailed, but the jam is simply stunning, with the band laying down the sublime background to Trey’s absolutely brilliant, almost tearful solo. Don’t miss this one. Allen Toussaint’s “On Your Way Down” and a formulaic yet always fun “Antelope” (with an “On Your Way Down” tease from Trey) rounds out one of the best first sets of the tour. Great stuff. We’ll be back in fifteen minutes.
A compact, uneventful “Bird of a Feather” opens set two, followed by “Tweezer.” This “Tweezer” – that featured an opening segment with a full band stop and a vocalized HUH! – was poised for lift-off and was definitely airborne and soaring, if not quite reaching maximum sustained cruising altitude. The jam worked to a natural (non-ripcord) conclusion and gave way to “The Horse” > “Silent in the Morning.” The Round Room favorite “Waves” follows, and while not hitting the home-run that was the stunning Bethel version, still delivered. A somewhat rare mid-set “Chalk Dust Torture” kept the energy meters pegged for the naturally enthused Saturday night crowd.
The middle segment of this set brought the wood and witnesses the band at the peak of their craft. The second powerhouse “Rock and Roll” in the last week (see Great Woods) dispatches with the song structure proper after five minutes and continues in hyper-drive for the next six, offering power Type-I jamming and then dissolves into pure Type-II space. Great stuff! Neil Young’s “Albuquerque” allows everyone to catch their breath, before we leap off the cliff again with “Piper.” There are two components of “Piper” that most fans love – the patient, we’ve-got-all-day building intro, and the wide-ranging jams that might emerge. This version was hurried in the former, but crushing in the latter. The final ~eight minutes of this jam is full-band improvisational gold! More. Of. This. Please!
That said, just when this set had real possibilities to enter the outlier, “truly great” class, the band retreated into a more businesslike, predictable, jukebox approach. Not to say that they weren’t delivering high-quality adult entertainment – it was very much that – but the “Wading in the Velvet Sea” > “2001” > “Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan” > “Suzy” set closing sequence and the “Show of Life” (with Mike on his brand new Fender Precision bass) > “Tweezer Reprise” encore could have been dialed up from any recent standard performance. Although the “Suzy” did have a little of the proverbial “extra mustard” and some “WHAT?” Great stuff. Please drive safely!
The verdict? Wow! That was an excellent performance and a well above-average Phish gig, especially for the “3.0” era. The show was almost Hampton ‘09-esque in the number of songs packed in (26), and as such didn’t have too much room to navigate into extensive explorations. That didn’t stop the gig from bringing the heat, albeit in smaller doses. Highlights were the “Ocelot,” “Sand,” “Reba,” Tweezer,” “Rock and Roll,” and “Piper.” Will any single song from this gig stick in the “best ever” versions from the band’s long and storied history (other than the “Access Me” :-))? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean this was anything less than a stellar performance. This band delivers! So great that we should... do it again tonight! Same bat time, same bat station. We’ll be back tomorrow with a recap.