Samba in the Rain
Wednesday night in Georgia, Phish played like a nostalgia act—a band older than its years, still possessing sharp technical skills but almost utterly disinterested creatively. Like a great boxer who tours the country knocking out pretenders in exhibition bouts, or a veteran stage actor who spends 15 years playing the same part in a hit show, Phish this night seemed to be a band with great powers that was fully satisfied with pleasant mediocrity.
After fans gritted out a 50-minute mid-first-set delay due to an extreme storm, the band rewarded them with a string of greatest hits, each version essentially interchangeable with any other recent version. If not for a stellar version of "Timber" in which Trey totally raged, the most interesting part of tonight's first set was when Trey started talking over "Mound" to inform the crowd of the impending weather delay. It was spontaneous, it was unexpected, it was different. it was interesting.
A close reading reveals exceptions—a particularly raucous Page solo in "Suzy Greenberg," during a tour when each and every "Suzy" features a raucous solo; a "Tweezer" that jumped right into a murky jam before taking the first available exit in favor of a tossed-off "Julius"; a "David Bowie" with some nice, dark interplay between Trey and Mike before jarringly skipping ahead to the closing crescendo; a "Gotta Jibboo" with a particularly fiery, if short, Trey solo--but this is cold comfort to fans who got into Phish because of the sense of wild improvisational abandon with which it frequently played in 1993 through 2000, plus 2003 and 2004. Sure, perhaps it's unfair to take this one ten-year period of the band's work and consider that the norm. But at the time it sure felt like everything was gradually building, improving, getting more exciting and more important. For fans who go further back, who were first hooked by the tight execution of complicated, prog-rock inspired compositions, or the wacky sense of anti-showbiz humor, post-Breakup Phish might go down a lot easier. I wonder if the members of Phish 3.0 would enjoy listening to Phish from 1993 through 2004.
Taken completely in isolation and out of context, it's nice to hear the band Phish play songs like "Foam," and the others mentioned in this recap. If you haven't heard this show yet, it would probably serve as capable background music for a long drive. It's got a lot of great songs in it, and it doesn't require much work on the part of the listener. If your mind drifts for a few minutes, you won't really miss anything that you needed to hear. If it's all I had to introduce the band to someone living on the Moon, I'd be fine with that. If it's all I had to listen to on a desert island, I'd have fun with it. If it was the only evidence of this band in existence, it would make a strong case for a group of four musicians with excellent chops, strong, eclectic material, and great energy. They're really good.
But these shows do not happen in isolation and out of context. In fact, Phish has made every show they've played since 2003 available for instant purchase. Before that, they encouraged fans to collect live tapes and go to multiple shows and have made much of the intensely special band/audience relationship that grew out of that special set of circumstances. It granted them a level of freedom (artistically and economically) that is rarely achieved in this business. They are not a typical band. And so we have choices. It's completely appropriate to compare tonight against previous Phish shows, rather than against, say, some random hipster band or Britney Spears. And given the choice of other Phish shows to listen to, there's almost nothing here you need to seek out in order to continue to have a fully up-to-date and informed view on contemporary Phish.
Thankfully, a show like tonight is frustrating precisely because we know the band can deliver something much fresher than the stuff of 6/15/11. If I had written the recap for several shows earlier this tour, they would have been raves. I just happen to have been on tap for the recap the night of an uninspiring show. Perhaps the rest of this tour will be outstanding. By 3.0 standards, this tour has been particularly free with its periodic glimpses of improvisational gumption—Bethel2 with its "Haley's," "Runaway Jim" and "Bathtub Gin"; the Blossom "Sneakin' Sally," the Clarkston "Down With Disease," even the Great Woods "Rock and Roll." It's been a very encouraging tour. They're getting it done with improvisational muscle, rather than pre-arranged wacky bustouts. I can't wait for Tahoe.
What makes a night like this so frustrating is that they're still so good. Page, who sounded completely uninterested at times during 3.0, is possibly at the peak of his career. MIke seems game for anything. Trey's chops are at their highest point in years. And they all seem lively, healthy, having fun and into it. I think they're accomplishing what they want to accomplish, and walked offstage tonight feeling they nailed it.
It's not that they can't do it. It's just that, far too often, they don't seem to want to. Of course, the "it" in this case is just what I, and many other fans, want—which is, in short, an advancement beyond what the band had accomplished circa, say, 1992. When you capably re-create something you've been doing for 30 years, with no attempt at advancement, that is the definition of nostalgia. It's not what Phish does every night. But it's what they do plenty of nights. Like tonight.
Of course the "Birdwatcher" -> "Kung" was awesome. It was funny and lively and in-the-moment and unpredictable and Phishy. It was probably the best thing all night.
Is that enough?
Not for me. Your mileage may vary. And Phish's does as well.