All in the Family
Portsmouth, VA. The end of another long, strange trip. The final show of this summer’s first leg, on Sunday Phish arrived at by far the most intimate venue of the tour (~7,000) on Father’s Day. This tour has been somewhat unconventional in that its strongest shows (Bethel2, Pine Knob, Blossom) were bunched at the beginning, whereas most tours tend to gather strength as they progress. The phenomenal Charlotte gig threw a huge kink in that narrative, but Raleigh, while fun, failed to fully capture Charlotte’s momentum. Their signature festival event of the summer, Superball IX, is just around the corner. Would Phish coast to the finish line, or go out with a bang?
The previous two Father’s Day gigs (6/21/09, 6/20/10) featured “Brother” show-openers, and some of the band member’s children could be seen side-stage, so the first song seemed a lock. Not so fast. Arriving on stage with each of their dads (Bob Gordon, Len Fishman, Ernie Anastasio II, and Dr. Jack McConnell), Phish opened the festivities with “Harpua!” “Oom-pa-pa, Oom-pa-pa, Oom-pa-pa, Oom-pa-pa!” Trey: “Welcome! You know, we had to start with this song, because this is the very town where IT all went down. This is the very town where IT all went down before your 31st birthday” (a fan held a sign asking for a “31-minute Walls of the Cave for my 31st birthday!” Quite the call-out, followed by a “Happy Birthday” tease). The “yes, dad” sequence included hysterical call-and-response between “Jimmy” and the actual dads! Great stuff! We are then lead into the anticipated “Brother” with the genuine “Phish kidz” hopping in the tub, with full introductions following the song and a “Leave it to Beaver” tease. What a wonderful family tradition! If you can’t love this opening sequence, your heart is simply made of stone.
The set then settles into a more standard sequence, with a compact “Down with Disease.” The middle portion of this set is comparatively uneventful but all-energy, all-the-time, with “typically excellent” though well-within-the-box versions of “Back on the Train,” “Funky Bitch,” “Timber,” “The Wedge” and “The Moma Dance.” The very sad occasion of the passing of one of the greatest side-men in the history of rock, saxophonist Clarence Clemons, provided the backdrop for a moving tribute, the Phish debut of Springsteen’s “Thunder Road.” Trey assumed the vocal duties and tearfully channeled The Big Man’s traditional saxophone solo on guitar. Was it perfect? No. Does it matter? Hell, no! R.I.P., Clarence.
Following crowd chants of “Bruuuuce” Trey said “Are people saying ‘Bruce’ or ‘Tube’? We better play ‘Tube’!” A brief yet punchy “Tube” is followed by the return of “Alaska” to its native home in the first set, offering Trey a languid soloing canvass to explore. “David Bowie” concludes this excellent first frame in stellar fashion. Phish offered a wonderfully crafted set that explores a full range of human emotion, one that reminds us to love our own families, every day. Let’s all exhale and take a break... for fifteen minutes.
“Crosseyed and Painless” opens the money set in a strong up-tempo fashion that was sure to thrill the audience, but a version that was essentially interchangeable with any of the other versions from 2011. Welcome to heavy rotation, “C+P” (25% – 5 of 20 – of all Phish versions have now been performed in 2011); it is a place that has its benefits and its drawbacks. Not a “complaint,” just an observation. The sign-holding birthday boy was next granted his wish with the brilliant Tom and Trey composition “Walls of the Cave.” Not a “31-minute version” as the fan had requested but a satisfying offering in a perfect spot in the set, with an especially fierce “Silent Trees” segment. A sublime “Slave to the Traffic Light” is up next with a “typically” great jam segment, providing moments for quiet reflection, as this already very pleasing set is then cleared for takeoff.
An extremely well-played “Fluffhead” is next, dropping a composition-heavy anchor in the middle of the set; I don’t always praise Trey’s setlist construction, but when I do, I chose Portsmouth set II! Then what is likely to stand out as the highlight of a show chock-full of same, “Sand” is on deck. Trey had this totally new (at least to my ears) swirly-guitar loop effect on – perhaps someone with more effects-knowledge than I can fill us in? A delicious, funky excursion follows, what a jam! Given the stiff competition I’m sticking to the 72-hour rule and will not claim this is the “jam of the tour,” but this jam encapsulates everything that is great about Phish jamming in 2011 when it gets “there.” The clarity of Trey’s tone and playful spirit of attack, some almost ‘97-esque start-stop jamming with Mike and Fish completely locked in, Page offering waves of spice on top, and a mini “silent jam,” this is IT!
“Sneaking Sally” keeps the house rocking and even this short version makes room for a swinging vocal jam before giving way to “Light.” Not quite living up to the anchoring jam position it held for much of 2009 and 2010 on this tour, this version wastes no time in leaving the nest of the structure and jumping out on a melodious limb; not an “all-time” version but jam-packed with the high-quality adult entertainment. “Backwards Down the Number Line” follows and while sticking mostly to script briefly adopts a quieter, more reflective tone. The always-rocking “Suzy Greenberg” takes the set home with plenty of “WHAT?!” and “Page’s HOUSE!” After a few end-of-tour offerings of thanks from Trey, he noted that his oldest daughter, Eliza, made him tell the story of how she crushes her dad in Rock Band competitions on “Wilson!” A spirited “Julius” encore and it is time to pack the trucks... for Suberball icks.
So, this show was slightly below-average, I give it a 4.5... WOW! Lucky me, I get to write up Charlotte and Portsmouth, clearly two of the best if not the best shows of the tour, providing a monumental exclamation point to summer ‘11 leg 1. This show has it all from the wacky, the heartfelt, the serious, the silly, and the straight-up heat! If you were on the fence about the Suberball, GET OFF. Or you won’t... get off! Full tour recaps and highlights are coming to a phish.net blog near you, so allow me to close with thanks to the band, their families, and especially their fathers. Bob, Len, Ernie, and Jack: thank you for raising The Phish From Vermont. We owe you, big time.
See ya at the track!