Summer’s here and the time is right to skip the preliminaries and get right to the action. So let’s!
The band takes the stage at nTelos Wireless Pavilion just before 8pm and warms up with a perfunctory “Sample,” which gives way to the oblong Delta rhythms of “Party Time.” During the jam segment, Trey introduces Carl “Geerz” Gerhard of Giant Country Horns fame, informing the audience that Gerhard now leads music instruction for all of America’s armed forces(!). “Geerz” blows a big old solo that brings the crowd to life before taking a bow and exiting stage left to the first notes of a rare but mostly unremarkable first set “Simple.”
A strong “Axilla” follows before Trey honors an audience request for “Tube,” which proves concise. The expected “Kill Devil Falls” appears next, but also stays well within itself, forfeiting the night’s second opportunity for some genuine improv. A brief conference then yields two originals that have not been played since last summer’s Lake Tahoe run – “Water in the Sky” and “Horn” – and each comes across quite rusty in its own way.
By this time, we’re fanny-pack-deep into yet another first set marked by directionless song choices and timid execution. Time for a change-up, which comes in the form of Phish’s second reading of Mike’s Moss original “Babylon Baby” – whose “Wedge”-like structure is very well suited to Phish. And lookie here, we have our first highlight of the night, as Trey unexpectedly sticks the landing before dipping into “Bathtub Gin.”
Several minutes into a subdued and even doped “Gin” conversation, Fishman suddenly pushes the tempo, gunning for escape velocity, and goading Trey to respond with a few bars of fleet-fingered chicken picking. But the pace proves too much for Trey, who cycles back into the main theme and sews a tidy button on the night’s first promising jam.
So close, and yet so far.
“Stealing Time from the Faulty Plan” peeks out from behind a curtain of noise to do what it most often does, and a hilariously left-field version of “I Didn’t Know” calls back “Party Time” when Trey introduces Fishman as “The Executive Officer of the Air Force” and admonishes him to tuck his muumuu into his boxers before honoring the troops with his vacuum solo. The set concludes with a light-hearted “Run Like an Antelope” that finds Trey substituting ad lib banter about Fishman’s dress (“For 30 years you’ve been leaving your dress untucked! Tuck in your dress man! You’re out of control!”) in lieu of the “spike” lyrics.
And with a crowd-pleasing finish to an uneven set of 2012 Phish, we’re out.
Still no “YEM” this year, as you might have noticed... will we see one in set two? Let’s find out.
“Back on the Train” kicks off the third quarter and threatens to get nasty before Trey gamely steers into “Rift” – a song that has handcuffed Phish 3.0 frequently but comes off comparatively well tonight. With some wind in the sails now, Fishman introduces the year’s first “Split Open and Melt,” (or, as Trey sings in the first chorus, “split open and tuck”).
“Melt” benefits from the night’s first genuine collective risk-taking, with Trey painting in broad sonic strokes and making tasteful use of his Whammy pedal "whale call," which is more than welcome in safe doses. No thunderous peak or revelation of any kind, but instead a quick transition into “Mango Song,” which despite its spirited execution reinforces the first set feel of the early second set. Both “Backwards Down the Number Line” and “Limb By Limb” apex well short of orbit, though the latter tune features some brilliant work by Chris Kuroda on his new LED rig. The song-dense second set presses on with “Shine a Light,” the night’s very first excursion outside the Phish family canon.
Fishman steals the spotlight now with a tuck of his dress, and invites anybody within spitting distance to come up on stage for a tuck and a sway. Takers during “Lengthwise” include one of my good friends from Los Angeles, but the band’s judgment comes down harshly as they conclude that their fans “suck at tucking.” Tough audience up there on the stage! Trey asks Chris to dim the lights to feature a light saber he’s commandeered from a fan in the front row, and waves it about as he reveals that he is Fishman’s father. It’s 3-4 minutes of welcome whimsy that clears the mental decks for a unique and fiery installment of “Maze,” which features Trey playing his Languedoc with the aforementioned light saber.
The band offers up a pair of capable, cock-rocking set closers in “Cavern” and “Fire” (“Let the tucker take over!”) before Mike and Trey re-appear for the encore in sombreros to serenade the audience with “Mexican Cousin.” Finally, Mike and Trey doff the sombreros for a sober and elegant “Slave to the Traffic Light,” and that’s all she wrote.
In sum, the first night in Portsmouth proves a largely jam-free affair that nonetheless manages to entertain and even thrill at times. It’s worth remembering that this band still commands a deep repertoire of wonderful tunes, and can craft a night of music like few other acts around.