When Phish announced their 2012 summer tour, the weekend trifecta in (approximately) Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Cleveland jumped out for a couple of reasons. For one, it was the only three night run of the tour in different cities. Probably more obvious – to football fans anyway – was the fact that the three cities are inextricably linked by their (sadly one-sided) rivalry in the AFC North division. And thus it was settled: AFC North tour was on.
First up was Cincy's Riverbend Music Center, a throwback venue right down to the AstroTurf "lawn" that recalls the multi-purpose stadiums of the ‘70s and '80s. "Wolfman's Brother" kicked off the festivities, but the ensuing, and well played, "Peaches" would establish the theme of this set: bustouts. Six songs would make their 2012 debuts in this set, and none was more surprising than the first "Shaggy Dog" since 10/29/95, or 574 shows. "Runaway Jim" marched in next and gave way to the next bustout, a fairly short but fiery "Light Up or Leave Me Alone."
Mr. “Wilson” showed up next and then we reached the "Alaska" portion of the set, which unfortunately did little other than kill eleven minutes that could have been put to better use. They tried to do just that with "Stash," but the jam never really got off the ground. After a couple of alleged Fishman miscues, Trey called for "Llama" (another 2012 first) since it was a song that required a drum intro. The bustouts continued with "Buffalo Bill" and "Saw it Again." Chris Kuroda's favorite Phish song, "David Bowie" closed the set that was light on the improv but nevertheless entertaining as hell.
"Down with Disease" started off the second frame and led into a fairly typical, but fun groove with some really nice playing by Trey. When things got a bit spacey, Trey somewhat puzzlingly started up a rare second set "Guelah Papyrus." "Guelah" killed the momentum a bit, but thankfully a well-above average "Kill Devil Falls" picked it back up. "Twist" followed and provided the clear improvisational highlight of the night. The jam built up very patiently, with all four band members obviously listening to each other and playing off each other... just a beautiful, airy, subtle jam that we don't get enough of these days.
A typically (for 3.0) short "Halley's" was up next before "Sand" -> "Roggae" provided the next highlight. While still not as interesting as the short but powerful Worcester version, "Sand" still provided a solid start to the so-called "fourth quarter" of the show and "Roggae" was a typically great 3.0 version. The "Carini" > "Chalk Dust" > "Golgi" trio that closed the set was good, clean fun, but nothing more. A very loose (but in a good way) "Fluffhead" encore sent us home. Much like last year's Bengals team, this was a playoff caliber affair but decidedly not Super Bowl level. Onto the home of the Steelers.
We arrived at the show in style courtesy of a well-appointed party bus and an astounding selection of beers (draft and cans) courtesy of the good people at D's Six Pax and Dogz in Pittsburgh. As enjoyable as the pre-game festivities were, the music would be even better. "Funky Bitch" is a welcome opener and gets everyone moving from the outset. After perfunctory versions of "Number Line" and "Gumbo," "Maze" provided the first serious jam of the night. As they did during the previous night's "Twist," Page and Trey played around a bit with the "Eleanor Rigby" theme before going to more typical "Maze" places. "Torn and Frayed" was a personal highlight but was an otherwise typical version. After a by-the-book "Moma," "Scent of a Mule" brought the most interesting jam of the set, including Page going to his theremin during the "Mule Duel." The straight-ahead arena rock of "46 Days" followed the relative weirdness of "Mule," and the set culminated with the well-placed "YEM" mini-bustout (the twelve show gap matched the longest gap since its debut).
The first set was a good time, but the second set was the best set of the summer (so far). "Jibboo" kicked things off and even though this version was not too far out there, it was clear that Trey had brought his "A" game, laying down one creative run after another. I was a little disappointed upon hearing the opening chords of "Mike's." The band just hasn't seemed to show any interest in pushing the limits of "Mike's" or "Weekapaug" in the 3.0 era, so I wasn't expecting much. I was wrong. "Mike's" did stay pretty much in the box, though again, Trey just sounded great and it's an energetic version. "Simple" dissolved into a heavy, bass-led jam and "Light" emerged. My first thought was that it would have a hard time living up to the AC version from a week earlier. Wrong again. Moving quickly through several themes, this version of "Light" represents the ruthlessly efficient jamming of 3.0 at its best. Not a single note is wasted as the band quickly moves from one idea to another.
The greatness continued into a "Plinko"-infused "Weekapaug" that is an easy best-of-3.0 version. The band essentially reprised the "Light" jam throughout the "Weekapag" to great effect. "Seven Below" triumphantly rose from the ashes of the "'Paug." The transition was a little bizarre, but gave the band another opportunity create on the fly. "Bouncing" allowed everyone to catch their breath before nice "Julius" > "Slave" combo closed the set. The "Lizards" encore couldn't have been more perfect (well, other than the lyrical flub). The happy coda jam had everyone smiling on the way out of the venue.
A Sunday trip to Browns country wrapped up the AFC North tour. Let's first focus on Blossom Music Center: the place has one of the more entertaining parking lot scenes on tour and, much more importantly, is probably my favorite pavilion to see a show in. Unfortunately, on this night, the band, likely as tired as some fans by three cities in three days, could not match the majesty of the surroundings.
The first set frankly came off as uninspired as it probably looks on paper. They did the bare minimum with the "Gin" jam and the only thing that may warrant a relistening aside from the closing quartet is the "Limb by Limb" (which, as an aside, I was shocked to find I had gone 35 shows without seeing). "Possum," though it is undeniably overplayed was played well, with many in the crowd shouting "Blossom!" "The Wedge" seemed like it may have had the tiniest of drops of extra mustard thrown on it and "Corinna" is always a treat to hear. Perhaps sensing the lack of energy, the band did what they could to generate some during a set closing "Meatstick" where they brought several audience members onstage to dance the "Meatstick." It all led to a raucous closing jam, but it was also perhaps a bit too contrived.
The second set started on a positive note with one of my favorite covers, "Golden Age." Unfortunately, the ensuing jam came off as a bit aimless. I'll always applaud Phish for taking risks and I was glad to see them take one here, but it just didn't grab me. My high hopes for the "Ghost" were similarly met with disappointment. Well, relative disappointment – I was still at a Phish show, having a blast, but again, the jam didn't seem to go anywhere, despite some nice stuff from Page. That said, "Sweet Virginia" put a huge smile on the face of this Exile junkie.
"Tweezer" was next and continued the trend from the "Meatstick" of the band trying to dial up the energy level. This version went straight to eleven, incorporating jams based on "Tweezer Reprise," "Under Pressure" and, ultimately the "Meatstick" (after Trey conceded that the "Under Presssure" jam "was going nowhere" because no one knew the words). "Walk Away" was next and was a thrilling version, as this segment of the show, while a bit ragged, provided the highlight of the night. Unfortunately, "The Horse" > "Silent" brought the energy back down and the band was never quite able to get it back. "Piper" was a bare bones version and, while the "Antelope" brought the factor back with more "Under Pressure" and "Meatstick" teases and other silliness, the version was otherwise typical. "Loving Cup" (the third Exile song in two nights) and "Tweeprise" sent everyone home happy, if not awestruck.
But that's okay. It wasn't for lack of effort (the first set aside). You win some, you lose some. Well, unless you're a Browns fan, in which case you lose a lot more than you win. And that, unfortunately for Cleveland fans, was the story of the last two nights of AFC North tour: Art imitates Life and Pittsburgh beats Cleveland. Lucky for Phish fans, there were no losers on the AFC North Tour. We were all Cincinnati fans on Friday, Pittsburgh fans on Saturday and Cleveland fans on Sunday and there were no losers, only various degrees of winning.