At least in theory, this was a night when things were poised to go sideways.
Temperatures in Noblesville, Indiana, peaked near 110° F today as the entire Midwestern United States roasted. Phish issued a sober advisory to fans, warning them to seek shelter, hydrate, and SPF themselves liberally. In contrast with the scorching temps, the decision to interrupt leg one of summer tour with a four day break after three strong consecutive performances led some to wonder whether Phish might come back cold, and give back some of those hard-won gains.
Those fears were put to rest early and often during tonight’s “first quarter,” which featured an uninterrupted daisy chain of relative rarities and 2012 firsts. The a capella TAB staple “Birdwatcher” signalled the band’s desire to shrink the shed and invoke the spirit of the unexpected that has permeated so many of Phish’s epic performances at Deer Creek. A pristine and unpredictable “Curtain With” followed, suggesting a willingness to build energy patiently, and organically – and then gave way to the alleyway mugging of “Fuck Your Face.”
Mike sang beautifully through Deer Creek’s third “Old Home Place,” once again anchoring the set in place and time. A slightly choppy but very welcome “Pebbles and Marbles” perpetuated the variety pack theme, as did a slightly choppier but equally welcome “Weigh” (whose swimming pool reference must have seemed almost cruel to those in attendance).
“Chalk Dust Torture” kicked off the second quarter with a deliberately brief blast of blues rock, and precipitated a concise take on “Wolfman’s Brother” that smoldered but never truly ignited. The first “Cool It Down” since 2010 was a pretty solid bet to appear at some point during the evening, and those bets paid off with a laid back, earthbound version of the Velvet Underground chestnut.
“Tweezer” – the second in as many shows – was clearly a nod to the weather and, in contrast with the pranksterish “you had to be there” Blossom entry four nights earlier, colored well within the lines. An old school ritardando ending brought us to a full stop, and then Page introduced “Tela,” a song that’s hard to play right and easy to quibble with. No gold stars for this “Tela” but no offending clams either, as the verses summoned cooling winds “from beyond the mountains.”
A typically thunderous “Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan” and it was time for a well-earned cold green tea break. Taken as a whole, this was a first set for bustout sluts and the longtime faithful – carefully prepared, lovingly delivered, and coherent in flow (if not improvisationally ambitious).
The second half roared to life with a “Mike’s Song” exactly like every other “Mike’s Song” in recent memory – feisty, pugilant... and too damned short. I wonder sometimes whether the band has simply forgotten that they were once both able and inclined to give this tune a workout, or whether the perfectly fungible nature of 3.0 “Mike’s Songs” stems from their contentedness to let it play a fixed role in a set list.
But it’s Phish, and like the weather in Indiana, if you don’t like it, just wait five minutes. A rare and wonderfully plinko-inflected “McGrupp and the Watchful Hosemasters,” you say? Don’t mind if I do! Trey absolutely pegged the climactic solo in this version, which outshined any in recent memory save for perhaps the sublime acoustic version from Festival 8. A must-hear.
“Back on the Train” galloped along for a while without apparent destination until finally Trey turned pedal-happy and proposed a decidedly extraterrestrial destination. A jaw-dropping deep space jam ensued that hinted at both “No Quarter” and Pink Floyd’s “Empty Spaces” before segueing deftly into a somewhat extended “Hold Your Head Up.” Fishman introduced himself as Henrietta and cajoled unmistakable motorcycle sounds from his Electrolux in the “Bike” that followed, revving the engine and shifting gears. Then, instead of going back to his kit for the “Weekapaug Groove” intro, Fishman picked up Trey’s guitar and doubled down on weird, offering some outside riffs that would have made Col. Bruce Hampton proud. He didn’t overstay his welcome, thankfully, but instead traded places with Trey to anchor an exceptionally hot “‘Paug.”
An unremarkable and unfinished “Prince Caspian” yielded promisingly to the year’s inaugural “Waves,” which found Fish pushing the tempo and Mike assuming melodic control from Trey as the jam drifted from its orbit. It is from sonic nebulae like this that the jarring rip-chords of disjointed song choices far too frequently emerge these days, but not this time; the band was content to establish and sustain a compelling mood before bringing things to an earned and lovely resolution. “Bug” has batted in the fourth quarter “Jerry ballad” slot in the lineup quite a bit of late, and so it did tonight. I know many fans feel differently but I love this song and appreciated the extra TLC it received at this show.
Apart from the first set “McGrupp,” “David Bowie” featured Trey’s most sure-fingered picking and fretting of the night. It was a compact and straightforward version, however, that seemed to want for a “Catapult” sandwich or something that would otherwise reinforce the evening’s decidedly psychedelic motif. Still, an energetic conclusion to an extremely strong set of Phish.
I will confess that I hate “Show of Life.” It only works for me if I re-imagine the lyrics as bone-dry satire, much like I do when forced to listen to, say, Glenn Frey. I was unable to accomplish that tonight, but I’m glad to set the selection aside as it’s certainly not enough to dampen my enthusiasm for what came before it. Mike deployed two unusually massive bunker busters as the obligatory “Tweezer Reprise” cranked up, and a few minutes later this one was in the books.
It’s hard to imagine that anybody left Deer Creek unsatisfied tonight, despite the aforementioned pre-show worries. I reserve the right to adjust my appraisal tomorrow upon hearing the show a second time, but for now this feels like the most consistent tip-to-tail show of 2012, and perhaps by a large margin. As cliched as it sounds, it featured something for everyone, including demanding jam partisans (who dined sumptuously in “BOTT” and “Waves”). But, hey: the buried lede from tonight may very well be that after two must-hear performances in a row, “Mike’s Groove” is back. Which would be truly something!
We shall see...