With the conclusion of Phish’s midwest swing, the heat will certainly be spoken about for years to come. In more than one way, even. As temperatures grew towards the century mark, so did the band’s own brand of fire.
When the band hit the stage on Sunday evening the typical tradition of discussing what to play first commenced, with the island infused rhythms of Bob Marley’s “Soul Shakedown Party” setting stage for the evening. Important to note though was what Trey and Mike both fiddled with during the preamble. If you listen back to the Live Phish recording, at 0:23 you can clearly hear Trey begin playing “Chalk Dust Torture Reprise” with Mike following suit. Definitely a fun trivia fact (h/t @zzyzx) and something to throw on to the rarities wish list. Speaking of rarities, for the fourth show in a row, another track off the Velvet Underground’s Loaded found its way into the set. Driven by Fish’s vocal stylings the country rock number "Lonesome Cowboy Bill" is highlighted by a fancy bit of guitar work from Trey, that begs for even more exploration. But the majority of the first set is marked not by high improvisation, rather with the outstanding technical play that has become much more prevalent over the recent week as the set bounces between styles that are masterfully executed.
The real difference between the end of 2011, and even the beginning of 2012, is showcased in a song like “Dirt.” With a trademark solo from Trey, the band hits all the changes and pulls together a rendition that pays the proper tribute to such a beautiful song. The following “A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing” was an opportunity to cast off the lines and drive for deeper waters as the band launched into its first appearance in 2012, but while powerful the jam never really takes flight. The sets improvisational highlight was found in a much more unexpected place however. Spending 6-7 minutes in dark and murky spaces of ASIHTOS is easy, but a brilliant outro jam to "Fee" is a wholly different beast. Melodic in portions and haunting in others, this is the band improvising. Just steps from the original song, but completely original and in the moment. Like I said, it’s relatively easy to throw on the delay and create an ambient wash and call that jamming, as can be seen in the Twist from Cincinnati, but at every step during the "Fee" outro the band is engaged and writing new music on the fly. This may be one of the genuine highlights of the tour thus far, and I’d easily put it above many Set 2 moments from previous shows. But in the end this set illustrates what the band is doing really well, playing their diverse catalog without ramming a grab bag of 9 rotating songs down the audience’s throats every third night.
Not many songs get a second set rolling like “Crosseyed and Painless,” but while immensely danceable the version doesn’t push beyond its predictable groove. However, a beautiful outro builds via Fish’s “vocal range” and Trey’s tapestry leading into yet another powerful version of the Led Zeppelin classic “No Quarter.” This song is just perfect for Phish, deep textures with an underlying groove the number showcases nearly all of the band’s strengths. Deep improvisation would come though, in the following song “Light.” Nearly all of the 2012 versions have been exciting in one way or another and this version impresses once again. From Trey’s delicate pick work, backed by Mike’s “Frankie Says” bass line the band communicates throughout the jam building into a major progression for the second half. This version could definitely be their best effort since the strong versions in Fall 2010. It’s really quite good and gives way to an equally good version of “Ghost”, save for hitting that god damn break. Compact and powerful, this is a perfect example of how Phish in its current incarnation differs from previous years. Beginning at 5:30, Fish makes a move he has executed well several times this tour by pushing tempo and forcing the band into new space. When he then decelerates, the whole band follows again and over the course of two minutes the jam has two or three distinct vibes. In 9 minutes the jam takes several twists and turns and begs the question “did it have anything more to give?” It’s probably fair to say no, but the perfunctory version of “Back On The Train” leaves one wanting a little bit more. Probably the single miscue of the entire show. “Farmhouse” showcases the range shown earlier in the show with "Dirt” and is a beautiful touch on the markings of a great set. But, the closing stanza seems to just turn on the cruise control in finishing the requisite laps. This band is playing with such precision that I’d like to think there is an even better set than they have put forth thus far. 70 minutes is a long time to play for any band to play, Phish does it twice in one night so I can’t judge if they lose some of their mettle towards the end of the night. "46 days" carries the fire you’d expect (it’s actually quite good), but then "Heavy Things" and "Joy", well, just kind of are. 12 minutes that you wish could be harnessed into something else before a "Julius" closer and an encore where anything goes. But even in an area that I long for some enlightening improvisational foray, both Heavy Things and Joy are exquisitely performed, so maybe I’m grasping at straws. Even when I wish they’d play something else, this band is incredibly good.