I have bittersweet feelings about tonight, as there’s part of me that wishes this tour could go on and on. I love many of these sets and even shows individually, but most of all what I really like about this leg one is its narrative arc. By and large, since regaining their footing in Atlantic City, Phish is telling a story about consistency – the kind of consistency that makes a Phish show a very safe bet in 2012. They are playing like a band in command of its arsenal, and with an understanding of what its discerning fans expect and desire. More often than not, they are sending those fans away sated with a winning combination of showmanship, deep cuts from the repertoire, and a healthy balance of tight and loose playing. Even the most jaded fan can find something to be glad for about this stand.
But we’ve got one more gig to go, and if it’s 45 minutes past the time on your ticket, it must be showtime. Let’s do this!
Throughout the first half of this tour, the staff here at Phish.net grumbled both publicly and amongst ourselves about fourth quarter doldrums – either a flurry of oddly placed songs or hurried jamming in the latter half of a second set that often amounted to a deceleration of sorts and gummed up the flow. By and large, with just a few exceptions, that problem seems to have been addressed and put behind us. Now in its place we seem to be seeing lots of tepid first quarters, and tonight serves as a prime example.
I don’t want to overstate this, read too deeply into it, or imply that I’m losing sleep over it. I’ve seen enough Phish to understand that it’s not entirely new. It’s even defensible. Three hours is a long time to play their brand of rock, especially in the oppressive heat of summer. It takes concentration and energy, and if I have to pick between a balls-to-the-wall first quarter and a balls-to-the-wall fourth quarter, the fourth quarter gets the nod every day of the week and twice on Sunday.
But there’s nothing remarkable or attention getting about the “AC/DC Bag” opener tonight, or the four song stretch that follows. Among them, “Camel Walk” – a tune that I am always super glad to hear live – reveals a band that may very well be experiencing some fatigue.
But enough about that. Let’s talk about the mid-set “Party Time.” Great stuff, and a likely “best ever” candidate for this number, which ventures beyond its typical role as a crowd-pleasing mood maker (Phish’s “Aiko Aiko,” perhaps) and points to its own promise as a vehicle for spirited group jamming. A turning point for the song – and for the set, as we’d come to learn.
What most certainly does merit discussion is the gargantuan “Split Open and Melt” > “La Grange” pairing that ends the set. Standalone “Melts” have been mostly fenced-in affairs during Phish’s 3.0 era, with unclear direction and modest peaks. Tonight’s is triumphant, and reminiscent at times of the throbbing, back-of-the-worm versions from the summer of ‘97. It would be ridiculous to qualify my praise for this “Melt” by noting that it isn’t flawlessly played; very few versions of this song are, and that’s not the point besides. Tonight the band captures the broken, horrorshow spirit of the composition, and peaks it with purpose. At the risk of damning with faint praise, I’ll call it the best “Melt” since Coventry, and walk that back later if I need to...
But lest you think that’s all she wrote, think again, because here comes the first “La Grange” since 1999, delivered like a precise right cross. The entire band attacks this long forgotten ZZ Top cover with 1.0-style, type I zeal.
And that, my friends, is how you bring home a first set.
Having earned their breather, Phish bounds out of the gate with a punchy “Axilla” to open set two. “Light” is so consistently transcendent these days that its first chords get fans genuinely excited, and it’s great to hear them respond to late-era material this enthusiastically (Dear Phish, please write new songs). Trey apologizes sheepishly for transposing verses before the band drops into a lilting, watery jam section. The ensuing conversation pinballs around a bit, with nobody willing to choose a vector, and it seems unlikely that this “Light” has its controls set for the heart of the sun. Before long, Fishman drops out, leaving Trey and Page to debate the merits of “Twist” before settling on precisely that.
“Twist” features some jamming around the main “Oye Como Va” riff [author's note: having re-listened thanks to some comments in the blog, it is definitely not "Oye Como Va" but "In A Gadda Da Vida"], but otherwise just coasts along for a few minutes before yielding to “Kill Devil Falls.” After a straightforward but impassioned jam section, the band returns to the closing chorus, but instead of ending the song, breaks out a bonus “reprise” jam that wanders quickly off the beaten path, painting briefly in primary colors and to lovely effect. Splendid reading of “KDF” and a must-hear, right down to the nifty segue into “My Friend, My Friend.”
“My Friend” is marred by clammy execution, unfortunately, but in lieu of its usual “MYFE!” ending bleeds instead into “Swept Away” > “Steep” – which not only conjures fond memories of the Billy Breathes era but also sounds goddamn great these days when dressed up in its elegant, lyrical new jam. I love this pairing and it is lovingly played and well placed here.
“Piper” pops up next and begins to show promise when Fishman doubles the beat and Mike initiates a four-chord progression similar to “Uncle John’s Band.” The harmonic idea doesn’t take, but a simplified version emerges a minute or so later, and Trey jumps back into the fray with his most dextrous lead playing of the night. The jam soon reaches a soaring climax, tethered to terra firma only by Fish’s jazzy beat – a four-on-the-floor approach might have ultimately been more satisfying, but I’m nitpicking here – and then hints at a second climax before rocketing off into interplanetary space, where no foot pedal is left un-stomped...
From the ashes of this blazing “Piper” we hear the declarative open D chord of “Free,” a wonderful song that could benefit from either practice or some time on the shelf. This version was sloppy and unfortunately rather pointless - especially since the unexpected “Kung” would have been such an inspired call straight out of the “Piper” meltdown.
Fishman quotes “Kung” (“from the hills...”) in the truncated opening to “Harry Hood,” which is beautifully played and builds to a more satisfying climax than many recent versions. A hot “Cavern” brings the set to a raucous conclusion with Mike slapping away with all he’s got, signalling his obvious pleasure with how this night has played out...
Wait! There’s more? There’s more! “David Bowie” threatens to bust the curfew, especially if there are encore shenanigans in the offing. Trey teases “Crosseyed and Painless” en route to a fiery peak in this brief but gratifying “Bowie,” and the last set of leg one is in the books.
If you polled the SPAC audience right now and asked them what they want to hear, it’s a safe bet that the rather dormant “You Enjoy Myself” would be the top pick – and so it is! This “YEM” proves nearly pristine until a slightly muffed transition into the vocal jam, but no matter. We’re in Bonus-ville now, and “YEM” is the perfect capstone to a set as grand as any in recent memory.
Valued readers: this is why we are critical. Because sets like this, and arguably shows like this, deserve to be set apart, and appraised differently from the pack, and if we blow our glitter all over the common stuff, we have no descriptors left. Personally, I am glad and proud to be able to fluff the hell out of this final show of leg one, and so let’s take a look at what just went down...
We got unusually strong and certainly “top 5 of 3.0” versions of “Party Time,” “Melt,” “Kill Devil Falls,” and “Piper.” We got perfectly-rendered deep-shelf cuts in “La Grange,” “Swept Away” > “Steep,” and “Kung.” And we got a second setlist as carefully and successfully constructed as any in years, right down to the “YEM” encore. All of this serves to redeem a weak first quarter and then some, and should send both fans and the band home to sleep contentedly, feeling good about the State of Phish in 2012.
Well done, Phish. I will see you in Long Beach on August 15th!