Written by: Tim Wade @TheEmu
Phish’s return to San Francisco, perhaps the Mecca of the jam band world, for their first non-festival shows there since 1998 came with almost impossibly high expectations. A three night stand in the intimate and historic Bill Graham Civic Auditorium proved to be the toughest Phish ticket of the Summer. A strong first leg that finished with a bang at SPAC and a much-praised, jam-heavy second set to open leg two in Long Beach only added to the hopes and excitement of those lucky enough to attend. With the bar set that high, it’s unsurprising that Phish's first two shows of the weekend would leave many fans feeling disappointed and counting on a big Sunday comeback. And comeback they did.
“Crowd Control” started off the show quite well, perhaps a nod to the fans who were left thinking “Show us why we came here… give it to us loud and clear!” after nights one and two. Turning up the flame a bit, “Party Time” hops in and really gets the dancing started. “Party Time” is a song that seems to be coming into its own, following a raucous rendition with Carl “Geerz” Gerhard at Portsmouth1 and an exceptional, modestly jammed-out one at SPAC3. While this performance doesn’t outdo either version from leg one, it further solidifies “Party Time” as a strong first-set energy infusion. “Axilla” completes the warm-up process by being its rowdy, fist-pumping self, and with a little whale call from Trey tagged on the end, the band jumps into the first real jamming opportunity of the night, “Reba.”
San Francisco has seen some memorable “Rebas,” including three standout versions (4/17/92, 3/27/93, and 5/27/94) at The Warfield Theater and the rare type-II outing at The Fillmore (10/15/98). This “Reba,” while pretty, isn’t in the same league, as it passes on a chance at introspection and leaves any meaningful peaks in the tub. Still, its jam is smooth and charming. “Free” is up next, and does what “Free” has been doing for a while now; it gives Mike a chance to funk things up for a minute and then takes a bow. “Mound” is always a welcome treat, even when it’s flubbed a bit, but the first real standout of the night walks in on its heels, a “Walk Away” that Trey absolutely rips apart before returning to the chorus. (And, yes, there is a "Tweezer Reprise" theme of sorts in this version as there has been at other times in recent years.) “NICU” is fun and provides some chuckles and cheers, for Cactus and “Leon…Leon!” and for Trey, who laughs at the crowd’s response to the “Look back on those days when my life was a haze” line. Strong versions of “Back On The Train,” “Gotta Jibboo,” and “Roggae” show up next, and the "Roggae" in particular needs to be heard, as it is an unusually impressive version featuring Mike employing an almost Phil-Lesh-esque tone. The first set closes with a sloppy (in part), and rather dark and disturbed “David Bowie,” which is compelling for anyone who is keeping score as far as versions worth hearing from the last three years go.
Despite the flubs, which are sprinkled throughout (with an extra pinch for “Mound” and “David Bowie”), set one is quite strong, with some consistently upbeat jamming and excellent flow. Second sets, though, have been increasingly strong in 2012, as evidenced by SPAC1, SPAC3, and Long Beach, and the final set of the BGCA run is no exception.
“Crosseyed And Painless” kicks off the second set with nine minutes of straightforward power jamming before moving smoothly into type-II exploration, the last five minutes of which are truly spectacular, gorgeous, and majestic, before resolving into “Light.” Once again, the first section of "Light" is more or less typical, with dissonance and tension, as well as a “Crosseyed” tease. From there, the jam takes off and becomes magnificent. There’s amazing, mesmerizing work from Page, with Mike and Fish laying a pulsing base and Trey exploring different themes, first quirky and then nasty-good. The jam is allowed to calm and build before absolutely EXPLODING in rock glory and, moments later, we are treated with a completely fluid segue into “Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley!” This version of “Sneakin’ Sally” grooves, rages and peaks with awe-inspiring intensity before dropping, again flawlessly, into a “Crosseyed And Painless” reprise, which eventually dissolves and becomes “Theme From The Bottom.”
Last night's “Theme” is arguably among the finest versions of the song, as Trey's solo is focused and almost-soulful, quite unlike many other efforts in recent years in particular. “Rocky Top” contains another “Leon!” shout, and it was followed by “Boogie On Reggae Woman,” which while it doesn’t go as deep as the Worcester version from the start of the Summer, it is suitably funky with a nice, clavinet-heavy outro jam that blends well into the opening of “Meatstick.” Both “Meatstick” and the “Bug” that follows it are satisfying, as long as you can forgive minor flubs in “Bug” and are not predisposed to “Bug” (or "Meatstick") hate. Ultimately, though, this wonderful set is capped in what is perhaps the only appropriate way, with 2012’s third “You Enjoy Myself.” This YEM also doesn’t get out there too far, but Trey’s solo is quiet, sly and sweet, and the bass and drums segment is thunderous and outstanding, with Trey adding some percussion of his own to Mike's extended solo. The encore features a tip of the hat to San Francisco in “Ride Captain Ride,” and the “Tweezer Reprise” puts the exclamation point on a fantastic final set.
Despite its imperfections, whatever your opinion on the show overall, the “Crosseyed” > “Light” -> “Sneakin’ Sally” -> “Crosseyed Reprise” is must-hear Phish, with improvisation that vaults the entire show, as a package, into both “Best of 2012” and “Best of 3.0” conversations. Debate it to your heart’s content, but do yourself a favor and listen to it now!