The last time Phish ended a run at SPAC, it was the cherry on top of a sweet 2012 first leg. This time around, the band is still gearing up for the summer and their 30th anniversary, as well as adjusting to a new/old configuration with Fish in the middle. In short, tours rarely seem to hit the jackpot right off the bat. SPAC3 2013 cashes in on a few jams, breaks even on others, and occasionally loses out. The takeaway from the evening, though, is that this slightly-above-average-great show means that the big bucks are still on the way.
The first set has great song selection, even though “AC/DC Bag” isn’t going to blow anyone’s mind by opening a show. It appears in the first or second slot so often for a reason; it’s a good way to loosen up and get the blood flowing. After a false ending from Trey, we get the real tightening of the noose, and the first highlight of the evening in the form of a solid “Back on the Train” boogie. This is a fun and extremely danceable type-I version, with accompaniment from Kuroda’s mesmerizing-yet-simple new lighting backdrop (which I’m in love with). “Divided Sky” is an excellent choice to follow “BOTT,” and the composed sections are clean. But while the jam starts in delicate fashion, with some nice additions from Fishman, to my ears there are a lot of sour notes from that point on.
“Free” has become an enormous tease for me. Every time, they get me thinking that they might stretch it out and give it some air, and every time Trey hits that chord that means the end is coming and leaves my balloon flat. But I’ll keep hoping. In the meantime, we are offered a Rift-fest in the form of “It’s Ice” and “Mound” (both solidly performed) and “Maze.” “Maze” is a different sort of tease, a potential detour into something completely un-“Maze”-like. There is a bit of reggae, which is quickly dropped, and then it seems like they might slow down and deconstruct the jam, but the result is just miscommunication and a botched transition into the Trey solo. The Trey section delivers the “Maze” tension well, but the release doesn’t explode as the best versions can. “Limb by Limb” then compresses the elements of this show into one song; the first part of the jam is fairly standard, then about six minutes in there is an interesting detour into Cactusland. But that lasts for only a minute, and there are some more unpleasant moments (again, to my ears) before “LxL” wraps up. “Walls of the Cave” is another great selection, and does as well closing a first set as “AC/DC Bag” does opening it. This version performs capably, but is not “SPACtacular.”
“Down with Disease” second set openers have become as common as “AC/DC Bag” first set openers, but when the jams have the potential to go just about anywhere, who cares? This “Disease” flirts with a few different moods. It first rages in typical rock fashion, then briefly becomes uplifting and melodic before taking a dark and dirty turn. I particularly like the last two minutes of this jam, which eventually dies and gives up to “Ghost.” Aside from some “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” teasing (and some technical problems with Page’s new vocoder), this “Ghost” mostly just floats around until the 7:30 mark, when Page injects plinko and things get interesting. There is a brief return to the “JJF” theme, but as the jam nears 11 minutes, there’s some musical indecision. Are we about to get spacey and cool down? Are we about to speed back up? No, we’re about to make an abrupt segue into “Piper,” which accelerates quickly and smoothly, peaks with authority, and descends into a beautiful coda that concludes with “Wading in the Velvet Sea.”
“Run Like an Antelope” is a little rough at the start and doesn’t run with its brother from Bangor, but it’s pretty much spot on and nice to hear mid-set rather than as a closer. It also has the vocal tag at the end, which you don’t often hear live, and contains lyrical changes which require a subsequent taste of the “Meatstick.” With that little Vienna sausage consumed, we’re ready for “You Enjoy Myself,” which is money in the bank on most nights. This, in my opinion, is not one of those nights. The jam gets off to a good start, with some staccato/plinko action between Trey and Mike especially, but what Trey plays from there just is not pleasing to my ears. I am not a musician, and I don’t have any idea about technique and equipment. I only know what I like and don’t like, and this pitch-bending effect that Trey uses, to my untrained ears, sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. Here, as in “Divided Sky” and “Limb by Limb,” I don’t think it works. The beautiful buzz of “Loving Cup” tops us off, and SPAC ’13 is in the books.
It was a fantastic holiday weekend, and this is just the start of what promises to be an amazing summer. While I wouldn’t call this a “great” show, it has plenty that makes me excited for what comes next. Look for the band to gamble bigger and press their luck as they play Toronto and then move down the coast this week. Hope to see you at MPP! Be safe, everyone!