The last three times Phish have played the Coliseum have all come under extraordinary events. First Phish came back from their hiatus in the 2002/3 inverse New Years Run. Right before breaking up, they added a final indoor show in 2004, one with an amazing first set and a second that was… less so. When they returned again, the USS Hampton was once again the venue of choice. With all of the focus on death and rebirth, there hasn’t been a chance to just play a run of shows here. Finally 2013 delivers normal shows. Demand is down, everyone can get in, expectations are low (which – of course – leads to the inverse expectation game that makes expectations high because they were previously so low), it’s time for a normal run in an abnormal venue.
Speaking of abnormal, the show started with “Bathtub Gin.” This was the first time “Gin” opened a show since 6/30/99. The last time it opened either set to that prior was at this very location in 1998. The “Gin” did what they do these days. The jam was brought to a euphoric peak but just when people started to think that it would be THAT version, it quickly ended. 3.0 “Gin”s are akin to watching Marshawn Lynch rush for the Seahawks. Endless exciting and dramatic looking plays that result in 4 yard gains… until there’s the one where he busts loose for 45. It just feels like there’s going to be the one where it will happen. Stay tuned sports fans, and keep handing “Gin” the rock!
We then got a pair of pairs. Two songs that were once loved but now are lamented for not being what they were in their golden age: “Moma Dance” and “Tube,” were followed by a bevy of ballads. This “Tube” might not make anyone forget 1998, but for a shorter version it went to some interesting places. For those of you who were not watching at home – based on stubhub prices, I’m guessing that’s like 50 of you – yes, they did switch to Fight Cam Bell on the webcast when Mike stepped on it. In both pairs, the second song was the standout. “Fast Enough For You” was a solid enough version, but “The Ballad of Curtis Loew” really benefitted from its increased play in recent years. They’re able to do a little more with it than they have, adding fills and interesting breaks. It also showed off that Page’s voice was completely 100% fine.
Why was that important? Because “Ya Mar” followed and that made it apparent that Mike’s wasn’t. He braved through it, trying it sing as best as he could, but it was obvious that he was a tad under the weather. Rock and Roll doesn’t break for flus. He might have not been able to sing at his best, but he was given a bonus “Play it Cactus” break at the end. He let his bass do the singing for him.
So if you’re Phish and you know that one of your band members is having trouble singing – and any doubt about that was driven home during his lines in “My Sweet One” – you have two options. You could give him (and the audience) a break and lay off any more songs he has to sing. Alternatively, you could launch into “Mike’s Song.” Guess which approach Phish chose.
In a year where “Mike’s” has largely had weird fillers, many played for the first time ever in that spot, it’s refreshing to hear “I Am Hydrogen” in its classic role. It provides such a sharp relief from the intensity of the “Mike’s” and the joy of “Weekapaug.” This “Groove” was especially strong. It sounded like something was teased during the jam; guesses have included “Jumping Jack Flash,” “Satisfaction,” and “Going to a Go-Go.” Well at least narrowed it down to the band.
Second night brought the Hampton themed webcast jokes. There was a list of other live albums that were purported to be recorded there (e.g. The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl), a statement that Hampton has four sister cities that it largely keeps in touch with on Facebook and the news that the city was named after Colonel Bruce.
The second set opened with a spacey jam that wanted to resolve into “Down With Disease” or “2001.” “DWD” or “ASZ”: which shall it be? Answer: “Ghost.” The “Ghost” jam – like all of Gaul – was divided into three parts. There was a happy section akin to last night’s “Carini” peak, a classic rock styled jam that could have perhaps gone into “Sparks” or reprised the mystery tease. Instead we went into a stunning space jam.
The space jam to transition into the next song has been such a common technique in recent years that there’s a Pavlovian response to hearing one; people immediately start wondering what song will be next. This time Phish let it stretch out a bit, playing exploring the space for its own sake, not just a way to get to the next song.
Eventually we did get that next song and it was what could have been the previous one: “Down With Disease.” A trend was starting here. If Mike can’t sing, play songs where others take the vocals, preferably with long jams. That might have seemed logical, but it wasn’t the plan. While the “Ghost” went on for 18 minutes, the “Disease” was only half that length. They made the most of it though; the brief, mellow jam was blissful.
This was followed by everyone’s favorite excuse to hit the fog button. This would be no normal “Steam” though. Mike started playing his cowbell with drumsticks. Trey moved over to the drum kit, but this would not be a rotation jam. Fishman stayed and Page played keys over the triple percussion. Mike started playing whatever he could find with the sticks, even using them to help him play bass. Eventually Trey returned to his guitar and the song was finished. Those moments of complete confusion are always fun to experience, virtually or not. I don’t know how interesting it will sound on future listens, but the novelty was cool if nothing else.
“Prince Caspian” has been surprisingly strong ever since Telluride. The brief jam sections are unpredictable. Sure there won’t be a 15-minute space jam… or at least there hasn’t been one but there’s potential now. Sure they went into “Boogie On Reggae Woman” just as it was starting to get interesting, but it’s still a novelty that the Dawn Treader is being used for exploration.
After a few shorter songs (“Theme,” “The Wedge,” yet another “Horse”-less “Silence” Carriage), it was obvious that the set was winding down. “Harry Hood” was chosen for the closer role. The introduction was cut rather short, making it appear that this would be a quick run for the exits. The rush wasn’t to end the set. They just wanted to get to the jam section. The “Hood” jam started and ended in the usual place, it just took a bizarre route to get there. We definitely can feel good when that happens.
While the “Quinn” encore seemed apropos for a second due to the fact that both the song and venue had associations with the Grateful Dead, there was one flaw present. Mike sings this song. The set long vocal chord break wasn’t enough to restore his range.
Vocal issues or not, this was a great show to have early in a tour. It was strong enough that it shows the potential for all sorts of interesting directions, but wasn’t so stunning to make the rest of the tour feel like a letdown. This night was a strong foundation with some room to grow. As long as someone can get Mike a cup of herbal tea before tomorrow’s show, we should be set up well.