As I was taking the train up from Grand Central through Connecticut Sunday afternoon, the sunny autumn day was punctuated by the news that Lou Reed, Velvet Underground founder, noise rock pioneer, occasional hit songwriter, and denizen of the downtown avant-garde, had died at age 71. There are many artists of that era whose deaths would be a devastating blow to me personally; while Lou Reed wasn’t really in that pantheon, I felt strangely sad and affected nonetheless, as though an epoch of rock and roll was somehow ended. I wondered what Velvet Underground tunes Phish would play that night, and secretly hoped we’d hear my favorite VU tune, “Venus in Furs.”
Phish owes a lot to Lou Reed. Obviously there’s the matter of the band’s 1998 Halloween album, the Velvet Underground’s 1970 masterpiece Loaded. Yet it’s hard to imagine the “Storage Jam” from SuperBall without Metal Machine Music coming first. So when Phish returned to the Hartford Civic Center after 14 years, continuing their fall theme of re-christening the old haunts of their late 90s indoor tours, everyone was expecting some kind of tribute to the late master – maybe a reprise of the Dick’s appearance of “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’,” maybe a “Sweet Jane” or “Who Loves the Sun” bustout. I was still caught off guard by the rollicking “Rock and Roll” to open the show, the first time it had done so since 12/29/98.
Phish played their set one opener like a set two opener, building the song’s rock peak, blowing it out of the water, and then settling in for an excursion elsewhere, allowing the jam to mix modes into minor key territory and following the dragon down that path. As the band turned into a new rhythmic pattern, Trey started layering the jam’s signature chords back into the mix, and a final chorus of “it was alllllriiiight” signaled the end, after which Trey acknowledged “one of the greatest musical minds of all time.” From the get go, it was clear that Phish would not be shying away from improvisational exploration.
“Ocelot” loped its lazy groove into the picture, and the band continues to deliver highly satisfying versions of this first set staple, building up the jam with an exclamatory release. The dark funk of “Tube” was next, and found Trey exploring rhythm as an improvisational tool rather than melody or harmony. While Page took his usual clav solo, Trey began comping chords with highly irregular rhythmic patterns, almost suggesting the strumming habits of another rhythmically odd guitarist (hint: it’s Bob Weir). With Mike’s Akai Deep Impact pedal giving the jam a sinister foundation, and Trey locking into a polyrhythmic battle with Page’s lead lines, this was no standard four-minute “Tube,” even though it clocked in at just over four minutes.
I’m a huge fan of “Halfway to the Moon,” I think it’s one of Page’s best compositions, and really reflects his songwriting sensibilities in a way that works for Phish. “Fee” came next, and Phish explored about two minutes of gorgeous outro jamming, taking the airy ending and floating it out further, creating a pointillistic tableau of harmonics and soft textures, before devolving into the darkness of “Maze.”
While this “Maze” didn’t necessarily do anything out of the ordinary, it seriously kicked ass (which is pretty ordinary for “Maze,” I suppose), pushing the jam to a wonderful climax. A trio of first set filler followed: Page came out to do his thing for “Lawn Boy,” then decided to visit Mike during his bass solo, standing next to him and directing his microphone at Mike’s strings while the instrument “sang.” Mike returned the favor by following Page back over to his side of the stage, in a little bit of stupid Phish silliness. At nearly fifty years old, it’s good to be reminded that these guys are still a bunch of dorks (and that we are, too, for loving them for it).
Next was my favorite Phish bluegrass tune, “Nellie Kane,” followed by the always fun “NICU.” When they started “A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing,” I was hoping for a possible repeat of the incredible jamming we heard in the SuperBall version. Instead, they allowed the jam to grow organically, rather than just heading out full bore from the start, starting with subdued soloing from Trey and pushing back to the closing. Finally, “Walls of the Cave” delivered a powerhouse finish to the set. As first sets go, this one was exciting and fun especially with the big, jammed-out opener, and an unusually high level of post-1995 first set songs. Yet if the past few shows were any indication, we’d get liftoff during the second set.
“Chalk Dust” opened the set at a touch slower pace than usual, and it seemed as though Trey was riding a funkier groove than the song’s usual rock feel. This, I thought, might open up to some deep places, reminiscent of the standout 8/31/13 Dick’s version. After the final chorus, Trey seemed to want to jam it out, strumming chords rather than playing the chromatic closing. The rest of the band missed the cue, and ended the song as though Trey was with them. As if to say “OK, we won’t jam that one out, but we need something to stretch out on,” the band brought out another Sunday “Tweezer.”
This “Tweezer” jam went directly for a major key area, skipping the usual dark funk that characterizes the early sections of many versions including Hampton and Tahoe. After building up to a nice peak, with Mike playing high neck contrapuntal melodies to Trey’s soloing, the band seemed to reset the jam to a new major key progression, initiating a gradual build to a grandiose, Who-esque rock jam.
The progression they found is more or less the same chords as “Weekapaug,” a double plagal progression going I-bVII-IV-I, and what was incredible was how the band built three distinct jams with completely different affects and grooves all on the same progression. First it was a chunky rock blowout, sending the crowd into a frenzy, followed by a chill downtempo section on the same chords. As ambience encroached and the jam seemed to shift into a new territory, the progression came out again, this time in a midtempo mellow groove that eventually faded into a final spacey section.
A standard “Birds of a Feather” followed, and then Phish took out the second repeat from last Sunday, “Golden Age.” Everyone was expecting this to yet again take us to some cosmic places, and just as the “Tweezer” differed greatly from Hampton’s excellent version, so too did “Golden Age” offer another panoply of jamming styles they’re capable of grafting onto this song.
The jam went in a relatively standard fashion, with Page soloing deftly on the organ and Trey laying down a funky foundation. Eventually, Trey and Fishman locked into some more of the atypical rhythms that they’d hinted at during “Tube.” This time, they took it to another level. The entire jam was an exploration of irregular rhythmic patterns, often with oddly timed accents that Kuroda was quick to pick up on and highlight visually. Page soon locked in as well, and this “Golden Age” became a funk jam of rhythm and texture, not melody nor harmonic exploration. There was some excellent start/stop jamming and some obligatory “woos,” but then they filled in the stop-time parts with more polyrhythmic patterns, before leading everything into a spacey fadeout.
It’s as if Phish wants to remind us exactly what they’re capable of, and that they aren’t merely going through the improvisational checklist. They’re actively crafting new and exciting musical ideas each night.
The “Halley’s” that followed seemed just a touch slow, which I thought bode well for some lengthy improv, but then without missing a beat Fishman turned the would-be jam into “2001.” This abrupt but seamless segue was unexpected, but fun as always. Although the jams were fine, the real excitement here came in the tiny spaces between the Strauss melody, as the band enjoyed playing with some tempo shifts and stop-time gags before launching back into the “verse.”
“Fluffhead” was excellently placed but very sloppily played, with the band seemingly out of sync during a number of the composition’s complex moments. Whatever, it’s a tough song, and they still nailed my favorite part, the melody immediately following the middle lyrics in “Clod.” “Slave” would redeem any mistakes there, and in a big way. Again taking a departure from Hampton’s version, this “Slave” began in a more standard manner but then built to peak after peak of surging power and emotion, delivering an apotheosis on the magnificent set.
Returning for the encore, Trey expressed his love for the Civic Center and recalled seeing many, many shows here when he was in prep school, noting that he and Mike attended the same show before they’d met. The “Loving Cup” encore everyone had pegged for Saturday night came out before the most exciting three minutes in rock, “Tweezer Reprise.”
What’s fascinating is that Hartford’s second set was so similar to the Sunday Hampton second set, which was the last show I saw before Hartford. So at two consecutive shows for me, I saw a second set anchored by monster versions of “Tweezer” and “Golden Age,” with a fun “2001” and a majestic “Slave” closer. Even more remarkable is the fact that Phish managed to explore completely different jamming styles on these two Sundays, offering two nearly identical sets with entirely unique improvisations. It’s a testament to how easily they’re able to move around within their songs structures, and how willing they are to explore a multitude of jamming styles.