Like most of you I suspect, I spent the bulk of Halloween day embroiled in the grand mystery of what album Phish was going to cover during the second set of the first of three nights at Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall. When the doors finally opened and the Phishbill was in hand, I was stunned and excited. Phish would not be donning a musical costume for this Halloween. They would be performing a live debut of their new album Wingsuit in celebration of their continued vitality as a band after 30 years together. Rather than a tired classic rock cover that couldn’t possibly please everyone, they were with great bravery going to take maximum risk in hope of the ever elusive maximum reward. The only question remaining at that point was whether Wingsuit would be a trick or a treat. That conundrum persists.
After enduring traffic, grabbing some Halloween flowers for my surly spouse, and making it home, I climbed into my neon orange jumpsuit, donned my luchador mask and began double fisting cheap pinot and good ol’ Mountain Dew from the liquor shed in the back forty of Under the Table. To kill time before the first set I engaged in a lively stream of each variety of social media that was available. The texts from the inner circle were largely negative. The twitterverse appeared to be consuming haterade by the bucketful. The braintrust of phish.net were a mixed bag of trepidation and excitement. It might be awesome, it might be the musical equivalent of crop-dusting an elevator. The Phish world was standing on the lip of an unfathomably deep chasm and preparing to leap, with our fate resting on the strength of an untested Wingsuit. In that instant, I believe I understood what it felt like to be Felix Baumgartner.
After visits from Count Dracula and a host of Jedi the lights went down and Set 1 began. The formula for the opening frame was clear from the outset. Keep it predominantly up tempo, be technically proficient, execute with precision, and don’t sprain something before the big game began. With the exception of the clumsy stumble into “Poor Heart,” there was nothing particularly noteworthy about “Heavy Things,” “The Moma Dance,” “Poor Heart,” or “Back on the Train.” They were all played well, kept the energy high, but certainly didn’t break any new ground. “Silent in the Morning” remains horseless but allowed for a short walk back to the liquor shed and a visit from a tiny flower, a witch, and Kurt Cobain. “Kill Devil Falls” ramped the energy level back up and showed some early promise but was marred by some stream buffering issues. I haven’t yet listened again...but I imagine it was tight. During “Mound” I was engaged in a discussion with Kurt Cobain about the potential delight offered by Wingsuit. The slinky wah-wah of “Free” caught my attention and brought my focus back to the music at hand. “Camel Walk” induced dancing from the tiny blossom on the couch and featured some fine funky grooves to strut your stuff by. “Stash” was alternately soaring, dissonant, and cerebral. I expected “Golgi Apparatus” to close the undeniably safe set but was instead blessed with a healthy mug of “Bathtub Gin” with an extra dash of juice. It left me eager for what was to come.
During intermission we feasted on some tasty chickpea guacamole, the underutilized candy bucket, and the costume photo stream from the venue. The lights went down, the tension was palpable and we leapt as one into the abyss. A tiny hoot owl at the door.
The potential title track oozed from the stage and we were ensconced in a loving embrace. If it feels good...then it feels good. It felt good. I was expecting to be shaken and stirred instead I was lovingly caressed. Off to a nice start. “Fuego” means fire...this song definitely has some...and plenty of potential to sizzle and sear in the future. Two for two as we step to “The Line.” According to Trey’s comments later in the set, it is an ode to Michigan State (actually University of Memphis) baller Darius Washington Jr.’s missed free throws in the closing seconds of their final four (actually 2005 Conference USA tournament) matchup with Louisville. The Conference USA rookie of the year and freshman all-American went from hero to goat in seconds when he missed two of three. Intertwined with the lush groove I heard a deeper message about losing it all because of a line. As Trey indicated...the Phish can relate. The stage grew dark and change was afoot. As the light returned a new treat was revealed. We got a glimpse into the cozy confines of the barn with the stripped down acoustic awesomeness of “Monica.” Based on the success of The Lumineers and Mumford and Sons I think this one could actually get some air time. Very radio friendly. “Waiting All Night,” befitting its subject matter of unrequited love (perhaps at the end of “Yarmouth Road” waiting for “Monica” to return?) was kind of a downer. This was of course nothing more than artfully crafted showmanship. If you are about to tear the roof off the motherfucker, the best way to set that up is to crush the vibe.
“Wombat,” featuring the hilarity of Abe “Fish” Vigoda and the Abe Vigoda dancers is my new favorite Phish song that isn’t “Tweezer.” I almost tore off my jumpsuit to go door to door twerking around my neighborhood. Serious throw you down and tap that ass material. A true play it at every show and I’m ecstatic kind of song. WOW!
The gorgeous acoustic gem “Snow” which followed was marred by Mike’s cracked falsetto. This song would work fine as an instrumental...just a suggestion fellas. “Devotion to a Dream” struck me as what “Piper” would be if it had lots of lyrics. Has great potential to get out there if it makes it back to the stage. The Triple Nickel, AKA “555,” is what you would get if “The Moma Dance,” “46 Days,” and “Tweezer Reprise” were left to fight it out in a burlap sack full of feral cats. Another song with HUGE jamming potential. “Winterqueen” sounded like a TAB song. Which it is. But unfortunately not of the “Sand,” “Gotta Jibboo,” or “First Tube” variety. The title of “Amidst the Peals of Laughter” evoked images of Syd Barrett and “Ha, Ha, Ha.” In actuality it is a Trey and Page acoustic duet that bemoans the fate of the working stiff and borrows nursery rhyme lyrics. Trey thanked us all for participating in the process and “You Never Know” brought the grand experiment to a conclusion. It was brave. It was inspiring. I was proud of my friends for taking the risk.
Setbreak brought a hilarious The Gordofather short film with Abe Vigoda and a tease of Pink Floyd’s The Wall and more participants in the costume contest.
The third set was all about appeasing the haters. Even if you disliked everything about Windsuit, something I consider impossible because if you don’t like Wombat you are dead to me, the “Ghost” and “Carini” combo was worth the price of admission. No matter what you paid. Killer jams in both. Must hear versions. “Birds of a Feather” raged as it always seems to do. “Harry Hood” was like drinking a warm glass of milk and honey. “Bug” was a standard specimen but the “Run Like an Antelope” set closer definitely reached high gear. “Quinn The Eskimo,” the only cover (discounting “Winterqueen”) of the night, was largely an afterthought. All in all, this third set clearly ranks with the best of the best where extra innings are concerned. Enjoy the next two nights...a long cold winter awaits.