If you’re Phish, Halloween is a high-pressure gig. But what about the act of drawing the curtain on a tour like this one? Before we delve into AC3, let’s put it into context.
Before tonight, the tour consisted of 11 shows in 14 days. Those 11 shows produced no fewer than 8 essential jams. By “essential,” I mean that someday your roommate at the seniors home is going to doze off listening to you gush about them for the millionth time. Two of these jams were “Tweezer” (Hampton and Hartford), and two of them were “Carini” (Hampton and AC). Of the remaining four, three of them deserve mention in any conversation about all-time versions: the Hartford “Golden Age,” the Reading “Disease,” and the AC “Twist.” Rounding out the list is a behemoth in its own right: the Worcester “Drowned.”
Not too shabby -- and that’s barely the half of it.
On Halloween, the band spent its always-anticipated second set redefining itself. Before our eyes, they restarted their creative engine, which thrummed to life with 12 brand new songs -- at least five of which (by my own count) are keepers, and at least two of which are instant classics. Setting aside questions of tradition, expectations and timing, there is no getting around the significance of this gambit: Phish is in it for the long haul now, and they are not content to grow old as a nostalgia act. They intend to take chances, they intend to evolve, and we’re all invited along. Oh, and did I mention the band just turned 30?
So, yeah, an achievement like this tour deserves catharsis, summation, and punctuation. Will we get it?
The “Wilson” opener grabs the crowd by its tender parts and gives them a nice firm tug. The “band view” shots on the webcast show an audience in ecstasy, ready to leave their all in Boardwalk Hall. Alas, from there, the energy in the first set takes a long, arcing swan dive. The band delivers a focused but detached “Rift,” and then a laconic “Ocelot” that begins with the band working with at least two if not three different understandings of where “the one” is. By this point, the band is noticeably frustrated, and the next three tunes -- “Water in the Sky,” “Sample in a Jar” and “Funky Bitch” -- do little to reverse the trend. “Sample” in particular is bruised and disoriented, and Trey throws up his hands with a few bars left, lost in a jumble of frets, glad for its merciful end.
The patient begins to recuperate with “46 Days,” a tune the band could play in its sleep but which rarely fails to deliver. The crowd responds loudly to the recovery here, which may set the table for the treat that comes next: easily the most unusual and creative “Theme From the Bottom” ever played. It starts out like any other “Theme,” including a brief stumble during the bridge. But in lieu of the expected outro, Trey leads the band into a another rhythmic vamp on “Theme from Shaft,” sending backfields into frenzied motion. As in last night’s “Makisupa,” Trey asks Fish a series of questions designed to produce the answer “bush” (or “Bush,” or “Busch”), and then directs the band back into the denouement of “Theme.”
For those of you scoring at home, that’s “Theme -> Theme -> Theme.” You’re welcome.
The Green Mountain State reggae of “Yarmouth Road” follows, then a standard-issue “Mike’s Groove” that does its level best to end this uneven first frame on a high note. But no matter. This tour has seen at least four relentless, top notch second sets that followed first set headscratchers, so there’s little cause for setbreak despair.
A “Tears of a Clown” tease from Mike announces “Down With Disease,” perhaps the band’s most stalwart second set opener. The early moments of the jam find Chris Kuroda throwing horizontal beams across the structure of the stage, suggesting a factory floating in orbit. The improv that evolves from here is all bliss and primary colors, and introduces a jaunty persona to the set that will abide throughout. While this “Disease” might be a dim reflection of the monster from Reading, it stands tall on its own. The bar is just that high now.
A jazzy and up-tempo “Piper” follows, with Trey inviting fans to rip off their “Woo-X” patches and Woo to their hearts’ content. 2013 has proven light on marquee versions of “Piper,” as it seems to serve these days as an interstitial offering rather than a standalone jam vehicle. Here’s another “Piper” that is no must-hear, necessarily, but performs its prescribed role very well.
“Roggae” is as lovely as always; I love the view from the pinnacle of this song over the past few years. Gooseflesh, every time. “Waves” delivers the third of three consecutive 7-minute songs, but primes the pump for yet another huge “Tweezer.”
Let’s be blunt: 2013 is officially The Year Of The “Tweezer.” In any other year, this Atlantic City “Tweezer” would stop the presses. Things get interesting early, during the pre-Ebeneezer funk breakdown, with Page trading pornographic licks with Mike from across the stage. Trey teases Neal Hefti’s theme to “The Odd Couple” as the band begins to assemble a keyboard-centric passage of intensely danceable cow funk, layer upon layer. Like so many grooves this fall, this one takes on a Talking Heads flavor, and the players and fans are content to luxuriate in the velour thickness of it all for quite a while. Finally, Fish deconstructs the groove and reassembles it as Trey reintroduces the “Tweezer” head riff. A ritardando ending brings closure to a version that might not measure up to the year’s daunting contenders, but most certainly merits your undivided attention.
It’s Saturday night. These days, that generally implies a 4th quarter series of crowd-pleasing but fungible blues rock originals, any of which can serve as a set-closer. Tonight, that lineup consists of “Julius,” “Backwards Down the Number Line” and “Character Zero.” I like all of these songs, and they are all well played, save for an awkwardly botched intro to “Number Line.” Page gets a B-3 solo in “Julius,” which is nice, I guess. I don’t have much else to say about this run of tunes, but feel free to expound in the comments.
As Phish takes its well-deserved bows, I call a “Sleeping Monkey” encore. It’s nice to get one right now and then. This sloppy “Monkey” yields the floor to an expected and rambunctious “Tweeprise,” which closes the books on this undeniably monumental Fall Tour.
Regardless of your take on tonight (and I think the second set was thrilling in long stretches, for the record), there is ample cause for joy, not only for What Just Happened but for What Lies Ahead. My heart is full of gratitude for these four musicians, for their dedication to playing music (and now composing music once again) as an ensemble, and for the boundless respect and generosity they show their audience. Huge respect as well to Chris, to Garry, and to the crew and home office for all the heavy lifting.
See you in MSG in just 55 days!