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MPP2 Recap: This is IT

Posted 2 years ago by J_D_G - 125 comments Link:


When, in the course of human events, your favorite band plays a show that is just stupid-good—and historically important, in the context of an already rich and well-documented history—and, by chance, you have volunteered in advance to write a recap of that show for…well, sometimes the best thing you can do is just shut up about it.

But, let's face it, that's not really my thing.

We deliberately call these items “recaps” rather than “reviews” because they are envisioned as timely, just-the-facts accounts of the show, with some amount of on-the-fly analysis mixed in. By design, they violate the “72 hour rule,” invoked by some fans (once upon a time) as a necessary buffer period to digest a show and let its immediate afterglow wear off before issuing any declarations about its greatness.

Yet, how does a just-the-facts summary of Sunday night’s show at Merriweather Post Pavilion, skipping chronologically through the setlist with nods for a tight “The Curtain With” here and a sarcastic comment about “I Saw It Again” there, capture the spirit of what happened? The absurdity of such an approach can be glimpsed in our (reasonable and accurate) setlist: “The third Tweezer included Page teasing Manteca.”

The third Tweezer, mind you.

Would invocations of the Tweezerfests from 1994 add historical context that enriches our appreciation of 7/27/14? Well, yeah, sure. But in the immediate aftermath, all I want to do it listen to it again. Or re-read the live-scroll of my group of JadedVet friends and .net colleagues, some at the show but most (like me) listening or watching from home, reacting in real time to the insanity and flipping out.

Yet I know part of the experience of savoring and enjoying a show, for people like us that come online to read and talk about this band, is indeed to read and talk about it.

But first, let’s take another moment to let it settle in—a show that goes beyond the level of "great" and gets short-listed when people talk about why they like Phish in the first place. And consider this prelude a sort of Havdalah service at the end of Shabbat, formally separating the sacred (if you will) music from the profane discussion of it. (Not to get all William-Blake-of-recaps on you.)

Take a breath. Let the afterglow solidify into a patina of glazed satisfaction.

I’ve been waiting ten years to say this: Phish is back.

The End of Phish History

In his 1992 book The End Of History and the Last Man, political theorist Francis Fukuyama argued that after the Cold War, Western-style capitalism and democracy had finally emerged as the final stage of political-cultural evolution, signaling the end of the churning series of cultural systems and political ideologies that had been conflicting and clanging against each other since the dawn of human civilization. (I’m no expert, but that’s more or less the gist.)

Since they returned from the Breakup, I had come to feel a similar way about Phish. The initial excitement that accompanied the Return turned, sometime in 2009, into a smile frozen on my face as I nervously looked around the room and waited for things to really get going. That summer of 2009, recall, there was lots of talk about waiting for “3.1” to emerge—the idea was that Phish was still finding its way back, and on some night soon there’d be a moment where they would finally break through again, and return grandly to the improvisational interplay and all-around chutzpah they enjoyed before exiting Coventry in four separate tour busses.

(For all that was troubled in the 2.0 era, Phish returned from the 2000-2002 hiatus at the very top of its improvisational game, and even through the emotionally turbulent August 2004 shows was churning out peak jams, from the SPAC “Piper” of 6/19/04 to the less-remembered but similarly incredibly “Birds of A Feather” from 8/10/04. That’s what made the hastily-announced breakup seem so cruel and bizarre, before it emerged that personal problems—and not the non-existent creative problems cited in Trey’s infamous “we’re done” letter—were the actual cause of the split. And once Trey was frank about that, how could any of us complain that he did what he needed to do to get healthy? But it took years for that to become clear.)

For me and lots of like-minded fans, the sense of linear progress that had marked Phish’s evolution forever (at least through Big Cypress—a feeling Fishman later summed up as “rolling a boulder up a hill”—and then again from the end of the Hiatus through to the ashes of Vegas ’04) was over. In 3.0, it was all a sort of equivalent mush—occasionally there’d be a “Seven BeGhost” or a Pine Knob “Disease,” but shows would always level off again into a place of improvisational hesitancy and ripcords. Phish didn’t seem to be building toward anything anymore. There was not the sense that IT was happening, or that IT could happen at any moment. We were Glad They Were Back™ and went for the experience, to see our friends converge within the show-going ritual, and perhaps to get lucky and catch an “Icculus” or a highlight jam. But the sense that each tour was building upon the previous one to sketch out an ever-dynamic history was sadly missing, for many of us.

Meanwhile, there’s been a weird bifurcation in Phish-appreciation out in the fan community. While the above description is more or less a mainstream summary of what many long-time fans consider to be the “true” story of 3.0, there are many readers who right now are wondering what the fuck I’m talking about.

It’s completely natural that, after a 4-plus years break, a whole new generation of fans has been in its first flush of newbie star-gazing, where everything sounds great and the band can do no wrong. But, although Phish’s biggest fans have been gathering online to parse the band’s musical development and apply the very high standards Phish had earned for itself—all from a place of great dedication to and love for the music—since the early 1990’s, a culture emerged during 3.0 where this was suddenly sacrilegious.

Even though these are the very fans who traded tapes by mail and created the internet network that facilitated Phish’s remarkable, grassroots growth, newcomers had burst into the room and boorishly insisted that “real” fans would never presume to analyze a Phish show objectively, comparing and contrasting what happened last night with what they’d done before.

No, the new orthodoxy was to enforce this End of Phish History at the point of a rhetorical sword: We should all just be glad they’re back, dude. Stop going to shows if you’re going to complain. It’s all good. If you insist on seeing lows that color and give heft to the highs, rather than a flat landscape of identical brilliance, then you just don’t get it. Mini-cults emerged online around newly vocal fans who suddenly emerged and delivered what plenty of new fans wanted to hear: validation that they were present for the glory days of Phish. All evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

What this rigid line of thought failed to understand was that we were never trying to deny that anyone had had a good time at the show, or that their experience was meaningful and special and worthwhile and Phishy. Or that Phish remained a special band in the musical universe and that we felt lucky to, yes, Still Be Seeing Them At All. All those things remained true. We were just hearing the music in context. Like we’d always done.

And surely, we missed some things that newer, fresher fans could pick up and rightfully enjoy. And in a way, that was our own fault. But JadedVet bitching is really, at bottom, a form of gallows humor. There was never a moment when any of us wouldn’t have rather declared that All Is Well, again. So in the end, who is to say which is the privileged position? Many would surely trade their enhanced appreciation of an atypical "Tweezer" for the jump-up-and-down-joy at your first "Golgi."

While I've been using the royal-jaded "we," this is a good place to note that this recap is expressing my own personal views. It hasn't been approved by any Politburo. Your mileage may vary, or overlap.

(Digression: Me and Richard Nixon

So who am I, by the way? After seeing my peers get into Phish for several years, I finally discovered the band in 1995 and became instantly obsessed. I spent many hours on the old I read every single one of Charlie Dirksen's Tweezerfiles and reviews of Mike's Groove. I contributed lots of content to The Phish Companion and have been on the board of The Mockingbird Foundation since 2000. I've made my evolving relationship with Phish a public thing.

I got jaded, became born again, had a peak life experience at Big Cypress, rode out the Hiatus, was there for the first Return, witnessed the band at a high point in its history at IT, mourned the Breakup, and more or less moved on.

During 3.0 I've been revaluating my relationship to the music and the scene, prompted most, I argue, by what was happening onstage. And though I was very enthusiastic about fall 2013, I was profoundly disillusioned by the "Wingsuit" set at Halloween, and entered probably my lowest point as a Phish fan. I made some very bitter dismissals of that set. I skipped the New Year's Run. I just needed distance. My rage stick seemed broken.

Richard Nixon earned his political stripes and public credibility as an anti-Communist crusader. So it was against type when he ventured to China and started the process of normalizing relations between the U.S. and that country. Thus the expression: only Nixon could go to China.

Although I've come over the years to r.m.p, or the blog, or another print or online venue, to declare renewed excitement about what Phish was doing at the time, each time I've found my own way there. Each time it's been an organic process and a pleasant surprise for me. Now I rarely take to the "airwaves" to spout off about Phish. I leave that to people who are more into it, and more qualified to talk about the latest developments. And frankly, I find my long digital trail of pronouncements more than mildly embarassing, as I'm not sure if my current aesthetic (and professional skills/instincts) can really stand behind all of those passionate prouncements from years gone by.

So when I declare my excitement today about what Phish is doing now, it's no knee-jerk thing. It's no play to the masses. But if 3.0 has become a Chinese buffet of renewed artistic relevance, I am shoving my face right into the General Gao's chicken.)

Umm, yeah, no.

Something funny happened on the way toward Phish’s sad post-history as a nostalgia act. It took more than three years, but Phish got its swagger back. After experimenting with bust-outs and mash-ups to gin up fan enthusiasm in the absence of boundary-breaking improvisational fireworks (or new material) in the previous years, summer 2012 offered more than a tease that things were changing. Then, the Dick’s 2012 shows happened—particularly the first night. In its mold-breaking series of surprising improvisations, spread through an entire show (including the first set), including songs like “Runaway Jim” that seemed like they may never jam again—it felt, in many ways, like the first Phish show since 2004.

Then summer 2013 gave its richest gift, the Tahoe “Tweezer,” a jam that for once could be described with all sorts of superlatives without the caveat “for 3.0.” It reached peaks that were higher than a kitty riding a giraffe. And fall tour was a nightly march toward renewed relevance. The great jams were no longer red herrings. They built upon each other, creating a new level of achievement and creating the sense that there was still a future left to invent.

So, then, summer 2014. The present tour. The one-step-up, two-steps-back phenomenon that characterized 2009-2011 could finally be seen to be over. It’s not just that the jams are better and more frequent, which they are. But that 3.0 tentativeness is gone. There are certainly some inner formulas the band continues to work with, but for the first time in a long time there’s the sense that something like “The Wedge” might suddenly emerge as a major jam, that a piece of improvisation will grow and change direction (even after the first little lull where a few years ago Trey would abruptly jump into “Julius”), that a second set will keep fighting and gain momentum even after the first “cooldown” song or two suggests that things might be winding down for the night. There’s the sense that each night onstage is another chapter in an evolving history. That the music will boldly venture to bed, bath and beyond.

By this point, it’s already been two years of the good stuff—this transcends the level of “exciting promise” and amounts to its own successful mini-era in and of itself. There’s no fear of the rug being pulled out, because the foundation is already there, at a higher level. The sense of the term “3.0” as not only a chronological marker but a rough stylistic grouping is over. This is not your older sister’s 3.0. It’s a new time.

Photo © PhishPhish From the Road

Get Back On The Tweezerfest

One emerging trend of the summer tour has been the band’s newfound proclivity for the lost art of segues. Some shows have been held up by obvious, standout jams—the SPAC “Fuego,” the Randall’s “Chalkdust,” etc—others have dipped in and out of exciting jams while nimbly transitioning from song to song. This seemed to have reached its peak with Saturday night’s show, with fare like an out-of-nowhere, Page-led artisanal segue from “Light” into “2001” that provided its own thrill in place of an extended “Light” jam. It’s not a ripcord when it’s an inspired, full-band transition.

So, then comes Sunday night’s show. It’s always good when the boys take the stage looking to disprove the theories of Francis Fukuyama.

Several people have already shouted in my ear that Sunday’s first set is the best first set of the tour. Personally I’m a Big Jam Hunter, so I’d rather get one Randall’s “Gin,” or even the SPAC “Reba” + “SOAM”. But many insist that the first set of 7/27/14 was deep and consistently pleasing in a way that first sets rarely are these days. Though there are no jams of note, as is customary these days, I agree there’s little better summer entertainment than a nice, pre-dusk “The Curtain With.” And a first-set “Sand” is not just a “Sand.” (Is anything?) The set also saw the best two tracks from “Fuego”—the title track, stashed considerately in the first set so as not to arouse false hopes of another Type II breakthrough version, and Mike’s lovely “555.” (Given that Mike introduced Americana to the Phish sound, it’s interesting that his latest output sounds almost like he’s never even heard the work of Mumford and Sons.)

All-around, the first set left people feeling very upbeat about the show. But we know that shows are won and lost in the second set. And after a snappy “Wilson” opener, it was only the third quarter but Phish sensed that it was already winning time.

Some interesting Fishman rhythms in the very infancy of the “Tweezer” jam gave way to what appeared to be a tease of “Get Back On The Train.” But Trey jumped on board right away, guiding a full transition into the song. Fess up, some were grumbling at how the “Tweezer” jam was aborted so quickly. But no, they rode the train for only a verse before zooming back into “Tweezer.” Yes!

The jam that leaves one song, goes to another, and returns to the original song is a particularly prized thing among Phish fandom. It’s special—though fairly frequent in some periods (like Summer 1993), it isn’t even an annual occurrence now. But not only seguing into and out of, but lacing an entire set with Tweezer is the sort of thing that’s referred to in tones of hushed reverence among Phish fans. That’s what they used to do, in 1994, when the magnificence of Phish’s capacity for deep improvisation and inspired, thematic jamming was emerging in full flower. It’s the basis of legendary shows like the Bomb Factory and Big Birch. It’s hardcore, old school, highly accomplished Phish straight to the dome. It’s what happened last night at Merrimeather.

There’s no need for me to narrate the twists and turns of last night’s second set here. And you’re not here to have that briskly outlined, are you? You’re here to share in the sense that something really special happened. And engage in some verbal high-fiving and patriotic fist-bumping. Me too. (In fact, that's have a quick round of 'em. OK.)

Yes, there was some good jamming in the actual “Tweezer,” particularly before the segue into “Waiting All Night” seemed (falsely) to indicate the end of it. But to me, the most important thing about last night is that even in the midst of “Free,” a song that many fans have long dismissed as a source of anything new and interesting, I for one was still perfectly upbeat as I waited to hear what would happen next in this engaging set. Did I think they’d go back into “Tweezer”? No. But when they did, briefly, and then segued right into “Simple,” it felt perfectly natural. It was mold-busting and original and thrilling and simultaneously not at all out of character. It was what Phish does now. Again.

And when “NICU”—a song that to my knowledge had only jammed out once before, in the legendary 12/14/95 show that also featured a multi-headed “Tweezer”—exploded out of nowhere into the highlight jam of the night, it was surely cause to jump up and down and “woo!” at the moon. But it wasn’t a shock. It was Phish, circa summer 2014. Think about it.

So when Fishman took center stage for a “Henrietta” song for the first time since 7/6/12, and launched (apparently spontaneously) into a hilariously mocking rendition of perhaps Phish’s most-mocked (and rarely seen) original, “Jennifer Dances,” it was organically generated humor that sprung from the band/audience relationship. It wasn’t forced. It was loose and optimistic and confident and swinging.

Photo © PhishPhish From the Road

We’ll spend plenty of time figuring out where to rank 7/27/14, and how to measure its spontaneity and incredible flow versus the more heavy-duty jams found in some other recent places. There’s time for that. We’ll also talk about how a show like last night ranks as great by any Phish standard, including the days of 1994 when Tweezerfests were the hot new item.

But for now, I think it’s enough to exult in the fact that such great stuff is happening on a near-nightly basis. To realize that Fall 2013 and now Summer 2014 are great full-tours, not only “for 3.0” but for Phish. It’s enough just to feel like anything might happen on a given night. Most of all, it’s enough to know that Phish is making its own history. Again.

If you liked this blog post, one way you could "like" it is to make a donation to The Mockingbird Foundation, the sponsor of Support music education for children, and you just might change the world.


dividedsky13 Reply
dividedsky13 What a beautifully written piece. I enjoyed it immensely.

My jaw was on the floor for most of last night's 2nd set and this morning I finally re-attached it...
Score: 17
thinktankted Reply
thinktankted Great review man! That show must have really blown your mind. Thanks a ton for giving some context for where your point of view is coming from. I would have had to group myself with the "whole new generation of fans has been in its first flush of newbie star-gazing, where everything sounds great and the band can do no wrong." crowd, even though my first show was in 1996. My next three shows were at Northerly a couple of weeks ago and I was completely blown away. I can't wait to get my hands on audience recordings of 7/27 now! I was doing some comparing and contrasting of the songs that really grabbed me (Tube, Twist> Light> 20 Years Afte, Roggae, etc) with recordings from 2009-2012 and they just seem to be on fire right now. Fishman and Gordon are just killing it, and were the highlight for me.
Score: 7
Syltheone Reply
This is a fantastic article/recap.
Thank you for this.
Score: 6
bushwood_a_dump Reply
bushwood_a_dump curse you Sunday. Day of rest my ass. Saturday was nice from the couch, but now I cringe.
Score: 2
ocean_sing Reply
ocean_sing This is a wonderful and generous essay, a high water mark in Phish writing.
Score: 18
jwelsh8 Staff Reply
jwelsh8 Great stuff, fellow Jeremy. I really appreciate when others are able to put my feelings into words so eloquently, in a way that makes so much sense.

Well done.
Score: 7
tourmalet Reply
tourmalet Huge review... wonderful review.
I've been to some amazing shows at MPP in the past.... but this was like living mind blowing history! Thank you for making a smoldering glow in my soul reignite again with this awesome review!
Score: 5
Rn5Js Reply
Awesome! I thoroughly enjoyed your write up...thanks!
Score: 2
WayIFeel Reply
WayIFeel Great recap Jeremy.
Score: 3
melvindisco Reply
Bravo---great recap
Score: 2
Meaty Reply
Meaty So was Trey poking fun at Pages divorce a few years back from his ex-wife that lives in Columbia, MD? Sure seemed like a theme with all songs pointing and lyrics describing those events. Hes been around...
Score: 1
cman3002 Reply
Yes! Great post. Completely agree about 2014, there is no show formula - Phish can do anything at anytime, and while that freedom remains interesting on a nightly basis, it also opens the door to shows like this.
Score: 3
lititzphan Reply
lititzphan I thoroughly enjoyed this essay. I too would probably be considered a newer star gazing phan as when the boys were really taking off in the 90's I was trapped in a "No band will ever be able to make me feel like the Grateful Dead".
Last night was my 15th show and by far I have it at the top,sorry 11/1/13.
Yes, their might not have been significant Jamming as in some shows of the revered Phish hall of Phame, but this show left me satisfied where at other times I felt hungry.
As much crap as this venue gets, my 1st show here was GD 84, and last night was about my 10th, Phish seems to really dig IT here,feeding off the positive vibes of the crowd.
Thanks all for making it a blast.
Score: 7
gankmore Reply
gankmore Great review. Not sure I agree with any of it, but well said.

8/10/14 is up there when you mean 8/10/04.
Score: 1
NippSlice93 Reply
You sir, have hit the nail on the head! I have been a fan for over 20 years, and while I try never to be negative about this band and their performances, the past several years have had me feeling like a miner in a vast landscape searching for scattered nuggets of gold. Lately, the frequency of gems has increased ie. the randall's Chalkdust, and the recent exploration of The Wedge, however, these have just been passing glimpses of the brilliance that this band has shown us in years past. Last night we hit the motherlode! A fluid, thematic show that sent chills down my spine put and a grin on my face from start to finish. It was an engaging performance that challenged the listener to stay on their toes and follow the band wherever they may lead. Filled with excitement, anticipation and a sense that, indeed anything can happen, it was shows like this that won my heart in the early 90's. This show has renewed that love.
Score: 4
NiceGuyMike Reply
NiceGuyMike This was a true pleasure to read. Thank you for taking the time to write it.
Score: 4
Doctor_Smarty Staff Reply
Doctor_Smarty Dr. Smarty feels more intelligent having read this...nice work!
Score: 4
lysergic Reply
lysergic Great recap. Very interesting to hear your perspective. I'm sure there are a lot of people there with you. I am definitely in the newbie crowd, but my friends and I were well aware that last night's show was truly special. I feel very fortunate to have been in the pit. It's so hard to pick a favorite moment, but for me it was the completely unexpected jam at the end of NICU from which HYHU emerged. At that point I felt that all the rules had been erased, that anything could happen.
Score: 3
MrJones Reply
MrJones ::stands up from seat with enthusiastic applause::

Fantastic read!
Score: 5
CameToPlay Reply
CameToPlay Very very nicely done, and so quickly after the show to boot. I never care for the superfluous shilling of the jaded vet cabal, whose oft sole intention is to remind everyone else that they lack the bona fides to discern what is good Phish and what isn't. But maybe I missed the greater intent there. Anyway, notwithstanding the sidebar, it is a really lovely piece and thanks for writing.
Score: 4
InsectEffect Reply
InsectEffect "That the music will boldly venture to bed, bath and beyond." NO.

Pretty much everything else, YES!

Just when my enthusiasm was slacking a little --I looked at Saturday's setlist and just sort of shrugged-- this happens. IT. Seque-heavy, mashup-like, music-as-liquid shows are one of my very favorite things about Phish (as evident in my review of 07-13-1994). We got a tiny taste of it in Chicago3 2011 (and elsewhere) with repeated C&P teases, but apparently nothing like last night.

Thanks for providing so much engaging context, and confirming that this setlist is everything it promises to be. Can't wait to listen!
Score: 0
dipped Reply
This is a well-written piece of what this band means to you. I loved this show. I also loved Halloween. And for some of us, those of you who jumped aboard in 95 are still considered newbies.
Score: 6
_Wood_ Reply
_Wood_ Thanks for that amazing write up. Kicking myself for missing that after being there Saturday night, but the real world beckons.

Getting jaded after the Wingsuit set though? After that fall tour? You'll have to own that.
Score: 3
steveinboston Reply
Outstanding review! As a fan from the 90's, but not seeing my first show till '09 (soon to be 17), I nevertheless consistently found myself in the critical, dissecting camp of show critics (thanks to the vast prevalence of available Phish downloads that enable/compel deep dive song-to-song, set-to-set, show-to-show, era-to-era compare and contrasts). Like any good fan, I want to experience and be at "The Show," yet couldn't help but wonder had those days, those shows passed and been exchanged for blissful moments? But over the recent Fall and this Summer tour, I knew "it" was beginning to happen. In the 3.0 era (but hasn't it really always been this way with Phish?) each show seems like a demonstration of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle which asserts "a fundamental limit to complementary variables such as position and momentum, such that the more precisely position is known, the less precisely momentum is known, and vice versa." So while I'm uncertain as to the position of these amazing '13 and '14 shows in the Phish greatness hierarchy, I know the momentum now more then ever. Gotta go, gotta go, and never miss a Sunday show!!!
Score: 3
switz Staff Reply
switz Fantastic recap, Jeremy!

Score: 2
jarpua Reply
jarpua That was an absolutely beautiful piece of writing. Before the show started I met 2 couples, the one couple had been seeing shows since 1994, the other couple was a new couple, the guy had told me he grew up in Burlington down the street from the University of Vermont and his father was good friends with Mike, it was his girlfriend's 7th show (mine too!). These couples said something to me that I will never forget a so called "Jaded Vet" saying..."I'm happy to see younger kids at shows..." they all agreed that if getting younger people to come to shows that they keep playing like they have been "...then they can play Fuego every night if they have too!" That made me laugh, but at the same time it made me wish that there were more veterans like that. I explained to them that I was raised on Phish and The Grateful Dead...and I would give anything to have gone to even a 1/4 of the shows they were talking about. In the middle of Tweezer-fest one of the guys bends down to say something to me (I'm short as hell)...I know it's important because he (like me) didn't like people talking during songs. He said "Thank you for bringing Phish back, thank you for spreading Phish to your friends. This right here is more important than any show you could have gone to in the brought Phish back for us."
Now of course he meant people my age in general...but still I haven't been able to stop thinking about that...and the fact that he told me I rage harder than anyone he has been show neighbors with since 2.0.
Score: 15
Dressed_In_Gray Reply
Dressed_In_Gray Solid write up. Enough content to rival the content of the show reviewed.

Two thumbs up!
Score: 2

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