WATKINS GLEN, NY – Before we get to the action, a moment of congratulations to the winners of the 420th running of the second Runaway Jim 5K: 1. Ethan McBrien 15:23 / 1. Katie Harrington 17:19 / 2. David Cook 15.35 / 3. Finn McCool 15:55. Queue “Chariots of Fire"! Congrats to everyone who ran and came out to support the runners!
First set kicked off with “Tube” at 3:30 amid hot but otherwise perfect weather with hundreds of beach balls rocking the field. Short but sweet as has been the recent trend, but no less punchy. A standard reading of “Kill Devil Falls” keeps the energy meter pegged before settling in the new first-set workhorse, “Ocelot.” The 32nd performance of this tune with every one to date occurring in the first set, was any song more of a lock for the afternoon frame? Nothing earth-shattering but a perfectly groovy, languid version.
After a brief pause Trey needed to perform a little housekeeping to clear beach balls from the stage: “We’ll have to find a way to clear a little space here on the stage, so maybe this will work” before dropping in to “Lawn Boy.” Then another lock-pick-of-the-week call for an afternoon set, “The Divided Sky” is up next. Wherever you are in your feelings about the overall musical state of Phish, if you aren’t loving how this song has been delivered of late, perhaps it is time to adjust your frequencies. Flawless and fluid and of late crushing virtually every version, “Divided Sky” perfectly exemplifies the confident, mature, polished Phish of 2011. This version did experience a dose of humanity from Trey (minor flubs but more than compensated by particularly soaring solos), but great stuff.
“Boogie On Reggae Woman” is on deck to introduce some funk into the proceedings, and after a straight-ahead offering the band doubled-down on the funk with an easy-paced “Camel Walk,” pleasing phish.net’s tech guru @sethadam1 to no end. “Cities” maintains almost the exact same relaxed tempo from “Camel Walk.” Not Great Went slow, but deep in the pocket and a sizable departure from more up-beat recent versions. The tempo dial cranks back up with a spirited and concise “Poor Heart” powering into “46 Days.” The “box” is in no danger of being breached on this one but Trey provides requisite shredding; entertaining but forgettable.
Then the first surprise of the afternoon, the Phish debut of “Suskind Hotel!” A fixture in G.R.A.B. sets in 2006 as as well as a regular with Mike Gordon’s touring outfit, this high-strung rocker is a welcome addition to the Phish repertoire! Another easy call that sets up a thousand pictures with the Ferris Wheel in the background, “When the Circus Comes” is next and provides perfect breathing space for band and crowd alike. By this time the heat was really taking its toll with many fans seen hitting the exits for the comforts of camp. “Timber” follows and wastes no time settling in to a sweet jam that had real potential, but this mule is going back in its box in favor of a brisk transition into “Back on the Train” that glides along gently without incident.
A rote “Suzy Greenberg” had everyone thinking “set closer, let’s hit dinner” but the best was kept for last, the Phish debut of The Stones’ “Monkey Man!” Whoops, sorry, those hitting the exits! What an awesome treat to send off the crowd for the long break! Watkins Glen, kick down central. So what do we have in this set? 16 songs in ~100 minutes of music = not a lot of space for jamming. No worries, we are running a marathon not a sprint and lots of music lie ahead. Two notable Phish debuts punctuated an otherwise perfectly fine but virtually highlight-free set. Let’s all cool our jets, grab some dinner, kick back to The Bunny and meet up in a couple hours.
OK we’re back, hope you enjoyed the break. 8pm sharp brings “Runaway Jim” with the winners of the Runaway Jim 5K! “Blazing Times!” Then all the winners are introduced and accept their well-deserved trophies. Kicking congratulations jam, taboot! Then the first “McGrupp and the Watchful Hosemasters” since the brilliant 10/20/10 Utica gig. This “dog theme” set two opening exacta of “Jim” and “McGrupp” paid $37.40, please check your tickets. Rough patches from Trey in parts but a beloved song always welcomed, one that often portends greater things to come. A quick “Axilla” and the set is off to the races.
“Birds of a Feather” offers the first chance to jump of the ledge of the set. Jump? In some ways, sure, but bordering on third cocktail sloppy (both sloppy ‘meh’ and sloppy ‘sick’). Interesting, unexpected and rocking fun all the same. I kinda like it, but your opinion is the only one that counts. Simpson’s Signal! The first deployment of “Secret Language” since Phish’s return to the stage in 2009. Then “Stash.” Wow! What a unique exploration! Not too deep out of the theme but totally engaging, verging at times both danceable and dark, hard states to simultaneously hold. Excellent building tension and.... release! This song works – right spot in the set, killer jam, we’re building a sturdy set ship here, mates.
“Sample in a Jar” gives us all an appropriate “breathe” moment (or “rage dance moment!” – your call entirely). I’m calling “Heavy Things” a great call in this set, provided it (with “Sample”) is the “breather sequence” of the set, and please know I love “Heavy Things.” A wonderful “Horn” follows; thoughts about setlist flow can be forgiven, it was really a sweet version. “It’s Ice” is next and while a great tune, this set is starting to feel like “another first set” as opposed to “the first of two second sets.” “Mango Song” keeps the happy, easy feel vibe of this set alive. Another rough version, so frankly the set has both conceptual and execution problems building; the potential of this set is slowly but surely slipping away.
“Rift” solidifies this second set as... a second first set. I love these songs will all my heart but in the meat of the middle set on Saturday night at your signature event of the year? Good, and FUN, for sure. Then a mini bust-out, the first “Scents and Subtle Sounds” since 12/4/09 MSG (74 shows) (and the first with the Intro section since 8/2/03 IT (146 shows)) gives this second first set a needed shot-in-the-arm. Not enough to recover from the lost opportunity of prime time, but welcome nonetheless. Soaring even, great placement and respectable execution. “Run Like an Antelope” sends day two, set 1(b) through the finish line.
So let’s be clear: perfectly good set of Phish music. Stranded alone on a desert island listening to this set? No problem. Great if not all-timer “Stash,” awesome and underplayed “Scents and Subtle Sounds” and lots of great tunes in between... but no meaty sauce. First set of a random mid-week shed show? Great times. And great times now, still. As one of the key $ sets of their signature event? Well, you decide, as always. Clock has a lot of time on... let’s chill and regroup, shall we? See you in fifteen minutes.
Double-$ redemption set three? Let’s get it on. Song #30 of the night? What a great call: TV On the Radio’s “Golden Age.” “Clap your hands if you think your soul is free!” This song is easily the shining star of recently introduced cover songs. The Age of Sound, indeed, and clearly self-referential as to where the band confidently claims their rightful seat at the table of the best improvisational rock and roll bands of all time. Then the Plinko jam... but through a darker, unique path. Awesome, King Crimson-esque jam, the definitive jamming highlight of the (soundcheck excluded) festival to the moment. As great as that was... Trey endjamulation. Oh, so sorry.
“Prince Caspian” is next, and while disappointing some still contains a genuinely sweet outro jam, perfect in the moment and giving way to a sped up “Piper” – escaping the dreaded “box” and providing some (desperately needed) Type-II. This sweet “Piper” jam flowed into “Tweezer.” Funk ON! From redemption to punctuation, this Mike and Fish driven jam is totally legit and stomps all over the damn “box.” Bravo for The Phish: right jam, right time. “Julius” is a stomper to be sure, but right back in the dreaded box.
“Backwards Down the Number Line” keeps with the set’s script: bright, compact, honest, and powerful. “Twist”... whoo! And it turns out an awesome call, creeping in on the set-highlight reel. “WHAT?!” “WHOO?!” “WHAT?!” “WHOO?!” “WHAT?!” Set redemption? You decide. Kicker into “2001” FTW, a.k.a. funk the win?” Fun, perfunctory, classic, but more jukebox. Then a sublime, classic reading of “Harry Hood” leads the homestretch. Happy 4th! Phish = THE American Band™ Feel good about loving The Phish.
“Cavern” kicks serious set-closing tempo, then “Golgi” – classic? Or weak sauce in the SBIX prime slot? Great times all around, you make the call. Then “A Day In the Life” to seal the deal on a set full of promise ultimately unfulfilled. The “Loving Cup” encore continues the parade of covers at SBIX and the satisfying, if predictable, resolution into “Tweezer Reprise” – still the best two-and-a-half minutes in rock and roll – ends the night on a high note.
This set had its jamming highlights from “Golden Age” and “Tweezer,” and “Piper” had potential, but the set as a whole? “Typically great” but ultimately leaving many fans hoping for something more. This gig wasn’t unsatisfying, but for the money show? Let’s just say that two thirds through a festival that officially runs Friday through Sunday, you don’t want your musical highlights to have taken place on... Thursday. Sunday redemption FTW? Let’s hope!
[NOTE: this reviewer was long asleep by the time the “USA Storage Jam” late-night set took place and as such I’ll leave it for others to describe that madness... please see David Steinberg's blog post on the "cold storage" jam]
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May 23, 1988
29 years ago
 Fish on trombone.
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