Words by Phillip Zerbo. Photos by Parker Harrington.
We’re back! Five months and change since they kicked off 2012 at Madison Square Garden, Phish returned to the stage in Worcester, home of so many classic Phish performances over the years. The MSG New Year’s run met mixed reaction among fans, though that seemed long forgotten when the lights went down on Thursday. Let’s recap...
A punchy “Buried Alive” opens, followed by “Runaway Jim” – their second performance of the song in Worcester since the all-time classic “Runaway Jam” of 11/29/97. The fifth-ever Phish performance of The Stones’ “Torn and Frayed” was next, one of the few Exile on Main St. songs to stick in the repertoire after their performance of the album in full on 10/31/09. Standard but enjoyable renditions of “Funky Bitch,” “Moma Dance” and “Rift” were next. The only mild surprise song selection of the night was the Anastasio/Marshall composition “Nothing;” this was the fifth Phish performance ever and the first since 6/24/10 in Camden (78 shows). A typically languid “Ocelot” brings the set back into a more predictable pattern, followed by Page’s “Beauty of a Broken Heart,” the obligatory “Possum,” and we are capped off by “Rocky Top.”
As a tour opening set after a five-month break this was a fine set of music, though containing nothing that will stand strong in Phish’s almost incomprehensibly rich history, whether in a few years, or even a few weeks. This situation would however change in rather dramatic fashion in the second frame.
“Carini” rocks the gates open to set two and it was almost immediately clear that this set meant business. This version was more nuanced than the sometimes heavy-handed hammer approach employed and featured an eclectic balance of dark-and-dissonant while maintaining some measure of focus and melodicism, ending in a lovely and quiet segment that gave way to “Taste” that contained a good deal of Siket-esque playing. The placement was perfect. A splendid “Norwegian Wood” tease from Trey opened the excellent if brief jam segment and setting the stage for “Ghost.” A wee bit sloppy in the composed section – it is “Ghost,” big deal – but the jam delivers in spades. Even if it isn’t your favorite “Ghost” of all-time, at least they are taking chances. A rolicking “Boogie On Reggae Woman” pumps some serious dance energy back into the building, extra mustard, please! The whole of the second set was satisfying, but the first 45-minutes of this set absolutely shines, and is precisely what keeps even the most JadedVet™ coming back for more.
A welcome and rare “If I Could” fills the ballad slot, the first performance of the song since 11/21/09 and only the fifth performance by Phish in the last fifteen years. The balance of the set was well-played and enjoyable, though falling into a familiar pattern of recent years with a succession of “closing” songs: “Quinn the Eskimo,” “Harry Hood,” “Cavern” and a brief reprise of the opener, “Buried Alive.” A rote “Loving Cup” and we’re off to navigate through the zombie parking lot. Thursday’s performance was uneven at times, predictable at others, but if the first half of the second set doesn’t get your Phish engines running, it is time to recalibrate, because that was good stuff.
“Free” kicks off Friday’s proceedings, only the second-ever “Free” show opener, though the second in a row after 12/28/11. “KDF” is next, followed by the unexpected jamming highlight of the first set, “Roses Are Free.” Perhaps in homage to the recent break-up of Ween, this one left the shell in which it has hid in recent performances and truly soared, earning a rare “Worcester Jam” designation from LivePhish for a song in the first set. Most of the balance of the set – until the finale – was fun if unremarkable, a sequence that included “Axilla,” “Julius,” “Bouncing Around the Room” and “Maze.” The lid was then removed for “Bathtub Gin.” Perhaps the most consistent jam vehicle of the modern post-breakup era, “Gin” would not disappoint. After a random “Leo!” call from Trey, the jam settles into a balanced, focused and ultimately soaring peak. This was pure Phish-y goodness and a perfect capstone to an entertaining and diverse set.
Friday’s second set opens predictably though enthusiastically with the jam workhorse, “Down with Disease.” Powering through at a shade over fifteen minutes, this version was unencumbered by the dreaded “box” and lurched through several distinct movements. Having said that, there is perhaps no song more consistently adventurous in the 3.0 era than “DWD,” and this version likely falls squarely in the meaty portion of the bell curve vis-a-vis its 3.0 brethren. The opposite is probably true of the ensuing “Sand.” Clocking in at under nine minutes, this version nevertheless delivers some of the most utterly unique and creative playing of the night before slickly segueing into “Nellie Kane.” “Mike’s Groove” followed and was all too standard but for the first ever “Makisupa” bridge (Keyword: “Sour Diesel”). Friday’s ballad slot was filled by “Velvet Sea,” which gave way to a “Sand”-infused version of “2001.” A strong “Zero” closed the set. The band then threw down the first “Oh Kee Pa” > “Suzy” encore since 3/30/92 (!) before sending everyone off to apocalyptic Worcester lot scene.
Perhaps nothing from Friday’s show matched the heights scaled in the second set on Thursday, but Friday was a slightly more balanced affair. In any event, the consensus seems to be that these shows marked an auspicious start for Summer Tour 2012. The band will close out Bonnaroo tonight and then we’ll all have nearly a week to debate the merits of this opening trifecta before the tour starts up in earnest on Friday in Atlantic City.
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February 21, 1991
26 years ago
Encore: Suzy Greenberg
 Charlie Chan and Random Note signals.
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