I’ll open with a confession. Before hearing tonight’s show, I had cooked up a snarky idea for the recap. Something cutesy. Something high-concept. I thought it was clever.
Then Phish smacked the smirk clean off my face.
Given what transpired in St. Louis tonight, I conferred with some of the staff and we all agreed that we owe it to you to do our best to describe the show in clear and simple terms. Phish did not show up tonight to mess around, so neither will we.
Chaifetz Arena is a 10,600 seat arena on the Saint Louis University campus that tonight would host Phish’s first appearance in St. Louis since the 2009 Fox Theatre gig. That much was true before the show started. Post-performance, I can also say confidently that it is now the epicenter of the Chaifetz “Limb By Limb,” and the home of a show destined to be talked about for a long time in more than one context.
At 8:11 St. Louis time, Trey scratches out the intro to “Punch You in the Eye,” perhaps at the request of .netter @phish_sticks (give that phan a contract!). To me, this song has always been about the drop... you know the one... and Fishman misses the drop hilariously, coming in four full bars after he’s supposed to. Trey’s guitar tone sounds oddly reverb-drenched for the first half of this song as well, but then he negotiates the “Landlady” segment with the kind of precision rarely seen in this selection since the late 90s. Superb recovery to a modestly shaky beginning, and the crowd roars its approval.
Since losing my dog last Friday, “Runaway Jim” has been a stalwart companion, and I’ve been listening to some of the finest versions ever played: Raleigh 1995, MSG 1995, Worcester 1997. It’s an anthemic Phish song that deserves improvisational TLC, and it hasn’t been getting a whole lot recently. While tonight’s version never punches through into type-II territory, it certainly achieves a smoldering peak, and builds nicely on “PYITE’s” momentum.
Hey, am I alone or is “Ocelot” starting to creep toward glory, one exceeded expectation at a time? It seems to me that this original debuted to too much hype, and was then unfairly slagged when it didn’t quickly go to the same places as “Light” (a tall order). But recent performances are suggesting that the jam is on the verge of yielding some pretty big returns, and tonight’s version is certainly anything but a bathroom break. “Reba” bubbles up next, the first of two jamming tunes that seem to be gracing only the strongest shows of late (“YEM” is the other, and both were played at BGCA 3, for example). Page sparkles throughout this modest but fetching “Reba,” which like the Bill Graham version features the whistled coda. During an otherwise fungible “I Didn’t Know,” Trey introduces Fish as “the John Coltrane of the vacuum cleaner.” And here I’d always thought of him as the Bronson Pinchot of the Slap-Chop...
“The Curtain” is always welcome, even in its sans form. It’s a composition that somehow manages to reconcile harmonic and rhythmic complexity with deep emotion and soul – and I think that makes it one of the quintessential Phish songs. This truncated version features a gloriously weird ritardando ending that sets up the spring-loaded arrival of Zappa’s “Peaches en Regalia,” a cover that seems to be in a really generous rotation over the last year or so. It’s tightly and respectfully rendered tonight.
“Mound,” another tune that’s seeing unusually frequent action over the past few years, goes over better than the somewhat clunky BGCA version, and feels very well placed. “Sample in a Jar” follows with fury and purpose, “The Sloth” survives some early flubs, and “Camel Walk” proves as controlled and fierce as any in recent memory.
With the one-two punch of a confident “Possum” and a concise “Quinn the Eskimo,” this strong first set (whose only mellow moment came during the early part of the “Reba” jam) is in the books. While I find the first quarter a lot more compelling than the second quarter, the set as a whole is enough to elevate expectations for what’s still to come.
“Chalk Dust Torture” sparks up set two to mixed results, as Fishman biffs yet another cue and Trey forgets how to play the ending. But this is Phish, and they know a thing or two about turning lemons into lemonade. They rope off the moment and paint over it, then slide deftly into a brief bonus jam that tees up a proper segue into the elegantly paranoid “Frankie Says.” After flirting briefly with a deeper idea, Trey steers “Frankie’s” outro jam in a funk-ward direction, and an attentive Fish picks up the “Undermind” beat. After a Whammy-fueled workout from Trey that rivals the Festival 8 version of “Undermind,” we enter brief stretch of psychedelic grime... and then “Sand” emerges.
Five or six minutes into “Sand,” a promising show takes one giant leap in the right direction. That direction, arguably, is back in time, as this “Sand” recalls its 1999-2000 cock-rock glory. The jam culminates in a somewhat less-than-convincing segue into “Walk Away,” which these days can do nothing but (a) give our beloved “Tweeprise” another place to live and (b) melt faces off skulls. Tonight’s version is predictably powerful.
And yet nobody predicts this “Limb By Limb,” which careens from one idea to another and moves from 6/8 to 4/4 time before igniting in spectacular fashion and taking us all the way home. While not quite the longest “LXL” ever played, I’d argue that it’s the most unusual and kinetic, and will definitely be my favorite, until it isn’t anymore. Certainly, any serious discussion about the most unexpectedly spine-tingling jams of 3.0 would have to include this diamond in the rough. As one of our own used to admonish, hear at all costs.
When “Julius” begins, I immediately think about how strangely sad it would be to write that a Phish show was anti-climactic after the mid-second set “Limb By Limb.” And while it would have been a balls-forward call to end the second set there and then, the band presses their advantage instead, and manages to sustain a high level of energy right up until the end of the second set. A compact “Julius” and a surgical “2001” mate up naturally to exorcise the dancing jones of those in attendance, and an above-average “YEM” secures this show a nameplate in the varsity locker room. A tepid “Shine a Light” does nothing to add or subtract.
In the rearview mirror, this feels like one of those nights where even Phish’s mistakes are interesting and anything is possible, because the band’s intention is palpable and strong. It is certainly comparable to BG3 in terms of overall quality, though both boast their unique charms and will reward multiple listens. I would certainly welcome a robust debate in the comments as to which will benefit more with the passage of time.
PSA before I go: Phish tickets continue to be an awfully sound investment this summer, so get out and see a show. See you at the zoo!
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Mike Gordon: December 10, 2016
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