See the title up there? That’s the last thing I’m going to say about “Show of Life.”
And now the rest is easy, because now I get to review a really great Phish show. Better yet, I get to review a really great Phish show that doesn’t quite start out that way.
The band takes the stage at 8:18 p.m. MSG time. Page and Trey are wearing the same outfits they wore the prior two nights. Mike is dressed in his 5th outfit of the run, give or take an artisanal pashmina. And you know what Fish is wearing.
A playful “Wolfman’s” rescued Friday’s first set, which otherwise suffered from poor flow and lagging energy. Tonight’s first set has no such dramatic character beat of redemption, but it doesn’t need any, either. The set list is solid through and through, and the band members visibly overcome a few real musical struggles along the way, earning the tremendous breakthrough they will achieve in the second half.
A short but sweet “Runaway Jim” gets the big red ball rolling. There’s a long pause before “Cities,” which was a rare bright spot in last year’s holiday run. This version lacks that intensity, but ends in a curious way. The “Divided Sky” that arrives next is well-placed and more chaotic than most, some of which I mean as a compliment. “Back on the Train” takes a straight and narrow path to a belly-warming peak, while the camera operators deliver some of the run’s best webcasted images.
“Ride Captain Ride”... where to start, exactly? Okay, here’s the straight poop: Ellis Godard hates “Ride Captain Ride” so much* that we’re not allowed to talk about it on the email list, so let’s not talk about it here either. Instead, let’s talk about how “Ocelot” has quietly become a really cool song, or how tonight’s “Horn” is played to perfection. Or, we can marvel at the way Fishman kneads the tempo during “My Friend,” transforming a clunky reading of this underrated song into an inspired one.
In the end it all hangs together quite nicely in the form of a solidly above average first set of Phish. And while it’s hard to imagine not enjoying the first frame quite a bit, the band will make a far more emphatic statement in the frame that follows.
Sometimes you just know, from the very beginning, don’t you? From the first notes of “Down with Disease,” it is obvious that the first set has imparted new confidence. All the heavy lifting is done, there’s a breeze in the room, and it’s time to punch the red button on the Wonkavator.
And, oh, the places we will go.
All four band members take turns steering this lyrical “DwD” jam in different directions, but Fishman’s feints and surges of tempo are its elegant throughline. Along the journey, Page sprinkles in some Asian ingredients, Trey flirts with Calypso, and Mike invokes meatball metal. This captivating excursion terminates in a version of “Twenty Years Later” that once again benefits from Fishman’s effortless command of pace. The more he pulls back on the reins, the more power the song gathers.
An opulent, horrific “Carini” follows. This spellbinding jam section veers from Ummagumma-era Floyd to TV movie-of-the-week score music to The Wall-era Floyd, and all points in between. It puts to rest a hose-drenched third quarter of Phish that is more readily compared with Dick’s 2012 than MSG 2011.
If not so well-delivered, “Backwards Down the Number Line” and “Julius” might prove a drag in this placement, but both are outstanding. Trey makes a triumphant statement with his playing in each before introducing a wonderfully languid “Slave to the Traffic Light”; then he stays firmly in control throughout this “Slave,” leading the rest of the conversation to a powerful conclusion. The “Harry Hood” encore, apart from being a wonderfully played “Harry Hood” encore, appears to be a genuine novelty, as it has never followed “Slave.”
But really, one need not look to novelty or gimmicks for reasons to appreciate tonight’s show. It’s certainly the strongest start to finish effort since summer, with a second set that merits a seat at the debate table for the best of 2012. And the main event is mere hours away.
With that in mind, rest. Be safe. Eat a good breakfast. Remember: you survived the Mayan apocalypse. Make it count for something.
* The truth of the matter is that Ellis Godard really, really loves “Ride Captain Ride” and we’re all really happy he got to see it tonight.
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Mike Gordon: September 23, 2016
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