Phish returned to Georgia last night for the band's 41st performance in the state, dating back to 2/1/90. For a band that traces its roots to the Green Mountains of Vermont, Phish has logged a healthy amount of its road time in the Peach State. In fact, while Georgia ranks ninth in terms of most visited states, Atlanta stands a proud third in terms of most frequented cities, trailing only Burlington, VT, and New York City. And Phish has returned to Georgia every full performing year since 1990 with only two exceptions, 2004 and 2009. Over these years, Atlantans and nearby Athenenians have witnessed some spectacular Phish shows. And amidst a long, long list of exceptional individual song performances, here's a quick year-by-year sampling of some especially noteworthy Georgian renditions:
6/1/90 - "Run Like An Antelope" (with the "Reverend" Jeff Mosier on banjo and Oteil Burbridge on a second bass); 11/12/91 - "Brother;" 3/28/92 - "Stash;" 2/20/93 - "Mike's Groove;" 10/25/94 - "Split Open And Melt;" 6/15/95 - "David Bowie;" 10/31/96 Set II - Talking Heads' Remain In Light performed in entirety; 7/23/97 - "Ghost;" 8/6/98 - "Wolfman's Brother;" 7/3/99 - "Taste;" 6/23/00 - "Bathtub Gin;" 7/26/03 - "Piper;" 7/4/10 - "Harpua" sandwiches "Killing In The Name" (Rage Against The Machine cover); 6/15/11 - "Julius;" 8/25/12 - "Chalk Dust Torture." And that list is literally just the tip of the peachberg.
Fresh on the heels of a very strong 2nd night performance at Merriweather Post Pavillion, it seems unrealistic to expect the band to exceed that temporary high water mark. But 2013 so far has been a good one for fans, who now have considerably more music to celebrate than criticize. Rather than speculating further, let's see what unfolded last night in Georgia. But first, a qualifier – I was not at the show. And since the show was not webcast, this recap is based solely on listening to the LivePhish download, once it became available. I hope to be able to add some color and perspective on the music, how it sounds compared to other Phish shows from 2013 and before. But don't mistake that analysis for a full blown review of the show itself - the lights, crowd, atmosphere, weather, venue, etc. That sort of review is best left for those there in person, and if you were there, I sincerely hope you'll post yours to this setlist. For a music only recap, here goes...
"Kill Devil Falls" leads off, aptly filling the "Let's get the show on the road" slot that "AC/DC Bag," "Chalk Dust Torture," and "Runaway Jim" have done on so many other occasions. Despite their jamming potential, these latter three songs have filled the lead off slot more often than they have been vehicles for improvisation, and in this context, "KDF" works well here. "Mound" is up next, a great Mike-penned song making its second appearance in 2013. I really enjoy the odd combination of a sort of western twang with a jazzy kind of little jam that this song brings together in an eclectic, Mike sort of way. I recall reading somewhere that this song is one of the band's most challenging to pull off successfully, with all four musicians at one point playing independently on different rhythyms, which then need to fuse back together, seemingly without effort. Last night's version successfully works through these rhythmic challenges without any major hiccups. "Bathtub Gin" follows "Mound" in a typical early Set I placement. In fact "Gin" has only made four Set II appearances in 3.0, so last night's early showing is nothing but normal. This rendering is well played, but without any sprinkles of improvisation. And while "Stash," "Split Open And Melt," and "Run Like An Antelope" all seem to be trending upwards recently in terms of improvisation, "Gin" seems like it's ripe for some renewed focus from the band. Following "Gin," Page briefly and courteously welcomes the audience, which he has now done a number of times in 2013.
"Army of One" comes next, a lovely Page composition from Undermind and relative rarity, but which, like "Mound," is the second 2013 offering. A quick glance at the threads in the forum reveals some angst at repeats. Recall that in 2012, the band seemed hell bent early on to perform at least 200 of its vast arsenal of original and cover songs, yielding such bustouts as "Skin It Back," "Sweet Jane" and "Emotional Rescue." But there are two sides to every coin, and while some fans may grouse at repeats, I for one would rather hear the band flawlessly execute a smaller array of these types of rarities than deliver wobbly renditions in pursuit of some magical number. Through last night, the band had performed each of "Mound," "Army Of One," "Rift," "It's Ice," and "The Wedge" two times. But I think the cool little jam that emerged in the midst of "It's Ice" on Sunday night at MPP2 validates the benefit of revisiting these great but infrequently played songs more than once a tour. And to underscore this point, the "Rift" that follows "Army Of One" last night is a cleaner if not quite perfect rendition of this challenging song, better than the version performed in Bangor on the tour opener.
Next we get "Horn" making its first appearance in 2013. I personally think this is a great little tune from Rift, and its mid set one placement serves as an effective bridge to the second half of the set. "Possum" follows, and no other song at this point seems like more of lightning rod for hate, played too often venting, love, etc. than the little marsupial does. I for one do not think "Possum" is a bad song; in fact, it can be a great song, and I suggest you listen to some of the songs on the Jamming Chart if you disagree. The real issue with "Possum" I think is not the frequency with which it is played, but because, since the end of 1998, it has largely been played in a straightforward, non-improvising manner. Consider this little tidbit of trivia: in 1990, "Possum" was played 85 times, and there are fourteen versions from that year represented on the jamming chart, or 16.5% of the 1990 versions. For 1994, 16 of 20 performances are on the chart (80.0%). In 3.0, "Possum" has been played 62 times, and after last night's performance, there are now eight 3.0 versions, or 12.9% of 3.0 performances on the chart. Said differently, "Possum" has always been played often, just look at 1990. When it was at its best (1992 - 1995), it was most often but not always "Type I," but had considerably more improvisational elements than what we have come to expect. As for last night, the jam section begins with a very nice Page piano solo, followed by Trey. They've done something similar to this a few other times in 3.0, and it's different enough to merit addition to the Jamming Chart, the first 2013 "Possum" to earn this distinction. So there.
"Pebbles And Marbles" from Round Room is the next to appear, and this is a genuine treat, only its 16th performance ever. People tend to view late 1.0, but 2.0 even more so, as a period when the band shied away from the more compositionally challenging pieces like "Fluffhead" or "Foam." But I find the composed section of "Pebbles" to be rich in musical content, especially given that it was composed by Trey in 2002, or thereabout. "Ocelot" and then "Cavern" follow "Pebbles," serving well to up the energy as set break approaches. "Run Like An Antelope" keeps the momentum building where "Cavern" left off. This is a straightforward, "average-great" "Antelope," not one for the Jamming Chart, but functionally serving to bring the set to a rev-it-up closing. Of the four "Antelopes" performed in 2013, the Bangor version is the only one so far on the chart. But considering that about 29% of all versions of "Antelope" ever performed are on the chart, 2013 so far is just slightly under par.
As whole, set one is a good set, but it's also typical of 2013. Nice to see the band fine tuning and improving some relative rarities like "Mound" and "Rift." And it's great that they dusted off "Horn" and "Pebbles" for the first time this year. But I don't think this set holds up to MPP2 and here's why: set one at MPP2 featured a stellar "Stash" and had brief but improvisational moments in "It's Ice" and "Scent of a Mule." With last night's set one, the opportunity for improvisation was opened up with "Gin" and "Antelope." But the opportunity was not taken. It's not a bad set though, and there was still a lot more music to be played.
Set two opens with "Rock And Roll," one of the band's go to jamming vehicles in 3.0. This version is a good one. It's not super long, but does break into a nice snappy "Type II" rhythmic groove that settles, gets a little funky, then segues (->) quite unexpectedly into only the second performance ever of Led Zeppelin's classic hit "Heartbreaker." Trey doesn't seem to have quite the same vocal range as Robert Plant, but who does? And Trey and Mike more than compensate for the vocals with a nice gooey and funky take on the song. This funk-infused "Heartbreaker" gives way suddenly to the second genuine segue (->) of the night, morphing into 2013's first "Makisupa Policeman." This fun version includes some hysterical Trey banter regarding an audience member near the front, some funky Page, and a little Fish drum solo. So far, we haven't had any super deep, mind-blowing improvisation like the "Carini" from SPAC, or the "Crosseyed and Painless" from PNC. But this is still good stuff, it's fun music, and I can imagine the crowd in Alpharetta was happily feasting on what Set II had offered thus far. As "Makisupa" comes to a close, Trey strums the opening chords to "Chalk Dust Torture," and the energy and anticipation just about blow through the roof (if there is one). And this is a very good "Chalk Dust," more than worthy of jamming chart inclusion. It's a shorter version, but loaded with great, improvisational music, and thus stands in good company with the versions from 6/20/95, 7/30/97, and 7/30/03. This "Chalk Dust" never returns home to close, transitioning instead to the ever popular, fist-pumping "Wilson," which includes a nice little "Heartbreaker" tease from Trey. From here, the band launches into another crowd pleaser, A Picture Of Nectar's monster jamming vehicle, "Tweezer." Both Page and Trey tease "Heartbreaker" early on, and at this point, I'm thinking back to Deer Creek's famed "Moby Dick"-fest on 7/11/00. At 9:55 in duration, this Tweezer is no 11/28/94 or 6/14/95 type behemoth, but it's a good compact version, like the "CDT" from earlier in the set, filled with more genuine music than you might expect given its brevity. And this seems to be a fun and flowing set, not one of deep, intergalactic improvisation. It's music that after one cursory listen yields the conclusion – this all makes sense. This is why I love this band. Even when they choose not to launch into 20+ minute extended versions of reliable jamming songs, there's still some real magic at play here.
As "Tweezer" winds downs into delicate space, we're treated to the 3rd genuine segue (->) of the set, as "Silent In the Morning" appears once again, as it did in Bangor, sans "The Horse," only the 7th time in 157 performances without the able bodied equine. "Silent" serves as a good and welcome breather after nearly 45 minutes of non-stop, high energy, fast moving music. A compact, straightforward "Birds of a Feather" brings the energy right back up, serving as notice that this concert is not over yet. "Joy" follows "BOAF." This is a heartfelt song written by Trey while his sister Kristy was fighting a losing battle with cancer, and serves as a fitting reminder that these four musicians who dazzle us so often are also real people, with families and real life, every day challenges, concerns, and yes, tragedy. But it's unlike this band to end a concert on a somber note, and this night is no exception, as "Joy" gives way to "Harry Hood," one of the band's most popular "feel-good" songs. Tonight's "Harry" is your typical 3.0 "average-great" type, no complaints, but also not one for the ages. Lastly comes "Character Zero." It sometimes strikes me as contradictory that Billy Breathes is considered the band's best complete studio album by many, yet the concert workhorses from this album, "Character Zero," "Free," "Prince Caspian," and "Theme From The Bottom" are all typically played in a "Type I" manner. There are exceptions of course, as the Jamming Charts document, but so far, there isn't one for "Zero." And I actually like the composed and lyrical part of "Zero," I just don't care for the predictable, noisy "Type I" jam. Oh well, it serves its purpose to send the fans home all pumped up.
For the encore, the band finally dusts off another classic, the Beatles' "A Day In The Life," followed logically by "Tweezer Reprise." How best to sum it all up? Well, this is very enjoyable, fun, and well played show. In that sense it's typical Phish and typical 2013 Phish. Set one is good, like the rest from this year except for MPP2 which stands above. But there were missed opportunities in "Gin" and "Antelope" that could have made a good set great. The run from "Rock And Roll" through to "Silent" is quality music. Even if the individual parts don't stand up to more formidable, historic comparisons, it is cohesive and somewhow greater than the sum of its parts. I'll end by reminding you, the reader, that I wasn't there, I've only listened to this quickly starting early this morning. I am sure the concert experience was different, and better in that regard. And I welcome your thoughts and comments, including critical ones. I'm not all knowing when it comes to this band, no one is. We all hear it slightly differently, and this is just one, long winded, reconstitution of what took place in Georgia last night. And if the past is any portent of the future, fans have a lot good reason to look forward to tonight's performance. Thanks,
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Mike Gordon: September 23, 2016
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