The tour closer. Phish is playing as well as they have in years. More than that, it seems like this is a general consensus. Phish fans may be scattered across generations and social-media platforms but there is little obvious disagreement about the quality of improvisation, which night in and night out has been magnificent. The drummer is massive, controlling the action in front of him to a greater degree than ever before. The keyboard player is all over the place, more percussive than usual, rising to the challenge, demanding and happily executing solos when usually he lays back. Even the guitar player, on whom so much depends, is hitting his marks most of the time and seems to want to do it right.
Phish, Inc. chose to offer a free webcast of Sunday night's Phish concert live from Alpharetta, Georgia. One wonders why it was free, whether enough shame finally accrued to the organization from the amateur-hour shenanigans of Nugs.net that it felt the need to pay off the fan base, or whether they are testing a new product, or whether they are deviously trying to identify, harvest, and ruthlessly exploit your intimate personal information like Facebook. When the band took the stage at 8:13pm, it was playing to a big room.
The band comes on. The opener is a joke. You have been around long enough to know it doesn't really matter what they open with. Beach balls fly and beer is spilled. People banter and recreate and wager on the actual identifiable opener, but ultimately they just want to hear the band play. Get the show on the road. The best parts aren't always the first parts. You think back to set break on October 7, 2000, where you were dissecting the first set, as was your habit, when your friends announced Phish had "showed disrespect for its audience" by playing "My Soul." It's not a song any of us needs to hear again.
So many of these reviews or think-pieces or whatever end up being self-referential, meta-discursive blarrrrgh, written under a cloud of disclaimer or childishly demanding adoption of a singular model for evaluating shows. Why over-contextualize the review to the point where you become a stereotype to the reader? And why be defensive about how you're discussing Phish's music? Why not write what you want to write? Why not use the criteria that make the most sense to you? No one's stopping you.
Photo © Mike Gordon
This night, Sunday night, the magic comes early. "Bathtub Gin" is the first set's most reliable shot at redemption. The first set takes a lot of abuse. The first set's main problem is that it's not the second set. But "Gin" is here for you. "Gin" will heal and consecrate you: the brave, excursionary Randall's “Gin,” dropping flags in uncharted reaches; last week's Portsmouth opener, taking the crowd zero to 80. Tonight it was more linear: a long guitar solo, unspooling a story and peaking and staying on the peak as long as possible, then dropping down... It is a superb version of a song that has offered peaks as high as any Phish jam.
Jon Fishman is in the best playing shape of his life. He is destroying fools. He has the weapon from Krull. He is playing so well that we can finally say what we knew but didn't want to mention, the plain-view answer we didn't want to concede: so many of Phish's struggles from 2009 through summer 2012 were down not to Trey failing to practice or arthritis but to Jon Fishman not being quite in shape enough, not having practiced quite enough rudiments to handle the demands of the music. That’s not true anymore. This music has so much give to it, so receptive to suggestion. Jon Fishman is a rolling ball of butcher knives, carving up thousands of willing victims every night.
"555" has been played 555 times in 5 shows. You are a member of the 55% club for "555." You have seen it played 55 times in 5 shows, which means you have seen 555% of the total performances of this song.
In very late 2002, Phish washed ashore with a new record called Round Room. It looked and sounded like they'd made it in a week. At least half of it was very good. The lead track, especially. For once, a Phish lyric that states an obvious home truth: "I am inclined, when I find a pebble in sand, to think that it fell from my hand." We all like to believe our experience is universal, that God is talking directly to us. But you just wish Phish would play "Pebbles and Marbles" more.
"Pebbles" explodes into fire and light. It combusts. But it was a bit of a trick because just seconds later the flame burns away and it's over. Arpeggios, then quiet. The lights go to blue. Trey decides on "The Line" next. This is a show tune, with a bridge and everything, and the band butchers the harmonies. Like they say, nobody listens to Phish for their vocals.
My wife doesn't like Phish. It's not her fault; it just so happens that there are a lot of good reasons not to like Phish. At 5:40pm PDT or so, it occurred to me I needed to start preparing dinner. Instead of listening to "The Line" or the composed bit of "Vultures" I put together the following brine for some pork chops:
Dissolve 3 T brown sugar and 3 T kosher salt in 2 c. hot water. Add another 1 c. cold water, then 3 T bourbon and 2 T vegetable or canola oil. In quart-size resealable plastic bag, place pork chops with 1 medium yellow onion, sliced, 1 cinnamon stick, 2 bay leaves, 10-15 black peppercorns, 8-10 allspice berries, 5-7 cloves. Pour brine into plastic bag, marinate 3-4 hours.
Everybody loves "Vultures." There's just the one problem. Since the watershed Tahoe "Tweezer" and throughout last fall and this summer, the crowd has developed a habit of shouting "Woo!" on every rest. But the end of "Vultures" is a parade of rests, where the band lays out to give Jon Fishman room to explore the studio space. As a result the crowd shouts "Woo!" at the end of "Vultures" when it's supposed to be listening to the Greatest Rock Drummer Alive strutting his stuff. Future generations will wonder: what the fuck?
Photo © Elliot Byron
It's not all gravy. Even Charlie Dirksen would pause before raining praise upon this short and anodyne "Fast Enough for You." "Back on the Train" hops onto the train for only one stop, before getting off again. "Taste" falls to pieces during the third verse, with Mike dropping off and then Trey losing his mooring before WHAP Fish brings them back on the downbeat.
"Gumbo," "Halley's," "Tube." GHT. One of many Phish triads. Songs that used to jam but no longer do. Tunes that inspire 1.0 fans to gripe and grouse. “Gumbo” and its explosion, so long after its debut, at Star Lake. “Halley's,” always a fire-starter but for a little while, between Hampton '97 and Portland '99, so much more. Well, hold on here: “Gumbo” looks ready to dissolve into ragtime as always at the 4-minute mark but suddenly turns left. Pleasant and funky, it sounds like it could bounce laterally into "Boogie On Reggae Woman." Instead it curdles and drops into a minor key and gets a little mean. It's dub; it's funk. Page is on the clavinet and Trey is barking like Peter Frampton's talk box. It's the best “Gumbo” in ten years, without question. Best you can remember. Deer Creek 2003? Was that the last one worth remembering? You are daydreaming when the beautiful jam is brutally truncated by Trey. Murdered really. Throat slit. Done in. Sent to meet the reaper. El finito. The big snuff. Blown to bits. Processed into a slurry.
Miraculously, the set ends as horribly as it began but you still love it. "Stealing Time from the Faulty Plan" into "Suzy Greenberg," with Trey sprinting like he has a tee time and also needs to take a shit. You love the precision, you love the tempos enabled by Jon Fishman's beast-like presence. But it surges past so quickly. Even the set break is fast, and before you know it they're back, Mike now with the scarf swaddling his torso like a juicy date wrapped in prosciutto.
"Chalk Dust Torture" detonated across this summer. It had periodically been used as a jam vehicle before now, but four times in summer 2014 the band picked it to open the second set – extending the trend from Dick's, Hartford, and MSG last year. Routinely "Chalk Dust" was veering into type II weirdness, never coming back to its moorings, providing the grounding for entire second sets and entire shows. But even if it was less exploratory by virtue of its placement later in the second set, "Harry Hood" had been every bit as good. "Hood" was the band playing together, listening to each other with precision. With one show to play the league table stood as follows:
Yet another extraordinary "Chalk Dust" peaks and twists and dives and are you in an IMAX movie of some sort? No, you're not, you're just at an amphitheater in suburban Atlanta, a little past sundown on a nice cool evening. The keyboard player moves over to his cute tangerine electric piano. Maybe things should slow down, but the drummer won't let them. He is thundering along, creating massive acres of space. The rest of the band builds to a drone, feedback from the guitar and honking synth now rather than piano. Then a rock progression from the guitar, then another, then – is that "Substitute" by The Who? Close enough I guess, everybody get on the bus, everybody get on board the wave.
"Scents and Subtle Sounds" hadn't been played in 100-plus shows, since Dick's in 2011, but what's the point if they don't play the intro and don't bother with the jam? "Twist" has regressed this tour, always coming in under the 10-minute mark, always fun but never seeming to move the needle. "Fuego" – well, everybody knew we'd get one. Every state gets a “Fuego.” Every venue gets a “Fuego” but Oak Mountain, where the audience is so dominated by aggressive dirtbags that they actually had to remove the lawn, for the crowd's protection. "The Wedge" was a normal version, not the rocket-propelled excursion that knocked us stupid the third night in Chicago.
This most exceptional summer tour was the best since 2003, when Phish threw a big festival called IT and set as-yet-unequalled standards with the Camden "Scents" and conjured magic like the Alpine "YEM." Or maybe since 2000, with the long opiate set breaks and the ridiculous northeast run with GSAC's "Drowned" -> "Rock and Roll" and then the Hartford "Ghost" and finally Camden and its "Jibboo." The point is it has been exceptional, and we can figure out how to rank it later.
When Trey needs somewhere to go in the second set, "Light" is there. It's there by design. It's been there five years, a rock in the center of the river, as long as the band's been playing it. When Trey has a mental block, and needs safe passage, he can always rely on "Light." When the tempo drops away and things are not as they seem, when boredom begins to creep into the second-set soundscape, why not give the staccato chords of "Light" a try? This "Light" is a bottom-end disco soiree that for all the world seems headed toward "2001" – Page setting the prospective segue out for the rest of the band on fine china, formally requesting a response.
Alpharetta, GA LE poster by David Welker
Finally the alienating harmonics smooth out. And it's bliss, essentially. A feint toward "Sand" and then, for the first time all night, the bass player grabs the reins and says here's what I can do, let me have a turn on the mic.
In the contest for Song of the Tour between "Chalk Dust Torture" and "Harry Hood," "Hood" has the hammer. With "Chalk Dust" notching a methodical 1-0 win earlier in the set there is no question "Hood" needs a big performance to take the title. You can judge for yourself whether it got there, but I want to say I was legitimately touched by the sweetness of the interplay between these 50-year-old men who have been playing music together for over 30 years. From the slowdown during the intro, to the sweet communal jam with Trey's foot up on the drum riser, trading fours with each of his bandmates in turn, everybody smiling, Fish with a grin like the ones we've seen from Mike when Trey has called him over to duet during "YEM." It's half-Caribbean, lilting, leisurely, good intentions from men who appear to genuinely love each other.
The bass player is drumming on his fight bell with drumsticks. Where did he get the drumsticks, anyway? The guitarist has stopped trying to use his instrument percussively and is just drumming, batting on his vocal mic, flicking it insistently. Then there's piano and throughout it all the drums.
They build and build and suddenly they're at the "Chalk Dust" tempo and just one step low, playing the "Hood" jam in D instead of "Chalk Dust" in E. They feint at it but they're not squaring the circle today. Instead they thunder back into the "Hood" ending. Surely the end of set. Surely nothing more except a "Character Zero" encore.
But Trey is talking to Fishman. Then, more quickly, to Page. All on the same page. Trey is counting off. One, two—one, two, three, four. And then BOOOOMMM—
"First Tube" has been nominated for a Grammy and this summer has finally started to stake its rightful claim as a song that should be in heavy rotation as a show closer. Fuck yes. Give me this every fourth show and I will never complain.
When Phish was hanging on for dear life, trying to act like things were okay when they weren't: they held a festival called IT. They played two long shows and at the end the fans chanted for them to play "Fluffhead." They didn't. One suspected they didn't think they could. When Phish came back from the dead, the first song they played was "Fluffhead." Tonight, August 3, 2014, Phish closed out their summer tour with a sharp and facile "Fluffhead" encore.
Summer 2014, guys. Phish is back.
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March 27, 1993
25 years ago
Set 2: Buried Alive > Halley's Comet > It's Ice > Bouncing Around the Room, Chalk Dust Torture, The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday > Avenu Malkenu > The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday > Mike's Song > I Am Hydrogen > Weekapaug Groove, Hold Your Head Up > Cracklin' Rosie > Hold Your Head Up, Poor Heart > Golgi Apparatus
 Beginning featured Trey on acoustic guitar.
 Fish on trombone.
 All Fall Down signal in intro.
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