When Phish catches fire, we all win. Whether you’re at the shows, listening at home, or just following along through setlists and recaps, there is a certain energy and excitement that permeates every thought and every discussion we have about this band. Make no mistake, Phish is on fire right now. While it’s far to early to prognosticate, I wouldn’t be surprised if some day in the future we’re talking about August 2015 as one of “those months.” Since Atlanta the band has been on a tear that has been truly impressive, creating legendary moments at almost every show.
Sunday’s oldie/rarity bust-out-fest at Alpine Valley was an altogether different kind of affair, with the band improbably combining as many of their most beloved, oldest, Gamehendge-iest songs into one first set. Often, when the band decides to play that show where they go deep in their catalog, the trend continues for a show or two, with the band plumbing the depths of their repertoire and pulling out a few stops that no one expected, even if they don’t pack the same punch as, say, a “Harpua” or a “Forbin’s” or an “Icculus” or “Sanity” bustout (think 7/30/03 following the bustout-heavy 7/29/03). Tonight’s first set was cut from that mold.
Photo By Rene Huemer © Phish From the Road
Thankfully, the band included plenty of improv in the first set alongside a number of tour debuts and one huge bustout that made this one of the most enjoyable first sets I’ve seen in a long time. And although the show started with the rare – though perhaps not on anyone’s “must-hear” list – “Crowd Control,” it was the second song, “Martian Monster,” that would provide a connective thread throughout the set, making this one of the most fun and enjoyable first sets of tour.
That said, the “Crowd Control” opener with its easy-going groove was a nice way to ease into the madness that was about to unfold. Trey continues to show that his GD50 woodshedding is paying tasty dividends, as he’s acquired more comfort soloing around the melody line. His solo featured the same long lines and smoothness that has characterized a lot of his type 1 soloing on first set songs where he riffs on the melody.
It’s tough for me to remember the crowd reacting to any song the same way we react to the opening of “Martian Monster.” They’ve been starting the song even before Laura Olsher’s voice finishes the narration, and this was an especially thick, swampy groove. Trey immediately started playing a highly percussive bit of riffing and strumming, and turned on his favorite new pedal, the Mu-Tron, for an especially funky, deep, nasty bit of soloing. I think that it’s not only fantastic that they’re playing a song from last Halloween regularly, but that they continue to improve on it. Page has gotten very adept with the samples, and is using them very creatively, becoming much better at playing around with the rhythms to the point that it almost sounds like DJ scratching at points, but also introducing a pitch shifter to some of them, something I haven’t heard him do until last night.
Leonard Fishman and Tom Marshall (soundcheck photos via Tom Marshall)
The band took the energy from the “Monster” and immediately parlayed that into some big head banging rock in “Axilla.” This song is always a great infusion of intensity and excitement into any first set, and coming so early last night it kept the rocketship in blastoff mode. As the next song began, I initially thought it was “555,” but the turnaround was something different….and then. “Skin It Back!” This is probably my favorite Little Feat tune, and although I was there when they busted it out at Jones Beach on 7/3/12, this was still a major deal for me. Right away I noticed how much it sounds like “Martian Monster.” In fact, I joked to my friends that I think Little Feat wrote the entire Haunted House set.
The “Skin in Back” jam immediately started teasing “Martian Monster.” But more than a tease, this was a full-on “Martian Monster” jam. But this wasn’t so much a segue back into “Martian Monster,” since many aspects of “Skin it Back” remained, including Page’s organ work and the signature riff. I’d really call it “Skin it Back” with a full “Martian Monster” jam and lots of “Monster” samples as well, including one well-placed primal scream, with more pitch shifting from Page. Trey responded to the excitement by not just doing a typical pentatonic funk jam, but introducing some Dorian modal flavor to his solo, giving it that especially “jammy,” psychedelic feel. Anytime you hear that kind of jamming, it feels like it’s somehow deeper and more prone to extension into the ether, and to have that in the first set was such a treat.
Photo By Patrick Jordan © Phish From the Road
“Vultures” was another minor bustout so I was very pumped to get this. I’d like to take a brief aside about the “wooing” here, because I think that during “Vultures” I finally made my peace with the “woo”-ers. There’s been a bit of talk recently on Twitter and other avenues about the woos, with people seemingly coming down on either side. I’m pretty firmly in the anti-woo camp, as I think that Phish chooses when to have a moment of silence in their sound and we shouldn’t feel the need to fill every one with a woo. Where it really bugs me is the composed songs that have a moment of silence in them, like “Vultures” or as we found out Sunday, “Weigh.” So last night when the woos started I cringed a little. But then I saw Trey’s face during the woos at the end of the tune, and I realized just how much he’s getting off on it. He loves the woos, he was leaning hard into every one, egging the audience on. And I realized that this is now just part of Phish, and the Phish experience, and who are we to criticize what the band clearly loves doing? So while I won’t start woo-ing during “Vultures” or any start/stop jam any time soon, I’ve made my peace with it. You can have your woo and scream it too.
The delicate “Dog-Faced Boy” may be a song about a breakup, but it’s also a love song, and so on the eve of my 8th wedding anniversary, I put my arm around my wife and we swayed along and enjoyed the gorgeous tune. As the final harmony faded out, and another “spaceship is about to blast off” from Page, into a relatively rare mid-set “David Bowie.” This “Bowie” jam initially found its way into a slightly sunnier area, but otherwise was a mostly standard-amazing “Bowie” jam. Trey seemed to offer a little extra mustard on the final build.
The “Farmhouse” that I thought was coming earlier finally did come, and this version didn’t have any of the nice slow build qualities as the Bend version from earlier this summer. “Scent of a Mule” got everyone bouncing again, Page did another “Martian Monster” sample at the end of his part of the Mule Duel, and Fishman took an extended Marimba Lumina solo as his half of the Mule Duel. It sounds like Fish has been practicing, as he did some really nimble mallet work on chromatic notes that worked really well in the space of the klezmer “Mule” riff. He also utilized a pitch shifter slider to bend around the heavy bass notes that were erupting out of the instrument. Kudos to Fishman for taking this on, it’s been really cool seeing him learn a new instrument.
Photo By Rene Huemer © Phish From the Road
After “Mule,” it was clearly time for the closer, and with “Bowie” already out of the way, the band pulled a huge surprised and closed with…”Ghost”?! Of course, in this set there had to be some alien monsters along with the ghosts, with Page adding a bunch of ghost moaning sounds along with a few other Haunted House sounds. In the space right after “I simply haven’t looked,” the band did another big “Martian Monster” tease, highlighting the connection between all these big first set dark funk grooves. “Ghost” is a wonderfully malleable song – it’s jam seems to always meet the setlist placement needs perfectly. At Dick’s in 2013, the show opening “Ghost” was built like a show opener, with a straight-ahead big energy jam. This “Ghost” was built perfectly as a set closer. After some more “Martian Monster” teases at the start of the jam, Trey sat back and brought everything down to a very quiet and subdued place. Essentially, they were crafting a jam structured very much like an “Antelope” or “Slave” or “Bowie” jam, more typical set one closing fare.
This “Ghost” entered into a nice modal space again, avoiding the usual funky blues jamming and instead giving it that nice psychedelic aura, with Trey again exploring along the Dorian mode. Trey mostly sat back gently noodling and let Mike do a lot of work in here, while Page was highly active on the electric piano. A brief shift to the subdominant kicked Trey’s soloing into a Mixolydian feel, in other words, still modal but now sunnier and bright rather than dark and brooding, but then everything fell back to the tonic and Trey leaned on the Dorian 6th hard, accentuating the modal character of the jam. The jam didn’t so much peak in the conventional sense, but instead Trey returned to a bit of minor blues jamming before going back to the “Ghost” riff and playing it for quite a few bars, getting gritty and chunky. As a cap to the standout first set, the band gave us one more little mini-rarity, the a cappella “Grind.” While not technically accurate, “Ghost” definitely felt like the set closer though.
Photo © Jake Silco
My friend had been calling not only a “Fuego” at this show, but in his words, a “20-minute Fuego!” I was skeptical of this, seeing as that the first night of the Mann last summer was centered around a huge 20+ minute “Fuego,” but when the piano chords of the tune opened set two, my buddy turned to me and mouthed the words “20 minutes!” Despite being three minutes short, he was right; Phish again took “Fuego” deep for the first time since last year’s Portsmouth, Mann, and SPAC blowouts. The audience has really embraced everything about this song, and it’s a legitimate powerhouse in Phish’s catalog these days. The jam went in the usual direction, but rather than coming out of the gates swinging, the band seemed to sit back on it a little, as if to invite the opportunity to spread out. Spread they did, with Trey going to Mu-Tron after a bit of standard “Fuego” jamming. Trey was content to just play single chords with some nice delay effects, giving this section of the jam over entirely to Mike and Page. Fishman quietly kept everything from getting too ambient in the background, and CK5 of course set the psychedelic, spacey mood perfectly. When Trey finally did start playing chords again, he built a beautiful double plagal chord progression (the same one as the outro to “Hey Jude” or “St. Stephen”), which is especially perfect in Phish’s current jamming language because they’ve been all about the I-IV alteration in their big type-II jams, and in this scenario you basically get that twice in one phrase.
Trey switched over to a slightly countrified tone for a second, almost reminding me of an Allman Brothers tune, before falling into gorgeous circular descending riffs while Page and Fish built the overall sound up, Page hammering away on piano. A truly glorious “Fuego” jam. The fast rock strumming faded into ambience but then came back big time with the opening of “Rock and Roll.” This was a relatively short but fiery version of what is often a second set monster jam, but it filled its role nicely coming after the big opening “Fuego.” Trey eventually went for some fast strumming with the wah-wah pedal which was really nice, and the jam felt like it was settling into something more for an extended walkout. But then Page actually started singing the “it was alright!” refrain again, which ended any chance for further improvisation on this tune. Instead, the band went back to the gritty, dark, murky sound that’s been a frequent visitor this summer and took it into the chunky opening chords of “46 Days.” Even though it only clocked in at eight minutes, there was still a bit of something unique in parts of the “Rock and Roll,” a trend that continued in “46 Days.” Don’t judge these jams by their timings, Phish packed a ton of interesting music into these eight-minute segments.
They decided to forego their usual plan of blasting out of the gates of the “46 Days” jam with a big rock and roll solo, and instead Trey went right back to that murky darkness, low-necking the crap out of the early part of the jam with a variety of effects filters turned on to give this a really gritty quality, the same type of sound that’s come to characterize a lot of the dark jams this summer like the Bend “Simple,” the Atlanta “Tweezer” and “Kill Devil Falls,” and the Shoreline “Twist.” It was quiet and low in pitch, so this “46 Days” jam actually had somewhere to go. After a reprise of the lyrics the band led into a very funky, quiet, psychedelic jam, with Trey again taking a back seat to Mike and Fishman. It sounded almost Pink Floyd-y in that combination of psychedelia and funk, sort of like the middle “Echoes” jam or “Breathe.” This jam then turned bright and major key, with lots of great effects from Page. The major key flip turned out to be a nice way to get into the first “Taste” of summer. Totally a beautiful, buttery segue. The “Taste” jam was, like many other tunes in this show, peppered with a high dose of creativity and a modal feel. As he did on parts of the “Fuego” and “46 Days” jams, Trey again sat back playing fast chord strums with the wah effect turned on, while Mike and Page got a minor blues jam going, which is a big contrast to the usual “Taste” sound, before peaking the jam as usual.
Photo © Jake Silco
The opening segment of “Fuego” through “Taste” was fantastic psychedelic rock, with lots of modal type-II jamming in both “Fuego” and “46 Days.” The next segment of the show was just a big dance party. A big meaty “2001” was perfect here, and Trey again sat back just offering chords with a nice bit of delay while Page did his thing on the Rhodes. The drop into “Sand” kept the party going, with Page controlling the early part of the jam on clavinet and Trey going to the Mu-Tron for his longest foray into that sound, giving a nice big envelope-heavy solo that had a sinister sound to it, rather than the bounciness of “No Man’s Land,” for example. This “Sand” jam had a really nice swing to it, and while it didn’t peak with the same force as usual, it was very pleasing nonetheless.
The set closed with a series of Phish pop/rock, as we got the now-rare “Horse” accompaniment to “Silent in the Morning” (and yes, this exact thing did happen just last year: it again rained really hard and the band played a monster “Fuego” on the first night of the Mann). “Cavern” seemed to be the closer, but then Trey opted for an extended “Number Line” to close things out. Again, when Phish wants to jam the hell out of “Number Line,” they really nail it, and anyone who might groan to think of this closing the second set needs to listen to the all-out shredfest that put a cap on this great show. “Julius” kept the poppy rock vibe going into the encore, and with that we were off.
In retrospect, I think last night’s first set may have actually trumped the second! The “Martian Monster” silliness not only provided a fun connection throughout the set, but highlighted the ways that Phish has really taken their influences and put it into their new compositions. Phish is on fire now, last night was just another example of this. See this band on this tour at any cost.
Phish Summer 2015 – Setlists & Recaps
07/21/15 Setlist – Recap – Bend 1
07/22/15 Setlist – Recap – Bend 2
07/24/15 Setlist – Recap, Recap2 – Shoreline
07/25/15 Setlist – Recap – LA Forum
07/28/15 Setlist – Recap – Austin
07/29/15 Setlist – Recap – Grand Prarie
07/31/15 Setlist – Recap – Atlanta 1
08/01/15 Setlist – Recap – Atlanta 2
08/02/15 Setlist – Recap – Tuscaloosa
08/04/15 Setlist – Recap – Nashville
08/05/15 Setlist – Recap – Kansas City
08/07/15 Setlist – Recap – Blossom
08/08/15 Setlist – Recap – Alpine 1
08/09/15 Setlist – Recap – Apline 2
08/11/15 Setlist – Recap – Mann 1
08/12/15 Setlist – Recap – Mann 2
08/14/15 Setlist – Recap – Raleigh
08/15/15 Setlist – Recap – Merriweather 1
08/16/15 Setlist – Recap – Merriweather 2
08/21/15 Setlist – Recap – Magnaball 1
08/22/15 Setlist – Recap – Magnaball 2
08/23/15 Setlist – Recap – Magnaball 3
09/04/15 Setlist – Recap – Dick's 1
09/05/15 Setlist – Recap – Dick's 2
09/06/15 Setlist – Recap – Dick's 3
Philadelphia LE poster by David Welker. Edition of 800.
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