, attached to 2015-08-22

Review by TheFamilyBerzurcher

TheFamilyBerzurcher All music, great and small, begins with and returns to the same silence.

I believe there is a way to read Phish history through the lens of their experimental work. They have made several hours of music with minimal to zero stakes. The Ambient Set. The Tower Jam. The Flatbed Set. Ball Square. Headphone Jam. Soundchecks. Even The Siket Disc. I am fascinated by their occasional impulse to play music with a clandestine spirit. I often consider the souls of the millions of people that have come and gone on earth, leaving no trace and simply becoming a patch of dirt or ash or a tree. Think about the music Phish has played that no one will ever hear and was not motivated by anything but a pure spirit of creation.

It is not my intention to argue that these sets are somehow more true or more Phish than your friendly neighborhood "Strange Design". Rather, I just want to communicate my passion for these experiments, and suggest that Phish's performance at the Drive-In was uniquely moving, exhibiting more focus, diversity, and radical thought than most of the Phish I can recall.

Consider the silence out of which the Drive-In Set emerged. They had just played one so-so set and two undeniably strong sets, including the Twince Caspeezer, one of those defining performances that any show destined for the history books must contain. No matter how long these guys have played together, I can't imagine that they don't feel some degree of anxiety over their desire to reward the devotion of their fanbase. And I am positive that they are aware when they have succeeded, when they have delivered mildly yet underwhelmingly, and when they have choked. The two nighttime sets on Magna Saturday were home runs and they knew it. I was listening on the radio and I could feel it. And I have heard from all reports that everyone there was feeling it too.

So, we have a group with virtually nothing left to prove. Or at least not much. The silence that came before the Drive-In was a deep one, filled with assurance that the spirit and energy of this thing called Phish was flowing and no dam was holding it back. Isn't the truest kind of love more like a service? A consciousness supported by the faith that giving is surely more fulfilling than receiving? I can't say that Phish came to the Drive-In to play "for the love of the game," but it bears witness to a freedom and order of nonchalance that we are rarely allowed to catch. These guys had nowhere to be. The fans were not promised a secret set. If we were, it'd just be a set. Their motives are closer to purity here. The expectations were fulfilled earlier. Time for a new experience. Maybe, just maybe, there won't even be someone trying to snag a whiff of the good 'ole days, content to leave memories of Fall '97 and Summer '03 behind and be in July 2015 for an hour.

The music emerges from a fog of anticipation and comes up like it's just checking out the landscape and seeing what there is to work with. Theoretically, the fixation on the half-step interval (or minor second) is made immediately apparent while Mike and Page dip their toes in. It's a relevant motif -- the climax of the entire jam depends on it. I am attracted to the way this mist develops into a laser over the course of the first 30 minutes, reaching through several loosely organized grooves to find an apex of concentration at the midpoint.

Anyway, the beginning. On first listen, the activity is disarming, but that quality dissolves with revisitation. The first movement is not remotely "atonal". It is more accurately defined as fluid, cinematic, and certainly more attracted to major tonality. Fishman waits almost 10 minutes before entering gently on the cymbals. If you are interested in appreciating the improvisational acuity of St. John the Fisherman, do your best to isolate his playing over the course of this piece sometime. The very job of a drummer is to "Keep Time," yet he manages to be both the rock on which freedom balances and a rock floating gracefully through the air with three other rocks. It is impossible to hear this set and walk away agnostic about the immense power behind any of these musicians. Greater still, there are instances of musical bravery and creative risktaking present in this jam that suggest the kind of musical enlightenment that only great masters can claim.

A slow, narcotic groove develops and is fully mature by 15:00. The first instance of stylistic playfulness is instigated by Mike around 15:45, but it is short-lived. Witness the spontaneous directional shift that occurs from 16:40 to 18:00. Time signature and melodic character both undergo a sort-of uncertainty gauntlet, only to emerge by 18:00 with a confident hunt for some goddam rock and roll.

And rock and roll is what we get. I cannot accurately express my love for Trey in this segment. He manages to take his deserved and rightful leadership role with absolute grace. He plays with unselfishness and respect for the nature of collective experimentation. Rather than being the guy trying to pull the other three up the mountain, he's the guy behind them, pushing and not really looking for any applause. And Fish. I think the thrill of this section comes from his refusal to lay down much certainty in his pattern. Try and dance to any of this part.

Things take a turn around the 22:30 mark. Precisely at 22:59, Trey releases a lick that sounds like it belongs in the Book of Revelation. It is out of left field, melodically, and the only acceptable reaction is demonstrated by Fish, an ecstatic yawp released a few bars later. I can relate. And we all know we're headed for the abyss.

The 10 minutes that follow those screams are some of the greatest Phish I know. Pure groove. The mist has turned into a headlight and is focusing into a laser. The laser fully congeals at 27:12 in a beguiling moment of unity between Page and Trey where both of them careen toward a strange half-step modulation at the same time. Mike decides to play with the modulation and the band melts into a transcendent segment. 29:00 through 32:00 is Desert Island Phish for me. I cried the first time I heard Trey's whirling siren, Page's Rhodes, and Fishman's tom drums come together during the 29th minute. The culminating groove won't blow anyone's mind. It isn't the loudest thing they ever played. It's just a joyful moment. So joyful that they were compelled to bring their voices into it, singing that pesky half-step interval that's been haunting the entire jam so far. This is the greatest kind of Phish moment -- one so familiar that seems like it must have been played before, but in fact is impossibly unique and divinely attached to every note that preceded it.

After that, they begin to progress back to silence. The final 20 minutes are very diverse for how patient everyone sounds. They are beginning to rest in their terrific work. It's strange that the band probably reaches peak volume after 42:50, as they shriek and howl and shift, yet it all feels very calming. By 45:00, they are in the magical space that only can occur after they have found their fabled It for a while. The full wind-down is indescribably knotted and unpredictable and exciting.

I'll never forget the feeling I had the first time I heard the ending. I have the same sensation when I watch a movie with a good finish. No Country for Old Men comes to mind. "And then I woke up." Cut to black. You want more, but you know it's over, and rightfully so. The music stops and you relax in the same silence you came from, but you are changed. The silence has become alive and electric and somehow more peaceful than you remember.


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