After spending two days repeatedly kicking myself for not making it to Camden (that Chalk Dust and 2001 would have sent me over the rainbow, plus I would have caught Crosseyed), I got my show gear in order again after a week and a half off the tour and headed out to Merriweather, solo this time. The venue's probably within an hour of my house in good traffic, so I would just be going there and back home again for each show. Animal Collective was my driving music that day—I had a hunch Phish would cover something off of their album "Merriweather Post Pavilion." Beltway traffic being very kind, I found myself on lot with plenty of time to spare. This being my first show I didn't drag a companion along, I was able to reflect how immediately at home, and far from alone, I felt as soon as I stepped onto the lot. Enjoyed a Blue Moon and the musicianship of a certain Gypsy Joe, who treated me to a very fine version of Help on the Way, before I headed off in the direction of the venue.
I still had plenty of time before the gates were opened, so I ended up just circling the venue till, at the back, I realized I could hear the soundcheck very clearly. I stood there against the fence and caught Liquid Time, which was played several times, stopping and starting at various points (I really wish they'd debut it already). The day was very hot, but in the shade of the woods, listening to Liquid Time in what was otherwise silence—I don't need to tell you how pleasant that was.
I had lawn tickets for both nights, so I grabbed front and center as soon as I was inside. The bottom of the lawn at Merriweather is dusty, eroded, and somewhat steep, so it was difficult to sit on and later dance on. (I sat just a few feet farther back the next night and that made all the difference.) Everything I witnessed of the scene at Merriweather was ideal, as far as I'm concerned—everyone easygoing, excited, just looking to have a good time. I ran into a number of friends from shows past and had a great time chatting it up with everyone around.
CROWD CONTROL. I might have laughed out loud. I wasn't at last year's Merriweather show, but I'd certainly read people's decidedly lukewarm reactions to the opener and the show in general. I still think it's hilarious they opened two consecutive Merriweather shows with this song (the only two times it's been played since the breakup, too). For my part, though, I have nothing against Crowd Control—it's catchy, and works fine in the opener slot.
KDF. This song's really grown on me, and I didn't mind hearing it twice in two shows. This version was better than Portsmouth's in the same slot, too—nothing crazy, but it rocked hard and built to a very satisfying peak.
AC/DC BAG. Like Portsmouth's, it seemed to me the tempo was slower (and the song therefore stickier) than many last year. The jam wasn't as interesting, though—no funk breakdown and no really high peak, but it fit the feel of the set.
SUGAR SHACK. I'm a big fan of this song—I saw it debuted at Camden last year, I've played the studio version pretty incessantly since "Joy" came out. Just a great, ecstatic, funky Mike composition. I was standing next to Martin, a big Cactus fan I'd met at a Mike Band show in Baltimore, where we were treated to a pretty ripping version of the song, so he and I high-fived at the opening groove. All told, I've never heard a live Sugar Shack that's sounded as pristine as I'd like, but this one was better than most, if not all, last year.
TUBE. ANOTHER Tube by request, and my third repeat from Portsmouth! Trey seems bewildered by the frequency of Tube requests, and he alludes to that in his now-traditional Tube Request Joke. One of my absolute favorite Phish songs, however, so you won't hear me complain about catching it in three of my first six shows. I preferred this version to Portsmouth's, even though the placement of that one was unbeatable. This one featured Page almost exclusively during the jam, during which he got into some seriously dirty funk. Short version, but excellent top to bottom.
AEROPLANE. … and yep, I had no clue what this was. I suspected a cover, but would never have guessed Neutral Milk Hotel (which I guess demonstrates that I don't know Neutral Milk Hotel at all, which is true, and therefore have no place to NOT guess them, if that makes sense). Trey's vocals were a little strained on this one, but otherwise the song was well-played, if not necessarily the sort of thing I want to hear, though it's a catchy tune. (For the record, I'm all for Phish covers drawing more from the indie canon; I'd just opt for the more textural psych-pop stuff first—Animal Collective, MGMT.)
STASH. My first, so I was happy to hear this. Not that memorable a version, however, and I really did enjoy a couple last year (Red Rocks, Hartford, Fest 8).
NUMBER LINE. This is another song off "Joy" that rarely sounds as bright and ecstatic as the studio version, even though the jams are occasionally outrageous. This one was fairly standard—nothing surprising or breathtaking.
NICU. Fun as always. Good for dancing. You know the drill.
46 DAYS. A major highlight at Portsmouth, and ended up being a highlight of this set as well. It rocked HARD—outrageously, even, Trey peeling off lines higher and higher up the fretboard. Looking at the timing now, I can't believe it was only about seven minutes—it packed quite a big punch.
SUZY. An apt closer for this set—nothing too crazy, but another solid, high-energy song with some very good Page soloing on the baby grand.
SET ONE RECAP. The least remarkable first set I saw this tour, and—spoiler alert—weaker than the three subsequent Merriweather sets. Highlights were KDF, Tube, and 46 Days. Still plenty enjoyable, but, in all fairness, probably a 3.0 or so.
R&R. For the second consecutive set, I almost had to laugh at the opener choice, in this case because R&R has been so overplayed as a Saturday night second-set opener. However, as happened several times this tour, Phish totally defied (and exceeded) my expectations for a song in the jam. Eschewing the more cliché R&R jamming (what Mr. Miner would call "percussive grooving"), this one went out for a very pretty, sky-scraping jam and clocked in at a hearty eighteen minutes (which totally flew by). Definitely worth checking out on tape. It was good enough that, at the time, I thought it might stand as the highlight of the weekend.
FREE. Somewhat awkward transition from the previous jam. Standard 3.0 Free, and didn't feel as at home here as it did in the midst of the Hershey Cactus showcase.
FEFY. As at Hershey, they followed up Free with a ballad, this one always nice to hear for the rarity factor.
SPARKLE. Around this point, I began to worry that the second set had taken the route of second night Cincy's last year: strong, jammed-out R&R opener, but no subsequent return to the big jams. I shouldn't have worried, though; Sparkle has a history of preceding darker explorations, and, sure enough, Trey immediately started up the riff for
TWEEZER. Okay, this got serious. The jam starts with Trey playing this chromatic descending pattern (which I believe they'd incorporate into Ghost the next night), and that powered them through a very dark Tweezer. The final couple minutes of the jam were downright scary: spacey, dissonant, post-apocalyptic. The R&R had seemed shorter than it was; this Tweezer definitely felt longer than 15 minutes, which is to say it seemed to contain worlds. There were some very good Tweezers played last year, but the best of those (Red Rocks, Miami) were of the groove school; this one was a different beast altogether. Maybe my favorite Tweezer since 2/28/03, and an absolute thrill to witness.
HORSE>SILENT. I needed a breather, and this was a beautiful choice. The "I think that this exact thing happened to me just last year" line took on particular meaning given the similarity of this setlist with 8/15/09 (as well as the Saw It Again antics to come).
WOLFMAN'S. With that Tweezer as a passageway, Phish had entered the realm where they could do no wrong. This Wolfman's, though standard length, was anything but predictable. The jam was full of every bit of type-I trickery and fake-out in the book. (Around this time I also realized that the ridiculousness of the set had reduced me to periodic fits of senseless giggles.) Fully deserving of the second-set placement.
SLAVE. Wow. Another perfect choice, and just about perfectly delivered. There's very little to say about Slave when it really clicks, but I think you all know it's like; that's what this was.
TWEEPRISE. Always more novel outside the encore. Rocked the second set to its end in style.
SET TWO RECAP. Hot damn! Now that's a second set! Not as unrelentingly jammed-out as Hershey's second-set groovefest, but the quality of jamming was stronger and, what's more, remarkably diverse. R&R and Tweezer and Wolfman's all went to unique and wonderful places (all easy set and tour highlights), and Slave>Tweeprise was just a perfect coda. Let's call it an 8.7. I really liked this set.
The encore was great as well, with Show of Life (good new tune) recapturing the majestic feel of R&R and Slave and GTBT hearkening back to some of the balls-out rock in the first set. The two set scores average out to about 5.9, but that doesn't seem to do the show justice, so since we all care more about the second sets anyway, let's weight that set double here and call the show a 6.8. As a song-by-song reflection of the show, or how it might hold up on tape, that seems about right. But even though I called Hershey a 7.5 (on the strength of its consistency), know that I enjoyed this show more. It was the best show I'd seen up to that point, and I was just about CONVINCED that they couldn't top it the next night. I certainly didn't need them to.