though it’s not a paradigm that really holds up for each and every show, i’ve always thought that 2009 was a year with great improvisation and poor technical playing (maybe excitement but lack of practice?) while 2010 was a year with great technical playing (comparatively) but little improvisation (i’ve heard the fall tour and NYE disprove this statement, but i haven’t listened to all of those shows yet). from the very first show, 2011 seemed to show that the band was suddenly not only able to both play hundreds of different songs note-for-note with no more flubbage than any 1.0 or 2.0 show, but they were also willing to improvise like the old days, supposed “ripcording” notwithstanding.
combine that with 10 years of being obsessed with phish and not getting to see any shows until 2009, and my expectations for the gorge were through the roof. amazingly, not only did the band exceed those expectations, they continued to add a new piece to the whole phish-y puzzle each night, constructing an experience that was, for me, the next best thing to living in an alternate universe where i have 300 phish shows under my belt by 2011.
but of course, every minute of every show wasn’t perfect…so i suppose i should get down to the actual review.
the kdf opener started a trend of standard, solidly played opening songs that would continue the next night with possum. nothing to complain about here. it was obvious immediately though that the band was fired up (trey especially) and that they were just waiting to rip loose. kdf almost seemed like it was holding them back and, as improbable as it seemed, i almost expected them to rip off something like the 6/12/2009 version.
they didn’t, though, and instead continued into a shaky the wedge. and when i say “shaky” i don’t mean “missing a note or two”, i mean definitely cringing in a few places. however, the song was a nice nod to the gorge, and the introduction was jammed out briefly. it still really sounded like the band was tripping over themselves trying to take the music somewhere.
so i wasn’t surprised (though i was really excited) when bathtub gin went off into left field for a few minutes before coming back to the rock. the desire to do some deep-space jamming was obviously there, and there early, and for the first show i’ve been in attendance for the band seemed to have the chops to pull something amazing off without even really thinking about it. by the end of the gin, i definitely had the feeling that we were in for something special.
they reined things in for nellie kane, mfmf, and cavern, but those are all fun songs to hear and i didn’t really expect anything to go way out there in the first half of the first set anyway (gin was a pleasant anomaly). things started to come unhinged (in a good way) during taste.
i’m surprised to not see anyone really raving about this taste. at least within the context of 3.0, it’s one of the better, if not best version. page loses his shit for the first of a thousand times over this run, and there’s a lot of weird, interesting (though brief) plays with rhythm going on during the jam. trey absolutely slays the guitar solo and takes it back into the closing taste “theme” which he then sends soaring out majestically across the gorge over and over before the band finds a great segue into roggae.
roggae was easily the best moment of the first set, working like a microcosm of the later rock and roll jam, hitting the highlights and compressing them before exploding into walk away. the energy of this one simply didn’t translate to the tape, but the move from roggae-space to full-on guitar rock was flawless and the soloing here is spot-on. funky bitch and roses were both songs i was glad to hear, and were both played excellently, keeping up the energy from the transition into walk away. this whole run of songs (taste to roses) is worth a listen.
the set-closing bowie was confusing live. it was hard to hear trey and the jam seemed to go nowhere (a problem i would also have with the tahoe bowie). however, on tape this is an absolutely solid version and stands with the better ones of 3.0. i don’t know why i couldn’t hear it during the show, but at the time i was disappointed by it in what was otherwise an amazing set.
set two. all four shows i saw would, to varying but satisfying degrees follow the old-school “set one = rock, set two = jam” formula, and man did gorge 1 start off the trend with a bang. i had listened to the storage jam for the first time the night before driving to the gorge, and so i pretty much lost my mind as rock and roll took a left turn into the oort cloud. even considering all of the other amazing musical highlights of the run, this jam was the absolute best. there was a moment when the music itself seemed to take on an aspect of some huge mothership lifting off, right as kuroda began simulating some close-encounters-esque light effects against the backdrop of the last little bit of sunlight left in the gorge, and i knew that i was finally getting to see the kind of magic i’d only heard before on tapes.
the followup into meatstick was just priceless, and the segue from there into boogie on was amazing. there were even hints of the space jam seeping into the closing jam of boogie on by the end, and it all seemed effortless, the way it always sounds on tapes from ‘94 and ‘95. it seemed to be the point that the band had wanted to reach all night, but they had actually been patient enough to work up to it and let it loose at just the right time.
my girlfriend had called farmhouse the night before and i had laughed, so i looked like an idiot (albeit a happy one) when the band next broke into…farmhouse. the song proper here could have been executed more cleanly, but the following solo is one of the finest melodic pieces i’ve ever heard trey improvise. it wasn’t what i expected from the solo at all, and works really well as a bookend for the rock and roll -> meatstick -> boogie on > farmhouse sandwich.
from there, though, the set kind of deflated. honestly, this show is amazing enough that had it just ended after farmhouse i wouldn’t even have been disappointed, but it seemed like suddenly trey just decided he wanted to play rock guitar and so he did, for the rest of the set. it wasn’t BAD rock guitar by any means, but after four songs in a row that each peak with basically the same guitar tone, especially as the end of a set that showcased such varied musical virtuosity and interplay previously…it was a little bit of a letdown.
the last few songs weren’t bad, though, and actually this version of character zero convinced me that the song could still be done decently after the lackluster blossom ‘10 version, but the second half of the set basically got by on the volume of trey’s wailing. needless to say, listening to these on tape, without the energy of the venue around you, just makes you want to skip to the beginning of gorge 2.
all that said, though, the closing four songs were probably the closest i came to being bored in four shows, and the rest of this show more than made up for that. any misgivings i had about the second show getting buried by trey’s giddy shredding would be buried in layers of funk in about 20 hours…