I don't know that there's a Phish equivalent to the Jerry Ballad. Certainly there are late-night Phish mainstays: Slave, Hood, the inescapable YEM. But you might say those tunes are for getting high rather than going deep, you feel me? Phish have never been a melancholy band, and their 2010 shows are more relentlessly upbeat than any of their post-Remain in Light performances; gorgeous as Hood and Slave are, weirdly abstract as YEM is, they're also a little glib, mainly in terms of lyrical content. ('Seen the city, seen the zoo / Traffic light won't let me through' doesn't deserve to be spoken aloud in the same breath as 'Half of my life / I spent doin' time for / Some other fucker's crime.') The Hood jam might be the most beautiful thing anyone's ever played - I think that sometimes - but as a whole, the *song* Harry Hood is a little jokey for its own good, wouldn't you say?
And aren't the songs songs, rather than wrappers for improvisations?
Now, Phish aren't up to what the Dead were up to, obviously, so we shouldn't hold Trey's 'failure' to be Jerry Garcia against him, anymore than we should reduce him to his success at (kinda) being Frank Zappa. But listening to this superb show, I find myself wishing for a Jerry Ballad. This band means the world to me, but I've been wishing it for a while...
This concert is pure high-octane Friday rock majesty, but it didn't have to be just that. There isn't a single dull or lame moment in the whole second set, and plenty of thrilling ones: Trey's haunting guitar work near the end of the Rock'n'Roll jam, unexpected funk rhythms in Carini, the spry solos in My Problem Right There, the ecstatic stupidity and surprising intensity of the late Sanity jam, chromatic craziness in Weekapaug, and of course the unbelievable richness of Light. (Phish have never played a bad version of Light.)
In fact, 10/22/10 is in competition with 10/20, 10/26, 8/18, 8/14, 10/19, 8/9, 8/7, and 6/27 for Show of the Year.
But consider what the guys are working with! Sanity. Mike's (etc.) Groove. Carini. Suzy Greenberg. Character Zero! Fluffhead for Christ's sake! Sophisticated music (usually) paired with lyrics ranging from the middling to the puerile - joke songs, many of them. (Indeed, the lyrics to Weekapaug, Carini, and Sanity are *explicitly* intended as jokes - as is the much more successful My Problem.) In lyrical terms, the most fully-developed song in this second set is Loving Cup (a cover), followed by My Problem Right There. The pervasiveness goofiness of this repertoire, some of it a quarter-century old, extends to the playing in some ways. Mike's Song is all snarling anger, Rock'n'Roll and Carini feature complex jams, Light has that powerful mezzo forte middle section...but the set never quite LANDS, never goes to ground and puts down roots. It just quiets down. And the most intense parts lack the icy-dark edge of Phish's late-90's peak (or its scary 2003-04 reprise).
On the best day of their lives, the Dead could never have put on a show like this. But the reverse is true too. There's a reason so many Trey Ballads - Let Me Lie, Show of Life, Bug, Secret Smile, When the Circus Comes, Mountains in the Mist - serve or have served primarily as piss breaks for so many (admittedly ungenerous) audience members. Some of those are *gorgeous* songs...but Trey can't consistently summon the weariness or earthy authority the music needs. Even songs like Joy often seem to be sung out of the side of the band's mouth - yeah, even that heartfelt song of remembrance. Phish are completely sincere in their emotional outreach, I think, but their vocals often fail to convey the full emotions in the lyric to songs like Rift and Ocelot (never mind Sparkle or Horn!), which in any case are often wrapped in irony and good humour. They flinch just as their hearts are about to break. Alas.
So that's what this show makes me think. 10/22/10 II, like the shows just preceding it, is about as good as modern improvisatory rock gets - but what keeps it from the rarefied realms of an 11/22/97 (or a 10/21/83!) is that its bright light isn't shot through with darkness or cold or loss, needn't work to drive away some creeping nighttime void. It's there to keep everybody up awhile, as if afraid of bad dreams. But Phish's greatest music (so far) was played right at the cliff's edge. I'm happy that so few fell in, but don't you kinda wish for a little of that danger back?
'See here how everything / lead up to this day / and it's just like / any other day / that's ever been / Sun goin up / and then the / sun it going down...Run and see / hey, hey, / run and see...'
Run and see the day, I take him to mean, and the dying, and the dark as well. Phish are true musicians, and they're able to show us just about everything else. But not the dark. Not now. For whatever reason.
Get this show. It is absolutely wonderful.