It all started off so well - Buried Alive gets the energy going immediately and is followed by a solid Bag and one of the best Wolfman's I have seen live. It just rocked and swanked and got the whole stadium moving before building into some incredible peaks. At this point, I thought they were on fire and we were in for a huge show, but unfortunately that would turn out to be the highlight of the entire evening.
Yarmouth Road immediately killed all momentum and energy that had been building, like a giant reggae-reset-button. This song could very well turn out to be great eventually, but their readings are still very flat, lifeless, and searching IMO. Trey delivers some nice licks that hint towards a promising future, but last night it was deflating and empty.
Fee was fine but did nothing to re-engage the audience and I continued to stand there listlessly along with 20,000 other people.
Halfway To The Moon is one of my favorite tunes, but where Trey would normally tear it up with those flowing, distinct melodies, he seemed to forget all his usual riffs or just be trying something different with the song. In any case, he held back the entire time, especially during the solo portion where he played absolutely nothing of note. He usually builds this song into a Taste-like peak (see the version from Bill Graham if you don't know what I am talking about), but tonight the tune was vapid. Huge disappointment for me and continued the trend of a lifeless set.
The Wedge was fine but, again, not what was called for when the set was floundering and in need of a giant dose of energy. Trey continued this hold-back-and-let-the-others-shine strategy he was on, which is great in appropriate doses, but we all have to be honest here: he is the band leader and the creator of the primary melodies. He needs to drop some sick riffs in key moments for songs to come to life and he just refused to do so.
Haley's Comet was a great call and definitely energized, but that is until it was ruthlessly ripcorded a few measures before the composed part of the song by Trey - a horrible portent of what would become the theme of Set II.
At least it was ripcorded for a Gin, which did in fact rage. The amount that Gin raged actually just upset me, though, because it was evidence that Trey was indeed in the house and was intentionally sandbagging. Great full band interplay, regardless, and I'll tip my hat to the awesome Page work here. Fish also seemed like he was heating up (more foreshadowing of Set II). This one finally got people moving again after about 40 minutes of listless shuffling.
And then standard versions of Bouncing and Mound followed. If this set had been flowing normally. These would have been solid choices to control the dynamics and set up a scorching Antelope closer - and scorching it was, hot damn! After everything I had just described, however, these songs just felt like more filler in a set chalk-full of filler. Again, sorry to sound so negative, but these are my thoughts. That Antelope was really sick, though. Take that, me.
Set II began on a high note with a cohesive, groove-driven take on Chalkdust that was allowed to stretch out by the band. The audience was captivated and the band was really listening to each other as the groove kept shifting, separating, and coming back together. Trey summoned the Woos with some start/stop action at the end. Let me pause and make a statement: what I look for at the end of jammed-out second set songs is either a smooth segue or a tight ending where Phish manages to stick the landing after flying high into the clouds. While this 'Dust was glorious, the end was neither of those things. It seemed like Trey had a chance to deliver a legitimate segue into Light for the first time ever, as he could have gone right into the opening chords at the end of the final Woo. This was not to be, though, as the band let the final Woo hang for several ripe seconds before Trey finally decided it was going to be Light after all. This may sound like a minor complaint, but this sort of awkward pause pulls me out of the flow and the audience is left wondering. Overall, though, this was a great version and delivered some much needed redemption after Set I.
I don't remember much of Light, which can't be a good sign, so I will simply stop there - it was fine but nothing special, especially when you remember the glory and cohesion of last year's Light at this same venue. It is insanity to expect another Light of that magnitude, but maybe, for that reason, Phish should maybe have left the tune on the shelf this time to avoid the inevitable comparison.
Still, Set II was going very well at this point and held the promise of much more awesome to come. Unfortunately, the awkward segue from Light > 46 Days would set the tone for the rest of the evening. During the Light jam, coming out of a natural lull, Mike started up a really interesting repeating riff that meshed well with the Fish rhythm. Trey seemed like he was getting ready to join in, but instead started playing the intro chords to 46 days in the most hamfisted, obtrusive way possible. In an improv group, you have to say "yes" to this sort of transition, but that doesn't make it palatable. The other three stopped what they were doing and joined in on 46 days, but I felt like Mike and Fish shared my disgust with the maneuver.
Whatever, though, its 46 days! I love this tune and it always brings the fire, so I was excited nonetheless. Unfortunately, here begins a long series of ridiculous Trey flubs, almost like he was having a series of senior moments. The song was going fine, which is to say it was raging, when they re-entered the lyrics that build to the final rock peak extravaganza. Trey is singing "46 Days! 46 Days! 46 DAYS! 46 DAYS!!!" which normally builds into the first peak as the full band drops a giant energy bomb on the final "DAAAAAAAYS!!!!" This time, Trey forgot where they were in the song or maybe was trying to do something clever and he kept singing "46 Days," completely whiffing on the re-entry into the jam. The rest of the band tried to go into it anyway, but it doesn't work without the guitar screaming so it just all fell apart. Trey probably could have salvaged this by building up the vocals again and peaking at the next natural point, however he seemed to realize his mistake and just went right back into the guitar wail without any kind of peak whatsoever. What followed was sort of like a normal 46 days build, but the entire band had disconnected after that hiccup and the whole thing felt disjointed. There were no full-band-plus-white-light peak moments, which is what 46 days is meant to do, and the whole thing just left a bad taste in my mouth. Furthermore, I don't think the band reconnected until 2001, some 4 songs later.
The parade of baffling whiffs continued with Steam, again one of my favorite tunes. Trey just straight-up skips a line in the second or third verse and says "Steam" a full measure or two early. Page is paying attention enough to hit the steam-synth noise, as does whoever is controlling the fog machine, but then we are left with an awkward instrumental section before the next verse to make up for the missed time. This exact same thing then happens AGAIN in the next verse, resulting in the exact same awkward moment and everyone looking over at Trey like he had lost his mind. He seemed to pick up on this and apparently decided Steam was beyond saving, so he killed the song approximately 4 measures into the jam with an admittedly-slick segue into Free by cluing Fish in on the switch and hitting the Free opening chord on the one.
It was hard to enjoy this Free for several reasons. First, we have the disappointment of a Steam that was not delivered, evoking the memory of a similarly-disappointing 'Moon from Set I. Second, we have the cumulative bad taste of several aborted songs. Third, we have the well-known fact that Free is not what it used to be. It is basically impossible for me to hear Free without remembering how sick the song used to get in the '90s, as I am sure many fans can understand. This Free was short and perfunctory, with another jam that called for Trey fireworks and got chord-work for the entire jam instead. Again, I am all for Trey stepping back and let the other three, especially Page, shine, but he needs to remember that his firey guitar is what makes the band truly sing.
After about 16 bars of boredom we drop into Joy. Believe me when I say that I have never been this excited for Joy, as Free was going nowhere (apparently) and Joy seemed impossible to botch as badly as the last several songs. As I hoped, this was probably the best version of Joy that I have seen, with a really nice solo from Trey that reminded me that he was indeed able to play notes on his guitar in a sequence that was pleasing and was just refusing to do so. I think this song and its very rigid structure served to get the band back in tune with each other and set up a return to form in 2001.
This 2001 wasn't special in any way (see the awesome Smooth Criminal-infused version from the Gorge), but it did rage and was exactly what the doctor ordered. I was reminded of the first set flow when the entire stadium seemed to come back to life after standing around for 45 minutes of nonsense. Dick's turned into the full-on-dance-party that we all know it can be, which perfectly set up an oddly-placed though very welcome Tweezer.
Tweezer found the band totally hooked-up again, and the dance groove that 2001 established continued to drive the venue. Everyone was raging as Tweezer found a funky, laid-back groove. It seemed like they could have kept that groove going forever, but, after a very short jam (seeing a pattern here?), Trey jumped ship for Number Line.
Number line is probably my least favorite tune in the modern Phish catalog (with the exception of some of the really new songs that are still developing like Yarmoth Road and Say Something). In a strange twist of fate, however, this version was stellar and really connected with me and, I believe, the rest of the audience. Trey attacked the jam portion with vigor and made up for the lack of notes played in the previous two hours with a fanatical string of awesome licks. His playing on this tune reminded me of his chops from the '90s and was decidedly Phishy. I could tell by the fervor of this attack that this was a Number Line closer, and a closer it was as they built it to a really nice peak before closing with the standard feedback-laced rock show ending.
Quick note: Phish crowds have grown extremely complacent regarding the encore these days. The amount of applause at the end of this show, regardless of quality, was embarrassing. If you want them to come back for an encore, you should let them know with thunderous clapping. Also, unlike most other times, this is the perfect moment to Woo your heart out.
Anyway, the On The Road Again encore was really great and clearly a personal statement by the band about how much fun they are having playing music and being best friends these days. It was a very well played version and an unexpected debut that all in attendance will remember forever. Tweeprise was, as always, amazing and really brought the fire. It's easy to forget a rocky show like this one when they close on Tweeprise (maybe that was the point? Tweezer did seem like it came out of left-field at the end of Set II).
To summarize, this was one of the least-cohesive, flubbiest, Trey-lacking shows I have ever seen, but it did have some really great highlights. Should you download this show? I would say probably not, though, if you are a big Wolfman's fan, it might be worth the price of admission alone. I would say the same thing for Chalkdust, but that would be more about if you are a fan of cohesive jamming with lots of listening and band-interplay.
Tracks to spin:
Run Like An Antelope
Chalk Dust Torture
Thanks for reading. I swear I am not a hater, this is just my honest assessment with a focus on the critic in my head.