No Covers, New Setlist Arrangements
So, besides an innocuous “Funky Bitch” at Jazzfest, still no covers since the NYE run at MSG. People are obviously going to have varied reactions to this. I personally think its a bit self-involved. The 30th anniversary year is over so there is no obvious reason to embark upon a year or tour-long celebration of Phish’s original music (I think the NYE run was perfect for that kind of statement). Despite what Billy Joel says (and if this is really a ‘response’ to him than Phish proving themselves overly sensitive! But, for real — I can’t find any hard evidence that Billy Joel actually called Phish a ‘second rate cover band’), Phish is, has been, always will be a cover band of sorts. Covers are essential to who/what they are. Not just because there a slew of covers in regular rotation, but also because they are, as I argued in relation to the JEMP set, a bar band. As a musician who plays bars, trust me — bar drinkers (and bar owners who want them to drink) want to hear covers.
On a more practical basis, the lack of covers has meant a different flow to song choices and setlist arrangements. Without Drowned, Rock & Roll, Golden Age, and Crosseyed to open a second set, we got a rare Bathtub Gin (more on that later). Without these “cover” jam vehicles, we got an amazing exploratory “Limb By Limb.” Again, personally I think they should “shut up and play the hits”…I mean, covers. But, the lack of covers means we will likely see type ii exploration on a lot more Phish songs like, for instance, “Harry Hood.”
The first set was, as some surmised, “mellow”. It had an odd flow from the start with the first “Farmhouse” opener since 12/7/99. For those paying attention, they forgot the structure of the song. It is supposed to include a short 8 measure ‘guitar’ break in between choruses (usually featuring the wah pedal). At that moment, Trey just decided to play a full on solo (which is supposed to come after the chorus after said guitar break). After this unexpected solo, they played a final chorus and an awkward ending (I think Fishman thought the second solo was going to come which is supposed to lead to the “Welcome this is a Farmhouse” refrain at the end). Rough start.
“Wolfman’s Brother” is in a 3.0 rut. Once one of their most exploratory jam vehicles, it is now firmly implanted in the first set. It is usually awesome, but totally formulaic and predictable. The jam starts with some balls to the wall thick ass funk music, and then slowly transitions into a rock-based guitar peak led by Trey. For my money, I always love the funk section (and 7/3/14 was no different), but the Trey guitar peak section — while enjoyed by white hats throughout the venue who raise their hands in the shape of #1 — is not my favorite style of Phish music. I can only think of one version (6/12/11) that stayed with the funk and accomplished an amazing transition to “Boogie On” (the “Little Drummer Boy” 12/28/12 version is also a keeper). Like “Bathtub Gin”, lets hope the lack of covers forces Phish to place this song in the second set this summer and let it take the funk somewhere else rather than a predictable Trey-led peak.
“Maze” is the kind of song that every time it is played, reviewers will claim it was an “extra special” version — extra energy, ferocious. The truth is, “Maze” is always crazy energetic and usually awesome. Last night was no different. Page’s solo in particular was great.
“Yarmouth Road” sounded like a classic case of a Mike number that Trey has not adequately brushed up on (see also, Shack of Sugar). Overall it sounded a bit sloppy.
I felt like they hadn’t played “Strange Design” in a long time, but it turns out they did at Northerly last year. If you look at Phish.net, we get about one of these a year. Enjoy it. As I argued, one thing that makes a first set enjoyable are “bustouts” and I think this kind of qualifies as a mid-level bustout at this point. It’s also a great song.
“Devotion to a Dream” is catchy and a nice tune. Enjoy it while its fresh, because pretty soon this will be the setlist equivalent of “Heavy Things”: a song when started you kind of were hoping for something else.
“Ocelot” is played a lot in 3.0. I always enjoy it because the jam is pretty “open” — a droning, blues groove over only one chord (a B chord). Usually the jam involves lots of communication between the members even if it never goes “type ii”. This version had more ‘melodic’ soulful soloing from Trey than normal.
“Chalk Dust Torture” was not an ideal choice in this spot. One bluesy rocker (Ocelot) to another (CDT). I guess the tempo change was nice. The jam was standard and featured some classic “chromatic” builds (runs not based on any scale, but just playing notes a half-step apart one after another) that defined CDT jams in the mid-90s .
“Mound” is a very hard song. Great placement too after the blues rockers. Watching the webcast, Mike appeared to crack up laughing in the middle of the composed section and his solo, because he was a bit off track. Mike does not crack up laughing very often on stage (in case you didn’t notice). This was not the tightest, nor the worst, version you will hear.
“Roggae” is a song I absolutely love. It is beautiful and features that blissful melodic jamming that if you’re a Phish fan you have to love (see also, Reba, Hood, Slave). The “Roggae” jam is always very open and spacious. Like “Ocelot,” it rarely goes type ii (although see the amazing, 8/5/11 version) but it does feature really great interplay between the members. This version was not exceptional, but again features Trey’s melodic and expressive playing.
“Possum” — after two weird/mellow songs, a fine choice for a rockin’ closer. Of course, some of us were hoping for “David Bowie” or “Antelope”, but I’d rather get this Possum now than in the second set.
Set 2 — “Bathtub Gin” is/was in a similar “rut” like “Wolfman’s”. It used to be a long form jam vehicle, but in 3.0 it nearly always follows the C myxolydian build to a peak formula. Nearly every version has people say “this one was extra good,” but they all can’t be “extra” good. In truth, they are all similar and formulaic great. This one stuck to the formula of the C build for the first 11 minutes. But, then Trey started playing these menacing “wah” chords, and we were off. The first “type ii” Gin in ages! It is amazing how Phish just knows that if they play a song in a second set, it can possibly go different directions. The jam sort of flowed aimlessly through this ethereal bliss space for 4 minutes, but nothing really stuck. By minute 13, Fishman pretty much stops playing (Fishman’s tendency to do this kills more jams than BDTNTL!), and Trey was playing some punchy arpeggios to try to get something going. In the 14th minute, Trey was playing some interesting blues-rock riffs, but the lack of beat caused the jam to fizzle into nothingness — and “Limb by Limb.” Overall, this was a type ii Gin, but a hugely disappointing one. (Disclaimer: I was at 7/29/98 and 2/22/03, so I have pretty high expectations for this).
“Limb By Limb” — This is where “Golden Age” might often crop up (if it didn’t open the set). Instead we get an unbelievable and exploratory version of a real Phish song. For pure uniqueness and weird exploration, this jam is even better than 8/28/12 (Which I happened to witness live). Early on the jam (5:30) Trey starts playing chords which is always a signal the jam will be “different.” It stays roughly in “Limb” territory until minute 9…then Trey’s solo kind of collapses into a repetitive drone of notes. The rest of the band quickly picks up on this pattern, and, all of the sudden, we are in this weird, circus-like motif that keeps repeating, with each member filling in the holes of a tenacious groove. Kind of like the eerie 12/30/12 “Carini”, this jam sound like it belongs in a movie soundtrack. It is completely bonkers and I loved it. The definite highlight of the night. In minute 12, the groove kind of collapses back into a drum beat that might get us back to “Limb’s” ending with Fishman singing. Instead….
…we get “Winterqueen”. This is a song I’ve grown to love since I heard the album version (way better than the 10/31/13 version). This one is a bit rough around the edges. Trey can’t decide how to handle the outro jam as it vacillates from the open jam from the album to the normal Winterqueen chords.
“The Line”. Remember this moment. It is the moment when Fuego songs began to wear out their welcome. A nice little ditty it is. Played well for a national audience on Letterman. But, after “Winterqueen”??? No — that is not cool.
Luckily, they rewarded us with a “Tweezer” after the two-song delay into Fuego promotion. “Tweezer” seems to always “do more” if its in the early part of Set II. This one is decent. The Am funk groove is nasty, and it transitions into a C Lydian (hat tip @MikeHamad) — essentially going from the minor ii chord to the major IV chord which allows for a ‘bliss’ feel. Trey picks up on a haunting melody that Page plays (roughly 10:24) This feels like a ‘tease’ — but what is it????? I can’t place it. It sounds like a Disney movie theme of sorts. Please tweet @solargarlicband if you know what this melody is. By 11 minutes, the blissful Lydian groove is getting more energy and is feeling like it might lift off into an epic-stlye peak (e.g. the 10/29/13 Disease)…but alas, it dissipates and Trey repeats that tease (rough 11:40) and the jam peters out (like Gin) and we get the always unwelcome chant of….
Ohhhhhhh to be “Prince Caspian”. Sometimes the jam is actually interesting on this song. This is not one of those times.
“Sparkle” is standard and fun after a lot of weird and mellow jamming and songs.
“Antelope” is probably the high energy closer this set needed. This version isn’t anything special. Sticks to the Em-D build.
The Encore of “Sing Monica”-> “Tweezer Reprise” is fine. “Sing Monica” really also improved since 10/31/13. The electric treatment gives it more energy. And, it has some of that 4 part vocal layering that makes Phish who they are.
So, again — the lack of covers means we are going to see type ii versions of songs we don’t expect — and odd setlist arrangements. This is exciting, but honestly I wish they’d just play covers. So far we’ve gotten exploratory versions of “Hood”, “Gin” and “Limb”. What’s next?