My wife Jennifer, who, by comparison, is not a very big Phish fan, gave me the green light to go to Atlantic City for Halloween this year. She asked me recently, "What do you want to hear them play?" Now, I've been chasing Camel Walk for some time, but before I even could process it, I reflexively responded "I could really go for a nice, meaty Split Open and Melt." What?! Split Open and Melt!? Where did that come from?
Sidebar: I'm an admitted setlist snob. I pay special attention to song selection, because I always find the psychology behind it to be fascinating. I love to imagine how the band arrived at a given setlist. I often picture Mike bringing some oddball song to the band who plays it spur-of-the-moment, or Trey just launching into a song on stage because the segue was leading there unrehearsed (e.g. DwD -> Sand from Hartford 2010, which was clearly organic). I wonder if Fishman requested the recent Lengthwise performance, or whether Trey prompted him to do it. Does Page speak up and insist on doing Drowned and Loving Cup so often? Yes, it's true, the setlist can make a show interesting!, but something happened recently, and I realized that interesting like that isn't always what I'm craving.
I started thinking that if I could pick the songs I most enjoy from my collection, they should be the songs I'd most want to hear in concert, logically. So I ran down the songs I like most: Ghost from Copenhagen, 7/2/98. Reba from 5/16/95. Birds of a Feather, 7/8/99. Llama 11/19/92, with Gordon Stone. Halley's Comet, Tweezer -> Black Eyed Katy, Piper from 11/22/97. Split Open and Melt->Catapult, 12/31/99. Down with Disease > Dog Faced Boy > Piper, 7/1/98. Tweezer, 6/30/2000. Mike's Song and Drowned from 12/31/95. Ghost -> AC/DC Bag, Slave to the Traffic Light, Loving Cup from 11/21/97. More recently, Tweezer -> Slave from 7/3/10.
Notice anything? No real rarities, just jams.
So despite all my carrying on about rarities, bustouts, and crazy setlist choices, the most enjoyable music - for me, at least - typically comes from standards. That leads me to assume that the stage is best set for great jams when the band is less concerned with the song choice and more connected with the song musically, perhaps just from familiarity. There's little doubt that Fuck Your Face was a wild spectacle witnessed live, but I didn't hear anyone suggesting it was legendary musicianship. Conversely, some versions of Slave to the Traffic Light and Harry Hood have brought me close to tears of joy. I'm chasing bustouts, but it's not really bustouts that make a show great.
I'm coming to realize that bustouts are the nitrous oxide of Phish show, they're a cheap and easy high. In the absence of great jamming, bustouts can make a show enjoyable. And since truly legendary jams are exceedingly rare, bustouts can make something special when the improv is, dare I say, "average-great." Most people won't agree that my above list of my favorite jams are the "best" jams, but certainly, no one will argue that a bustout is a bustout when a song returns from dormancy. So it's a common ground, easy for fans and the band to agree makes an event unique and therefore, special. Harpua will always be the sign of a show we'll remember, but that doesn't mean we'll all be listening to it on repeat.
The best spot is probably somewhere in the middle: a continually evolving setlist keeps variety and freshness to an instant-gratification kind of world, keeps the nights interesting and from blending into one another, and keeps the mystery and fun of that "what will they play next?" moment. But attempts at quality jams - not just lengthy ones, but quality ones - are what keep many of us coming back for more.
Oh, I'm still chasing Camel Walk, you can count on that. And when Lushington shows up again, one day, I know I'll still go bananas and run - not walk - to LivePhish for the recording. But I guess, on any given day, what would really make me happy is a big, fat, juicy, Split Open and Melt.
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