When Phish left the stage of Madison Square Garden on the first of this year, fans would have scheduled a ticker tape parade for the following day if the city of New York would allow it. Reviews were glowing and opinions on their musical prowess were never higher, and rightfully so. The shows were well played and filled with highlights.
Fast forward to the end of May and, I'd imagine, many people were ready for amazing energy, but probably a series warm up performances. And while that held true, there were several standout moments that carried on the efforts last winter. Probably so numerous in fact, that many fans left Bethel, well...surprised.
On Friday evening, the opening notes of Tweezer were a much welcomed change to the Sample, AC/DC, Chalkdust openers of previous tours. As for the effort, in a second set it would be quickly dismissed but not in the leadoff spot. As the set began to build, standout versions began to appear. Beginning with Wolfman's and it's segue into Phish's strongest current cover, Walk Away. Since Hartford last year, the James Gang classic has been slayed each and every time. The Stash that followed, while good enough, did not match the efforts from late last year.
Kill Devil Falls however, was the first set highlight. In a version only paralleled by the one from Bonnarroo, the band took a chance by driving beyond the main theme into pure improv. Joy-era songs have a ridiculously bad reputation. Most people, I think, just kind of dislike them. Even Light, a song which I truly love, is a total piece of shit some nights and when that's the album's pedigree dog...it's kind of an ugly sign. Ocelot, Alaska, 20 Years Later, even Number Line, definitely have their detractors. But if Phish can play KDF like THIS, they can play off anything. That's a positive moment.
The second set continued the pace with an opening Carini, reportedly shouted for from the rail, to which Trey responded "what the fuck". And that's why he will always fucking kick ass, no matter the number of times he kills great direction for a shitty song. The fireworks really started with Boogie On Reggae Woman though. IN moment of pure improvisation, Trey led the band into a slowed down outro where the each band member played with a fluctuating tempo, creating the effect of a record being slowed through pressure. It was easily one of the most creative segues since Hartford 09 and its Icculus section. Coming out of this moment was a fantastic jam in the infrequently played Waves, through a shockingly well placed Caspian and then into Crosseyed and Painless. The Talking Heads cover is a fan favorite and the band always seems to play its ass off in it. This time was no exception, until the previously mentioned "Ripcord Trey" decided that they should segue into Velvet Sea as Fish varied the tempo in C+P ready to move to another jam segment. Frustrating, but forgivable. All in all, a fantastic opening show.
The following night, Phish continued their strong showing with a first set that rivals any first frame in recent memory. The set reached a fever pitch when the band launched into an extended jam out of Halley's Comet, a decision that quelled a lot of chatter from fans about the lack of attention it has gotten of late. While the jam was interesting, the Runaway Jim that followed was even better. In what has to be the standard bearer for the song in 3.0, the band built a beautiful a rhythmic texture quickly. Whether you call it a "staccato jam" or a "plinko jam", the device that Trey first experimented in the aforementioned Icculus jam in Hartford, it has become a staple of his improvisational tricks. One that has the opportunity to become quickly tired, but in Jim it was perfectly executed to provide an additional melodic layer as the bridged the jam an the outro together. Not to be outdone in the first set was the closing Bathtub Gin. With a great type I jam to open the song, the band suddenly changes gear into something of a Golden Age/Manteca mash-up. Fantastic moment, as Manteca has seemingly become the inside joke with the band. A flawless transition back into Gin was a perfect end to a fantastic set.
After the break positive efforts were put forth on both Down With Disease and Number Line, with DWD progressing into a calm exit point for Free and Number Line feeding into a truly fun version of Makisupa involving each member of the band playing with the keyword segment, the second set seemed to fizzle slightly. After the show, people were very quick to call this evening "the best show of 3.0". I wholeheartedly disagree. It can't be the best show (fwiw, 1/1/11 and 10/26/10 blow it away) when the previous night took more chances and had higher highs than anything in the second set on Saturday.
Given the amount that's already been written here, I can summarize the Bethel closer very succinctly. Tired, uninspired and completely forgettable. Quite possibly the most boring show in 2 years. When the second set contains a five minute Weekapaug, I'm moving on.
So where do we stand now? Probably right about where we expected, but in my mind the order of greatness was inverted from what I would have expected. The band seemed to push harder on Friday, play very tight on Saturday and mail it in on Sunday. But Jersey calls and we'll see what happens Tuesday evening. High hopes, no expectations.
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