WATKINS GLEN, NY – Would “Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines!” be trite? Yeah, sorry. SBIX. Three days. Great spot. Typical Phish festival goodies at every turn. A stunningly beautiful day with most everyone settled in camp, while later arrivals and day-parking folks navigated a sometimes thorough and laborious intake process.
By all accounts SBIX has attracted a significantly smaller crowd than the then-lowest attended Phish Festival 8 (initial estimates are hovering between 25 - 30,000; no official word yet). The excitement and enthusiasm of those who did make the trek more than compensated for the smaller numbers, spirits lifted further by the spacious and easy accommodations once inside. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of fans are tuned in to the action virtually via the The Bunny on SiriusXM and livephish.com as legit couch tour kicks into high gear. Ball. All. The. Time.
There was some serious Phish music to digest before one note of the seven scheduled sets dropped. First was Thursday’s late afternoon soundcheck. An interesting jam kicked things off, giving way to predictably loose renderings of “Undermind,” “Sleep Again,” “My Soul” and “Ginseng Sullivan.” Then another jam started, innocently enough, but evolved into precisely the type of exploratory journey that many fans – while otherwise loving the current state of Phish – hope for and know damn well they are capable of, when they want to cut loose. Twenty minutes later, fans were rightfully proclaiming this passage as one of the best jams of Phish 3.0. A common sentiment heard around the campfire (as well as the twitters) was “why can’t they do more of that?”
Then Kevin Shapiro dug into the archives for the first of three From the Archives performances on The Bunny. All highlights, all the time, this session was punctuated by the brilliant 6/29/00 Garden State “Drowned” -> “Rock and Roll.” Then came a wicked shocka: the previously unreleased “Waves” from the 5/26/11 Bethel tech rehearsal. The surprise factor only magnified the reaction of anyone who listened and has a pulse: it was not only one of the most thrilling pieces of music “in 3.0” but a 28-minute opus that stands tall among the most satisfying improvisations Phish has ever laid down, audience or no audience. By all means, if you haven’t already, run do not walk to check this one out. The second FTA session included even more soundcheck fun, a hysterical offering of “Funky Bitch,” “Dream On” and Zenzile’s poem, “The Pendulum” from 6/8/11 Darien Lake... genuinely funny stuff. But let’s stop “living in the past” as if it were exactly like 93/94. Roll tape!
“Possum” opener? When you think about it, a smart move by The Phish. Play it early in festival, and maybe squeak it in again at the end and no one will notice. Oh, I kid! Well played though, all in great fun. Then Zappa’s beloved “Peaches en Regalia” for the left-HARD RIGHT punch. Always welcome and the most precisely rendered of the three since 1999. Double bonus is that it disappeared from many “not yet heard” fan lists. “Moma Dance” is up next and does what it does best: peg the energy meter, stay in the box, and rock the house. A nice opening sequence, followed by a “Welcome!” and “Thanks for coming to the party everybody, we’re so happy you’re here!” from Trey. Right back at ya, Trey.
The Stones’ “Torn and Frayed” from Exile on Main St. – as close to a perfect rock anthem for Trey as any cover in the repertoire – is next on deck, another fan-favorite from Phish’s cover of Exile in its entirety on Halloween 2009 at Festival 8. This original/cover/original/cover/original pattern continues with “NICU.” The “back in those days when my life was a haze” line from Trey is now every bit acknowledged by the crowd as “swim with the cactus and float with the stone” and “play it, Leo!” Then the first big gun of the night, a spectacular sunset edition of “Bathtub Gin.” Keeping a trend of strong recent versions going, this one does not disappoint, a strong version that satisfies, if not necessarily exploratory or something we’ll be raving about a few years down the road.
Demonstrating again why Trey is the Jedi and not ‘the detail guy’, he noted during a pause that “We’re not in a rush because we’re going to be here for four days or whatever.” Then Trey played a funny: “See that guy in the top Ferris Wheel car? The whole crowd is going to scream “hey!” to that guy” (crowd obliges) and he then jokingly said “Jump!” Just kidding, buddy! But then... “Life on Mars?”! The first since the extraordinary 2/15/03 Vegas gig (175 shows), a huge bust-out to satiate even the most JadedVet™ and another for thousands to cross off their own respective never seen “lists.” Don’t miss Sir Acaster’s excellent song history on this one. A solid “My Friend, My Friend” follows and was well-played, if uneventful. “Wolfman’s Brother” follows and greatly exceeds its Federally-mandated funk requirements by approximately 2000%. Page really jumps out of the gate leading this one and everyone follows; a substantive Type-I jamming highlight of the set.
“Roses Are Free” is up next. From these ears, “Roses” seems to get tamer, softer, and more geriatric each time it is played. This Ween cover that was once a springboard to another plane is currently under a strict jamming moratorium. Still a great song of, course, and you gotta love some Ween. Good times. A smooth and punchy next step to a seriously extra-mustard “Funky Bitch.” The sixth cover of the set, Dylan’s “Quinn the Eskimo” follows, a song that has found itself in strong rotation (eight of its twenty appearances over twenty-six years have been in the last twelve months). A great tune with serious extra mustard (best Phish “Quinn” ever?) and sufficiently punctuating to serve as the set closer. Excellent set – not EPCOT quite yet but really solid and effortlessly driving a very high-performance vehicle around the track, no speed limit here, folks, in a set whose them was tempo! Mustard, no extra charge, brah.
Fans abuzz over the soundcheck jam could have been nothing but psyched when set two opened with a spooky from-a-dead-stop jam. I can’t be the only fan to have thought on this day “the best second set opener would be 'jam'!” The Phish, an all-request band; way to mix it up. A slick yet direct transition to cover seven of the night, “Crosseyed and Painless.” Mostly in the box, as it has been the last two years, but shining, powerful and fun. But wait. Outro jam, turn to the dark, oooooh, aaaaaah, and then a smooth -> into “Chalk Dust.” It isn’t the length, it is what you do with it, and in this case Phish leveraged the power of a frequently-played song and mixed things up with innovative packaging and a meaty middle for maximum returns. “Chalk Dust” was polished and powerful.
“Sand” follows. A recent trend is Trey’s harder accent on the “and then if I hit stormy seas, I’d have myself to blame” line, great to hear him seemingly at such ease, control, and joy. Oh and the jedi thing, that too. “Sand” showed no signs of performance anxiety following the monster 6/19/11 Portsmouth funk-fest. Perfect call for this speed-themed gig, not an all-timer but they are playing the crap out of this tune, very dialed-in and in the right direction. Don’t bet against the streak because the tempo heat train is not stopping at the station: “The Wedge.” Ball. All. The Time.
A mid-set “Mike’s Song” is next and pounds ground while staying tightly in-box. I’ll love this tune til I die but this animal needs to run free like wind – release the hounds! Rock on, though, and a smooth entry to “Simple.” This bright, uplifting and cheerfully melodic version was danceable, yet the first even marginal cardio-breather of the entire show... and then back to a dark wash and spacey, but then more purposeful and awesome type-II, a great call and a totally in-the-moment counterpoint to the hard-driving tempo of the show, a brilliant call to shift gears and collect.
“Bug” is an independence day proclamation for rational hedonists worldwide: “nothing I see can be taken from me!” Then “The Horse” > “Silent in the Morning.” Some might see this as a perfect setlist call. For others, “back-to-back power ballads?” But they are just JadedVets™ lining up for their AARP cards.
“Weekapaug Groove” drives this train, and hopefully propels this set to its party-kicking conclusion. Well, maybe not so much. Fine version, but perhaps the general store has ran out of mustard at this point. I have enough respect for “Joy” to relax and reflect, but this set is honestly out of gas. A powerful-but-by-the-numbers “Character Zero” takes us around the backstretch. “We’ll see you right here tomorrow night...” “Show of Life” encore? Set derailment complete. 12:00 midnight ending, on the nose.
Quick read: fun and energetic first set, in-box but sprinkled with shit-tonnes of nods to their rock and roll predecessors, good jams and rarities, a solid “above average first set.” Set II? Starts great! Legitimate effort and A+ for that, great results, but then some serious energy leakage. No worries. In my humble opinion the first two-thirds of this show rocked. The final third? Less so.
Party on, Garth! Party on, Wayne! Saturday awaits. Stay hydrated, stay safe, and... ball!
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