Note: This review was co-authored by @lumpblockclod and @jwelsh8. So, if you don't like it, it was the other guy's fault.
Heading into the final night of SBIX, expectations, as they tend to do for Phish festivals, were running high. The previous three nights had produced some outstanding highlights along with some stretches of relatively uninspired setlist calls and, in the opinion of some, timid execution. The highs were undeniably high: an outstanding soundcheck capped by a jam that would have been the highlight of nearly any other show from the first leg of summer tour and a wildly experimental “secret” fourth set on Saturday. The lows were punctuated by two song-oriented sets on Saturday that failed to deliver much in the way of adventurous improvisation. Nevertheless, Phish has always been a band that can turn on a dime and a strong show on Sunday would likely win over even the most jaded among us.
“Soul Shakedown Party” opened the show, continuing the parade of covers this weekend. Only the sixth since its debut in Amsterdam 14 years ago, and the second of 3.0, Phish wanted to make sure we all felt welcome at their Holiday celebration. "This is my invitation / I've got the special vacation." “Soul Shakedown” is usually a harbinger of good things to come and so it would be tonight. “Bag” followed with a rough beginning, but energetic ending, after which we got the first “With”-less “Curtain” since 2000. So “Scents” has its intro back, but “The Curtain” has lost its “With.” Trey giveth and Trey taketh away. "Curtain" was played quite well, with the whole band in synch and hitting all of the cues.
However, the bigger surprise than the “Curtain Without” was the “Forbin” that followed. Certainly few expected another version so soon after the recent appearance in Charlotte, but even fewer expected a full-blown version complete with narration, which, Trey promised, would explain the events of last night. Trey explained how the band drove through Watkins Glen on their way to Colorado in 1988. After letting us in on some band member trivia (Best driver? Page. Best long distance driver? Fish. Worst driver? Mike! Writing in his journal while driving the car.) Trey told of how their old Plymouth Voyager broke down. In order to keep their gear and the car safe while they hunted for a garage, they asked and were granted permission to store the car in a self-storage unit (harkening back to the fourth set just 18 hours before). Tragically, the door shut behind them leaving them trapped. So, to bide the time, they decided to play as they waited for someone to come by. And the jams would get longer and weirder and weirder. Assuring us that the story is completely true, Trey explained that in those tight confines, they realized they could free themselves through music. As they continued playing, they began to depart farther and farther from reality until they realized that they could control reality through music. They got so good at this that it turns out that SBIX is actually a mental projection that they created in 1988. Referencing Carlin's "space to put your shit" bit, Trey explained how in the ensuing twenty-some years, the American landscape has become a victim of consumerism. In fact, according to Trey, they’ve calculated that today is the day on which the rate of product creation exceeds the available storage space so we have nowhere to put this junk. Luckily, the Famous Mockingbird is here to help and will take on a new job as a postal delivery bird, freeing us from our consumerist plight and bringing them the key to their escape.
The ensuing “Mockingbird” was not one of the band’s more pristine versions, but good luck finding anyone who cared (Hi, @Icculus!). With the band -- and crowd -- free from the confines of their box, the openness of the highway was in their sights. "Destiny Unbound." “Destiny” was bolstered by heavy use of Mike’s meatball effect (think “Boogie On”) and, really, they could play Captain and Tennille covers all night, and if Mike employed the meatball effect liberally, it would be a solid show. “BBFCFM” came out to scare any children who were up past their bedtime. A truly inspired version of “Wilson” followed. Not sure if it was the key signature or Trey's approach, but a very interesting jam rose out of the middle of this version. Quite glorious, actually, before giving way to even more rarities in the form of “Mound.” “Mound” was one of the best versions I can remember with Trey contributing an utterly unique and fluid solo. Mark that one down as must-hear. We’re about two-thirds away from the end of the set and I’ll go ahead and say it: best set from the main stage so far.
“A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing” is next in this so not Phish for Dummies set and rolled in over the crowd at Watkin's Glen, with the alternating vocals and Trey's aquatic-like tone and playing. Mike thumping out bass notes, Page hammering on the piano, Fishman driving with the cymbal. It doesn’t take long for the structure to fall away though, and we’re left in a barren soundscape ripe for Phish to begin manipulating reality. As the initial jam began to lose focus, it sounded a bit as if it could drop into "No Quarter." Mike takes the band in a couple of different directions, before everyone settles back first into the spacescape and then back to earth. Sick of the rarities? Well, tough shit, ‘cause here comes “Time Loves a Hero,” just as time will no doubt love this set.
The “Reba” that followed continued the trend of powerful 2011 versions, even throwing in some “Dave’s Energy Guide” teases for good measure. The whistling even makes an appearance during this version, though it’s a bit worse for the wear, not having been played in over two years. You could hear Trey trying to laugh it off, handing it over to Page, but it didn't save it. Luckily, tonight is a night where they can do no wrong, so even the botched “Reba” ending leads us into a brief space jam that morphs into “David Bowie.” “Bowie” goes spacey right after the “verses,” and then builds its way up into a truly groovilicious monster. As “Bowie” (and the set) ends, we are left with more “Storage” jamming, driving the special nature of this set home.
The set just ended, so we don’t want to lose all perspective, but it’s hardly a stretch to call that the best first set of the year (and, frankly, a contender for set of the year). And perspective is hardly necessary to declare this the best “traditional” set of the festival. It will be a surprise if anyone really argues the point but, as always, this is your site, too. Dissent is welcomed in the comments.
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