I had occasion to interview a pop star last week, and in reference to his band's current tour, he said it was "a good show." One of the treats about following the work of Phish is that its touring history is a long, ever-evolving narrative—not a collection of singular "shows" that are each mounted night after night in different cities, aiming to achieve the same effect and hit the same marks, as if a touring Broadway production. And so, within the rhythm of a given Phish tour, different clumps of shows naturally cohere into groups: a West Coast run here, a second leg there, perhaps a Red Rocks stand. For attendees of the second-leg-opening pair of shows at the Gorge this weekend, the music of the two nights likey combines into a jamble of highlights. And so the weaknesses of Saturday's show are easier to overlook—it's more pleasant to take its high points, combine them with the best parts of Friday's tour opener, and celebrate the highlight reel of "the Gorge."
Once upon a time, a hot show to open a run would key up fans' anticipation, raising hopes of a second night that would pick up where the previous one left off and take things even further. In this hit-or-miss-or-miss-again world of 3.0, the wise Phish fan takes a show like Friday's—boasting a "Rock and Roll" that likely makes the Top 15 list of 3.0 jams, an unexpectedly Type II "Roggae," and fabulous segues into "Meatstick" and "BoogieOn"—and gears down rather than gearing up. It's unrealistic to look for moderate bouts of improvisation in back-to-back shows these days. It's best, perhaps, to put your 20 minute "Rock and Roll" in your back pocket and just look to pad your winnings with a few minor pleasures. Night two of the Gorge offered some minor pleasures that no doubt helped those in attendance enjoy the fantastic setting and rock out to the weekend-warrior rituals that make for fun summer vacations.
Although it's been noted that the 90-minute first set exceeds the entire show length of many touring acts out there, the show unfortunately opened with a mix-and-match batch of go-nowhere rockers that would frankly be best served by some time on the shelf. (Do you disagree? Then I challenge you a month from now to listen to any of the first six songs and identify its specific version.) I've seen "Ocelot" noted as an above-average version, but honestly, who can even tell the difference at this point? The set dragged on for 40 minutes before the first surprising moment: Little Feat's "On Your Way Down," one of those ultra-rarities that Phish has brought into light rotation.
Then "Wolfman's" finally offered distinguishing characteristics, in the form of some pronounced allusions to Led Zeppelin's "Heartbreaker." "Maze" was a high point for many in attendance, as it often is, though versions seldom differ by much; Page's solo may take the role on this leg that his "Suzy" solo did on leg one. A quick "Wilson" (seemingly pre-dating the breakthrough Super Ball IX version by some years) led to "Fluffhead," which is certainly a high-protein set closer. (This is a great placement for the song, rather than leaning on it to provide second set "meat," as has so frequently happened since the song's much-appreciated return to the rotation. Like someone playing mini golf for the first time in years and hitting the first ball much too hard, it's Phish's seeming lack of "touch" with respect to this sort of thing that makes 3.0 sit so strangely for many longtime fans.)
"Chalkdust Torture" feels a little off as a second-set opener; when you take a traditional first set song and put it in the second set without adding anything special, it's hard not to feel a bit short-changed. After dealing with "Possum," "MOMA," "Limb," "Ocelot" etc. in the first set, the fans deserved a shift to more special territory. "Tweezer" surely heightened some expectations. My understanding of the purpose behind the ballad segueing from a jam song, going back to the post-"Space" Jerry ballad, is that it's a soothing balm to follow some out-there experimentalism. It defeats the point entirely when it instead is jarringly used to cut off a jam before it ever gets going. At this point Trey is force-feeding songs like "Caspian" and "Julius" out of "Tweezer," as if out of some residual instinct, but while forgoing the actual jam. We get these songs *instead* of a jam, rather than as a cool-down from a jam. The best thing "Caspian" can do is end quickly and segue interestingly into something else, as it indeed does on occasion. This night, it segued rather compellingly into "Sand."
The "Sand" itself sounded pretty straightforward to me on first hearing, before thrillingly dropping back into "Tweezer" with old school aplomb. An unexpected treat, and a rejection of the by-the-numbers formality that generally characterized this show. "Birds" was standard, and again, by deep-second-set territory it would be great to feel like we're in a special zone. "Golden Age" was great to hear, but it's rather deflating to hear Trey shutting it down right away in lieu of a jam. Part of the excitement about so many songs is the promise that they will go on to do something new and interesting; when they are not given a chance to do so (rather than merely trying and failing), it is a betrayal of that promise and weakens the impact of the song the next time around.
The band is experimenting with "Reba" as a late-second set tune. Yes: I'd be thrilled to hear Phish play "Reba" any time of day or night, and not to mention at the Gorge. But again, if you're still just getting a pretty basic version, it's hard not to feel like it would have been much better recieved a few hours earlier. I'd like to say it's nice to see the band re-thinking and re-contexturalizing the repertoire, but it seems to amount generally to First Set creep. (It's not like the early-first-set "Ocelot"s and the "Suzy" encores and "Antelope" closers are being switched out for anything fresh and new.) On the other hand, second sets have been known to stumble toward the finish line (see Friday), so a combo of "Golden Age," "Reba" and "Antelope" must be particularly appreciated by folks on tour. "Antelope," in keeping with recent custom, featured several teases: a whistled "Reba" theme, "Tweezer" and "Sand" in the intro and "Golden Age" in the jam.
The expected "Suzy"/"Tweeprise" was spiced up with an unexpected "Sanity" in the middle; this must have been a great treat! If anything, this show feels to me like *less* than the sum of its parts. The second set in particular was filled with plenty of songs that are very pleasant to hear live, and would have surely made the gorgeous Gorge feel like just about the best place in the world to be at that time. But the show was sorely lacking in flow, and featured the typical frustrating 3.0 "Tweezer"> "Caspian." The segue into "Sand" and the wonderful return to the "Tweezer" theme, however, plus such fare as the teasey "Antelope" and the surprising "Sanity" can sit comfortably as filler on your "Best of the Gorge 2011" iPod playlist.
In short, it's fair to call the opening Gorge weekend a success, and head towards Hollywood and Tahoe with excitement. This band still has some muscle, and the potential on any given night is probably greater than it's been anytime since The Return, even if the actual day-to-day payoff is mixed. And that itself is somethin'.
[The whistled tease in "Antelope" has been corrected.]
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