Recap by Phil Harrison @Dog_Faced_Boy
Phish returned to the Kansas City last night, its 11th visit to the area and first since 7/17/03. The question at the forefront of many fans’ minds was: would the band a) continue the momentum forward from the well regarded Long Beach and BG3 shows; b) falter and provide an uneven performance more like Bill Graham 1 & 2; or c) both. The correct answer in this instance is “c.”
Kansas City was once a distinct and important epicenter for the development of jazz and blues music, home or proving grounds for such influential luminaries as Count Basie, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie. In terms of Phish, the band first performed in nearby Lawrence, Kansas on 4/1/92. While none of their prior performances in the vicinity are particularly acclaimed, you could do yourself a favor and check out the 7/28/98 performance in Bonner Springs, KS. It’s one of those oddball, quirky shows that the band plays from time to time, loaded with unusual song selections, and includes strong versions of “Sneakin’ Sally,” “Brother,” “Maze,” and an “It’s Ice” > “Lengthwise” > “It’s Ice” sandwich. As for last night’s show...
“Chalk Dust Torture” leads off and immediately gets ever so slightly beyond “standard fare” as to make this version a hopeful good omen of things to come. After a pause, next up is the band’s second performance of Little Feat’s “Skin It Back” in 2012, but only its third since 1988. This rendering is a well played take on Little Feat’s bluesy and funk-infused classic, but is essentially straightforward. Check out 8/21/87 for a good example of what Phish can do with this song as a jamming vehicle. As an aside, this is a challenging song vocally for Mike, pushing him well into the upper register of his range, but he does a great job here, and this may allay the concerns of those who’ve criticized his vocal contributions to songs like “Drowned.”
The band keeps the funk rolling with a no-surprises version of “Moma Dance.” Although unremarkable, the placement here on the heels of “Skin It Back” does earn the band some good points for setlist flow. Shifting gears, next we have the highly composed complexity of “Rift.” Given its intricacies, I tend to view this song as a good thermometer for whether or not the band is “on” or “off.” Mostly solid, but Trey does sound a little off here. Hmm, we’ll see. “Bathtub Gin” promptly follows “Rift,” a nice old-school pairing. Looking for deep mid-set improvisation? You won’t find it here. However, this bopping standard fare version does continue the energy flow from “Rift,” another nod to good setlist construction.
The “Stash” that follows proves to be the first set vehicle for serious improvisation. In its heyday, “Stash” was typically dissonant, loaded with tension, and often pushed into the realm of “type II” jamming – see 8/28/93, 5/13/94, 6/16/94, and 7/1/95 for good examples. The version from last night, while lacking the jaw dropping dissonance and chaotic tension of these performances, nonetheless has some great improvisation, much better than almost any other version since 2009 with the possible exception of 10/31/10. Specifically, at about 7:30, the jam breaks from typical the “Stash” jam into major mode providing a swift and uplifting sentiment. After a mere 45 seconds or so, Page and Trey drop back into minor mode, and the tension spring starts to reload. This trend continues until 9:30, when there is another abrupt shift to major mode, and more inspired improvisation. What’s really great about the section that follows is that Trey stays in major mode throughout, but Page and Mike cleverly underlay the guitarist with mode shifts back and forth between major and minor, provide subtle tension to the otherwise upbeat jamming. By 11:30, Trey starts to bring things home and we are back to wrap up a very fine version of “Stash” that clocks in at 13:42, one of the longer 3.0 performances. I should add that both Mike and Fish are rock solid throughout. “Stash” is rhythmically complex, and though a strong performance by the rhythm section is easy to overlook, let’s give them their due here.
“The Ballad of Curtis Loew” seems an apt choice on the aftermath of that heady “Stash.” A great bluesy Lynyrd Skynyrd cover, its appearance links well with the “Skin It Back” earlier in the set. Next we pump things back up with “Kill Devil Falls.” Well executed, but with no bells or whistles, it make sense from a setlist flow perspective to further pull us out of the depths of a deep “Stash.” Remember that little blurb about Kansas City being a once proud bastion of jazz and blues? Well, let’s throw in a nice “Funky Bitch” to pay this history proper homage. I love it when Page busts out the B-3 on this tune, and he does so in great manner here. With a full head of steam now, the final destination for this solid first set is “Run Like An Antelope.” Much like “Stash,” “Runaway Jim,” “Split Open and Melt,” and “David Bowie,” these once proud war horses have largely been kept in the stable and out of improvisational action for a long time. “Antelope” finally made a heady appearance at Jones Beach 1, and “David Bowie” showed encouraging signs of life after death at Bill Graham 3, as the “Stash” here did. Alas, tonight would not be the night for a big step forward for “Antelope.” But hey, “Antelope” is always a great set I closer, sending folks off to intermission charged up and eagerly anticipating what set II will bring.
“Tweezer” leads off for the second frame. Beyond the composed section, this “Tweezer” takes a minute or two grappling for direction, and then finally at about 8:45 shifts into major mode, much like the “Stash” from set I, providing a feel-good vibe if not deeply improvisational turn. This section presents some really beautiful instrumentation, even if no seismic ruptures occur in the foundation. But we’re well beyond “Tweezer” proper at this juncture, a good sign, and the band makes no effort to get back to what was. The music cycles down into (good) ambient space, and all of sudden, we’re in the land of “Piper.” Eschewing the drawn out intro, Trey cuts right in with the vocals before some of us are ready for it. Oh well. “Piper” is one of those 1997 - 1998 jamming vehicles that seemed to falter early on in 3.0, but has been on the up and up in the last two years (see SPAC 3 or 12/30/11). This more truncated version would not reach comparable levels of exploration. But at about 4:00, the jam picks up a nice head of steam, a rhythmic pop with a little funk flavor from Mike and Page that moves us nicely beyond the space where “Tweezer” ended. But rather than take this spunky little groove further out, the band again lets things cycle down just a bit, shifting gears swiftly to...
“Mike’s Song.” Talk about a show loaded with the once proud vehicles of Phish jamming, in this one we get “Gin,” “Stash,” “Antelope,” “Tweezer,” and now “Mike’s Song.” Would “Mike’s Song” finally make a big move, adding that second jam segment many of us crave? No, it would not. It’s a fine version, just unremarkable. So how about Mike’s Groove, that often shifting combination of songs book ended by “Mike’s Song” and “Weekapaug Groove,” and in which the meat of the sandwich is more often than not “I Am Hydrogen,” or “Simple,” or both. In the next course here, Page sounds the organ for “Hydrogen,” but Fish suddenly starts the drum roll for “Bouncing Around the Room,” a direction shift that has only happened once before, on 7/9/96 in Deauville, France! After this, the band haphazardly leaps next to “Backwards Down the Number Line.” Let me take a quick time out here and say that while I give the band high marks for setlist flow in set I, I lower the grade appreciably for set II at this juncture. Regardless of how I feel about the individual songs (love a good “Mike’s,” don’t like “BATR,” love “Number Line”), my point here is that this lineup of songs makes no sense to me from the perspective of musical flow. “BATR” and “Number Line” are both well rendered, as expected, but with no extra mustard in the case of “Number Line.” Now comes “Heavy Things,” another song I really dig, but placement seems odd mid-Set II, and mid-Mike’s Groove. In fact, if you take out the 14-plus minute “Tweezer,” set II so far really feels more like typical set I material. Some versions of “Heavy Things” feature Trey soloing, others let Page take the lead on piano. We get a little of both in this very good version, Page first, then Trey.
Where next? “If I Could” emerges after a brief huddle. The band delivered a top notch, beautiful rendering of this song at Worcester 1, a real treat for this recent rarity. Here, we get a more summary version, less of that gorgeous Page ivory tickling. Still, I’ll take this tune almost any day over “Velvet Sea” or “Show of Life” at this juncture in the show. Remember that we’re in the middle of Mike’s Groove? Oh yeah, so well, we need to finish it off, so here comes “Weekapaug Groove.” You really can’t say a bad thing musically about the individual, interior components of the Mike’s sandwich. IMO, it’s just a rather odd meal. As for “Weekapaug,” kind of like the “Piper,” it has some nice, in this case funk-inflected moments. But, it’s still a perfunctory version, nothing deep like say, 12/7/95, 12/2/97, or 7/17/98, to name a few.
After the menagerie that was Mike’s Groove (and I thought the Zoo show was next week in Oklahoma City), dusk is clearly on the horizon for this once promising show. But not just yet. Let’s check in with good ol’ “Harry Hood” first. The “Harry” jam starts with some nice staccato picking by Trey, and nice relaxing Page sounds coming from the Fender-Rhodes. At 8:20, Page is back on the piano, and it’s clear we’re heading home. Trey brings the jam to nice peak, beautiful really, but with the arsenal and musical talent that this band has at its disposal, it’s simply standard “average-great” “Hood” material. One last stop before closing set II, we are treated to the alway fun, always rousing “Suzy Greenberg.” As is custom, we get the funk from Page on jam 1, the hard rocking piano on jam 2, as well as a little contemporary political humor from Fish.
After a brief exit, the band reappears for the encore. Up first, “Loving Cup,” a somewhat predictable, but nonetheless enjoyable Rolling Stones cover. If you want to know how good this version of “Loving Cup” is, you really should ask @Icculus, who has listened to every single Phish performance of “Loving Cup,” at least twice. Sounded fine if unremarkable to me. Last but not least, the band wraps things up with “Tweezer Reprise.” Some people have commented that “Tweeprise” sounds more menacing, more tension loaded than “Tweezer.” Well, there’s a musical explanation for that sense. “Tweeprise” is typically played in the Key of D, rather than A like “Tweezer.” Musically, D is four steps higher on the scale than A. So the underlying pitch for “Tweeprise” is higher than for “Tweezer,” and this elevation increases that sense of tension. Never forget that these guys are learned, well versed musicians.
How to sum this all up? From a purely musical perspective, with the exception of some slip ups by Trey in “Rift,” it is well executed. Improvisationally? You want to look first and foremost to “Stash,” then “Tweezer,” and finally, “Chalk Dust Torture” and “Piper” have moments, albeit brief. There’s also some fine playing in “Funky Bitch” and “Heavy Things,” and I still like “If I Could,” even if it’s not on par with stellar version from Worcester 1. Setlist Flow? I’d give Set I a good solid B+. I really like the blues inflected tunes on the front and back end, with the “Gin” and “Stash” as the meat in the middle. Set II starts off nicely with “Tweezer,” a short but decent “Piper,” but then it kind loses that keen sense of direction. All well played, it just doesn’t flow together well in the same way that things did at Bill Graham 3.
Final word – it’s nice, really great in fact to see the rising Phoenix of “Stash,” especially in light of notable 2012 performances of “Antelope” and “Bowie.” Let’s hope, before summer’s out, that we might see the same for “Runaway Jim” and that elusive second jam in “Mike’s Song.”
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