In the lot before last night’s show at Merriweather Post Pavilion, @mikh2wg, @the_Crested_Hogchoker, @GhettoSloth, @ivy_light and myself were discussing how many people (including some of us) had a strongly negative reaction the first time we heard Phish. It seems so unthinkable to me now that there was a time when a friend gleefully played for me a newly acquired tape of 8/14/93 and my response was something along the lines of “Well, that’s nice, dear. But do you realize that idiot is trying to play a vacuum cleaner?” Sloth speculated that 30% of people hate Phish’s music the first time they hear it. I was one of those people once, but almost two decades later, here I was about to see my 30th show. Ain’t love funny?
Last night’s first set was an expert blend of high energy, funk, funny, and pure musicianship that left my jaw hanging. “First Tube” is such a powerful opener, flooding the venue with exuberance. This one was tight and I loved the sudden drop in volume in the middle of the composed section. “First Tube” plugs directly into our first funk fix of the night, “The Moma Dance,” and everything is just working at this point. Fish is filling with little rolls and splashes and vocals, and there’s fantastic wokka-chikka and little licks from Trey. “NICU” is up next, and now Mike catches my ear with dips and flourishes in his bass line. Fantastic way to start the evening.
“Roses Are Free” always puts a smile on my face, extended or not, and I noticed that someone threw what I assume was a bouquet of roses on stage for Trey, who politely and deftly set it down next to his mug without losing his place in the song. What a gentleman he is. “Chalk Dust Torture” gives us another energy boost, and does so with a fairly impeccable jam. A lengthy conference follows before we are treated to the highlight of the first set, “Stash.” Mike and Trey are communicating well right away, and then Page joins in, all with sad and tender phrasing. By 6:40 (LP timing) they begin a shift to the major and stay there for about a minute in a passage which is simply beautiful. Everyone shines, but I love the freedom that Mike has here to create rich, heartfelt tones. Then they just move effortlessly back to the minor, and back to the “Stash” theme proper. The fluid and natural shifts in mood and style within jams is one of my favorite elements of 3.0 Phish, and I thought to myself at this point that even if they just complete this jam in typical “Stash” fashion, I will love it for that transition from sad to joyous and back again without skipping a beat. Yet the conversation continues, each band member contributing, until at 8:54, with Fish leading the way via woodblock tapping, when things get AMAZING. Jazz piano, fat bass, funky guitar. Trey employs some expert, focused use of the whammy pedal in this section, which culminates in a feedback-infused second return to “Stash.” Oh, yes, this band can play.
I don’t know why Kitty Malone would slam on her mule, but we’ll give Mike a pass since “Scent of a Mule” hasn’t been played since SPAC2 last year. I so enjoy seeing what antics they will come up with for the Mule Duel, and this one was great. First, Trey and Mike face off in something that almost sounded like a classical piece. Then, Trey points to Fish, who finally debuts his Marimba Lumina that has been looming in the background since tour began. The effect was hypnotic, bizarre, and terrific, and I’m a little convinced Fish would still be playing it if Trey hadn’t tossed an errant balloon at Fish to break his concentration. And we’re still not done with the first set. “It’s Ice” is not just played well, it features a short jam that is flat-out funk NASTY and will require an update to the jamming chart. Yes, there was a time when "It's Ice" would often feature a variety of cool jams in the middle, so seeing one sneak back in is a refreshing development. The transition back to the ending theme is flubbed, but no bother, it’s an absolute must-hear version for “It’s Ice” fans. Need more funk in your life? Need to double your tube intake? You’re in luck, “Tube” is up next. It’s a quick dose, but quite welcome (and listen for the “It’s Ice” tease from Trey at the start of the jam). To put the exclamation point on a total beast of a first set is a total beast, “Run Like an Antelope.” (Fun stats fact: I’ve seen 30 shows and this was my 12th Antelope, a 40% clip.) This is a textbook Antelope, sleek, clean, and on fire. Can’t think of any better way to head to the break.
While “Stash” is a good example of what I love about 3.0, the start of set two is a good example of what I find frustrating about it. The jam out of “Golden Age” does spin its wheels for a couple of minutes, but it did sound to me like it was starting to get traction. Barely four minutes in to the jam, though, it is allowed to die off, with “Twist” bursting forward. Sometimes I think you need to press forward through a tough section, find an idea, rather than just abandoning a jam and starting over with a new song. Of course, what do I know? I’m just a recapper, and this is Monday morning frontmanning. (Spoiler alert: I’m about to do it again.) “Twist” begins with a great, angry solo from Trey and hits a sweet peak before settling back to a groove fueled by spectacular drumming from Fishman. Then they get stuck again, sounding like they’re grasping for an idea, and suddenly, quite jarringly, Trey launches back into the closing lyrics. To follow that up with “Backwards Down the Number Line” was not an encouraging sign for me at that point. I enjoy the song, but it’s placement in the set made me worried about a repeat of the previous night’s set two, which I didn’t find particularly compelling. Trey, however, knows more about music than I know about almost anything. Ripcording “Golden Age” and “Twist” may have been exactly the right call. If they had eaten up too much set time with pointless meandering in search of a theme, we might have missed out on what followed.
“Light” got me back in the game right away because of its exploratory prowess. “Light” can lead you anywhere, and this version led us back to the place where we started the evening. For the non-fan, what begins to develop around the seven minute mark is going to sound cacophonous. It probably sounds that way to many hardcore fans as well. To me, it was thrillingly insane, a transmission of alien greetings sent from the Antennae Galaxies (see Trey’s playing at 9:11). All of this is set amidst fiendish stop-start jamming. It ate my brain. I loved it. In 1993, I would have hated the crap out of it. And out of one of those breaks, Mike turns on the follower, and Ivy (my wife) calls for “Boogie on Reggae Woman,” as I swear she does *every single time* Mike uses that effect. Well, she nailed it this time, and the segue is perfectly executed, leading us from synaptic restructuring to booty rotation like only Phish can.
To prep us for the end of the set, we are treated to the best version of “Julius” EVER. Who needs a breather, right? And with such a fantastic show now mostly behind us, there is really only one appropriate way to close the second set: “You Enjoy Myself.” Now YEM is YEM, and no one is going to complain about getting one, even when the composed sections are less than perfect, as is the case here. This holds for even your everyday rendition, but this is NOT an everyday rendition of YEM. From the start of the jam, it’s just dialed in to the flavor of the show. Trey on the wah, plucking and scratching, Fishman sizzling and popping, Mike pouring buckets of funk all over everything, stop, start, get down and dance! Every break in this jam is nailed, every space is either filled or left empty to perfection. I’m not sure how long it’s been since I’ve heard a “You Enjoy Myself” that I’ve enjoyed this much, and it was a blissful way to end the set.
“Loving Cup” encore. We joke, and it’s overused in the slot, but it rages. ‘Nuff said.
Please forgive this tired commentator for not having heard everything that has been played so far this summer. I’ve tried to hit the highlights, the jams people have been talking about, since I haven’t been able to listen to every show in its entirety. I have a hard time believing, though, that I will hear a show from the tour to this point that I will enjoy more than this one. There are “must-hear” versions of “Stash,” “It’s Ice,” “Light,” and “You Enjoy Myself,” plus flame throwing renditions of “First Tube,” “Run Like an Antelope,” and even the first section of “Twist.” It was a superb night.
These days the emotion I most associate with Phish is gratitude. Not just gratitude for a show like last night, of course, but gratitude for being a part of this, for being allowed to get IT and share the experience with a community of friends. I’m so thankful for the music, for the memories, for the way my life has been changed and for the people that have changed it. And I am thankful for whatever force it was that opened my soul to the stupid band that covers Prince with a vacuum cleaner.
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