Before we get into the play-by-play of Tuesday night’s show, a quick editorial comment. You can say what you want about factors that would drive attendance at these shows down: a smaller fan base on the West Coast, a Tuesday night gig, and the difficulties of getting through Los Angeles traffic for a 6pm start. Phish should be able to fill a 4,500 seat venue, regardless. Instead, under-face tickets were said to be plentiful, and as of this writing you can score great seats for tonight’s “sold-out performance” on Ticketmaster. Of course I’m not breaking any news here, but the culture of ticket speculation is obviously out of hand and keeping away fans who would otherwise attend if the process were more straightforward. But enough of that. On with the Phish.
What a beautiful venue! From my seat on the couch (well, recliner) 2,500 miles away, the Santa Barbara Bowl looked warm and intimate, and I would have loved to have been there to score some of those last minute seats. On top of a smoldering orange sunset and the beckoning wonder of the Pacific Ocean, the band continues to play with a joyful synergy that makes the current era one of my favorites in Phish history. For those of you fortunate enough to have been there last night, my meager words will doubtless be but a distorted reflection of the experience. But I’m going to write them anyway.
I expected to hear some laid-back song selections to match the size and setting of the venue, and was delighted by the choice to open with “Stash,” a jazzy but slightly twisted way to light the burner. “Possum” brought some swamp-boogie down from the top of the mountain to get dancing feet moving before “Ocelot” crept in, strolled around, stretched, roared, and curled up for a nap. The ebb and flow of the first set continued with the reggae swing of “NICU” followed by some more down-home dancin’ music in the form of “Back On the Train.” This “BOTT” is peppy and quick, but take just a moment to listen to the precision of Fishman’s fills. Amazing.
“Limb By Limb” was another appropriate choice for the evening, keeping the tempo upbeat without becoming overly boisterous, and a beachside sunset seems like a perfect backdrop for “Waiting All Night.” By now, the gentle sway of the night was firmly established; smoothly to the upbeat side with “Yarmouth Road,” and then serene again with “When the Circus Comes,” a song which I think would set the mood for later in the evening via Page’s focused, soulful tones. Prior to the pendulum swinging back to the shuffle of “Heavy Things,” Trey took a moment to praise the gorgeous venue, then admitted that he didn’t remember being there to open for Santana in 1993. Maybe that’s just because it was actually 1992, but no matter. It might be fitting that “Stealing TIme,” the only real gritty rocker of the first set, was first awkwardly wrenched into place before closing the first stanza on a high note.
I honestly don’t care how many times Phish wants to open a second set with “Down with Disease” or “Chalk Dust Torture.” If they are going to continue to use these standards as launch pads for mesmerizing improvisation, they can do it every night. Much like the Randall’s version from the summer, the entire band moved as one into the unknown. My ear was drawn from instrument to instrument during the ensuing jam; Fish propelling the music with superhuman dexterity, Mike filling in the foundation with billowing, bubbling tones, Trey sprinkling notes and spraying chords with measured abandon, and Page draping the entire assemblage in a melodious cloak. When it’s all said and done, this might end up being my second favorite “Chalk Dust” of the year, but it is nonetheless a marvelously beautiful example of 3.0 Phish.
As the “CDT” jam pulsed and fragmented to a close, the approaching footsteps of “Ghost” were apparent, and we would be treated to a second jaw-dropping segment. Allow me to reiterate how collaborative this music is: the level of both talent and communication these guys have is mind-blowing. The last 3½ minutes of “Ghost” are absolutely sublime, and as several have pointed out, reminiscent of the TAB song “Valentine.” This was the highlight of the evening for me, as the band reached across the continent to lift me out of my chair, floating on the breeze of their creation. Truly moving.
Ironically, “Birds of a Feather” brought me back to Earth. Like “Stealing Time” in the first set, it seemed a touch out of place, with the abrupt transition from “Ghost,” a chaotic jam, and rough landing that Trey said was “weird” and “freaked me out a little bit.” Page took a quick baseball poll, and Trey further mocked the end of the “Birds” jam before introducing “Wombat.” My favorite quadrupedal marsupial stumbled a little bit out of the gate before finding the herky-jerky crepuscular funk groove I love, then spun himself into a flailing, distorted haze. An odd “Wombat,” to be sure, with more unusual antics on the way. A mid-set “Tweezer” is always welcome, and this version marched determinedly onward, missteps be damned. An emphatic theme from Trey and Page, complemented by massive rolls from Fish, dominated the jam, which dissolved into a spacy section of repeated “Julius” licks that finally gave way to the song itself.
Photo by @stim_buck
“Piper” followed close on the heels of “Julius,” and flirted briefly with “L.A. Woman” before making a beeline back out to space, falling away, and leaving Page to work slowly into “Wading in the Velvet Sea.” Trey actually played with some “Curtis Loew” type licks that I think would actually be a nice add to “Velvet Sea,” but only a few times at the start of the song. To close the set, good ‘ol “Suzy Greenberg” started with another stumble, prompting Fish to chide Trey with the lyric “I wish you’d look at me before you count off the song!” And that’s why even the flubs at a Phish show can me make me giddy. “Boogie On Reggae Woman” > “Tweeprise” proved more than just your obligatory encore, with a strong jam out of “Boogie On” punctuated by dizzying echoes from Trey.
It’s still early in the tour, and things are only going to get tighter and more impressive as Halloween draws near. This was a thoroughly enjoyable show, with a one-two punch in the second set that simply demands that you don’t miss one of these shows if you don’t have to. I sure as hell wish I was out there to see what happens next. Be safe and have fun, everybody!
Photo by @ebyron
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