Comparing and ranking Phish shows is depraved. To suggest that one is superior to another is to make the sacred profane and in no way do we here at the Mockingbird back office condone such inhumanity. That said, if a marauding band of ISIS operatives were to seize a bus full of phish.net staffers and force us to name the consensus best show of summer tour so far, I am sad to say that a few heads might roll before we arrived at an answer.
Shoreline boasts the 45-minute electric trifecta of “BlazeTwistLight.” Atlanta 1 lays claim to the best “Kill Devil Falls” ever played and a mighty fourth quarter. Nashville’s second set has zero quit and the triumphant return of the second jam in “Mike’s Song.” Blossom’s outstanding first frame laid the foundation for its quintessential one-two “Cheezer” combination. And then there’s Mann 2, y’all. Scimitar to my throat, that gig stands shoulder to shoulder with Phish’s finest two-set performances of all-time. Don’t want to suggest it’s better than the shows I haven’t named here, like Austin for instance, but these ISIS fellows are very persuasive and have left me no choice.
Photo © Andrea Nusinov
The question is whether Saturday’s performance at Merriweather would make an exercise like this easier or harder on its merits. So, no spoilers. Let’s start from the start.
Phish practically gallops onto the stage and declares its intentions with an unexpected and pretty “Simple” that sets a loose and playful tone for what’s to come. Trey’s soloing features some Garcia-esque triplets, hammer-ons, and fluid phrasing before dissolving, then Fishman moves to the woodblocks to announce “Glide.” It was eleven years to the day after the Coventry “Glide,” but there is no such ignominy today. This version is crisp. This version is clean. This version is something for which to be glad, glad, glad, and the pit people fill the pregnant pause at the end with great rejoicing.
Photo © Jake Silco
Fish keeps the pedal mashed to the floor and plunges the band into a banging “Buried Alive,” and by now it is perfectly apparent that once again this tour, it’s on. Some have noted that setting aside an exception or two (cough, Vegas ‘04, cough), this tune tends to foreshadow relative greatness for the show in which it appears, and if I didn’t know that all Phish shows were equally awesome and weren’t so morally opposed to comparing them to each other, I might tend to agree.
This tasty morsel terminates into a lovely “McGrupp and The Watchful Hosemasters,” which gives me considerable pleasure to type. I tend to disfavor Dungeons & Dragons-style Phish songs but “McGrupp” is an exception and one of my treasured favorites. This version falls something short of sterling, perhaps, but is confidently rendered, with Trey calling some melodic audibles during the composed section. “Roggae” is one of those “anytime, anywhere” songs that seems incapable of poor placement or poor delivery, and tonight’s shimmering version is no exception.
"Big Black Furry Creature from Mars" – Photo © @tweeprise
If you appreciate great rock drumming, do yourself a favor and watch Fishman’s cymbal work in some of the closeups from the “Limb By Limb” in Saturday’s webcast. It’s the coolest part of one of the band’s most underappreciated songs, in my opinion, and this “LxL” is moving and soulful. Less so the “Big Black Furry Creature From Mars” that follows and bookends a quick run through “Your Pet Cat.” It’s a shitstorm of controlled chaos. Mike on his knees. Trey unleashing peals of feedback. Kuroda inducing motion sickness. By this point the show has crossed the goal line and all that’s left is endzone dance.
It doesn’t make much of a difference that “Horn” feels weirdly placed, or that “Blaze On” gets the first set treatment, or that the most interesting part of “Run Like an Antelope” is watching the band bat around a big red balloon during the coda. This is a scintillating first set that promises fireworks in the second. Achievement unlocked.
"Run Like an Antelope" – Photo © @tweeprise
[Hey, while we’re waiting for the second set to start, have I told you guys about the time back in college when I was making out with a girl on the lawn at Merriweather during a Howard Jones concert and she threw up in my mouth? True story. We didn’t date for long after that but... Oh, wait, Phish is back! Lucky for you.]
The second set kicks off with a spirited run at the expected “Halley’s Comet” (sans jam), then an interstellar version of “46 Days” – a song that has developed a tidy little track record at Merriweather. This “46 Days” navigates a spacey interlude before settling into a cozy, lingering, major key vamp – the kind of musical parlor you want to crawl inside to luxuriate for a while. Just gorgeous. “Bug” makes a lot of sense here as it emerges from the dappled sunset of “46 Days,” and comes off nicely.
"46 Days" –Photo © Jake Silco
The ensuing “Steam” -> “What’s The Use?” -> “Steam” sandwich is exquisite, and these two songs marry together in a very organic way, so much so that I hope they perform them together again as often as possible. “WTU?” is especially well played, with the band breathing together, and Page dusting the soundscape with perfect little runs on the Rhodes.
It’s at this point in a lesser Saturday evening Phish show (not that any Phish shows are below average, no sir) that one might expect the band to throttle back and set aside improvisation for a flight of successive, concise rockers... but one would be fucking wrong. Instead, Trey steers the band out of the steam and into the “Piper” intro. “Piper” is another song with a massive on-base percentage at Merriweather, and you can chalk this one up as a double off the corner fence.
"N2O" – Photo © @tweeprise
Page shines alternately on B-3 and piano through the early, straightforward section of the “Piper” jam, which soon veers type-II at Mike’s urging. Fishman experiments with a few different beds of rhythm before settling on one and opening up a can of whoop-ass, propelling the band to a series of glorious peaks. To reward his heroism, the band drops out and gives him the opportunity to play what’s as close to a solo as you’re likely to see Fish play – basically some swaggering fills – before spilling into “Tweezer” and setting the building on fire.
The head section of this “Tweezer” features yet more breakdown jamming around the main riff. This Phish is mad. This Phish is dangerous. This Phish eats segues and craps thunder. This is Sunday Phish on a Saturday, folks. Page is melting his Clav keys, the rhythm section is deep in a filthy pocket, and now Trey reaches for the megaphone. A balloon with “NO2” on it landed on the stage earlier in the show, and the band obliges the request. Trey and Mike run laps around the stage as Page quotes “Martian Monster” on his sampler, and when it’s all said and done the band slides slickly back into “Tweezer.”
"Tweezer Reprise" – Photo © @tweeprise
“Walls of the Cave” makes a rare second set appearance to bring home this special set of music. As he’s done all night, Trey infuses the composition with extra flourishes, and the jam’s dramatic peak is a fitting capstone for what we’ve just witnessed.
The pre-encore banter that introduces “Sleeping Monkey” is hilarious inside baseball, as Trey takes the piss out of Richard Gehr’s ranking of 333 Phish songs and by extension the wicked and indefensible act of ranking Phish in general. [For what it’s worth, I’d definitely rank this stage banter at the top of all summer 2015 stage banter.] And with a predictably heavy “Tweezer Reprise,” this one’s in the books.
It’s hard to ask for more out of this band than we got tonight, but if this tour’s trajectory is any indication, we might get it anyway.
LE Merriweather Post Pavilion poster by Nate Duval. Edition of 875.
Phish Summer 2015 – Setlists & Recaps
07/21/15 Setlist – Recap – Bend 1
07/22/15 Setlist – Recap – Bend 2
07/24/15 Setlist – Recap, Recap2 – Shoreline
07/25/15 Setlist – Recap – LA Forum
07/28/15 Setlist – Recap – Austin
07/29/15 Setlist – Recap – Grand Prarie
07/31/15 Setlist – Recap – Atlanta 1
08/01/15 Setlist – Recap – Atlanta 2
08/02/15 Setlist – Recap – Tuscaloosa
08/04/15 Setlist – Recap – Nashville
08/05/15 Setlist – Recap – Kansas City
08/07/15 Setlist – Recap – Blossom
08/08/15 Setlist – Recap – Alpine 1
08/09/15 Setlist – Recap – Apline 2
08/11/15 Setlist – Recap – Mann 1
08/12/15 Setlist – Recap – Mann 2
08/14/15 Setlist – Recap – Raleigh
08/15/15 Setlist – Recap – Merriweather 1
08/16/15 Setlist – Recap – Merriweather 2
08/21/15 Setlist – Recap – Magnaball 1
08/22/15 Setlist – Recap – Magnaball 2
08/23/15 Setlist – Recap – Magnaball 3
09/04/15 Setlist – Recap – Dick's 1
09/05/15 Setlist – Recap – Dick's 2
09/06/15 Setlist – Recap – Dick's 3
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