Today's recap was written by guest blogger and Phish.net user Pete Burgess (@AlbanyYEM)
Tour openers have a certain transformative effect. There are no patterns established yet, no momentum gained or lost, and no acclimation to the normalcy of Phish being on tour. In this rebirth, there is a lightness in letting oneself go from the standards of what has come before and the norms of what one might expect, or perhaps sometimes even feel that one is owed. The joy is in the strangeness. It is a powerful feeling to be swept back into a self that is a little more naïve, a little freer from self-imposed restrictions, and a little more open to that simple joy.
Photo by Rene Huemer via Phish From the Road © Phish
These are my thoughts on the experience of being at this show, but of course a review needs to delve into more than just that aspect. But it is worth bearing in mind as we go through tour with our own analytical tendencies. That said, this was probably the strangest Phish show I’ve been to. From a critical perspective, that strangeness was both positive and negative. The oddness actually worked nicely in this unusual yet slightly understated first set. I have to confess that I did not identify "Pigtail" whatsoever, but the “I’m conscious again” refrain certainly fits the theme of awakening to the possibilities of the new tour.
"Wolfman’s Brother" works very nicely in the two-slot, and is a very welcome funk possibility in lieu of "Moma Dance." The jam was laid back, with Trey on sustain mostly, hinting at a sense of soaring beyond the bounds of the classic crescendo. Then Trey hits on a repeating-note rhythmic lick during the solo that sends us back towards the familiar "Wolfman’s" territory. "Daniel Saw the Stone" through "Undermind" was a nice run of song choices that somehow seemed to blend together to make sense.
Photo by Derek Gregory.
"Dear Prudence" was a mind-numbing shock. Those familiar with JGB might have gotten a bit more context from this already insane bustout (first time played since The White Album, 10/31/94). The Beatles may have written this song, but Jerry Garcia owns it. One of the best showcases for pure emotion, both vocally and through his guitar playing. It always struck me that it was for this reason that Phish had never returned to it, as perhaps it was too identified with Jerry. Maybe I read too much into it, but it was nonetheless a little bit sweeter for it in my own experience.
"Stash" again had the understated restraint in its opening jam, but this time it signaled a very nice dynamic flow towards crescendo. Things get slightly louder and slightly faster as we go, until before we know it Trey is riding the sustained peaks of tonic notes. Then dipping back down for more melodic tension and releasing. Each “gear” is slightly louder and faster with great dynamic control, but the actual crescendo didn’t quite reach the peak it was capable of. This was still a very enjoyable type-I "Stash" and really shows how important dynamics are for these build tunes. The rest of the set was enjoyable, with "Halfway to the Moon" getting a bit of extra mustard and "Walls of the Cave" hitting its always-enjoyable peak. This strange mix of songs somehow fit together to create a refreshingly unique first set.
Photo by Rene Huemer via Phish From the Road © Phish
I have to admit that the second set’s strangeness, from a purely analytic review point of view, didn’t somehow fit together. The first sharp turn came from out of the haze of the absolutely-will-always-precede-"Disease" fog and straight into… "Mike’s Song." This was very welcome for me personally as I sometimes feel that I’ve seen every second set opening "Disease" ever played. I love "Mike’s." Find me the worst version ever played and I will happily lap it up. But to be more objective, it was pretty standard fare. Things started to look like they would get strange (of the good variety) when Trey started chording after the standard solo, which seemed to offer the whiff of the possibility of moving outside the type-I "Mike’s" box. But Trey returns to single-note solo sustains and we are back in familiar territory. It’s funny to think of "I Am Hydrogen" as unexpected out of "Mike’s" but at this point I think that’s fair to say. It was its usual lovely self—weightless flight through the ethereal after the fuzzy dirt of "Mike’s."
"Weekapaug Groove" kicks in with Mike funking it up briefly to the delight of all. Trey starts things off with a lovely and patient dance in the lower regions of the 'Doc. It’s the kind of beginning that says, "we have you here all night, the second set has just begun, and you will damn well love every second of the journey before the peak." Trey’s type-I playing throughout the night was extremely poignant with inventive melodic lines of unusual phrasing and unexpected sustains. His best stuff came in this "Weekapaug." It means that he is finding themes to play to remind us that the song isn’t just one long guitar solo. The peak, though, again does not reach full maturity. This was something of a recurring theme throughout the night. The jams were short.
It was at this point that (as the assumed "objective reviewer") I have to say that set flow became a problem. Well sure, the "Mike’sGroove" was nice so I suppose "Bouncin'" isn’t the end of all hope for humanity. "Ghost" starts up and the air becomes palpable as it nibbles at the first type-II of 2016 proper. The actual song portion was spiced up a bit with some screaming chords. I should know the name of the effect but I don’t. Even more oddly, a "Little Drummer Boy" tease is fit into the breakdown reminding me of "Santa Clause Is Coming to Town" from the 7/31/97 "YEM." It just works. It’s awesome, somehow. Trey’s tone absolutely growls here a la some kind of gnarly 2.0 "46 Days."
Photo by @swervinben
Things get spacy and flirt with the major key shift before Trey moves back into some standard "Ghost" riffing. This moves into tension-release style jamming with some extremely fluid type-I guitar. Odd again, Trey goes back into the "Ghost" theme to actually wrap things up in a slow dying-out fashion a bit like ancient "Tweezers." "The Line" starts up. I had to laugh at the show because it seemed silly how much this would annoy people. But upon relisten, perhaps not the most flowing choice. The problem is that when "The Line" is over it comes to a dead stop and getting the set moving again is like starting up a freight train.
"Simple" was its usual beautiful self, but instead of dripping and dancing ambience it had a bit more of a rhythmic edge. Trey is really playing hard on the downbeat, making it a bit more danceable and an interesting take on the song portion. Again, Trey has some really nice work in here with a particularly lovely chording, which is certainly unusual to hear in "Simple." Trey and Page lock into a repeating theme that almost sounds like a "Digital Delay Loop Jam," but I think at least at first it was Trey playing straight-up. Mike steps forward to add his own melody very nicely and things bleed ambient. If things were going type-II, this was the moment, but it was not to be. Instead, they flowed into another crazy bustout in a very smooth segue. This was a very unusual choice, but once the Ba-Ba- Ba-Ba’s started up, "I Found a Reason" seemed to fit the counterpoint of "Simple" perfectly.
But what was a beautiful choice to round out "Simple" again left a long portion of dead air to follow. "No Men In No Man's Land" followed and absolutely shredded. The "Billy Breathes" that stepped up afterwards was, I’m afraid, pretty badly botched. It was at this point that it was clear the set was a yo-yo. Raging and/or jamming song followed by a slow and/or straightforward song. It was extremely choppy. Again I say this in the persnickety reviewer voice, but it was almost like playing Phish on shuffle.
After they thought about the set at setbreak, I think they actually made a joke of this aspect of the set by playing a ridiculously slllooooowww version of "Water in the Sky." Not just the normal "slow version," but the slowest you can play the slow version. And a raging "Character Zero" to end. It was as if Phish said, "Yes, we are aware of this. Let’s poke fun at it." Overall, I have to say this show did not have any out of the box jamming, had a few flubs, and had severe setlist construction problems. Will I be returning to listen to it often? Probably not. Then why did I love every second of it? Phish does not have anything left to prove. There is no more anxiety of the band teetering on the brink of the days of former glory, with the dreaded anticipation that maybe, somehow, they won’t turn that corner and ever recapture fully the magic. Well, the glory is now. And seeing the band these days does not hinge on the twenty minute second set opener. There is subtle beauty and inventiveness in little turns of phrase in "Simple," completely in the box, the blistering sixteenth and (perhaps even) thirty-second notes of "NMINML," and the swaggering patience in the sustain of "Weekapaug." Part of the strange magic of the tour opener is letting oneself be amazed by these things. Part of the joy of Phish now is the confidence to let the jamming beasts stew organically and arise in their own good time.
Photo by Derek Gregory.
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