Following a beautiful weekend at the Gorge, Phish and many of their rabid fans followed the lines going south to The City by the Bay to see the band take the stage at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium for the tenth time in the past four years. Last summer, the band skipped a three night run at BGCA for the first time since 2012, in favor of a single show at Shoreline – a move that ended up paying off big time. The crowd assembled outside the venue and City Hall early on Monday, and the party blazed on into the night. Unlike the 2014 weekday run, there was not an abundance of extras on “Shakedown” – there were more fingers in the air than there were tickets.
At 8:07 PM, the band took the stage to a raucous applause from the fans, and Page started off the festivities with a sample: “You have been selected...”. The band wasted no time blasting off into “Martian Monster,” opening a show for the third time ever and played for the fourth time in sixteen shows this tour. The trip was relatively short, but definitely sweet, and when we disembarked, Mike greeted us in the native tongue with a “Bee Chew Ba Ba Bajingo” as the band continued the spacey theme with “Halley’s Comet.” Like most renditions of late, this version was well-played and completely inside the box. And for the fifth time in “3.0,” “Halley’s” careened (in-key) into “46 Days.” As the first jam developed, Trey found a gnarly tone that he paired nicely with an ascending riff that signaled to his bandmates and the crowd that a peak was coming. After settling into the vocal coda, Trey immediately catapulted the band back into the stratosphere for another sharp peak before winding down again and taking a short breather after an energetic start to the set.
Photo by Dave Vann © Phish, used with permission
A common complaint from fans is that Trey doesn’t play his bandmates’ songs the right way sometimes, and anyone who’s seen Mike Gordon’s band knows the potential of tunes like “Sugar Shack” and “Say Something.” Trey clearly took note of his less-than-stellar performance of “Sugar Shack” at SPAC two weeks ago, as the band soundchecked it at the Gorge to right the ship. It showed last night, as Trey gracefully and confidently nailed (most of) the tricky licks needed to make “Sugar Shack” sweet again. It was proof positive that this band can still do anything they want as long as they put their mind to it. After another short pause, Trey led the band into a pensive “Roggae.” Trey wound the first part of the jam down a melodic path while Mike and Page complemented him nicely, but as the jam moved onward, Mike and Fish pushed the pace and Trey to the next level. By the seven minute mark, the whole band was moving in lock-step ascending towards an emphatic peak, which CK5 anticipated (precipitated?!), providing the perfect backdrop with his lights and LEDs. Mike dropped a bomb of approval, and when it was all said and done we had just gotten the third gorgeous “BGCA Roggae” in four years.
In the wake of “Roggae,” Trey belted out “whoooooooooooa” for a solid 20 seconds and we were treated to only the fourth “Daniel Saw the Stone” in the modern era. This pick was especially appropriate for our crew, as it was our friend Daniel Soucek’s (@TheShou) birthday show. But one nod to Dan wasn’t enough, as Phish followed the spirited “Daniel” with his favorite song: “Divided Sky.” While “Divided Sky” may have seemed like an obvious pick for the Gorge, say, during sunset, I’ll take it any way and any day I can get it. This version did not disappoint, as the band fluidly flew through the composed section into The Pause. (I hope the Phish gamblers out there took the “Over” on pause length, as this one clocked in at over 100 seconds). The ensuing jam started off in a delicate fashion befitting the attentive audience, and as it developed, it picked up steam and a few decibels along the way. In typical fashion, the band built up melodic tension that was released through each cycle of the progression, each peak slightly bigger than the last, until their work was done.
“Ocelot” played the breather role after the strong “Roggae” / “Daniel” / “Divided Sky” segment, and it gave Trey a chance to work through some nastier blues licks, a part of his repertoire he hadn’t exercised to that point in the evening. The first “Ya Mar” since Mexico followed, much to the crowd’s delight. While the version started off in a standard fashion, when Trey yelled “Play one for your grandpa Leo!”, things took off. Fishman dropped out for a few measures, and after a vocal reprisal of the theme, Trey yelled “Play one for your grandpa Fish!”. Fish took a drum solo, which made Trey jealous, so Trey made a beeline for the Marimba Lumina and began adding some percussive texture the jam. Knowing that “Ya Mar” needs the guitar to carry the melody, Mike snapped up Trey’s guitar and laid down some tasty chords and some nice runs up the fret board, but Page couldn’t bear to hear one of Mike’s (adopted) songs go without his instrument, so Page took up the bass and played a bit. After a couple minutes, Trey bolted back to his usual spot on stage, high-fived Mike, and once everyone was back in place, they finished the highly entertaining and improvisational version of “Ya Mar.” The energy from “Ya Mar” rolled right into the raging “Possum” that followed. The marsupial set-closer encapsulated some of the themes from earlier in the evening, making it a particularly apt choice to cap off a solid, energetic 88 minute first set. Touching on both the blues exploration and the animal subject from “Ocelot,” as well as recalling some of the melodic tension and release from “Divided Sky,” this “Possum” took everyone into the break with a smile on their face and high hopes for what was to come.
At 10:06 PM, the band started up the second set with a cover for the third time in four shows, this time with TV On The Radio’s “Golden Age.” After taking a few laps through the jam over the song’s chord progression, Trey kicked off a dark, exploratory segment with a minor mode chord. The next few minutes of play had a distinct “2001” vibe to them – CK5 swirled the lights around the stage and the LEDs painted musical pictures in the backs of the crowd’s retinae. Mike and Fish pushed the pace and Trey threaded one needle-sharp run after another through the pocket set up by his bandmates. As soon as the jam reached a sparse section, it reached a crossroads: continue "Golden Age," or turn in another direction? Trey took the latter path, kicking off “Twist.” While I certainly would have loved “Golden Age” to have continued another few minutes, like many folks in the audience, I was ecstatic to hear “Twist.” After all, “Twist” was the Jam of the Year for many folks in 2015, and the last time Phish played it at BGCA, we got one for the ages. The jam started off in its usual “Twist”-y way, and Trey stomped his MuTron pedal, another Phishy treat of 2015 vintage. But before we could muster a guess as to where the jam would take us next, it was over.
After the curious decision to abandon “Twist” before they could explore any new terrain, Fish started up the drumbeat for “My Sweet One.” It is nice that Phish has brought back a few of their bluegrass numbers this tour – “Uncle Pen” from the Gorge was great, and offers excellent guitar calisthenics for Trey – though this was a bit of an odd place for "MSO," in a spot where we’d normally expect the band to be going through the most exploratory segment of the night. But this band isn’t normal, and that’s part of the reason we love them so much. As “MSO” finished, “The Line” started. I hate to say it, but hearing those opening notes ring out felt like a swift kick to the crotch, especially after having heard it the first night of the Gorge a mere two shows earlier. I wasn’t the only one taken aback by the selection and timing of “The Line,” as you could feel the whole room deflate a bit all at once. Behind me I heard a guy say “Damn, I guess Trey really likes this song eh?”. Trey did give it his all for the jam, trying to bring the audience back into the fold. While that may have amounted to putting lipstick on a pig, the opening riff of “Simple” was a surefire way to get the crowd singing and dancing along again.
Photo courtesy of Peter Hoherd, used with permission
Unlike some of the slower takes on other songs this tour, this “Simple” came in hot and at a quicker pace than usual. Trey and Page (who teased “Magilla” earlier, because they’ve got bebop) ripped through a number of cool ideas in the first part of the jam, until things grew spacier after the 5 minute mark. Trey contrasted the dark and gnarled tones of his guitar with the happy feel of an inverted I-IV-V chord progression. Fish’s drumming waned a bit, and again, it wasn’t clear if they’d continue jamming or take things in a new direction, but at that moment, Trey had a flashback. After being faked into thinking “Light” might be the tune to bring the set back after a few questionable decisions, it became apparent that “Sneakin’ Sally through the Alley” would be the savior. And boy did “Sally” do a number on all of us. Trey sang along with his guitar at the beginning of the jam, before all four members joined in and jammed vocally over a sparse instrumental section. But unlike other vocal-jam-infused renditions of “Sally,” this version didn’t peak immediately after the VJ. Rather, it continued to build and pick up steam, Fish ever-creative with fills we’ve never heard before, Trey trilling and firing off “Izabella”-like licks, Page comping underneath on piano with just the right amount of suspense in his chords, and Mike thumping away, connecting the rhythm and the melody, all while harmonizing. Eight minutes into the jam, it felt like the venue was about to explode, and it nearly did a minute later. The jam began to wind down, and it seemed like Trey was probing for a new path in the music, and in all likelihood, a new song. But Fish got impatient waiting for Trey to figure out what to do, and suddenly began pushing the tempo. Mike and Page quickly latched on, and before Trey could figure out what was happening, we were already on the way to The Peak of the Tour. The crowd, the band, the lights – everything and everyone – went absolutely nuts in a massive group catharsis. It didn't matter that at the very end, "Sally" wobbled out of the alley and almost fell over, and at that point, "The (Misplaced) Line" was nothing but a distant memory.
The “Limb by Limb” that followed wasn’t particularly long or particularly special, but it had a celebratory vibe. Trey took some risks and played with his robotic-sounding interval pedal and played off key (on purpose?), mostly to mixed results. He did find a sweet groove towards the end with the effects still turned on, and that propelled them into the typical melodic finish as Fishman did his best octopus impersonation on drums. From the ashes of “LxL” rose “Slave to the Traffic Light.” I haven’t heard many “Slaves” I don’t like, but this one seemed to have a little extra patience and majesty in it. Trey and Mike anticipated each other’s moves throughout, Fish prodded them along and drove the pace, and Page threw a smattering of ideas out in front of them like a choose your own adventure jam while somehow also letting them lead. Sure, the “Slave” jam is four major chords, and any half-wit in a dorm room can play through it a few times, but the level of group execution during this “Slave”? Well, let’s just say that this is the only band I know that cam turn four chords into something that glorious. I’m glad that Phish decided to come see The City again this year, and I hope they keep coming as long as they’re having fun – they clearly had fun last night, especially during the 73 minute second set (25% of which was “Sally”).
“When the Circus Comes” (to The City) was yet another topical choice and fit the first encore slot nicely – when a crew of Phish fans comes to a city like San Francisco, it makes the nightlife seem like a circus. (If you don’t believe me, spend 10 minutes in the lot after the show tonight.) Trey took ownership of the Los Lobos cover and delivered a soulful solo, as usual. Having seen the city, it was time to see the zoo once more with a raging closer: “Run Like an Antelope.” This one didn’t break any new ground, but it gave everyone an extra jolt of energy before we headed out into the pleasant San Francisco evening. I’ll see everyone out there tonight – have fun and be safe!
-- pete (@ucpete)
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