[Please welcome guest recapper Rob Mitchum, @PhishCrit. -CD]
For most of 3.0, my working theory for understanding Phish has been one of retracing the steps of their history. There’s even a solid nerdy ph- pun for it: “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” the biological hypothesis that developing embryos recreate the evolution of their ancestors. To be a little less pretentious, the idea is that Phish, since their 2009 comeback, had to reenact their 90s climb from cult bar band to giant-venue superstars, like a stroke patient re-learning how to speak. The awkward part was having to go through this rehabilitation in full public view, playing from the start in the arenas, amphitheatres, and festival fields they’d left behind when they called it quits.
Nevertheless, heroically, they got there somewhere between the Tahoe Tweezer and Magnaball, reclaiming their prior role as the big-stage experimenters we knew and loved. The tricky part is what to do next, when the familiar path they were following ran out. Add in the fact that -- artificial ticket scarcity to the contrary -- they are past their commercial peak as concert draws, and the next chapter of Phish becomes even harder to conceive, one of playing to a loyal-as-ever but aging and often smaller audience.
October 24th in Grand Prairie, Texas -- and to be fair, a lot of Phish’s 2016 -- reflected this awkward stage. Even on a Monday night, a long distance away from their New England home turf, it was once unfathomable that they couldn’t fill a 6,350-capacity venue. But the relatively cozy confines of the Verizon Theatre still surpassed demand, with empty seats in big chunks of the balcony. For the common fan, this is not entirely a bad thing, of course, offering an intimacy that many late 90s bandwagon jumpers (this reviewer included) never experienced firsthand. But for a group used to selling out Madison Square Garden and “selling out” Wrigley Field, there’s a recalibration needed for a swing through their less established Southern markets, an adjustment to conditions that may become the norm instead of an aberration.
As a result, what we might be witnessing now is a reversal of the recapitulation theory, a Benjamin Button-like backwards aging to their mid-90s era of bouncing between the theater circuit, minor-league hockey arenas, and the occasional outdoor shed. Since Phish has always been deeply influenced by the venues they play, that might also mark a return to the more scattershot approach of those earlier days. Instead of the self-confident/indulgent gauntlet-throwing of their '97-'04 imperial phase, they’ve settled back into throwing out a lot of different flavors in a given show, hoping that a few will land with the various unique subsets of the fanbase.
That revival doesn’t necessarily have to mean regression, or a retreat into nostalgia. Monday night opened with two songs from Big Boat, and three more made appearances by the end of the show, one providing the undisputed improvisational highlight. Twenty-some years of touring and recording give Phish a much deeper songbook and broader sonic arsenal to draw from on any given night. But that’s a double-edged sword, amplifying both the variety and the lack of cohesion in shows, like this one, where a consistent narrative never really takes shape.
The first set started out as a mixture of new album promotion (competent versions of “No Man in No Man’s Land” and “Breath and Burning”) and nods to Texas’ country-blues musical traditions. “Wolfman’s Brother” provided an early highlight, featuring an extremely patient, minimal jam that built up to the kind of ferocity seen often these days in first-set "Gins." A songy middle section gave way to a segment of pure Phishy humor: a triptych of heavy metal goofs in “Fuck Your Face,” “Ass Handed,” and “Saw It Again,” with some interstitial banter from Trey and Fish on their ranking of the greatest Phish songs.
After that increasing derangement, dropping into an evil late-October “David Bowie” would have been perfect. But in a pattern that would come to define the night’s second set, the building tension was brutally sapped by the intrusion of “Running Out of Time,” a pleasant enough Trey trifle that had no business showing up right then and there. Thus handicapped, “Bowie” had to do a little extra work to re-establish the sinister vibes, though it eventually got there, helped along by throwback lights accompaniment that thankfully dispensed with the LED screens in favor of washes of Loaded-smoke pink cut through with frantic white searchlights.
[An aside: the close quarters of the Verizon Theatre cruelly emphasized the gratuitous nature of the LEDs again and again -- they were often a distraction at worst, gilding the lily at best. Where an argument could be made that they provide an interesting long-distance backdrop for large-venue shows, in a smaller setting the bland and often out-of-sync visualizations detracted from the simple, mind-bending pleasures of room-filling beams of light. Most criminal was “I Always Wanted It This Way,” the kind of deep space that would have once been Kuroda’s sweet spot, but which instead unfolded in front of an ugly brown-and-blue screensaver.]
Opening the second set with “Dog Faced Boy” was a real head-scratcher, though in retrospect it telegraphed the mellow school-night mood that the majority of the show’s reminder would inhabit. A playful “Seven Below” might have put things back on familiar ground, but the curious call of the first-ever second-set “Petrichor” ensured that the show’s 3rd quarter wouldn’t be the epicenter of improvisation this time around. Questionable timing aside, it’s a pleasure to witness Trey’s latest extended piece performed in person (at least once), with the band clearly in a state of deep concentration following its complex route.
After that, the Riffs, Relax, Repeat pattern returned with another rare second set visitor, “Maze,” and the cooldown lap of “Dirt.” It was pushing 11:00 when they started in on Page’s “I Always Wanted It This Way,” which nobody would have picked as the night’s centerpiece. But building on its promising debut in Charleston, the song delivered bigly on its potential, stretching their freshest-sounding studio track in ages into dense, rhythmic psychedelia. Page appeared to have his wayward electronic samples under tighter control for this second appearance, while Trey’s crunchy counterpoint swirled deeper and deeper with Echoplex as the jam intensified. Once he switched to marimba and Mike started stomping on his Moog Taurus, the band reached something remarkable for their 33rd year in existence: genuinely new sonic territory.
“Piper” was the tightly-wound, hard-rocking chaser to this atmospheric voyage, moving through the now-customary stop-start rituals, and “Bug” took the set home as the first legitimately-earned breather of the night. “Buffalo Bill” was an apt encore to fit the weird logic of the evening’s setlist, and “Rock and Roll” was a nice reminder that Halloween -- and, presumably, yet another dose of new material -- is right around the corner.
Coming after an excellent week of shows in Nashville and Alpharetta, this first night in Dallas had high standards to meet, and its unpredictable path likely sabotaged those expectations. No arguments that it was disjointed from the perspective of someone who enjoys set flow and lengthy improv, but it was also a success if you want the full firehose of Phish, a mix of new songs, old songs, long songs, short songs, weird songs, slow songs, etc. etc. etc. In the context of Phish’s current transitional period, one balanced precariously on the contradiction of moving forward and satisfying an increasingly concentrated core of loyalists, it wasn’t the best show, but it certainly was a representative one. -Rob
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