[Editor's Note: We'd like to welcome back guest contributor David Goldstein for this recap. - lbc]
When individuals recap Phish concerts, or any live music experience for that matter, sometimes there’s a tendency to focus on intangibles that don’t necessarily come across on a soundboard recording. Some of these include the weather, size and make of the venue, or even “the energy in the room,” commonly invoked to somehow justify lackluster song selection or poor playing, as in “yeah, I know they played “The Line,” “Number Line,” and “Friday” all in the second set, but you had to experience the energy in the room, maaaan.”
All of which is to say that I happen to be reviewing Phish’s Friday night Las Vegas show from the cozy confines of my living room couch, so intangibles are essentially limited to the quality of the IPAs and salinity of the bottomless bowl of Chex mix I (and two friends) consumed while watching it. The sightlines are courtesy of my 42 inch Samsung in conjunction with Apple TV, I can actually hear the show from the (short!) bathroom line, and the role of Chris Kuroda is relegated to a handheld strobe light / mirror ball hybrid that my two-year old accurately refers to as her “disco party.” This recap will focus entirely on the musical performance itself, which given Las Vegas’s several distractions and detrimental effect on one’s memory, may not be such a bad thing.
I’ll begin by stating that at least to these ears, barring a Tuesday night second set from Grand Prairie, Texas that tiptoed the fine line between “confusing” and “purposely messing with us,” Phish Fall Tour 2016 has been a marked improvement over its summer counterpart; an upswing that began with the tour closer proper in Chula Vista and has seldom let up since. The consecutive two night runs in Nashville and Alpharetta, Georgia were especially strong, and that may have been the case even if the first night of Nashville hadn’t featured a nearly 50-minute guest appearance in which Phish treated Bobby Weir not with kid gloves, but like the wily psychedelic master that he properly is. Hopefully the coffee I consumed at 5 pm will allow me to be awake for the inevitable Trey ballad that should hit around 2 AM East Coast time. Let us proceed.
After a brief rash of technical difficulties that have sadly become all too common with the streaming platform that Live Phish elects to use, we began a third of the way through a standard / good version of “Martian Monster” replete with the echoplex effects that Trey often employs during the jam. This was followed by a speedier than usual “No Men in No Man’s Land,” which has recently been surfacing early in first sets as Phish’s preferred method of getting quickly funky a’la “The Moma Dance.” This version featured a patient mid-section before the expected trilling towards the end; hardly the minor key Type II monster that was the recent Dick’s version, but still a solidly played take on what’s arguably Phish’s strongest new song. This was followed by one of those teasingly long between song Trey delays where he excitedly talks to every band member for several seconds at a time, gesticulating wildly, raising audience expectations, before inevitably settling on “555,” “Ocelot” or “Halfway to the Moon.” Except this time it resulted in something legitimately cool, the first version of “Dogs Stole Things” in over four years! A fun song that my couch compatriots and I had legitimately forgot existed, it was clearly practiced beforehand, and followed up nicely by the bluegrass jam “Beauty of My Dreams,” another six-year bust out that also contained a plucked Mike Gordon solo.
“Destiny Unbound” continued the run of quality first set song choices, and the beginning of “Limb x Limb” coincided with the conclusion of Game 3 of the 2016 World Series. Another screen in my living room clearly portrayed the Cleveland Indians’ Cody Allen striking out the Chicago Cubs’ Javy Baez in the bottom of the 9th inning with runners on second and third, thusly bringing the energy level at Wrigley Field to a level even lower than when Trey thought it would be a smart idea to debut “Miss You” there. The “Limb” itself was well played and standard, then giving way to the Ben Folds style piano rock of Page McConnell’s “Home,” surprisingly only played for the second time this tour despite being an obvious Big Boat highlight. The second half of this song has always seemed ripe for improvisation, and tonight featured a highly enjoyable micro-jam with peals of dissonance, Trey fanning his guitar Jerry Garcia “Morning Dew”-style, and even some well-placed Mike Gordon Taurus pedal bombs. The effect was not unlike some of the messier parts of a good “Split Open and Melt,” with much set closing potential. “When the Circus Comes” was well placed and fine, but even better was a rare first set appearance of “Steam,” stretched out to nearly 11 minutes with some ambient improvisation that found Trey making Halloween appropriate “ooooo” noises over guitar loops and Mike’s power drill. The jump into “The Wedge” seemed a tad abrupt, but this set was already a contender for the Best First Set of Fall Tour, and that’s even before concluding with “Cavern” and “Walls of the Cave,” the latter of which has a composed section that always reminds me of the Legend of Zelda soundtrack for some reason. Let’s just say that Trey and the boys clearly located the Red Ring and harnessed the power of the Triforce in this most excellent first set.
In our strive for Couch Tour authenticity, apartment setbreak music consisted of Steve Gunn’s Way Out Weather album, which I believe that Phish have used as setbreak music in the past. Steve Gunn is to these ears is the single most exciting six-stringer in 2016 not named Trey Anastasio, and you should seek out every one of his records immediately.
A “Crimes of the Mind” Set II opener? Ha! Not only is it the first time Phish has played the song since 2009, but it’s perhaps the only song from the Dude of Life album of the same name that could be considered “legitimately good,” as opposed to “so bad, it’s good” (looking at you “Lucy in the Subway”). Few songs in the Phish repertoire have choruses that are as fun to belt out after a few libations, and it was around this time in the evening that myself and the other two individuals on the couch in comparing the quality of this show to Grand Prairie began to think that maybe, just maybe, Phish really hates the state of Texas?
Until twelve hours ago, in my mind, the two best versions of Phish’s cover of TV On the Radio’s “Golden Age” both occurred within a week of each other, 10/20/13 from Hampton Coliseum and 10/27/13 from the Hartford Civic Center. Both featured extended improvisations with wah-infused funk jamming, some stop-start bits, and Page filling in the gaps nicely on “Lil Pumpkin,” his Wurlitzer-esque electric piano. They were both very good. Fine. The version of “Golden Age” from 10/28/16 has now rendered them as inconsequential as a “Show of Life” encore. Clocking in at just under 26 minutes, the jam begins with a good mix of syncopation and atonal Page weirdness before leaving its home key of C Major and making a left turn into the key of F before proceeding to peak at least four separate times and melt numerous faces in its bloody wake. My handwritten notes are a chicken scratch mess that seem to read “Peaks! Peaks! Peaks,” “this is certifiably insane” and “DO YOU LIKE MUSIC?” Unquestionably the best “Golden Age” Phish has played to date, and possibly their single best jam of 2016 as a whole, it was nothing short of glorious, and a prime example of Why We Continue To Do THIS.
The F Major theme continued with a hard segue into “Simple,” which I’m told featured something like a tease of Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” to which I say, sure? And on any other night the ensuing “Light,” which was considerably funky and stretched out to a solid degree, would be a show highlight. But at this point my neurons, and I will assume the neurons of those in attendance, were so fried from the “Golden Age,” that “Light” will need to settle for being merely “very, very good.” “Twenty Years Later” was perfectly placed, and though perhaps the 4th Quarter is an odd spot for a standard version of “Blaze On,” it was well done, and one has to marvel how Trey and Tom Marshall equated a liar with the Messiah, thus predicting the Trump campaign by a good year and a half.
“Squirming Coil” was the fitting cool down that everyone, on the couch or otherwise, required, and the double B encore of “Bouncin” and “Bold As Love” was more than fine. Though we’re clearly still in the Honeymoon phase here, and basking in the light of that “Golden Age,” this was easily one of the strongest top to bottom Phish shows in 2016, as good a kick off to a four night Vegas run as anyone could hope for, and definitive proof that the second set of Grand Prairie night 2 was an aberration. Onward.
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