We’re 13 shows into an 18-show summer tour, and by this point in the arc of a campaign we would expect to see a band in firm command of its powers. It’s also Sunday, so we’d also expect to see Phish do what they so often do on Sundays: stretch out, bust out, and show out. Let’s plunge right in.
Hot Chocolate’s “You Sexy Thing” certainly qualifies as a bustout, being the only cover crafted for a donut-themed Baker’s Dozen show to have been performed by Phish outside of Baker’s Dozen to date. I’m just not sure I ever needed to hear this one dusted off again, necessarily, as it fits this band like a glove on a foot. No harm done, though, as Trey plows purposefully into the “Tweezer Reprise” the Friday and Saturday crowds were denied, and triggers a dance party on the floor.
“What’s The Use” isn’t unheard of in the first set (in fact there was a time when it was more likely to appear there than in the second) but it still feels like a surprise here. On one hand, it works at cross purposes with the “Tweeprise” when it comes to developing energy. On the other hand, it’s a brilliant juxtaposition. Phish can play this instrumental in their sleep, and it’s almost always flawless as it is tonight.
Now Fish moves to the Marimba Lumina for “Petrichor.” This song was certainly a lock at some point this summer, and a Sunday first set is as organic a place to drop a prog opus as any. There is a lot of earnest effort behind this one; no one in the band is smiling, but focused on getting it right. I decide the right play is to close my eyes and let my mind wander, and before I know it I’m trying to place an unfamiliar section I’m hearing in “Petrichor.” It takes a moment or two to realize it’s not “Petrichor” anymore, but “Most Events Aren’t Planned.” Yes.
I loved this tune’s debut performance and this one was every bit as thrilling. For my money this tune is not only the best “new” song by a country fucking mile (and I’m talking about songs here, not jams… more on this later) but a great example of the kind of material this band should be developing, because it plays to their estimable strengths and sidesteps their flaws. It doesn’t require any feats of youthful dexterity. The vocal melodies are well within Page’s range. It’s familiar enough and new enough. It’s up-tempo. The propulsive outro jam, built around a riff lifted from Grandmaster Flash’s “White Lines,” whips ass. And the word “soul” does not appear anywhere in the lyric. I’d love to see this one in a steadier rotation.
“Vultures,” another tune I’d love to see in steadier rotation, falls victim to the whole “band doesn’t know it” thing. And that brings me to my first lengthy tangent.
I am of the mind that if the band doesn’t intend to perform a song as beautiful and complex and enervating as “Vultures” properly, they shouldn’t perform it. In fact, I’ll stick my neck out even further and say that the band shouldn’t perform any song on stage for fans when they aren’t prepared. You may have heard an interview with Trey this past weekend that touched on train wrecks like this “Vultures,” and noticed that he’s pretty glib about playing slop. He’s always been a little glib about playing slop (see: Bittersweet Motel) but when you’re very rarely sloppy that’s a cooler thing to be.
A new Phish modus operandi has developed in recent years, and taken deeper root with Baker’s Dozen, that emphasizes sheer quantity of songs played over all else. The band itself seems intent on breaking its own record for unique songs played in each successive year. And I understand why. Many fans appreciate variety and surprises, and the band gets an endorphin hit when it a crowd responds to the unexpected. But there is an opportunity cost, and it looks exactly like this “Vultures.”
I know fans who historically can’t summon up a single fuck about compositions and how they’re executed. In fact, a friend of mine commented just yesterday that “I’ve heard the songs.” But a lot of the “here for the jams” crowd is kvetching these days, increasingly and not without good reason, about the ragged nature of Phish’s song delivery.
For my part, I could not possibly care less how many songs Phish plays. I am perfectly uninterested in this achievement, in the end. But I do care a lot about whether “YEM” sounds like “YEM,” and whether entire sections are dropped from a song as familiar as “Slave,” and if the price of getting core Phish material right is that we don’t get to hear “Fuck Your Face” once a tour, I’m perfectly fine with that. Alternately, the band could keep its current format and triple or quadruple its pre-tour commitment to actual rehearsal... but let’s be realistic.
Anyway, “Vultures” is god-awful, and we’re blinded with ambition like a “razato” (a potato you can shave with, I’m guessing) to the throat. Blessedly, shockingly, the “Reba” that comes next is pretty damn tight. I want to crawl inside this jam and live there for a week, and so apparently does Trey, who is trilling his way into the upper reaches of the atmosphere... when Fish unceremoniously ends the song. Trey seemed so taken aback, and maybe even cheesed off, that he skipped both the whistling and his opening cue in “Sand.” Much like it did at the Forum last weekend, this “Sand” concludes the first set on the good foot.
The second frame shoves off with the first “Taste” in over a year. Predictably, the jam hangs together nicely until it catches fire like a pile of oily tires at the end. Not unlike the bridge in “Theme,” this landing will remain un-stick-able until such time as the band workshops it together, in a room. “Golden Age” is a far more forgiving song, for which we can be grateful.
It’s not hard to predict that a 3rd quarter “Golden Age” will modulate to the minor, and it does for a bit before Trey favors a brighter, jazzier theme, lightly strummed. The most curious and lovely aspect of this jam is what the rest of the band does. Normally when Trey gets noticeably quieter, the band races each other to be even quieter still. This time, all three bandmates stand their ground instead, and for a fleeting moment, this changes everything. It’s a moment of novelty and wonder and surprise, and they didn’t have to bust anything out to make it. The band shepherds this “Golden Age” jam to a gentle, panoramic crest befitting a Sunday evening, and then ambles into “Twist.”
Trey suggests a dark theme early in this “Twist” jam and then Mike steals it for himself. This leads to a few moments of brash, sassy musical conversation, a head-fake ending, and then finally a real one as Trey cues the always-welcome “Waves.”
Despite some struggles with the changes, Phish makes the most of the modest seven minutes they budgeted here. By the end of the buoyant jam, Trey looks to be deep in a zone and blissfully keen to remain, but Page unceremoniously Brexits right into “Fuego”--which suffers from unsteady tempos throughout the composed section and exhibits less ambition than some recent versions when the improv section rolls around.
“Mango Song” is one of my favorite songs by any band. Let’s just say this version (again, first and surely the only this tour) is not an all-time favorite, and move on. “Bathtub Gin” is an unexpected call for the set closer, but also proves safe and satisfying. “Gin” is simply one of the most reliable and versatile workhorses in the catalog. If it wore an embroidered ball cap, it would read “Put Me In, Coach.” This version is a nice balm, even if the “YST” coda and ending have a lot of hair on it.
Not so much the “Fee” encore, which fares even worse than “Vultures” or “Mango” in the clam department, with Trey completely forgetting not just the verses, but the chorus, and turning the mic toward an audience (who, in fact, does seem to remember them better than he does). Using self-deprecation as a get-out-of-jail-free card, Trey introduces “2001” as a song the band knows all the words to, and for many, all is instantly forgiven. The “2001” quotes “Tweeprise” and “You Sexy Thing,” and the story of this playful, energetic, but wildly uneven performance is in the books.
If you enjoyed tonight’s show more than I did, I hope you’ll leave some counterpoint in the comments below. But for my money, Alpharetta peaked Friday and spent the rest of the weekend drifting back to earth.
On to Camden!
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