[Recap is courtesy of user @SmilerControl, Brandy Davis. -Ed.]
Phish returned to Columbia, Maryland, last night for a traditional Saturday/Sunday two-night run at Merriweather Post Pavillion, a celebrated venue that the band started headlining 20 years ago (1998-08-08, well worth a nostalgic listen). MPP has made some significant changes in the three years since Phish last visited. Most are improvements, including a raised pavilion roof for better sight lines from the lawn, and a renovated parking infrastructure that made getting in and out a bit easier. Many fans are saddened, however, by the trading-in of field and forest for a more corporate-park vibe. Tailgating was still on, though, even in the new “Lot 2” parking garage that’s only a short walk from the gate. Despite its corporate feel, the venue seems to have done much to accommodate the Phish community and our shenanigans, and even named one of their new streets “Divided Sky Drive” in the band’s honor.
Musically, in sum, Phish gave us another debatable show, opening with six straight 3.0 songs before playing a couple of old-school MPP favorites ("Stash" and "46 Days") to wrap-up the short first set. The second set was also short but provided some strong improvisation, particularly in “Mercury” > “Ghost.” At the end of the second-set-closing “Slave," it was clear to me they were setting up for a doozy of an encore, which was delivered in the form of the first four-song encore of tour, which nodded pleasantly in four different directions.
“Blaze On” and “Party Time” kicked off the show with a celebratory one-two-punch that got everyone in the mood for a good time in Columbia. “Blaze On” featured racing interplay between Trey and Page all the way to the finish line, and the 10-min version of "Party Time" had a little more party in it than usual, featuring a happy jam that left everyone smiling and pumped for the rest of the show. They continued the care-free theme with the tour debut of “Breath and Burning.” Trey laughed as he sang his favorite lyrics, “we’re gonna rage with Page at the dying of the light!”
“Sugar Shack” was next, another first of tour. This being a personal non-favorite of mine, I used this opportunity to relocate from the chatty back of the lawn to the front, where sight, sound, and even space were greatly improved. Sorry crew, but back of the lawn is not for me, especially on a lawn that was more packed with people than I ever remember seeing at MPP. “Sugar Shack” fans will find this version better played than usual, but not particularly remarkable. Page’s high-strung “Home” followed, yet another first of the summer. The tension built up by this hectic jam was relieved in the beautifully played “Joy” that came next. Thank goodness the choppers were less dense at the front of the lawn, and I could appreciate the emotional ride Trey wanted to take us on with this heartfelt version.
After the string of 3.0 songs, Phish took us old heads back with MPP favorite “Stash," which happens to be this phan’s numero uno. Since it hadn’t been played since the tour debut show in Tahoe, I had really been hopping it would get the big second-set treatment. I was looking for it in Raleigh, where I celebrated my personal 20-year mile marker, having seen my first show and heard my first “Stash” there in 1998. But alas, I’d just have to settle for a slightly flubby and not particularly exploratory first set version. Still, the classic tension/release jam and building peak of “Stash” is always pleasing to these ears. The “46 Days” that followed was the real jam highlight of the first set. Though not as epic as the last one played at MPP in 2015, it still took us for a ride with its two heavy jam segments punctuated by a touch of chorus. My favorite thing about this song is how it launches into a great Type I jam, touches down to earth with what sounds like an ending chorus (tricking novice fans and even sometimes vets), before launching again into what often becomes Type II madness. Not so much madness was to be had this evening, but it was still a powerful little jam and not a bad way to close the set.
At set break, I collected a couple of friends and settled in at the center of the lawn about 30 feet back from the front, where the vibe was friendly and the show was easy to take in. With the always-welcome opening notes of “Sand,” I felt the band had some serious intentions for the second set. The jam started out groovy, sticking close to the “Sand” structure, with more interplay between Trey and Page flowing over Mike and Fishman’s steady beats. Then it entered a spacious cavern of pleasing sound and bounced around in there for a few minutes before Trey pushed us all back into the funnel of this version’s particularly funky conclusion.
A multi-part 3.0 giant “Mercury” came next, showcasing Mike’s leadership skills and Page’s new synth sounds. Trey jumped into the jam with echos and dissonance, and Page switched boards with regularity, owning all of them. The jam starts to break down at around the 14-15 minute mark and trails off into a lovely field of cosmic wild flowers rather than hitting a peaky conclusion. Bouncing through the far end of this “Mercury” meadow were the opening notes of “Ghost," which started out funky and furious. The jam started out channeling some of the ambiance left behind by “Mercury” and explored more of that spaciousness for a while, though Fishman kept the beat up and then accelerated into a jam space that sounded to these ears like it could have come out of “Runaway Jim.” The bliss jam and peak that formed next were nothing short of spectacular, and though my eyes were closed most of the time, I could not help but notice Kuroda’s part in the mix. In line with the last “Ghost” or three, the jam drops with a plop into the closing notes, which in this version slow so far down that it felt as if time were going to stop.
Next up was “Fuego,” clocking in at a not-very-notable nine minutes. The jam soon dissolves into the always-welcome notes of fan favorite “Slave to the Traffic Light.” On par with most “Slaves” of late, it was beautiful and well-played, but nothing exceptional. Never-the-less, it is always a pleasing second set closer. In this case, it closed the set quite early, leaving a lot of room for a big encore.
Acknowledging their history at Merriweather, Phish started the four-song encore with a serious but short “Twenty Years Later.” Towards the end of the jam, Trey spoke a few words to Page, who proceeded to grab some papers and place them in front of him on his keys. I speculated that it was sheet music and we were in for a complex composition, so I was surprised yet pleased to hear “Martian Monster” start-up next, the first time played in the encore slot. I always wonder how many different ways Page can possibly mix “Your trip is short”, but he somehow always finds a new way. Though not as sexy as past “Monsters," I enjoyed the mix in this five-minute version. “Rocky Top” followed, as if waving across the Mason-Dixon Line to the southern shows of the past week. A classic “Golgi Apparatus” concluded the encore joyously, perhaps as a nod to the plentitude of available Sunday ticket stubs that have flooded the lot this weekend.
If you are thinking about making a spontaneous trip to MPP today, do it. It will be an easy ticket, and Sundays at this historically Phishy venue have a reputation for greatness.
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