As fans, I think we sometimes underestimate the vast number of variables that have to align to create a great Phish show. Probably more so now, when everyone is older, travel and logistics are more complicated, the setup is so much more intense, and more.
Just start with the travel. Since last Sunday night when Phish left Atlanta, with dozens of buses carrying band members, families, gear, etc., they traveled 1600 miles in 6 days. Just driving 200 miles takes a toll on me, so I can’t imagine the physical toll of being constantly on the road—no nights in your own bed, sleeping on a bus, etc. It’s not like they’re sleeping on Greyhound buses, but still.
Then there’s the interpersonal dynamics of getting 4 dudes plus all of the crew on the same page. When they were playing more shows, closer together, it was easier to get in sync night after night. Then there’s the venue, logistics, sound, gear, weather, cluster flies, and everything else. It’s not always going to work perfectly.
The counterpoint to this is that “hey, these guys get paid really well to make music for us, and they have a responsibility to play songs as flawlessly as possible.” But that’s not how it works in reality.
At the risk of revealing too much up front, this was a great Phish show. The band was playing loosely, having fun, but they sounded well practiced, particularly with songs that are technically difficult, like “The Curtain With.” Walking out of a Phish show dripping with sweat and filled with gratitude is one of my favorite ways to do Phish. This was one of those nights.
Starting the show with “Llama” (only played once per year in 2014 through 2017) and “Big Black Furry Creatures from Mars” (played once or twice a year since the beginning of 3.0) showed that Trey in particular was comfortable and confident from the start.
Then came “Tweezer.” I guess you could say things were getting pretty serious. Many of us expected to hear this song on Sunday, but definitely not in the middle of the first set. This set was starting to remind me of 12.30.17, in terms of a lot of really great energy and tunes packed into a first set. This is how you first set. This “Tweezer” was a really straightforward, rocking vibe. Multiple sweet rock peaks. No bliss, no funk, just a really solid rock jam, with a little “LA Woman” tease.
You might expect a ballad or a cool down after what had been a pretty uptempo set so far, but instead we go straight into a “Bathtub Gin.” A 3.0 staple is driving, upbeat, energetic “Gin” jams.
This song rarely disappoints, and this version was no exception. Now maybe a cool down? Again, no breaks, straight into “The Curtain With.” Trey did a really good job here on the composed part. A “With” is a beautiful crowd pleaser, and at this point I thought a very good first set would be over.
But Trey had different ideas. This “Chalk Dust” wasn’t just a standard run through, it clocked in around 10 minutes. Was this really just the first set?
One of the coolest things about seeing a great first set is how excited everyone is for the second set. The energy levels were amazing throughout set break, heightened only by a surprising “Tweezer Reprise” opener for the second set. First “Tweezer Reprise” 2nd set opener since 12.15.95.
I think there were a lot of people expecting a trip to the “Soul Planet,” and I thought we’d get a “Down With Disease,” but the “No Men” featured the most exploratory jamming of the night to that point. The song lengths of “Twist,” then “Caspian” and then “Piper” seem like they might not amount to much, but go back and listen to them. The “Piper” in particular contained some intense jamming with Trey on the Leslie which then segued into a straight ahead rock jam. Trey was leading the band in this second set, which is a nice place to be.
A second “Tweezer Reprise”? Why not! We then got “Number Line”d, which as I said before, I’m sorry if you have to listen to your favorite band play one of the songwriter’s favorite songs. It’s a tough life being a Phish fan.
This show kept going, with an almost 9-minute “2001” before a beautiful, patient and thoroughly fulfilling “Harry Hood” closer. Thank you Mr. Minor. Similarly to the first set, they could have ended after “2001,” but everyone was having too much fun. Trey was having an absolute blast, and I can’t think of a better way to end this part of the tour, feeding intense and frenetic anticipation for Curveball.
Great shows don’t come every night, but you know one when you see (or hear it). One of the telltale signs is when you expect the set to end, multiple times, and then it keeps going. The energy never waned, the mistakes were kept to a minimum, and the crowd was absolutely eating it up. On a hot night in Maryland, we saw what this band can still do. See you at Curveball.
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