[we'd like to thank Nick Lowe, @rockinhorn, for recapping last night's show from Nashville - ed.]
As far as outdoor venues Phish performs at, Ascend Amphitheater lives near the top of the list. The size and intimacy here bring a special feeling to everyone in attendance, and certainly create an excited anticipation as to what the band is going to blow our minds with in such a small setting. Ascend has quickly gained a lot of attention in Phishdom since the storied 2015 return of “Mike’s 2nd Jam” and the 2016 guest appearance of Bob Weir. For obvious reasons, Nashville shows seem to elevate the possibility of guest artists joining the band. Or at least in the minds of us phans. There was a bit of pre-show chatter about Vince Gill having just finished some tour dates with The Eagles. “Maybe he’ll show up to play some Eagles tunes?” To those comments I could only think one thought. “I’ve had a rough night, man, and I hate the f#@&ing Eagles, man!”
The air was crisp, and the vibe was super excited on a gorgeous fall evening in Nashville. The earlier ticket time threw some of us for a bit of a loop. This on top of a long wait to get through security (metal detectors) created a little more pre-show anxiety than normal. Though, once inside, it was immediately apparent why this venue is so special to those who have experienced it firsthand. The feeling of sitting in the band’s lap is shared by all in attendance, whether in reserved seats or lawn.
The house lights went down at 7:36 p.m. and the beloved foursome hit the stage exploding with excited energy, Trey with his familiar ear-to-ear smile. Without any hesitation they laid into “Tweezer Reprise” and the audience erupted. Much anticipation revolved around this since it was left on the table from Hampton. Would they play “Reprise” at all?
Those questions were answered with the first opening slot for this rocker since 6/19/10. From here, Jon kicks straight into “Party Time”. With the 2-spot being hot, is it now time to open up this funky tune? Sure enough, Page takes an extended organ solo with tasty interplay from Trey followed by Mike taking over the support role. Trey then takes his turn, as the bottom seems to drop out and we are treated to some ‘small ensemble’ playing. Tight, whippy and playful Trey. Gradually, the sound grows out of Trey’s solo as Page rejoins on piano and Mike’s emphasis returns to playing ‘over the bar line’.
From here, we are introduced to the first chords of “Free” and it becomes clear that the boys are about to deliver some goodness. First set “Free”? Yes, please! At 3:44 Mike takes a super bouncy solo and we see the first movement of CK’s light rig. To speak to the rig for a moment, it seems as though Kuroda is getting more and more explorative with regard to just how much they are capable of moving. This added dynamic to the lighting component has been exciting to watch over the past couple years, at times even a little scary with them getting so close to the band. Too close for comfort?
There’s no way the band plays Nashville without a nod to good ole down home pickin’. We are treated to a well-placed “Old Home Place”. Mike’s voice sounds great here, and the band is tight and crisp. Solos from Page and Mike, followed by a slightly botched ending.
The Chairman of the Boards takes center stage and treats us to a beautifully sung/played “Lawn Boy”. Page introduces Mike, and we are treated to a tastefully contained bass solo. Page adds a little extra vocal ornamentation to bring us to a close. Here we experience the first pause as there is some conversation about what will follow, and it sure came as a somewhat unrecognized surprise to most of the audience. Perhaps they were playing to the dropping air temperature. With the first bust out of the night, “Cool It Down” is performed for the first time since 8/15/12. Very well played with a delicate, syncopated and groovy solo from Trey.
Next up, “Theme From the Bottom”. Kuroda takes advantage of the intro to use the audience as his canvas with swaths of green and yellow lights painting the crowd. The middle section develops with an ethereal guitar solo soaring over Mike’s plunking bass line (hints of “Skin It Back” at 5:44). Gradually, Trey’s sound becomes more piercing as the band grows with Page shifting from supportive organ chords to the baby grand to reel us back in. “Theme” dissolves as Trey charges directly into “Funky Bitch”. The funk dance party is on and Mike is delivering with his vocals and syncopated bass line. Page takes us to church for a minute with his organ solo, meanwhile Trey adding tasty ornaments while awaiting his turn to take the lead. Trey’s solo begins with a contained approached which grows to a big arrival at 6:08. Altogether, pretty standard “Funky Bitch” here.
Trey whips out the hooky intro to “Kill Devil Falls”. This hasn’t ever been a personal favorite of mine. But let’s be completely honest, when the band sounds as good as they have as of late, our lesser desired songs can be pretty great and that was certainly the case with “KDF”. They are playing everything with such an elevated sense of passion and excitement, and the development beyond 5:30 here is really quite fantastic. Heavy groove throughout with Trey playing ethereal lines, this seems to be a common theme as of late. There was a sense of possible modulation at 8:00, to the degree that CK started the ‘dancing lights’ only to have the chorus reintroduced as the band wrapped up this fun rendition of “Kill Devil Falls”.
From here Page drops the opening chords of “Wolfman’s Brother” and its time for some chunky funk. Immediately following the chorus before the 4-minute mark, the band shows signs of pushing this out and we know we’re in for a fun journey. Will this be the first Type 2 jam of the night? With Page busy on the clav, Trey’s syncopations and use of the echoplex, Mike’s bombs and Fish’s whippy fills we are taken on a fantastic adventure through “Wolfman’s” before the first sign of bringing it back home shortly after 9:00.
Before the final hit Trey rips directly into “Character Zero”. It’s time to pump up the energy and get the crowd raging before wrapping up the first set. Once again, the overall groove is deep and heavy with Trey soaring and delving into the darkness at times. This gritty darkness takes over completely around the 4-minute mark and the extended build continues for the next 4+ minutes.
Thoughts are now directed to what the second set opener could possibly be. On a night that opened with “Tweezer Reprise”, surely something big is coming our way. Sure enough, Trey introduces the first “Mike’s Song” in 12 shows (8/7/18). There was no hesitation whatsoever getting to the darkness as this version started digging into the wormhole at 3:18. The interplay amongst all band members is phenomenal here, and continues throughout all of the second set. They are all very busy, with loads of intent in everything they do and the tonal center beginning to loosen. Near the midway point Trey lifts us out of the darkness with a soaring guitar solo. We fall back into the wormhole at 9:30. Page loosely hints to “Crosseyed & Painless”, and this theme is passed between Mike and Trey as well. I’m not calling a direct tease here, but elements of C&P are evident throughout this section. Overall sound begins to loosen at about 12:00 and the jam dissolves, “Mike’s” is never finished. With @drewphish in attendance, the thought of a 2nd jam felt like good possibility, but this version went in a completely different direction before that became even a remote possibility.
As the sound dissolves, Trey delves into “Ghost”. Page’s involvement throughout “Ghost” has such a profound impact on the overall shape of this song, and his playing here is especially fantastic. I have failed to mention the quality of sound, and how amazing the overall mix is at Ascend. This became clearly apparent throughout this section. At no time does one band member stick out of the texture, nor does the audience have to try to hear what Page is doing. The mix is perfect and sound quality is as good as it gets anywhere.
Throughout “Ghost” the pitch center meanders a bit, through very dark segments. Again, Trey alternating between soaring lines and delving deep. Great use of the octave pedal from Mike while pounding out nitty, gritty, heavy funk. Pounding piano chords from Page. And the machine that Fish is, driving it all forward with unrelenting intent. Through continued soaring peaks and dark valleys, we are brought back home with a somewhat abrupt arrival from Trey, forcing Fish to slam on the breaks. “Ghost” dissolved back down the wormhole.
After a brief pause, “Everything’s Right” kicks off. This song has grown up very nicely, and recently has tended to explore the darkness. Considering the playing so far, it feels likely that this version will do just that. And it sure as shit did. Jon drives much of this on the hi-hat, with Mike dropping his octave pedal and Trey eventually arriving on one of his familiar ‘deep space’ riffs. From here, the darkness lifts as Trey develops a delicate soaring melody approaching 10:00 which leads to the eventual decay into “Set Your Soul Free”. Once again, we are treated to some marvelous interplay between Trey and Page. They are so completely dialed into one another. Do we have the quality of sound and the mix to thank for that? Is the sound also that much better on stage here than other stages? Whatever the reason may be, the band’s communication is through the roof. Approaching 8:00 the band takes a significant shift, and the sound presents on an ‘underwater’ characteristic. Light, loose, floaty and ethereal from here out, until dissolving into “When the Circus Comes”. Song placement is so very important to the overall shape of a set or show, and I thought this was particularly well placed. The band digs deep as they are just oozing soulful energy through their heartfelt playing and singing of this tune. Oh, so very sweet!
In case anyone had forgotten, we are still within “Mike’s Groove” and Fish quickly reminds us as he kicks off the intro of “Weekapaug Groove”. This version is extremely patient, loose, and stretched out. More playful conversation between all members of the foursome, particularly Trey and Mike with Page and Fish speaking up at times. At about the midway point, they begin to build up steam and really gain momentum. Trey soars above the band, introducing a “Third Stone From the Sun” tease at 6:40 which lasted about 30 seconds. From here, the band drives towards the outro and closes the set with a huge force of energy and whippy closing licks from Trey. If I’m not mistaken, this was the fifth time in Phishtory that a “Mike’s Groove” encompassed an entire set. I’m sure one of you will correct me if I’m wrong.
For the encore they continue with the super positive approach to encores recently, and Page begins “Loving Cup”. This version is pretty standard, with additional soulful energy spewing forth from Trey’s guitar. The build out is particularly high energy with all band members once again contributing equally. Powerful, tight, crisp, passionate, intent playing from all.
I have attended the last four shows, and this second set may have been my favorite of the past eight. It really was that good, start to finish. Phenomenal ensemble playing from a band that is firing on all cylinders and expressing an amazing level of passion through their performances. Without attempting to make any kind of Halloween prediction, I will say that all Type 2 jams over the past four shows have immediately delved into a realm of deep alien space. Does this somehow speak to what they have been preparing for Halloween, with regard to style? Or is that just where they are as a band currently? I really don’t know, but I love what I’ve been hearing recently and I am beyond excited to see what the rest of Fall tour has to bring. Can’t wait to get back out there tonight!
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