[Take the Bait is spirited deliberation centered around the hyperbole of Phish’s music and fandom, passionately exuded via the written words of phish.net contributors @FunkyCFunkyDo and @n00b100. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of phish.net, The Mockingbird Foundation, or any fan… but we're pretty sure we’re right. Probably.]
Funky: We're back, baby! ::crickets chirping:: Er, uh... ::looks at keyboard:: ...is this thing on? Ahem. Dick's is just a day away and Alpine 3 is sitting atop Mt Icculus, basking in all of its own glory. Rightfully. Deservedly. Sexily. Wait wait wait… you mean to tell me that there was a whole summer tour this year (says, in unison, everyone in the Western Time Zone and those who’ve only heard the words “Alpine" and "Three” 500 times)? Like, multiple shows that didn't happen at Alpine on a Sunday in July?? I mean, were they good shows? Or...
Lucky for you, avid reader, that n00b and I, despite our geographic isolation on the West Coast, are back in action and ready to wax poetic on just how much you missed, or didn’t miss, from Phish’s (un)forgettable 2019 Summer Tour! But not before I leave a pretty harsh Google review of phish.com/tours… but I won’t post that here.
We’ll get to 7.14.19, or Alpine 3, or the-show-which-conceived-untold-hundreds-of n00b-born (hehe, get it… n00b)-babies-with-birthdays-at-or-around-April 14, 2020-whose-names-will-Ruby-...or-Waves … ::deep breath::-later. But for now, let’s talk about summer tour. You do remember summer tour, don’t you?
Let’s start with some background. Some context. Ghosts of the Forest (GOTF). ::booooo, hisssssssssss:: No no! Don’t hurl your tomatoes quite yet, slightly-agitated reader. Summer 2019’s foundation is entirely anchored to Ghosts of the Forest, like it or not, in that it ties the tour together in an intrinsically beautiful, emotional way. I’m going to try to piece-meal this all together, like Trey telling a story ::boooooo, hissssss::, so bare with me. ::dodges tomato::
If you saw Between Me and My Mind (BMAMM), Trey’s documentary, this will make more sense; if you didn’t, well, stick around and maybe you’ll have different feelings toward the tour after reading along. BMAMM, was, in so many words, a 2-year journey (2017-2019) covering Trey’s conception, experimentation, and execution of GOTF. GOTF is a composed musical story of Trey’s lifelong, best-friendship with Chris Cottrell, who was diagnosed with cancer, and passed away not too long ago. That is extreme Cliff's Notes of a lifelong friendship and a 90-minute documentary, but it gives us our foundation for this post; aside: this is probably the last time I am ever that brief with my descriptors.
Heavy. Emotional. Vulnerable. Three words which can accurately weigh the film and the music it follows in real time as it is being created; a sincere, organic juxtaposition to the geeky, light-hearted, carefree nerds we see and say we “know” when Phish/Trey is onstage. BMAMM was a deep, rather unfiltered look into Trey’s emotional outlet (GOTF) as he continued living, while his best friend was dying. It was a side of Trey that I would assume 99% of Phish fans had never experienced. It was humbling. It was empathetic. It was real. Human. And it made Summer 2019 make a heck of a lot more sense, in hindsight at least.
I say in hindsight because in the moment, as tour was unfolding, as the reviews were coming in both from the dancing masses in attendance and armchair quarterbacks with Cheeto dust on their fingers at home, there was division - sometimes caustic - on just what was happening with Phish onstage. A defined love/hate duality cutting through the shows. It wasn’t the best look among the fan base.
Now, analyzing Phish (their shows, music, jams) is what fans do “best,” or “worst,” depending on your opinion, but Summer 2019 was as divided as I have seen the Phish community in quite some time. Summer 2019 was different though, for the analytical masses and casual listener alike, but... why? Or how?
There was a marked, distinctively different sound from the band, improvisationally and emotionally, in the way that shows/jams were constructed. It was more subdued, less peaky, and more groove-based. Less celebratory (read: “blissy”) and more introspective. More contemplative and serene, less tension and release. There was a certain looseness, or perhaps timidness (?), or vulnerability, or depth to the music… something that was new, but new in what way? We’ve all experienced just about all of the aforementioned styles in a Phish show at one point or another, so, this new sound… it was different, but in what way? A good way? A bad way? It was hard to pinpoint, and fans were divided over it.
It wasn’t until I saw BMAMM, and learned the story behind GOTF, that it all clicked for me. Trey, in his own words, was writing music and playing music from a purely emotional state for GOTF. Letting his most intimate, guarded, human feelings to the surface and expressing them through song. It was a new method of song-writing for him in that he was writing from a purely emotional place, rather than an experimental place, or compositional place.
He was telling the story of frustration, sadness, and loneliness that accompanies losing someone closest to you. It was a side of Trey I indirectly knew existed, what with his new writing style/songs like “More,” “Everything’s Right,” “Miss You” and so on… but to literally see Trey’s emotions - the sadness, the loss... death… the struggle of unanswerable question “Why them? Why now?” - it was a whole new world of Trey, and Phish, that I saw and could now reflect on, within the context of 2019 and within the context of life itself.
Back to hindsight - BMAMM provided great emotional context for the “newness” of Summer 2019… the probing question of “Just what is Phish doing?” I wanted to get all that into your brain before we dove into the music, as it provides a foundation for from where Phish was playing, and from where we fans should be listening. I see some of you holstering your tomatoes. This is good progress…
n00b: Ah, it feels good to be back and writing about Phish. It feels...how do I put this...not quite as good that our first topic is going to be Summer 2019, maybe the most divisive of all modern era tours. Just like riding a bike, indeed!
So I should probably start by saying that I did not see Between Me and My Mind - everything I know about it is secondhand, and in large part from @waxbanks’ lovely and empathetic review of it on our very own .net blog. That means that I’m not going to have quite the same grounding in Trey’s current creative mindset, which may or may not be a good thing. I WILL say, though, that I’ve listened to an entire Ghosts of the Forest show, both out of curiosity and in the anticipation of Phish incorporating some of the GOTF material into their repertoire. And since I consider the incorporation of the GOTF material (along with the other album’s worth of new music in the last 12 months - we’ll get to that in a bit) to be the most important element of how Summer 2019 went down, it’s probably worth me putting down a few words about how I feel about GOTF. And how I feel is, well…
...okay, so here’s the thing. I know some of you folks think that music basically stopped happening outside Phish after about 1992, but I like to draw a comparison between GOTF, which (as you noted) is a very heavy album about death, and the Antlers’ famous 2009 album Hospice, also a very heavy album about death. Now, here’s the thing - Hospice is DARK. I mean, we’re talking David Lynch level dark, enfolding fears of mortality and a heartbreaking romance (which GOTF was never going to have) into a true maelstrom of despair and the faintest glimmer of hope. And Trey, God bless him, was just never going to go down that kind of rabbit hole; as grim as some of the lyrics could get (see: "About To Run"), ultimately Trey leaned more on uplift and universality, more his calling cards of modern era songwriting. Hell, a couple of the songs lean heavily on light metaphors, and given that Trey has already written a song called "Light", it shows that even in his darkest songwriting hour Trey will stay true to who he is as a songwriter in 2019.
What’s the point of this comparison? I think that, given how much virtual ink has already been spilled about modern day Trey/Tom Marshall songwriting, the nature of GOTF - both as “Trey’s death album” and as a side project - made it more of a lightning rod than even the dreaded “soul songs” or whatever have been. And I think that people wanted something more like Hospice, if not quite as psychologically painful as that album is, something that would pull Trey away from his usual “we’re all creatures of pure energy” songwriting metier and even maybe engage the part of him that wrote all those songs people liked back in the day (or at least the ones that weren’t "Heavy Things" or whatever). But we didn’t get that, at least not lyrically, and that became a black mark against GOTF that just can’t be overcome for some folks. Never mind the heavy guitar-laden arrangements that really let Trey shred, or something like "Beneath a Sea of Stars" that just doesn’t sound like your "Blaze Ons" of the world - we were supposed to get a rich plate of dark Trey, and instead got a heaping helping of lightness with a light dusting of darkness on top. Not gonna make folks smile, is it?
Now, it’d be one thing if adding this already controversial material to the 2019 songbook was the only changes Phish made after their much-loved Fall 2018 and even more loved NYE 2018 run. But it was not - those new songs had to jostle for space with not only all the songs from the past few years, not only all the beloved warhorses and the maybe not quite as beloved other songs, but with the material from iRokk, aka the Kasvot Vaxt set, aka the Halloween 2018 costume. And while this could be a tad overblown - there’s only so many slots in a show, after all, and the new songs will always stand out compared to the older ones, not to mention this is how Phish has introduced new material throughout their *entire goddamn career* - I think the juggling of two new albums worth of material, testing what goes where and what gets jammed and what can close a set and so on, had a bit of an unsettling effect on the tour in a way even just one album of new material would not have. And that, IMO, contributed at least a bit to what people were upset about with Summer 2019.
I think you really nailed it in describing this tour as different, because it really is a different kind of tour. I’ve been listening to a lot of early 3.0 recently, and one thing that stood out for me was how much Summer 2019 setlists (with the obvious differences in song selection) could have fit into any of those first three modern era years. But here’s the thing - the jamming style of 2019 absolutely would NOT have fit into those years, in the sense of how varied and multifaceted Phish’s 2019 jamming style was. As much as 2009-10 are undiscovered country in terms of good improvisation, it’s not a lie (or even a knock, considering) to say that the improv of those years was not as compelling as it would get later on. And if you can say one thing about Summer 2019, it is that the best jams are compelling listens, culminating in...well, we’ll get to that later.
Funky: If we know, or “know,” one thing about Trey in the 3.0 era it’s that his varied side projects directly carry over to Phish, not the other way around. We saw this with Fare Thee Well, where Trey’s compositional and improvisational chops were honed to such sharpness that most, if not all, fans would agree that 2015 was a peak year of Phish, era notwithstanding, and it was a peak year for Phish BECAUSE of his commitment to practicing for Fare Thee Well. Subsequently, his follow through to playing the right notes at the right times within the Grateful Dead’s catalogue during Fare Thee Well, both during songs and jams, flooded into 2015 Phish. We saw brand new territory of powerful, energetic exploration. Celebratory jams and explosive set/shows struck like lightning in Tesla’s lab in 2015 Phish – no doubt being connected by a stream of electricity still flowing from the energy of Fare Thee Well.
With GOTF and 2019 Phish, a nearly identical, yet utterly opposite reaction occurs. Instead of the celebratory, groupthink energy of Fare Thee Well, celebrating the life of the career of the Grateful Dead, we have the isolated, lonely energy of one man, Trey, mourning and grieving the death of one man, his best friend, Chris. The energy streams connecting the two side projects to Phish are almost the same in their intensity, but their sources could not be more different. Happiness, togetherness, celebration; sadness, loneliness, loss.
These are important connections to be made, as it shows Trey’s (and Phish’s) growth as musicians and as people. We all experience – even our idols- life’s balance of good and bad, pleasure and hurt, closure and longing. No human is exempt from the conditions of humanity, no matter how good or bad or in between they are. GOTF was the natural balance to Fare The Well, so it makes sense that 2019 Phish was the balance to 2015 Phish. Extroversion (2015) was replaced by introspection (2019); celebration of life (Jerry’s life, 2015) was replaced by mourning of life (Chris’s life, 2019); exploration of peaks (2015 Phish) was replaced by digging into moods (2019 Phish). Now, this whole spiel may sound negative, but it isn’t. Not by a long shot.
Acknowledging and accepting and growing with and from negative emotions/experiences is beautiful and profound. It is hard at times, sure enough, but ultimately, it is (or can be) positive, as it requires the trepidation to deal with and empathize with negativity. In a word, it gives one perspective. Life isn’t always bliss peaks or carefree exploration of all that is positive. Life is sometimes navigating the darkness; trusting that a seemingly blind journey will emerge into light once again. That apprehension is uncomfortable at times, but man, how the mind fires up and becomes aware/tuned-in when you’re in the dark! That’s where we are with 2019 Phish. So let’s get to it.
They came out swinging, no two ways about it. St. Louis, 6.11.19, the first night of tour featured fluidly sublime “Stash” which dripped into dreamworlds. The best “Stash” of the last ten years is not a reach, in fact, I would that it is indeed the best “Stash” of the last ten years. Some dark collisions in the second set connected the “Ghost” -> “Piper” > “Blaze On” segment, and with that, a tone was set.
The second night, that tone became fully realized. Just like that. A punchy, although somehow overlooked, first set whets the musical appetite for, easily, easily the most overlooked set of 2019 so far. The “Gloria” celebration (of the St Louis Blues Stanley Cup victory) was an emotional outlier, as was the slinky, grooved-out jam in “Loving Cup,” nods to Lord Stanley, but then after the novelty wore off, Phish meant business. A dynamic, morphing, undulating A+ “Twist” registers at 20+ minutes in your mind, yet only 14 on paper. There was that much musical ground covered without a peak in sight. “Twist” lands perfectly into the Phish debut of the most heavy, most real, most Neil Young (non coincidentally)-sounding sound in “About to Run.” The message was sent. You cannot run; you cannot hide from your feelings. Liar. “Mr Completely” follows up the emotional gash with an introspective, Mike-led forage through, well, not darkness, but mental depth. The jam slowly hums along, vibrating with a primal depth that awakens an old part of your soul. “Light” provides balance to the primal nature, and just like that, two shows in, we have a impeccable display of emotional exploration and balance, the likes of which we haven’t seen in Phish, at least to this degree, in quite some time.
n00b: It’s funny that you mention both the heavy mood that hung over Summer 2019 and Trey’s legendary Fare Thee Well boot camp, because it ties into something I think about a lot with the band, and Trey in particular. I sometimes see people talk about how they wish something like “Chalk Dust Torture” was played like it was in the old days (ie 200 miles per hour; whether with or without the oft-amazing improv attached to it nowadays is usually left unsaid), and obviously the only way to do that is with lots and lots of practice, and the Dead woodshedding Trey did in 2015 is pointed to as an example of Trey being able to do that again. Shoot, it’s what you did, even! But I think the fact that Trey DOESN’T do that all the time and only did it for a once in a lifetime experience ties into the person he is now, and comes from his own brush with death, and the person he’d become by the time 2.0, and 2004 specifically, rolled around.
I dunno if you’ve ever seen Koyaanisqatsi, the absolutely incredible visual - uh, essay? Tone poem? Whatever it is - scored by Philip Glass. Koyaanisqatsi is an amalgamation of slow motion and time-lapse footage of both nature’s cycle marching on and everyday modern life occurrences; the title is a Hopi word that means “life out of balance”. Sometimes I think about Trey in 2004, especially the drugged-out shambolic zombie Trey who blubbered through “Velvet Sea” at Coventry and then played a version of “Glide” several orders of magnitude worse than any flubby version of any song played after 2009. Now that was a man whose life was out of balance, who had been so deeply swallowed up by the monster Phish had become (as it was the outrageous backstage scene that had helped contribute to his addiction) that it was worth wondering if he’d ever escape it. And as we all know, he almost didn’t.
Now fast forward to 2019, and think about the Trey we have now, the one from BMAMM. He’s clearly healthy, he’s clearly happy, and he’s still making music - and yes, I used that usually jokey phrasing for a reason. But one thing he isn’t doing is letting himself be consumed by Phish, the way he was in 2004 (when it was a succubus bleeding him dry) or in 1994 (when his family life lay far ahead in the future). Instead, he’s found the middle ground between frontman of a jam band and a family man with people who care about him - he’s found that life of balance, so to speak. He’s even been able to bring darkness into his musical life in a way that would’ve been both scary and impossible in 2004. And that took one hell of a lot of work for him to get to that point, and it means that the Trey that ate, slept, and breathed Phish (the same way he used to, he clearly still cares about the band) had to leave forever. And given how the modern era has gone, I’m more than happy he made that choice. So if "Llama" isn’t quite as fiery as the old days, or "Foam" a bit loose (like it wasn’t ever loose in 1989), or whatever….well, so it goes. The spreadsheet and Phish.in ain’t going anywhere, my friends.
One last thing: if you think the band practices less than the old days...yeah, of course I’d agree with you. If you think the band doesn’t practice AT ALL, or doesn’t care at all about how they sound on stage...I can’t help you, friend.
Anyway, I’m with you on that second St. Louis show - not only was the jamming as good as you said it was, but the energy coming off the audience (even on tape) is really something else, one of those deals that just don’t happen all the time. It’s pretty funny that we went from a very specifically special Phish/audience interaction with that show directly into the Bonnaroo shows, which could almost be called generic in terms of the connection between the band and a large festival crowd. It’s a testament to how well-oiled a machine the band is as showmen that those shows turned out as good as they did; the second show, in particular, is a real joy, combining both improvisational chops (in another nifty shapeshifter "Twist") and fun song threading (the segue stretch) into a charming second set, along with real strong Set 1 song selection on top. It’s not hard to imagine a large part of that audience walking away impressed with the band, and some of those folks might well be fans for life now. Not too shabby!
So, the next two shows. I actually find them as interesting as anything else from the tour, not because they’re the best shows of the tour, but because they encapsulate a lot of what made the Summer jaunt such a polarizing topic. You’ve got the sort of song selection that makes online fans just tear their hair out, mainly in the sense that either they don’t jam, they might work better in another place or another set, or occasionally both. You’ve also got second sets that might be lighter on improv than people might like (with an obvious exception), another thing that’ll overshadow the good of a typical Phish show beyond improv. But you’ve also got some absolutely killer jams, not just the rather obvious one in the massive high-octane “BOAF” that serves as Blossom’s centerpiece, but also in that show’s gnarled and nasty “CDT” and in Toronto’s “Golden Age” (which traverses the same terrain as the wonderful 12/28/16 “Golden Age”) and, of all things, “The Final Hurrah,” which briefly dips into a scuzzy bit of excellence that had to excite the Kasvot Vaxt lovers among us. They also debut another Ghosts of the Forest song at the Toronto show, which I suppose we will also get to somewhere down the line.
And then comes a tour highlight, and one of the era’s stronger shows, in the superb 6/21 Charlotte show. Most folks have a lot of good things to say about the wire-taut darkness of this show’s “Runaway Jim,” and they are entirely right to do so, along with the really good “ASIHTOS” and “Tweezer” in Set 1. But what really gets me about this show is how much it encapsulates the entire Phish experience, or at least the part of the Phish experience that deals in musical mischievousness, with teases all over the place and two separate fun callbacks to “Tweezer” in both sets. You even get two super strong set closers, with a Set 1 ending “S.A.N.T.O.S.” that Trey absolutely shreds to pieces and a Set 2 ending “Possum” that approximates the grotty “Possum” from the Baker’s Dozen, as a nice added bonus. Put all that together, and you’ve got one hell of a stew going, baby.
Funky: The momentum was a slow build, for sure, but it was building. And please do not overlook how incendiary Bonnaroo 2 was, loyal reader.
One of the ironic and baffling things about Phish fandom is the extreme duality of positivity in the moment, at a show, and then the knee-jerk “the end is nigh” feedback shortly thereafter. Now, of course this doesn’t happen all the time, but it tends to surface prominently, say, after a show like Toronto. And then it sticks around. Uncomfortably. It’s weird and rather unnecessary to paint a tour with one show.
Am I someone (as a non attendee) who will seek out a show like Toronto? No. I am not. I think few are. However, I do understand that Phish shows within a tour, like tours within years, years within eras are similarly laid out to how days are in months, months in years, years in life - they follow a Gaussian distribution of ups and downs. This is kinda like Fractals 101, where structures are eerily similar on as many scales as you can observe. There is predictability in the chaos and thus, we should rest easy when a Toronto-type show happens, as it is entirely predicted and normal within a tour.
Expanding upon this mathematical explanation, this means that there will be a lot of “average-great” shows hanging out in the middle of the curve, and some outliers of OMFG AMAZEBALLS BEST SHOW EVA SUCK IT VETS and OMFG DID TREY HAVE A STROKE ONSTAGE 1993FORLYFE. This happens in, literally, every tour. This happens in, literally, every facet of life.
What’s your point here, Ian Malcolm? Well, my point is that this summer tour was entirely usual within the confines of Phish. Great show, good shows, average shows, meh shows, and a show that probably won’t be listened to again outside of the few thousand who attended. What does differ, however, is the music within the tour, as compared to previous tours. This is where our first amblings, some 5-6 pages ago, come into play.
2019 was not a bad tour, and I emphasize/take a defensive posture on that because there’s been a lot of flack that it was subpar. There was a newness to the music Phish was playing in 2019. An emotional, heavy, introspective aura that permeated like mist. As humans, when we experience new things we tend to use caution and skepticism - forms of safety and self-preservation. Uh huh Funky, but this is art, not life, we aren’t exactly running from lions on the Serengeti here. No… this is PHISH, baby! Where art is life! And we take it oh so seriously. Nothing wrong with that, heck, here we are writing page after page dissecting the tour. If you’re here reading this, then Phish is a big part of my/our lives. We can agree on that at least.
Back to the newness of the music. It was different. Out of the ordinary. Heck, some people didn’t like the FUNK of 1997 because of how “easy” and “repetitive” it sounded, given Phish’s nature of mind-f****** unpredictability and brain-rewiring avant garde style of improvisation in the years previous. We tend to fear, or at least be cautious of what’s new. But that doesn’t mean what’s new is bad.
Keep that in mind when you (re)listen to the fluid ambling of 6.22.19 “Ghost” and “SYSF” and don’t forget about the punishing first set “NMINML.” Keep that in mind when you (re)listen to 6.23.19’s brilliant bubbling trio of “Everything’s Right” > “Ruby Waves” -> “Twist.” Man, that breakdown in “Twist” is the epitome of sass (but you'd never know it if you only looked at by its 8-minutes "on paper"), and the two jams preceding were composed of and by ocean water - rolling, fluid, smooth, warped, hypnotizing.
6.25.19’s “Limb by Limb” -> “Weekpaug” was one of the most pleasantly energetic, unexpectedly deep pieces of improv of the tour. That second set featured a deep, churning run of psychedelia in “Down with Disease” > “Play by Play” with strong supporting mini thematic reprises in “Simple” and “Piper.” 6.26.19 had another unexpected explosion of synced up, blasted-off, where-the-heck-did-that-come-from exploration in “Gotta Jibboo” > “Fuego” -> “Cities” -> “The Final Hurrah.” When I say unexpected, I’m saying that despite what it looks like “on paper”...(siggggggggghhhhhhhhhhhh, have you not learned anything about what “on paper” means, fellow Phish fan … it means nothing)... this is one of the finest, most stylistically-diverse, creative and all-around nailed pieces of improvisational music Phish performed this year. Naysayers will be like, “Psh. "Jibboo" and "Fuego" and "Final Hurrah" what a throw away set.” Not. Even. Close. It is sets like this which make 2019 one heck of a year to listen to. Sets like this which make 2019 a profound leap in the world of Phish. Sets like this which make Phish, still, the undisputed and unchallenged leaders of musical exploration and improvisation in today’s music scene. I wasn’t even there, in fact I was a good 3,000 miles away, but sets like this are what keep me coming back for more.
n00b: Yeah, me too - that fathoms-deep nasty as hell "Cities," in particular, is one of my favorite jams of the year, length be damned. I think it actually serves as a handy encapsulation of why we (yeah, me and Funky agree on this) believe this is a good tour, because practically nobody gave this gruesome jam that’s miles away from the major key bliss everyone apparently thinks is the only arrow left in Phish’s improvisational quiver these days any run, either immediately or longer after it was played, because the rest of the show is bad and they clammed the entry into "Caspian" or whatever the hell. It’s hard not to wonder if the new songs or the more song-populated sets or the (relative) paucity of 20+ minute jams are what made people decide this tour wasn’t worth their time, because everything else about the tour is often what Phish fans online scream for, between stronger Type I playing and a wide array of jamming styles unfurled during the shows.
We’re starting to hit Ulysses-level length on this post, so I’m going to condense things a bit. Let me offer you three things from the next seven shows (and not the only three things, duh) that most stood out for me in terms of why this tour should be celebrated far more than it is:
The entire second set of 6/30. While 6/28 offered a compact and very strong second set that featured superb takes on "Mercury" and "Light," and 6/29 saw another really good "Ruby Waves," it is this sequence of music that stands out the most from the Camden run. A massive and anthemic "Mr. Completely" gives way to one of the year’s premier jams, a "Twenty Years Later" that makes room for both some exceptional major key bliss (like the band’s gonna give that up entirely) and a powerful groove as hypnotic as anything played in this era. And the rest of the set doesn’t flag even after the improvisational meat is finished, thanks in large part to a surprise airing of "Big Black Furry Creature From Mars" and an equally surprising "Most Events Aren’t Planned," non-jam song selection at its finest. Coupled with some great song selection in the first half, this is one of the year’s truly complete shows.
As much as I enjoy the "Disease" > (with intro!) "Scents" from 7/2, the sequence I spin the most from the SPAC run is the "Plasma" -> "WACTOOB" -> "Plasma" -> "Tweezer Reprise" run from 7/3, which is just a ton of fun through and through. Jams are what I come to Phish for, but cool segues are not terribly far behind, and all the segues in this run are just absolutely delicious, inter-band musical communication at its finest. The last one, in particular, is a true treat, not least of which because you can hear a slight pause before everybody lands on "Tweeprise" proper, as though the band couldn’t believe themselves that they’d gotten to that particular destination. This was actually a great tour for segues, and that’s the pick of the bunch.
The second Fenway show was plagued with rain and never really caught momentum due to the cancelled set break, but the first Fenway show has some real treats and definitely deserves a reputation finer than its current “oh, they played a stadium, yawn” reputation apparently is. The "Mercury," in particular, is my favorite of the year (or at least not terribly behind Mexico’s), briefly diving into darkness before Page goes to the organ and a tropical groove emerges, which Fish drives into a few different directions with some typically sharp playing. Don’t miss out on the "Fuego," either, which shapeshifts into some interesting territory 2010 style before segueing into "S.A.N.T.O.S." to close a real underdog winner of a set. And you definitely don’t want to miss the delightfully "Gin"-esque upbeat hose jam in Set 1, either.
Okay, back over to you for the final runs, Funky. But before I hand over the reins, one last bit of business. I think that we can more or less understand that Phish’s improv, over the years, has grown easier to predict after the outsized experimentation of 1994. 1995 brought big hammer-of-the-gods rocking, 1997 whip-smart stripped back grooves, 1999 murky ambiance, 2003 distended and strange longform jams, 2015 powerful major key jams, 2017 extended journeys to whichever improvisational destination they saw fit. But nothing, or nothing played in a very long time, could prepare us for the free-form jazzy exploration of 7/9’s "Beneath a Sea of Stars Pt. 1," a journey into the cosmos (RIP Harris) that baffled detractors just as much as it delighted its fans. And you can count me as one of those fans, as I remain as enthralled and mystified by that jam as I was the night it was played. It’s a real masterpiece, and almost justifies this entire tour by itself.
Funky: Since I’ve been going the philosophical route in this post, I am almost tempted to say, “Check out the Mohegan shows and the first two nights at Alpine. Or don’t.” And leave it at that. Buuuuut I sure do love to express myself and my feelings for Phish via the longform written word, so… okayfineI'lldoit.
The first night at Mohegan started out with a wallop! “Energy” (bustout) almost tripped its way into “Weekapaug” in that I don’t think the band even realized they were playing “Weekapaug” … until they were actually falling into “Weekapaug.” It was a comically-brilliant, perfectly-excuted natural segue that set a tone for a stellar, segue-filled and jam-filled show.
“Soul Planet” -> “Wider” -> “Undermind” rock and rolled with swift precision and snappy attitude. Personally, this was my highlight of the show, but many look to the late set behemoth combo of “Ghost” -> “Birds of a Feather” (both with gnarled, gritty jams) as the real meat of the show. Any way you spin it, a show that has three legitimate jam sequences connected by true, clean segues is one that should be talked about with great gusto and regularity. But is it? Do you remember this Mohegan show, or were you, perhaps, turned off by what was “on paper?”
The second night at Mohegan was less exploratory and lacked the original smoothness of the preceding night, landing it on the wrong end of the Gaussian distribution, but hey, that’s entirely normal and to be expected. If you care to offer a different opinion of the show, please do! In fact, a different opinion than my single sentence would only validate the understated and overlooked strength and countless hidden gems of Summer 2019. Maybe one of you will… TAKE THE BAIT! EH!? EHHH!?!
Now we have reached Alpine. The summit of the tour, the top of the hill. We all know what happened Sunday night, but what about the previous two shows? The first night swapped sets - jamming in the first and delivering non-stop, short-but-punchy energy in the second. Not much to revisit to be totally honest, but a perfectly fun, serviceable Phish show. What is noteworthy, however, is that both shows delivered a full reprise of the entire tour’s worth of developing sounds, styles, moods, and feelings… as if Phish was leading to something… recoiling all of its remaining energy in all of the available caches it had tapped into, preparing for something big. A grand finale.
Saturday’s second set was one haymaker after another; ironically-huge microjams bridging the set together with Roman-esque engineering. A fluid, continuous stretch of music that must be listened to as a whole in order to understand just how good it was. I walked out of this show totally floored with how much breadth was covered. Psychedelic rock in "ASIHTOS"; straight up hose in "Back on the Train"; cosmic gliding in "Runaway Jim"; bouncy funk in "Undermind" (check out the extra mega bonus Fishman fills at the end - the place and band were going apeshit crazy as Fish was chopping veggies back there); moody shadows slinking about in "Ghost"; and a subdued yet fittingly blissful apex in "Hood"… it was all there, played not in length, but in quality. Ideas from the tour, culminating at the end. I had no idea what to expect for Sunday, but I knew it was going to be good.
As you hopefully picked up one, if you made it this far (super freaky thanks if you did), n00b and I feel this tour is one of the most underappreciated and unfairly bemoaned tours of 3.0. Perhaps, the palpable emotional weight carried from show to show was hidden in the complaints of, “Weird song selection and flow.” Perhaps, the intense improvisational depth and non-blissed-out cohesion of the jams was masked by, “It doesn’t look that good on paper.” whether that be because of song lengths or song selection. Perhaps, just perhaps, we as fans were caught completely off-guard on just how new, how original, and how downright good Phish sounded in 2019. But, caught off guard how? Isn’t the whole reason we see Phish is to witness the unexpected and unpredictable? We say yes… but when it happens, as it did in 2019, how receptive are we as a fanbase?
Gone were the major key peaks and being blasted in the face by Kuroda’s white strobes; incoming were the deep, indigo blues and violets while a reverent Mike anchored a jam to Page’s cosmic synths and Trey’s subtle, unhurried layering stiched it all together using Fishman's rhythms and harmonies as audible thread. Maybe this made some part(s) of the fanbase uncomfortable. Not getting the BIG RELEASE we have been trained for since 2015… maybe we missed it? Maybe seeing Phish explore gritty, jagged tones hit us harder and deeper than where those major key peaks hit us. Maybe the music forced us to empathize with Trey’s 2019 leadership – leading from the heart - the depth of the heart – the part of the heart where there is darkness and sadness. Maybe we realized we are just as human as he, and he is just as human as we.
Phish’s music is powerful. It’s emotional. It’s celebratory and introspective. It’s unifying. When we follow music and musicians as closely as we do, it is of no surprise that our very lives seem to unconsciously grow together. with the band... so we tell ourselves at least. We feel them. We see them… almost as friends, as family. I’ve never met these people (well, I met Mike once. I was wearing a shirt with his face, and only his face, on it, but that’s, uh, heh, that’s a different story), yet I feel a closeness to them and an understanding with them, and with the fanbase, that is so uniquely wholesome and special. Irreplaceable… like my own biological family… just, this is in a spiritual sense. Spiritually irreplaceable. Spiritual family.
That’s what Phish in 2019 is all about. The invaluable grace of addressing and embracing the beauty of human emotions… all of them: the good and bad and the spaces in between with which we struggle for unknown and confusing reasons. We are lucky enough to have people in our lives we can dance next to, and listen with, as Phish is speaking all of our emotional language onstage. We are lucky to have Trey as an evolving songwriter both in technical aspects and emotional aspects. We are lucky that Phish, as a band, supports this unconditionally and then plugs it into a million-watt soundsystem for our listening enjoyment. It’s therapy. No two ways about it. It is therapy. What’s the cost of a ticket these days? 100 bucks? For four hours of therapy supported by all your friends and the four best doctors around? Best deal in town, by a long shot.
So, maybe next time you are scanning through 2019’s setlists you won’t be so easy to dismiss something that doesn’t look too good “on paper.” Maybe you’ll press play on that 13-minute song, or that 7-minute song, which you’d have otherwise skipped. Maybe you’ll hear Phish, your favorite band, a band you know and love so well, with a different type of ear, from a different place of your heart and soul. If you do this, I assure you, you will find untold richness and beauty and empathy and connection in the music of 2019 Phish. And you will be ready for more.
Good thing Dick's is tomorrow.
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