IT has been almost twenty-five years since Phish first played the Civic Center in Providence (12/29/94), and sixteen years since a version of a song performed on November 29 made the jam charts. But then again, it’s been ten years since Phish last even performed on November 29 (in Portland, ME).
Did Phish perform a 59 minute “Runaway Jim” last night, like they did at the Worcester Centrum twenty-two years ago on November 29? (Of course not, WTF is wrong with you.) But did they play a lot of songs that “Trey’s Notebook” predicted they would play? (Remarkably, only a few!) Ok, but did they perform any versions of songs that were so unquestionably “above-average great” and noteworthy that the jam charts team will undoubtedly vote them onto the charts in due course!?
Phish opened fall tour last night with an entertaining performance, at times reminiscent of their overall playing at Dick’s in September, and over the summer in general. And although one exceedingly reliable-but-hyperbolic vet, deservedly notorious for his ranking of shows in “tiers,” was heard to remark that last night’s show was “terrible, even by late 3.0 tour opener standards,” such an opinion---however well-informed and based on decades of careful, discriminating Phish listening it may be---is nevertheless demonstrably false for the following incontrovertible reasons.
First, set one opened with “First Tube” (customarily an encore in the last decade) and closed with “Fire” (customarily an encore for decades). This was no accident. A conscious decision was made to perform a first set memorable if only for its song-selection and song-positioning; and memorable it was. We love Phish in no small part because of their unpredictability, and literally no one predicted both of these tunes to be performed in the first set. And no one called the “Bye Bye Foot” bust-out either, of course; it was the first version since 8/10/97, a show with inarguably magnificent, must-hear versions of “SOAM” and “Cities.” Because WTF. And no one called the debut of Page’s “Maybe” (from Vida Blue’s Crossing Lines album), either; or if they say they did, maybe they’re lying.
Second, first sets---particularly those that begin tours---are often bereft of memorable improv, perhaps because the band is still warming-up, or soundchecking the venue, or getting a feel for the crowd, or digesting their dinner (or whatever). While last night’s first set was no exception, featuring absolutely no transcendent, bewilderingly-mellifluous improvisational gems at all whatsoever, it could have been much worse, because at least there were some wonderful song choices (e.g., “NICU” and “Gumbo”) and pleasant grooves here and there, including in “Final Hurrah,” "NMINML," and the spectacularly sllllllllllooooooooowwww “Sand.”
Third, the second set was a JOY. And while this is an ordinary and customary feature of every Phish show, and a person---so routinely spoiled---may take it for granted, last night’s second set featured Phish’s most significant performance of “Plasma” ever: it not only had a delightful, bliss-inducing major-key jam for a spell, but its coda also returned twice, seguing ferociously out of the bedazzling jam in "Light," but sublimely out of a precious jam in "Set Your Soul Free," creating a “Plasmafest” effect o'er the set's course, if you will. And the set also contained very tight, gorgeous, and thrilling-at-times versions of “Back on the Train” and “Walk Away,” which closed the set with a f’ing PUNCH. Even the ballad “Joy,” which Tom wrote the lyrics of in March 2009, was strikingly beautiful last night; I believe Trey sings "Joy" in honor and in memory of his beloved, brilliant sister Kristy Anastasio Manning, who died of neuroendocrine cancer just over ten years ago.
And finally, the encore was surprising, which, let’s face it, isn’t always the case. “Meatstick” hadn’t encored a show in nearly five years (since 1/1/15), and it was followed by three additional songs: “Sleep,” a serene rarity that had not been performed as an encore in nineteen years (since 6/14/00); “Driver,” which hadn’t appeared as an encore since 12/31/12; and yeah, “Bug.” A four-song encore!? What kind of disturbingly despondent monster leaves disappointed by THAT!??!?
So sure, while some may contend that this fall tour’s opener was “terrible,” you should listen for yourself. I bet you’ll agree with me that---overall---it’s quite enjoyable, and a taste of improv we’ll soon get (probably tonight!) that’s so stupendous we’ll be thinking about it for years, and years, and years to come. $0.02.
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