Welcome to Canada y’all. Been a while. Has it? Time sure feels messy these days, and this band just keeps on plugging away blowing our minds, despite it all. In any case, I feel like there’s a lot of ways to set the context for last night’s show in Toronto. We could call back to the band’s recent history at the venue in 2019 (a show which I thought was unfairly maligned), or whether or not they’d bust out "Misty Mountain Hop," which they debuted here in 1999. And then there’s the context of this unique tour, which has at times been brilliant and, at other moments, felt like maybe the momentum of their revived post-Covid identity has been waning a bit, Trey especially. I said to a new friend before the show that, really, the biggest knock on 2022 is that it’s sitting right next to 2021 -- a year in which the band performed to a level they really had no business reaching this late in the game. So what would this tour’s Canadian stop add to the story? Would it be a throwaway gig between AC and Alpine, or a can’t-miss, out of the way gem? Where do we stand? Let’s find out…
Like they have been for the most part on this tour, the show opened strong, with a beautiful jam out of “Sigma Oasis” that was interesting from the outset. Trey seemed rested, looser, and Page seemed energized as well; energized in a way I haven’t quite heard up until now, this tour. After the two shows I saw in Bethel where Mike and Fish really stood out, I was really feeling and hearing more balance in the sound, Trey taking his time, deliberate, but then very much nailing those licks and highs when he went for them, and Page feeding on that. I’m getting ahead of myself, as much of that became more apparent later, but in the meantime, a soulful “Sigma Oasis” blended seamlessly via a slick segue into -> “Blaze On.” It worked great in the two spot, made the quick nod to the Canadian cannabis vibe and packed a lot of punch in the limited run time. So a twenty-minute pairing of Phish’s more anthemic modern-day originals bound by a beauty segue opens the show, and we’re in very good shape already.
Of course after you blaze, you “Steam.” I really appreciated the space here—it did the band good and was a great call to shift the vibe, just oozing with ‘we only just got going’ energy. Again, you could tell there was looseness and energy and good choices being made, sonically. There weren’t many throw away notes tonight.
“My Sweet One” is the only breather of the set, really, if you can call the old bluegrass original a breather. We all hopped for two minutes and no longer, then Trey struck up “Theme from the Bottom.”
You know, one week shy of exactly twenty five years ago I saw another really good "Theme." It wasn’t in Canada but it was close; it was way up in a little town called Limestone, in Maine, and festival numero deux, aka The Great Went. That, to up this show was probably the best "Theme" I had seen, unless maybe you count 2/25/03. Well, either way, this "Theme" and its mesmerizing jam immediately shot upwards to contend. The centre piece of an already great set that also finished really strong. Must hear, as they say, and not merely for the novelty of the full Type II jam emerging from it just before the five-minute mark, but also for its beauty and execution. I suspect this one is going to get a lot of replay.
Maybe Phish was listening to Phish Radio today like me as I drove over from Montreal, and caught the 8/10/2018 "Wombat" and figured why not bring it out to dance. Again, this had, in addition to the funky dance party, a little bit of excited playfulness. After the "Theme" they just oozed with confidence for the rest of the night.
“Stash” shows up too, a Toronto-staple by now for obvious reasons, and, like its predecessor here in 2019, has a beautiful ethereal jam woven in. Trey had command of those ins and outs tonight, and the calls back and through the Stashier parts of the jam felt sharp and old-school.
And then “Sand” washes everyone down with its own fabulous jam that echoed some of these quick, big glow-up finales they’ve been pulling off, not unlike the “Ghost” that closed the first set on 7/22. This had similar energy, but also was woven delicately, somehow, and like the “Stash” earlier in the set, Trey seemed to be at ease with the machine gun calling back to “Sand.” There’s been a trend the last year or so of diverging into interesting Type II territory and then kind of clumsily returning to or reprising the end of the song quite suddenly, which sometimes works, but you could argue was maybe happening a little too much at times. Tonight saw the band with a lot more patience, returning to themes (like in the "Theme") more organically to close things out, which was very satisfying.
A fantastic first frame, and I gotta give it to them to be keeping things so lively and interesting so early in the show. By now this isn’t news—that you sleep on the first set at your peril—but it's easy to forgot for much of the last 13 years that was rarely the case.
“Sample in a Jar” had also gotten some play from me earlier in the day on my drive over, and the song has been fresh in my mind since seeing its stand-out, 15-minute version in Bethel recently. That jam has gotten a bunch of replay from me for its delicate exploration. But it was the in-the-box 2019 version from Toronto I was listening to, for its machine-gun punch (seriously that’s one of the better Type I "Samples" you’ll ever hear, if you’re into that thing…). So, ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to your new favourite jam vehicle, "Sample in a Jar." I thought for a minute it was unlikely they’d go for it the same way they did in Bethel and instead offer a shorter version to start the set before diving into the good stuff. Not so. We get another tasty 12-minute exploration that goes spacey before Page pulls out some very funky effects and sends the band on a swell that almost had a 2.0 like sound, and descends fittingly into > “Down with Disease.”
For those keeping score, the highlight of the 2013 show here was also a “Down with Disease.” You had a sense this was coming and, let me tell you, this one did not disappoint. Trey was full of fresh ideas and playing with confidence from the outset, more nimble than I’ve heard him since last year. They were having fun and it showed. It’s mostly in the "Disease"-box until bout the 8-minute mark, when Page starts leading the band into more sparkly territory. Around the 12-minute mark it settled down and a lilting sonic soundscape emerged, with Trey pulling off lovely leads. I think it was around this moment that I leaned over to a new friend and mentioned it sounded like Jerry was in the building, what with this being the first day after the days between, those moments marked this year between what would have been his 80th birthday on the 1st, and the anniversary of his passing on the 9th. So the last five minutes of the "Disease" jam hit some absolutely gorgeous moments and then Trey leads the band through its second flawless segue of the night, fittingly, into “Death Don’t Hurt Very Long.” Nod to Jer, ‘up from the ground’? Either way, it was a perfect landing pad for another great start to a set.
“Twenty Years Later” plays a role similar to the "Steam" in the first set, stretching out and giving room, and features some great slower-tempo explorations of its own in the final four minutes before it settles and Trey brings “Light” out of the darkness. I thought “Light” was a great call here, and a welcome addition to the set considering its airtime seemed to have been reduced somewhat in recent years with all the other new material making its way into the setlist. “Light,” too, featured nimble interplay, lightness, patience and fun effects towards the end. They come around to seemingly composed-like phrases to end the jam which in retrospect sounds like an attempt at a full segue into “Bouncing Around the Room” but is more fittingly marked with a >. Good effect.
I was happy to hear "Bouncing" in what would have been the Trey ballad spot, but this was the only song where the band seemed to lack a little coordination, and were looking at each other with a smirk or two, off-time. If this is your radio hit boys, you better practice it! ;)
A fourth-quarter one-two punch of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and “Sneaking Sally Through the Alley” bring the dance party that very much livened up the place. Neither took off into jammy territory, per se, but both were pretty flawlessly executed with little extra touches here and there; the "2001," especially, with Trey making good crunchy use of his effects.
“Free” caps things off, fresh off of its 25-minute performance on 8/2, this one runs about half that time as a set closer but is very much worth your attention, not unlike the first set “Sand.” Mike steps up at the mid-way point and Trey is able to sit back and just riff before coming in with his own phrasing. To my ears, by the end of this jam he’s sounding almost reborn as a guitarist, and by the sounds of the way he sang ‘I feel free’—with way more emphasis than I’ve ever heard him do before—maybe he felt the same.
“Thank you, we love you, we love coming here, that was just too much fun.” I like it too!
“Lawn Boy” in the encore spot was a nice unexpected touch, and gave Mike an opportunity to shine with some soulful playing before “Say It To Me S.A.N.T.O.S.” sent us home with smiles on our faces. I’m pretty sure I will remember where I was on 8/10/22.
Have fun in Alpine folks, that’s it for this canuck’s 2022 reporting. Unless we get some fall shows…?
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