[We would like to thank CoffinLifeBuoy, author of this piece in The Atlantic, for volunteering to recap Greek3 in a dignified and human manner. -Ed.]
If Phish.net has resorted to having ChatGPT write a review for 4/19/23, I guess I can offer a few thoughts from the human-side of things.
Allow me to begin by saying this three-night run at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, California, were my first shows since Big Cypress. Depending on your age (and maybe tax bracket?), that’s either a #humblebrag (RIP Harris Wittels) or a shameful confession. But take that as a blanket caveat on everything that follows — and, yes, that’s a #tarpers pun, although I admit that’s a term I learned just yesterday.
It was strange, these past few days, seeing them again. I live just a mile from the Greek Theatre, and so (despite it being my daughter's seventh birthday — sorry, kid!) rode my bike there, up through the Cal campus — and passing the Campanile, suddenly I found myself in a different world — a world I used to know, and used to be a part of, and here it is, it still exists! The median age tipping up past middle age, but an impressive spectrum nonetheless. (How all these people afford the exorbitant Ticketmaster-ed ticket prices is beyond me — long gone, those days of $30 mail order tickets…)
So I biked up past the row of parking signs reading “Reserved for Nobel Laureate” just 100 yards or so from where the first nitrous tanks stood hissing outside the venue (if that isn’t Berkeley in a nutshell), with lines of cops standing there watching the balloons being filled — still unfathomable to those of us who can recall when the lot scene abruptly changed in ‘99 (that suddenly ubiquitous, and disconcerting, hissing sound), where cops would come racing down an aisle of cars to grab someone with a tank. Is this what it’s like at every show now, with the tanks lined up alongside the hot dogs and cops outside? Yikes. It was ugly.
But before I get to the present, if you’ll indulge me for a moment, to feel the agonized nostalgia of a man maybe not quite over the hill, but certainly cresting the ridge…Sure, I wasn’t there for 12/31/95 like my friend Jeff, or the Clifford Ball like my friend Ryan; I missed the Great Went and was only there for its less-impressive younger sibling the Lemonwheel; but I saw some good shit back in the day! I still listen to tons of Phish (exclusively on headphones — my wife likes, ahem, music with words), but pretty much just 1.0 shows.
What I wouldn’t give to go back and re-experience some of those shows. First, why did nineteen-year-old me think it was a good idea to take a bunch of mushrooms and stand in a packed room surrounded by a bunch of people I didn’t know? Call me a lightweight, but upon further reflection, bright flashing lights and a 15-minute vocal jam don’t exactly seem best practices when it comes to transcendent psychedelic experiences.
More saliently, by the end of summer '99, I was so pouty (in general) and jaded (about Phish), so focused on statistics (not another “Cavern”...I’ve still never heard “The Mango Song”!), and worried that my girlfriend didn’t really love me (she didn’t), that my friends didn’t really like me (they did), that the people twirling around me thought I was a poseur (who the fuck cares). The only time I can remember my mind being truly and utterly blown was the 7/8/99 “Fee”. Man, even Big Cypress, I have few positive memories of (and for some reason have never gone back to relisten) — I remember my friend Dave and I dancing to “After Midnight,” and I remember Trey telling us to say “cheesecake,” and I remember wondering how anyone could go to the bathroom and ever find their way back to their friends.
All this to say, what a joy these three Greek Theatre shows were. While mostly the concert experience escapes me (mostly because of the chompers — seriously, why spend $100 on a ticket just to scream unintelligibly in your drunk friend’s ear, at my expense?) — these three nights were truly joyful. I haven’t had this much fun in years (don’t tell my kids I said that).
So. The shows. Monday was amazing. “The Curtain” was long my white whale, in my youth, so imagine my excitement — let alone “With”! — to get that right out of the gate, directly into “Carini,” holy shit (here let me make a pitch that if it’s been a while since you listened to 2/17/97, that “DWD”>”Carini,” holy shit again).
The first set was solid, great. And then there was the second set, which I understand has already gone down in Phish lore. I’ll go ahead and assume that, if you’re reading this, you’re also following along with Rob Mitchum’s excellent Substack where he reviews every Phish song on its twenty-fifth anniversary. So allow me to quote Rob at length:
Phish fans are a pretty predictable breed, especially after you’ve spent a couple decades chatting on the internet with them. And one of their most enduring reflexes, no matter how often they say otherwise, is that “longer = better.” A big double-digit number in the track times can turn the head of even the most enlightened fans adamant that there’s as much value to be found in a 12-minute jam as there is in a half-hour one. The 48-minute Soul Planet last summer showed that, even when the song in question is widely reviled, an extended improvisation can still send people running to the LivePhish app
But after that initial wave of attention, the marathon jams don’t always hold their reputation. Case in point . . .
He goes on to discuss the 11/29/97 “Jim,” but his words might be just as easily applied to Monday night’s Tweezer. It was good — and the segue into “Simple” brought me to literal tears (you know, the “this is your life” kind of tears) — but overall it was, I thought, pretty scattershot; it didn’t feel like they were on the same page at all, they would be in an ambient groove for like 90 seconds before Trey started ripping off a solo and Fish would rev up to full-blast…or Page would awkwardly switch from piano to swanky clav and then suddenly Trey is playing reggae (cha-chunk, cha-chunk)…but from “Simple” on it was unreal. The progression that eventually led into “Rock and Roll” was just killer (this from my memory, at least, I haven’t listened back) and that song, man, was just fantastic. Trey was grinning his ass off.
I don’t have much to say about the second night. It was good. The “Possum” absolutely ripped, much to the delight of the dude I saw that night wearing a possum hat. As for the second set, you will not be surprised to hear me say I’m less familiar with the 3.0 songs, and in many cases, significantly less fond. But, wow, the “Kill Devil Falls” jam absolutely knocked me out. Phenomenal playing, locked in. (I’ll skip whistling past the “Fuego,” because, meh.) By the end of the night, it was super cold, and Mike put on his chartreuse jacket.
And here let me try to draw some hasty generalizations about how the band has changed. Trey played with a surprisingly light touch during composed parts — as if he was worried he might flub something (cf. the fussy changes in “Rift” on night three). He played around with phrasing in lyrics more (“Bag,” “Farmhouse”) than I’ve ever heard him do before. (Come to think of it, Page did too on “Lawn Boy” — and sure, I get it, they’ve been playing these songs for 30 years!)
There’s a laid-back-ness with, say, “Bathtub Gin,” or “Bag,” that when I go back and listen to them in 1996, it’s just so much more fierce and urgent. There’s less bite on the beat now — not talking about Fishman specifically, but just think of the Went Gin, how the jam starts and they just launch directly into the stratosphere, I don’t think these guys can do that anymore.
And they don’t need to. Again, as an old man myself, I dutifully brought my binoculars, and in interstitial moments (“Mountains in the Mist,” “Winterqueen”), I considered Mike’s wrinkles, Fish’s white beard (between wool hat and hoodie beneath glowing circle dress), Page’s bald spot.
Someone once asked Bob Dylan about his own Never Ending Tour — why is he still touring, when is he going to stop. And he said (I’m paraphrasing), “Would you ask a preacher when he’s going to stop doing Sunday service? This is what I do.” I love that. To think of these four guys having devoted themselves — to us! This is their offering to the world. They’ve spent forty years helping bring beauty and meaning to our lives, to say nothing of building community, etc.
Which brings me, finally, to what I’m supposed to be writing about, which is night three. You no doubt heard of the super-early start time for all three shows, so it was still golden East Bay sunshine when they came out at 6:30. “INNYLTB” is a nice-enough opener, though I found myself thinking of Steven Hyden’s interview with Goose that just posted this week, in which Rick Mitarotonda recounted some advice Trey had given them on their tour together: “The first night I remember we went out and played, and afterwards he was like, ‘Well, how was the set?’ I was like, ‘It was cool. We’re easing into it.’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah … I don’t really do that.’ And I was like, ‘Wait, you’re right.’” Well forgive me for suggesting that “INNYLTB” is exactly that sort of “easing into it” opener, but whatever, it was still daytime on a Wednesday.
And things quickly got way more interesting. It is, of course, easy to impute personal meaning to setlists — “OMG they’re playing this only bc I’M HERE and this is FOR ME!” — but allow me to here indulge in a healthy dose of that sort of solipsism in the early-90s-ness of tonight’s first set, with a string of old favorites (“Bag,” “Rift,” “Jim,” “Lawn Boy,” “Halley’s,” “Timber”) to nourish my 1.0 soul — and one of which (I’ll let you guess) my friend Paul (I hope he doesn’t mind my oversharing here) arranged for our a capella group in college. The “Jim” was fine. Great, actually, for a hot second, but it ended ten minutes too soon. Next, Page came out and crooned so endearingly for “Lawn Boy.” His voice has weakened, but he didn’t push it, and it was so sweet. Trey applauded as he returned to his spot. “Timber” was white hot.
During setbreak, texting with my old friend Slewfoot, as the lights went down, I signed off, “Sending out prayers for a Mike’s Groove!” Wouldn’t you know it, a couple minutes later, “Me no are no nice guy” — a super solid triptych, although again I couldn’t help thinking they wrapped things up too early. “Cool It Down” was such a treat, and despite the incongruity of covering the Velvets — maybe the least-Californian band ever, a band who famously hated the Bay Area — twice in three days (what, no Green Day cover?), goddamn what a great song. “Set Your Soul Free” is fine, whatever, but hold onto your hats because here comes a phenomenal jam, leading right into “What’s the Use?” — it’s swirling, it’s dark, it’s vibrating, it’s somehow buoyant — matched by Kuroda pulling a trick with the lights he hadn’t used before — projecting shimmering semi-circles onto the scenae frons behind the stage. “Loving Cup” is a great song that should stay on Exile on Main Street where it belongs (sorrynotsorry).
Finally, the encore — the second set ended at 9:30, giving them plenty of time to fit something in before the “Tweeprise” we all knew was coming (and the strict 10pm curfew). If you’re like me, here the mind starts spinning. Did they already play “Hood” in Seattle? How long does it take to play “Fluffhead”? No, instead, they played the very first Phish song I ever heard (staring baffled at the ugly-ass cover of Billy Breathes), the first one I ever tried playing on the guitar — “Waste,” leaving us with not only an unexpectedly triumphant crescendo, but an unexpectedly profound meditation on spending time, and wasting time, and the literally countless hours we’ve all spent listening to, talking about, and thinking about this band.
Then, finally, “Tweeprise.” I jumped up and down. Everyone jumped up and down. The lights were red and then they were white.
The word “catharsis” comes from the Greek katharos, meaning “purged, cleansed” — more generally, it means, "pure, clean, spotless; open, free; clear of shame or guilt." That’s it. That’s how it felt — to be at a Phish show on a beautiful night in springtime, to be with people, to be alive.
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As for the new songs, this marks the first time, in my opinion, the band has given the new song, Beneath a Sea of Stars Part 1, an honest and full treatment, lilting as gently as a 1972 Dark Star, never giving way to a technological overkill, relying solely on melodic intertwining before ramping up to a flowering peak. This was truly a magical show start to fin, amd that’s probably the jam that impressed me most.
Thank you, Phish dot for redeeming yourselfs here. You had me concerned about nothing.
As for that Lovin’ Cuo: it was as purposeful as it gets, played to perfection!
The encore was absolutely exquisite.
It's an interesting counterpoint to my other favorite band the Disco Biscuits where the batting average on 35+ minute versions is much lower*
Although to be fair, when it comes to the biscuits I don't quite think of it as a 40 minute version when it's 20min song a> 20 min song b> 20 min song A, and a lot of the most super-sized jams in their past either don't come out of a song (improvised score to Akira nye 99) or come within a song with multiple jam sections held together by composed connective tissue, other songs, other sets, other shows. So
BTW, you can buy possum wool caps from a great Bay Area company here: https://www.rivbike.com/products/copy-of-possum-merino-wool-beanie
I enjoyed your review, it was well written and thoughtful.
What if Trey’s playing some composed parts more gently not because he’s scared of a “flub”, but because they sound clearer and better that way? Of course, all of their playing has shifted over time. But just b/c young jocks whack it faster than vets doesn’t mean it’s better that way. Guitar 201 teaches that greater shred/technicality/speed/boner is often not as impressive as evocative finesse/dynamics/soul, but it seems many phans who pine for the salad shredder days of yore never got that memo. I’m in the minority perhaps, but I find myself listening mostly to 3.0 shows because of their feel, synergy, skillfulness, ensemble improv, sound quality, current musical relevance, and overall musicality than 1.0 shows. The latter are impressive (and yes I was at 12/31/95, 90s Halloweens, Went, etc, and had the time of my lift), but I still prefer the evolved Phish (at least for modern times) than some Xerox from the past when it sounded more like everyone’s following the guitarist (or the guitarist is a bit too dominant), the jams rarely shift keys or develop improvised progressions, the vocals and harmonies are often sketchy, and the band has to rely more on whackiness than depth b/c the former is so much easier than the latter for less mature and developed musicians (and audiences) to pull off. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Phish then and I’ve loved most every show I’ve been at. I just love them even more now and have nothing but respect for where they’ve come to and from.
I can totally understand older fans hearing the music aged a bit, but I still get lost in their current shows' music and hypnotized by it the same way. Granted my context in the fandom is much different than most people. But as intense and noisy and amazing as I think those earlier shows sound, I have also found the same joy in the current way they jams sound, and I'm happy to be a part of this bands' long history now. That's the thing, I really love how historically Phish has always been Phish but have changed so much. There are times when I'm very familiar with more current versions of songs, and then listen to a bunch of shows from 98 when they played those songs and I'm amazed at even the tiny changes that have been added to the versions I hear them play now. Those things make me feel much more nerdy about them and make me explore more and more shows from every era.
So long story short, I'm always very tempted to wish I'd have been around for those earlier eras, but I really love the context that comes with this band in 2021-2023. And even as a new fan, it still feels like they're dedicating their current time and talents for me and the fans, but it also kind of feels like they've worked these last few decades to be the band that I fell in love with a little over a year ago.
Anyway, I loved the review and the insights! Thanks again.
I remember when Billy Breathes came out. Most of my friends said Phish had sold out, I mean they were actually playing Free on the radio! The good old days of small venues and super complex arrangements were over.
I tried, and eventually came to really like that album. Ghost was even harder to like. Guyute was real Phish, but a lot of the album left me thinking WTF. I tried for three or four months, but eventually put the CD on the closet shelf and forgot about it. By the next summer, being impatient when those songs were played, I was bummed if a setlist didn't feature a couple songs of the new album.
I won't give a blow by blow, but pretty much every evolution of the band has worked the same way for me. Sure, I miss the rawness and energy of those early shows sometimes, but the band has also matured in many good ways. The sond quality liive is nearly universally good. Tray can actually sing. The light shows are better than ever.
Do yourself a favor. Listen to the second set of 7/14/19. It's a great mix of old and new and a good showcase of why Phish should never stop evolving.
Thanks for the great review!