[Thank you to user @THEWATCHFULHOSEMAKER (McGrupp), Ryan Mannix, for recapping last night's show. -Ed.]
One aspect of Phish Shows that I feel rise above any other live performing artist, is their ability to construct a Narrative over the course of a show. Many great artists are able to approximate this by crafting a tried and true song list of their strongest material and setting them in stone for entire tours, or even careers.
What Phish does, as you well know, is something else entirely. Every night themes emerge and evolve naturally, and morph and disintegrate again; at their best, they can take you on a musical journey just as satisfying as a good book (which you should read by the way).
Or, a lyric can nudge the music in a different direction, like on 9/03/21 during the “Chalkdust Torture” Jam, “Runaway, Runaway, Runaway” lyrics from “A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing” (played earlier in the set) appear, prompting a total left turn into “Runaway Jim.”
Of course, I can’t mention Narrative without the Show from 9/6/15 which features not only an actual story told in “Harpua,” but the coded message of “Thank You” in the setlist, which was a wonderful conclusion to the tale of “Spelling Things at Dick’s” (Note for Editor: we could use a stronger title).
This is the kind of exciting throughline that only happens at Phish shows, and I think this is why I flew to northern Alabama in the middle of the week, and I suspect it’s the same for a few of you.
On paper, Hunstville is not the most tempting stop on tour. Not as attractive a city to visit as Wilmington or New York, nor a venue steeped in Phistory like The Mann or Star Lake. However, the chance to see them at a brand new, smaller, coliseum style venue, with pit tickets, taboot, was too tempting to pass up.
What would be the opener of the opener? What would setup the Narrative for the Summer of 2023?
Could it be a big bust out, starting with something like “Pigtail” from 6/22/16?
Could it be surprising us, along the lines of “What’s The Use?” opening a set for the first time ever on 7/14/17?
With Trey and Mike unveiling a litany of new music with their side projects recently, conditions were pointing me towards a debut.
But they went with a relaxed, confident, leg stretch of “Blaze On.” The chill kickstart of an opener had little extra mustard on it and the full band interplay made this very solid version a great way to kick off a hot sweaty outdoor summer night. After, Trey declared, “I’m so happy that summer tour started, ahhh, AHHH!" A sentiment shared by all.
Coming in at number two was “Martian Monster,” and the first real theme, at least to me, was developed. Trey dedicated the song to the “PhD’s” in the audience. According to a quick Internet search “Huntsville is also home to the country's second-largest research park and the U.S. Space & Rocket Center. Boasting more PhD's and Engineers per capita than any other city in the U.S.” On the way into the venue you pass a few gigantic rockets off the highway, no doubt seen by everyone in attendance and on stage.
“Moma Dance” packed a heavy punch with Page and Fishman locking in on some great fills behind treys leads. Lots of patient tension and wailing from Trey, absolutely scorching. The quartet whipped the crowd into a frenzy, yet hit right back into the song before the climax bubbled over. Sometimes, yes even with Phish, it’s good to leave us wanting more.
Up next was a fun and succinct “Halley’s Comet.” Many in the audience looked to the sky in hopes of a glimpse of something, but all I could see was Kuroda's light rig, morphing and shifting, almost sinking low enough for the front few rows to jump up and touch it.
Going with some more staple rockers, “46 Days” quickly dove into Trey’s murky dark octave down pedal. They explored this underground for some time, with Mike pushing an alternate, more dramatic chord change. Noise-y fuzz psychedelia appeared to be taking over before a slightly abrupt shift to more standard guitar rippage. A disjointed return to the song was the first real miss on the night.
A moments break before slinking into “Back on the Train,” Trey was having fun with vocal variations on this one, and a couple other songs in the set, for that matter. This one hinted at moving beyond the standard twangy growl/shred ending, but it was not to be.
“555” brought back some of the funky vibes that started the show strong, but the outro solo never completely took off, despite nice interplay with all members. One thing I’ve noticed in recent years is that even if jams don’t go completely get to the next level, the communication and vocabulary between members is layered, unique and masterful enough to make even the most unexceptional version of a song, a total treat.
“You Enjoy Myself” elicited an expected burst of excitement throughout the full, but not packed Coliseum. What can I say, it’s always an absolute pleasure to see them play perhaps the most loved and known of their songs with a bunch of sweaty strangers; each composed section slightly shifting 8,000 dance moves and faces. Absolutely wonderful. The uplifting piano solo coming out of the ambient space puts a massive grin on my face each time, without fail. The jam section even dropped down and flirted with a pretty major key modulation around 12:30 mark, which I was excited for. Type 2 “YEM"? Blast off, indeed! However, at around 13:00, Trey shot Mike over a death glare and almost immediately the band hit the expected epic guitar peak in one of the shortest build ups (not necessarily bad) I've ever seen. I do enjoy myself a good vocal jam from time to time, just to see what themes can emerge or how weird it can get. But this one stayed pretty normal, if that’s even possible.
“Say It To Me S.A.N.T.O.S” made sense as a closer, and they rocked past when you didn’t think they could rock anymore. They are pretty good at that. Of course, “this is what space smells like,” brought out smiles from many around me in the crowd, as we were following the Narrative.
Overall Set I wasn't short on high energy guitar peaks, but maybe lacked in deep-space exploration. But to start off Set II, Page and Trey leaned into Alien soundscapes as soon as they got on stage. You could see a “2001” coming through the cosmic clouds a mile away, and I know I was ready to go on a “Space Odyssey.” This jam doesn’t employ the atmospheric ambience that one might associate with “Space,” but it does include my favorite kind of of Phish improvisation.
While only 10 minutes, the band created, expanded, and recycled short themes in the way only they can. I loved Fishman staying away from the straight groove often throughout the jamming, giving us a taste of his interaction/ lead drumming style while so often songs like this can be just a “Dance Party.” Trey starts a lick, Page harmonizes it, Trey finds something new, Fish and Mike carry the previous idea into the next bar. Lots of space even though they are somehow always wrapped around each other. Just great listening from all four members.
This blurry noise segue into “Down With Disease” was well executed, and while the song was good standard affair, the jam had fantastic building and interplay, and a righteous feel-good crescendo that took its time, but didn’t drag. After the usual outro Trey solo wave washed away into a short groove focused section, a mellower major key theme developed, augmented very nicely by Page and Mike playing nimbly and gracefully in the upper register. Despite its elegancy, it was absolutely driving, mostly thanks to a relentless Fishman. Trey cycled through his stereo Leslie effect and delays at the culmination of this theme.
I want to take a moment to just talk about how great Page is as a Co-Captain. Constantly shifting tones and harmony underneath to create lovely counterpoint. In the second set he was especially generous, feeding Trey assist after assist of melodic fragments. I’m sure it’s been said, but Page is the Scottie Pippen to Trey’s Michael Jordan. A Hall of Famer in his own right, but often outshone by the GOAT. I will say though that Page was the MVP for me for this whole show.
Trey went to his soupy effects to segue into “Twist,” while Fish had fun playing with his own drum pad effects in the begging of this one. There was an Interesting shift immediately in the jam, as Mike strayed away from the root, before a quick snap back to the band’s best Santana impression. Mike once again pushes the band to modulate, and a serene marsh appears in the distance. The band likes this space, but Mike is still actively looking for new directions, and with the help of Fish’s frenetic beat a micro hard rock jam forms before a semi awkward return back to “Twist.”
Fish kept his Hi-Hat going as we venture into the “Maze.” Not the most energetic or tight version of the song proper, but Both Page and Trey’s solos were fiery and chaotic in the best of ways.
Unfortunately, at this point, I have to mention Trey’s guitar being slightly out of tune, not so bad that it took me out of it in the moment, but pretty noticeable upon re-listen to big chunks of set II.
Next came “Lonely Trip,” which was very well played and fit into the flow. Another example of a version that isn’t overtly extraordinary, but hearing the four musicians navigate the changes and melody so fluidly and idiosyncratically, made this cool-down a lot cooler.
Late into our second set we get our first debut with “Oblivion.” This one is a newer rocker in the vein of many newer rockers, but had some more jazzier/R&B undertones. Trey gave it his all with some bluesy vocal runs punctuated by Mike and Page repeating “Oblivion awaits.” Some darker shades in this song, despite being upbeat. A very retro and buzzing insect like synth bridge gives another unique angle to this one. They seemed very content riding out this moody groove with seeds of expansion through Trey’s textured loops. Page really digs into his synth around 8:40, while Trey goes with the octave up effect, creating one of the most out-there and psychedelic moments of the night, however brief. I can see this one becoming another monster jam vehicle like many other new song additions if they give it the call earlier in the set.
“Chalkdust Torture” worked as a set closer, giving the crowd another chance to belt out some vocals. The first part of the guitar solo hit just right, especially with Page piling on, however the ending got pretty sloppy, when they seemed unsure if the song would launch into a jam or not. They eventually decided to keep going and things got sloppier. While the energy was high and ideas briefly poked their heads through, the jam liquified into a noise mush through what seemed like an inability to come to a consensus, but I didn’t hate it. They kept pushing through and had a few peaks and valleys despite not being particularly tight.
Sometimes, I think that if the improv doesn’t feel its particularly locked in, it can color the mood, playing, and song selections of the band in a negative way. However, tonight was not one of those nights. The band threw up their hands and went to one of my favorite plays in their playbook.
This Encore is the pinnacle of silly Phish. I wasn’t expecting to hear any of these songs in the encore, some of them I never thought I would see again, or at all.
“Meatstick” is a great chill choice for people to get some last minute dance moves in, and “Makisupa Policeman” was one to cross off my list of chasing songs, but I physically was jolted upwards when I heard “Fuck Your Face,” a song I loved since getting into the band through the Alpine 2010 DVD.
I may have lost the thread a bit for set two, but “Icculus” brought back the theme started by “Martian Monster”. No, not the “Space” theme, but “PhD’s.” That's the other thing they are really good at. Misdirection. Bait and Switch. Keeping us all guessing.
While he was certain they had read a lot of books, Trey wanted all the “Rocket Scientists” to know that there was one very important, special book written by the one and only, special man who wrote the one special amazing book, and he was smarter than any rocket scientist, and if they read the fucking Helping Friendly Book, they would have no more problems. Seems like good advice.
It doesn’t take a PhD to see how “Character Zero” fits to close the night. This version sealed the deal and capped off the evening on a high note, certainly hitting harder after a half hour of goofiness, than if it had stood alone in the encore slot. Maybe all the rocket scientists in the crowd left the show thinking “All I learned is always wrong”, but I wouldn’t worry about them. I’m pretty sure they’re alright, ‘cause they got a degree!
There were some close encounters, but nothing in this show was totally far out or cosmic. Maybe the theme was academia after all? Maybe there is no theme to this everlasting spoof. Either way, it was a literally ridiculous encore and so much FUN!
Before creating something that can be connected, the band first has to create Context. The Release hits hardest if the Tension is wound particularly tight. Everything is shaded by what comes before. That’w why opening songs are so integral to the overall vibe of the set.
Going even further, the opening night contextualizes the whole rest of the tour. If they start hot, expectations skyrocket. If they start cold, stay off social media.
A band 40 years into their career certainly has nothing to prove, but at the start of every tour the limitlessness feels a little more limitless. Who knows what tonight or the rest of the tour might bring. The narrative will take its time to develop, and I’ll be following along.
Ryan Mannix is a Chicago based Writer/Musician. He plays in an Improvisational/Alternative Rock group, Lunar Ticks, and The Jam Tribute to the Beatles called, Beat The Meatles. He also started a local Chicago festival called Indie Park Fest.
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