[We would like to thank user JMART, Josh Martin, for recapping last night's show. Pax tecum. -Ed.]
Greetings, everyone, and welcome ....
Every once in a while down at the jmart household, we like to throw on our tuxedo t-shirts, compare SAT scores, and break out our most favorite Latin phrases. Never fear: If high school seems like a distant memory to you, or you just happen to be a dorkus malorkus, your old pal has you covered.
Before we get down to business in earnest, a brief caveat emptor: Your reviewer was not in attendance last night. If you were, and you're wondering why the review wasn't written by someone who was, then you understand that the answer, as it almost always does, lies within.
Sine qua non: One of the many beautiful things about the beginning of tour is that almost any song you can think of (and many you can't) is on the table, including one in particular. Given all the internet chatter prior to the previous night's show being the 2000th of their career, it's hard to imagine anyone being shocked that Phish played "2001." But to open the show with it, when the headiest brahs probably had it down as the second set opener, was quite a statement. Ever the reliable vehicle, this version probably would be too scared to sit down at the lunch table with the cool kids, but remains remarkable in that it is still its essential self: Fishman holding down probably the most popular drum beat in the Phish catalog, Mike (not buried in the mix for once) pumping his lick up underfoot like a feral cat, Trey chopping out a danceable solo, and Page leading the charge with synth swells.
Mulgere hircum: When Phish plays “Mull,” your reviewer is reminded of a line in Roger Ebert’s “I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie”: “John Waters films are so bad as to resist interpretation. They just exist, like the weather.” This song starts so promisingly, but the chorus really wrecks the whole thing beyond saving. Trey tries his damnedest, though, firing off a solo that is in turn modal, snappy, and finally guttural in the best sense of the word. Here the crowd starts to pick up on a familiar sound and sure enough a few measures later, BAM, back into a double dip of "2001." As that refrain ends, one can very deeply sense the crowd's ardent desire for another full go round, but it is not to be, instead sliding into, mercifully, the end of "Mull."
Tempus fugit: It's been a long road, everyone (see: supra) and sometimes things change so slowly that when something comes to our attention all over again, it can be quite jarring. Enter "Ether Edge," "Life Saving Gun," and Everything's Right." One wonders what the faces of 19-year-olds Trey and Fish would look like if they were to hear these songs and then be told they were going to write them. While one may quibble with the quality of the songs themselves, one may not quibble with the jams that follow each, particularly the latter. "Ether Edge" serves up a well-executed, melodic band outro. "Life Saving Gun" draws our attention to a strange phenomenon that has become fairly well entrenched in Phish setlist construction in 4.0: Second set openers used to be the most anticipated song of every Phish show, the promise of a monster jam being all but guaranteed. These days, the trend seems to be leading towards a brief turn through any number of songs (songs which have in fact served as jam vehicles before) before getting to the meat of the set, in this case "Sand," followed by "Everything's Right" (see infra).
Ubi amor, ibi dolor: Here's an interesting question: What song do you want to hear Phish play that they play almost identically every time? "Frankenstein"? "Wilson"? "Strange Design"? Whatever the answer, "Dirt" deserves to be on the short list. It's one of the rare Phish songs that takes an honest stab at lament and the results are gorgeous. Mike's solo is stark, plaintive, perfectly in tune with the song. "Shout your name into the wind" is one of the most evocative single lines in Tom Marshall's body of work, in great company with "Standing and waving/The rain, wind on the runway," but we'll get to that in a second.
Ex nihilo fit: Every Phish head has his burning bush moment, and for your reviewer, that moment was listening to "Stash" for the first time. It IS among the most quintessential of Phish songs (see supra) and, here, the band executes the knotty composition to near-perfection. If, as the increasingly irrelevant saying goes, Friday night is for the fans, Saturday night is the power rock show, and Sunday night is for the band, then one has to wonder by what right Phish would lead off the Stash jam with a passage so quiet and delicate as this. Don't they know the rules? Fish's steady hi-hat lets the rest of the band amble into their own hushed playground. From (seemingly) nowhere, the band falls lock step into a stellar groove that will define the jam. Trey and Page hook up, brush past a "Manteca" (not to be), moving instead to happier pastures. In these times, your reviewer will try to guess exactly when Fish is going to hit the snare drum. It's maddening. He never holds still but he never sounds out of place. His tom runs at the end of the jam are yet another example of his lunacy and the driving musical talent of the four.
Alea iacta est: When Fish hits the trippy drum beat signaling "Split Open and Melt," we all understand and accept that there is no turning back now, so you might as well buckle the fuck up and enjoy it. A brief note on history: It is almost a fact beyond debate at this point that "Melt" has had a resurgence unlike any other in the Phish catalog. Since the Gorge (7/22/18) version that kicked it off (or maybe 12/29/17, depending upon your preference), 14 of the 25 versions of this song have earned jam chart status. That is an astounding 56%. If you know of another song that has that kind of batting average, please let the rest of us know. A not-so-brief note on music: The classic melt riff sounds so off kilter because it is written in a 33/8 time signature. Phish plays this as three measures of 4/4 and a fourth measure of 9/8. If you want to watch this play out in real time, tap your hands with the beat and you will find that the hand tapping with Fishman's snare hits will alternate after the end of the fourth measure. A long note on this music: Here is a list of things that happened in this "Melt": Page hammering the low end like a headache. The lights start to coalesce and, well, melt behind the stage. Trey hints at a major key modulation, backing off for a second, then bringing it to full fruition briefly, before the entire band descends into chaotic space. Mike and Fish hook up to drive a 4/4 pounder, a rhythm which Mike ultimately abandons to exist in his own corner for a while. Trey throws down some effects that could have been lifted right out of "On the Run." Trey starts frantically bobbing his head to the rhythm, a sign as sure as any that things are coming unglued, and that he is searching very hard for the way forward. A much more insistent rhythm again rises like a jackhammer. Trey takes a beautifully psychotic scale on a walk up the neck,soon enough running out of real estate and, with seemingly nowhere else to go, abruptly shifts the jam into another pass at The Happy, and then again into the main "Melt" theme. Given all the territory it covered, one might think this version may be destined to soon take its place among the canon of the resurgents, but its parts are simply too disparate, with no true thread to link them, to deserve that distinction.
Fait accompli: Yes, that is French, and also close enough to Latin when your reviewer is trying to make a point. You like segues and this show has plenty of them, five to be exact. The transition from "2001" to "Gumbo" is so fast as to speculate on whether or not that call was premeditated, and as such truly earns the ">" being shown on .net. The transitions from "Mull" to "2001" and back (again, supra) and from "Life Saving Gun" to "Sand" were anything but perfunctory. The two segues linking "Everything's Right" to "Cities" to "Llama" embody the slight of hand that defines the great transitions in Phish's career. The only song to rival SOAM in terms of its late era resurgence is "Sand." Much like "2001," this version will probably not require repeated listening, but is notable for how Trey, Mike, and Page all hop onto the same riff for a few bars before the song begins in earnest.
The jam out of ER very quickly (and predictably) shifts out minor key and into a major key jam so common as to not warrant further discussion (yet). Just before the 10:00 mark, Trey starts a new direction which, in retrospect, should probably have sounded very familiar. A few bars and a quick key change later and we're in "Cities." Nevermind that it's the wrong city in Tennessee- at the 5:00 mark, we have found ourselves in exactly the right place. Here again, we all step out into the unknown together. Mike sticks his toe out first and then just blows the house down with truly bizarre bombs. At 6:34, Trey's had enough and takes center stage (listen to the crowd respond quite clearly on Live Phish). This quickly fades into a descending riff replete with delay pedal, wah, and plenty of scratching. We're safe now, right? NOPE. At 8:40, Trey takes the reins again to work out some shit he's had on his mind for a while. Apparently those thoughts are a bit too much for him, because about a minute later he switches the entire mood of the jam with another major modulation. Here we tread for another six minutes or so, before something dazzling happens at 14:00. We're going back into "Cities," right? Think again. Seemingly out of nowhere, a familiar riff starts at 15:50. Before our very eyes, we have ended up in "Llama." Lounge Llama to be exact, and that is your reviewer's formal petition for a new name, although he will not take credit for coming up with it.
Non ducor, duco: One simply does not expect a geriatric version (or so your reviewer admittedly called it at one point) of a Phish classic or "Bug" to steal the set or the show, but that is exactly what happened. Tempo be damned, every note of "Llama" was hit perfectly and Trey's fire was so powerful as to not be denied. It does not hurt that your reviewer happens to be an unapologetic fan of "Bug," and he wishes here to thank those few people who shouted for it in the first few bars. Yes, "Bug" does close shows, but it hasn't done so since...wait...nevermind. If this solo doesn't break your heart, you may want to check your pulse.
Me vexat pede: First, I'm going to step out of the third person for this last segment, shattering whatever little journalistic or grammatical credibility this review had managed to muster. No less than five times in tonight's Phish show did the band modulate, for seemingly no good reason, from a nasty jam into something decidedly more pedestrian ("Stash," "Melt," "Life Saving Gun," ER, "Cities"). While I have not the energy to prove this, I would strongly suspect that number is on par for shows in 4.0, and probably before that. Why does this warrant comment? Here I will be honest: I was so certain that this was going to happen, that I had a very good idea of what I was going to write and it was not going to be kind. Over breakfast this morning, I mentioned to my wife that I had one section to write left, and it was the one I was looking forward to writing the least. The following is something close to how that conversation went:
"Why don't you want to write it?"
"Because I don't want to be so critical. It seems contrary to spiritual principles."
"So then why are you doing it?"
"Because I have to let everybody know what I really think. I've got to keep it real!"
Anyone who pays attention to the message board on this website knows that I have been very critical of Phish's playing, in terms much harsher than those above. And for that effort I have been roundly drubbed by other netters. I won't say rightfully so, because I still think everyone has a right to an opinion, but at some point one has to wonder what kind of return he's getting for his effort. It has recently suggested to me in no uncertain terms that expectations breed resentment. Seemingly woven into Phish's music is something unknowable that invites fanaticism, which can take an ugly turn from appreciation into wanting things a certain way and being upset if they don't go that way. The one uncompromising promise improvisational music makes is that if the musicians are doing their job well, then what the audience hears is unfiltered pathos, an aural rendering of the band's collective psyche as it exists in the moment. What it does NOT promise is that it will take you where you want to go on your time. That shit is out of your control. Surrender to the flow or don't.
It has also been suggested to me that gratitude is a way of life, and for many of us, music IS life. There is no song that captures this more than the opening strains of the jam on "Harry Hood," the best versions of which, for me, exceed anything Phish has ever played. Period.
Here I surrender all over again. We are so lucky to be alive to witness this and to never have to explain this love to each other- we just know. At its best, Phish will always be a contact sport, so many kudos to those who made it last night and if today happens to be your 41st birthday, enjoy the hell out of it. I truly wish I could have been there, but no man who has friends is alone.
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