In celebration of Phish's 13-show run at Madison Square Garden, the Mockingbird Foundation is announcing 13 unsolicited "miracle grants" supporting music programs across the country. Each board member identified their favorite Phish show, and we found a worthy music education program nearby, part of the Foundation's long-standing Tour Grants program. We're presenting these 13 special grants chronologically, based on the dates of those favorited shows.
Board member Dan Purcell picked the 10/31/98 show in Las Vegas, NV:
It's the best concert I've ever seen, never mind the best Phish show. The first set has its merits -- a then-rare "Sneaking Sally" and a set-closing "Mike's Groove" that careens into the guardrail and back onto the track by the slimmest of margins. But the second set is Phish's most successful Halloween project, with only the sui generis Haunted House and its much bigger budget having an argument. Confronted with making a full set out of a 40-minute album, Phish expands Loaded far past its runtime. Performing the Velvet Underground's friendliest record with care and raging energy, they go fairly far out on "Sweet Jane," "Rock and Roll," and -- least expected and most gratifying of all -- "Lonesome Cowboy Bill," sung by Fish from behind his kit, no vacuum in sight. The message was clear: this was no joke. The closing "Oh! Sweet Nuthin'" had us looking around for someone to hug like Jim Valvano. I have never seen chaos at a Phish show like the concourse and bathrooms after that set, not even on the hillside at Great Woods or the muddy bottoms of Coventry.
If that wasn't enough, and it never is, the abbreviated third set brought the sheer terror that we require on Halloween. A half-hour take on "Wolfman's Brother," sung by Trey from under a wolfman mask, the long jam a low, faint hum peppered by whispered threats and moments of brutality. Resolving into "Piper" lightened the mood a touch but the slower build to the chorus felt less like ecstasy and more like running through the woods to escape something formless and terrible. They ran out of time to do much with their then-mission statement "Ghost," Trey stalking off dejectedly over a digital delay loop. But we had seen behind the curtain; we were ready to head back. "Sleeping Monkey" returned us to the world of flesh, and the "Tweezer Reprise" left over from the night before blew us out the doors and into the brisk neon desert night.
It's amazing to think that at the end of 2016, more than 27 years since I first saw Phish live, I have so much closer a connection with the band members than ever before. For instance, when Trey Anastasio took the stage with his bandmates ("the boys") Thursday night at Madison Square Garden, I saw instantly that I own the same hoodie Trey was wearing.
Phish's most recent concerts were a four-night run in Las Vegas, and they'd opened the first three of those shows with originals written for and debuted at their 2014 Haunted House performance. Tonight, another pattern emerged. For the second straight show of the current four-night run, they opened with an a cappella number: "Sweet Adeline," which Phish hadn't dusted off since needing it to make up the numbers at the S show at Dick's in 2011. If this trend continues ... aaayyyyyy. Here's hoping for a "Free Bird" tomorrow night.
Phish.net was delighted to have the chance recently to talk to the accomplished production designers and engineers at TAIT Towers, the team that designed and built the LED video screens that debuted in 2016 as part of Phish's new-look onstage setup. As you'll read, TAIT is a company with longstanding ties to and a love for Phish, who were only too thrilled to be asked to work with the band on the most dramatic revision to its stage presentation in its 33-year history.
You couldn't miss it. When Phish took their usual places onstage in St. Paul to kick off their 2016 summer tour they had some impressive new hardware at their disposal. First, behind them in a half-circle, stretching from stage right to stage left, was a five-and-a-half-foot tall wall of light-emitting diode (LED) video screens. Second, above their heads was another huge, rectangular screen, facing down and toward the audience. As the show started, colors and images began playing across both screens. For the entire first set, the overhead array stayed in a compact rectangle. But when things got cooking at the start of the second set—during the throbbing minor-key “Mike’s Song” jam—the big rectangle fragmented, spreading apart into a patterned array of smaller screens, a look reminiscent of the hordes of perpetually attacking spacecraft from classic arcade games like Space Invaders and Galaga.
It's been a strong fall tour so far and this cool Saturday night in north Georgia was no exception. Its pleasures may have tended more toward strong setlist calls than deep and transcendent jamming, but so what, really. When the big jam finally came, it came with a hurricane-force fourth-quarter "Simple" that ranks with the best Phish music of 2016.
There is no original riff in the Trey Anastasio songbook that detonates a live audience like the elementary major-chord fingering exercise that begins "Simple." A versatile song that the band has been comfortable taking very far out since its infancy, when "Simple" shows up in the second set, especially late, it's usually a call for exploration. Last night, with its great future still unwritten, Mike sustained the patient with some high-end color until Trey found a little phrase he liked. You might recognize it from the "Down with Disease" this year at Dick's. He repeated it persistently until the troops fell in line. Page added some classic-rock backbeat behind it, and then somebody in the control room smashed the JAM button.
Nobody throws parties on New Year's Day. Why would you? You probably went pretty hard the night before. Most of your friends probably did too. You have nothing left to drink in the house; you drank all the beverages. Some careless person knocked over the ficus plant. The carpet is fucked. Who is the couple asleep in the bathtub? When you wake up on January 1 you don't want more bright lights and loud music, you want pancakes.
Photo © @UNOlkerPhoto
Phish played Friday night at Madison Square Garden with an understanding of and respect for this dynamic. If you were looking for reasons to think this might not be a high-energy affair, you didn't have to search far. The previous January 1, in Miami, Phish had played the most generic and geriatric show of the entire 2014(-15) touring calendar. Then again, there's a ready counterexample! Their only 1/1 show previous to 2015, wrapping up the odd two-city, five-show run from 2010(-11) was actually pretty good, with an all-beef second set highlighted by a charming "Simple."
Both in terms of energy and overall quality, this show fell in between those two. It didn't explode out of the gate, or explode at all, really. The tempos were slow and swingy from the opening "Stealing Time from the Faulty Plan." The band was loose like a shaggy dog. The jams moved away from aggro rock blare toward the spare and the smooth; especially early on, Trey seemed to be trying to play as few notes as possible. Phish wasn't aspiring to take us on a boundary-demolishing psychedelic magic carpet ride with this performance; they were making pancakes. The audience were the convalescents nursing headaches on the sectional, sipping coffee and/or a Greyhound while watching college football. The band was the one motivated friend in the kitchen, flipping pancakes and frying bacon. The pancakes and bacon were good, guys! Even in the first set, somewhat.
"Undermind" was good! Trey for some reason refused to play the main guitar riff, and his initial solo was a little sleepy, but this is where things got interesting. Instead of hammering to an ending with Fishman's drum fills like a typical first-set version, they went into a Second Jam that eventually resolved into a tease medley. Reminding me of one of those set-closing 1991-93 Bowies, Trey cycled through the riffs of songs already played in the set, "Stash," then "Stealing Time," and finally "How Many People Are You?"
Photo © @Phish_FTR
"Ocelot" was good! It started at a whisper and faded up gradually, tempo again slow and swaggering. Trey's solo—again, not a ton of notes, but his notes were stated with force and commitment and the sequence he played them in made sense.
"Wingsuit" was pretty and nice because that's just how that song is.
"Run Like an Antelope" was good! Page coaxed the band into a fun little major-key modulation early in the jam. Page McConnell was a beast throughout the show, strong left hand, always contributing both musical ideas and energy. This "Antelope" never threatened to get out of control really, but it was masterful and energetic and a good time. Also: more teases.
"How Many People Are You" is a good song! You haters can sit n' rotate on this one. Its generous bpm alone makes it a standout in Phish's army of mid-tempo rock snoozers. Yes, it sounds like Tom Petty, but we're talkin' about the good Tom Petty, from "Refugee" and "Even the Losers" and "Listen to Her Heart," not the lousy Tom Petty from "Free Fallin'" and the Johnny Depp video. This jam could go places if the band ever cares to try.
Photo © @hersch
The second set didn't reach the heights of the first two nights of this run. There was no challenging, moody "Chalk Dust," no balls-out insane "Twist," no ecstatic hose spraying the assembled masses with "Bathtub Gin." Truth be told, even the secondary highlights from the first two nights—I'm thinking the "What's the Use?" interjection in Wednesday's "Weekapaug" or last night's excellent but instantly overshadowed "Kill Devil Falls"—surpassed anything from show #3, with one possible exception (more on that in a minute).
That said, the money set was still basically good value. "Down with Disease" is hard to resist, a familiar and trusted friend, still batting cleanup after all these years. The jam out of "Disease," as least initially, was as raucous as usual, but the band got all night, and after about 10 minutes they let some air into the room. Mike, who had seemed a little disengaged during the first set, came alive to provide the jam its glorious closing moments. Trey disagreed and downshifted into "Dirt." By this point the band seemed warmed up, finally. Trey's first-set struggles—missing sixteenth-notes in "Stash" and doing even worse to poor "Rift," which should be retired—resurfaced only in the bridge to a shreddy and stomping "Theme from the Bottom," which suffered its usual fate.
The final quarter of the show was the best one. If MSG3 has a contender for year-end playlists, it's this "Light." Trey stayed away from the pitch shifter, avoiding the dissonant harmonics he often uses as a springboard at the start of the "Light" jam. Instead, Page took the wheel, left hand rumbling, setting the pace and flirting repeatedly with the "Linus and Lucy" riff, leaving Trey no choice but to defer. The key moment comes around 7 minutes in, when Fish locks into a "Manteca" style shuffle, which carries the band for almost the entire remainder of this jam. Trey alternates between defining parameters with chords and exploring them with notes; Page shifts to the Rhodes and things get a little moodier; Mike emerges once again from his sarcophagus, temporarily. If you want a warning that the jam is about to peak and go nuts, listen for Trey's "Manteca" quote, then hold onto your hat. Certainly the highlight of this show, this version of "Light" is absolutely worth hearing by any standard, if you haven't already, which I suspect you have.
Photo © @Phish_FTR
As the jam dwindles, Page's piano seems to signal "Wading in the Velvet Sea," but that's still on the table for you guys tomorrow night. Instead we get "Fuego," which narrowly beat the 11-minute over/under thanks to a playful stop-tempo sludge-rock coda, and then a perfectly serviceable "Slave" closer. The stand-alone "Farmhouse" encore is one final reminder that this ain't last call at the party or disco, it's one last splash of champagne in your glass at a quiet New Year's Day pancake breakfast, and you don't have to do anything afterward except tuck yourself into bed. One thing's for sure, though: Saturday night will rage.
DAN'S KULINARY KORNER: Basic pork ragu
I don't have a pancake recipe. We eat waffles in this house, and the waffle recipe is proprietary.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Season a 2 lb (more or less) hunk of pork shoulder heavily on all sides with salt and pepper. Melt 2 T olive oil and 2 T butter in a dutch oven, then brown the pork shoulder on all sides over high heat, about 2 or 2 1/2 minutes per side. Remove pork shoulder from the pot and set it aside for a bit.
Add 1 medium yellow or Spanish onion, chopped, to the dutch oven. Reduce heat to medium-low and saute for 2 minutes or so, or longer if you want more caramelization. Just be careful not to burn them; you can always reduce the heat or stir. Add 2 cloves garlic, minced, and saute the garlic with the onion for a minute or so.
Then add back the browned pork shoulder, along with 1 can (26 oz.) San Marzano tomatoes, 1 cup red wine, 1 small handful fennel seed, 5 sprigs thyme, 5 sprigs oregano and/or sage, and 1-2 T hot sauce (sriracha or Tabasco or Crystal or whatever). Bring to a boil, then put into the oven for 4 hours, flipping the pork shoulder every hour and checking the braising liquid, which should be about 1/3 of the way up the side of the pork shoulder. If you need more braising liquid, you can use red wine, tomato sauce, water, or some combination of those liquids.
When the pork shoulder is cooked, remove it from the dutch oven, take off the string tying the shoulder together (if there is one), and shred the meat. If you prefer a smoother texture (I do), strain the braising liquid to remove any solids, like spent tomato husks. At the very least you should pick out the herb stems, which are not strictly speaking "edible." Then return the shredded pork to the braising liquid.
Personally I think the best way to serve this is the obvious way, with pasta. You take a cup or so of the ragu and heat it at medium-low in a sauce pan. Then you boil some pappardelle in salty water for 2-3 minutes. While the noodles are still a little firm, take them out, then add them to the ragu in the sauce pan. Combine the noodles and the ragu and cook for another 30 seconds to a minute until the noodles are coated. Then put that on a plate, shred a ton of Parmesan or pecorino on it, and eat.
Pork Ragu with Pappardelle
If that sounds like too much trouble, you could also put it on a roll with mayo, lettuce, tomato, pickles, etc., sloppy joe style. Or you could add some fried potatoes or other tubers and turn it into a breakfast hash, topped with a fried egg. Or serve it over cannellini beans with some broccoli rabe or other bitter greens; the sweetness of the ragu should counterbalance any bitterness.
The tour closer. Phish is playing as well as they have in years. More than that, it seems like this is a general consensus. Phish fans may be scattered across generations and social-media platforms but there is little obvious disagreement about the quality of improvisation, which night in and night out has been magnificent. The drummer is massive, controlling the action in front of him to a greater degree than ever before. The keyboard player is all over the place, more percussive than usual, rising to the challenge, demanding and happily executing solos when usually he lays back. Even the guitar player, on whom so much depends, is hitting his marks most of the time and seems to want to do it right.
Phish, Inc. chose to offer a free webcast of Sunday night's Phish concert live from Alpharetta, Georgia. One wonders why it was free, whether enough shame finally accrued to the organization from the amateur-hour shenanigans of Nugs.net that it felt the need to pay off the fan base, or whether they are testing a new product, or whether they are deviously trying to identify, harvest, and ruthlessly exploit your intimate personal information like Facebook. When the band took the stage at 8:13pm, it was playing to a big room.
The band comes on. The opener is a joke. You have been around long enough to know it doesn't really matter what they open with. Beach balls fly and beer is spilled. People banter and recreate and wager on the actual identifiable opener, but ultimately they just want to hear the band play. Get the show on the road. The best parts aren't always the first parts. You think back to set break on October 7, 2000, where you were dissecting the first set, as was your habit, when your friends announced Phish had "showed disrespect for its audience" by playing "My Soul." It's not a song any of us needs to hear again.
So many of these reviews or think-pieces or whatever end up being self-referential, meta-discursive blarrrrgh, written under a cloud of disclaimer or childishly demanding adoption of a singular model for evaluating shows. Why over-contextualize the review to the point where you become a stereotype to the reader? And why be defensive about how you're discussing Phish's music? Why not write what you want to write? Why not use the criteria that make the most sense to you? No one's stopping you.
Photo © Mike Gordon
This night, Sunday night, the magic comes early. "Bathtub Gin" is the first set's most reliable shot at redemption. The first set takes a lot of abuse. The first set's main problem is that it's not the second set. But "Gin" is here for you. "Gin" will heal and consecrate you: the brave, excursionary Randall's “Gin,” dropping flags in uncharted reaches; last week's Portsmouth opener, taking the crowd zero to 80. Tonight it was more linear: a long guitar solo, unspooling a story and peaking and staying on the peak as long as possible, then dropping down... It is a superb version of a song that has offered peaks as high as any Phish jam.
Jon Fishman is in the best playing shape of his life. He is destroying fools. He has the weapon from Krull. He is playing so well that we can finally say what we knew but didn't want to mention, the plain-view answer we didn't want to concede: so many of Phish's struggles from 2009 through summer 2012 were down not to Trey failing to practice or arthritis but to Jon Fishman not being quite in shape enough, not having practiced quite enough rudiments to handle the demands of the music. That’s not true anymore. This music has so much give to it, so receptive to suggestion. Jon Fishman is a rolling ball of butcher knives, carving up thousands of willing victims every night.
"555" has been played 555 times in 5 shows. You are a member of the 55% club for "555." You have seen it played 55 times in 5 shows, which means you have seen 555% of the total performances of this song.
In very late 2002, Phish washed ashore with a new record called Round Room. It looked and sounded like they'd made it in a week. At least half of it was very good. The lead track, especially. For once, a Phish lyric that states an obvious home truth: "I am inclined, when I find a pebble in sand, to think that it fell from my hand." We all like to believe our experience is universal, that God is talking directly to us. But you just wish Phish would play "Pebbles and Marbles" more.
"Pebbles" explodes into fire and light. It combusts. But it was a bit of a trick because just seconds later the flame burns away and it's over. Arpeggios, then quiet. The lights go to blue. Trey decides on "The Line" next. This is a show tune, with a bridge and everything, and the band butchers the harmonies. Like they say, nobody listens to Phish for their vocals.
My wife doesn't like Phish. It's not her fault; it just so happens that there are a lot of good reasons not to like Phish. At 5:40pm PDT or so, it occurred to me I needed to start preparing dinner. Instead of listening to "The Line" or the composed bit of "Vultures" I put together the following brine for some pork chops:
Dissolve 3 T brown sugar and 3 T kosher salt in 2 c. hot water. Add another 1 c. cold water, then 3 T bourbon and 2 T vegetable or canola oil. In quart-size resealable plastic bag, place pork chops with 1 medium yellow onion, sliced, 1 cinnamon stick, 2 bay leaves, 10-15 black peppercorns, 8-10 allspice berries, 5-7 cloves. Pour brine into plastic bag, marinate 3-4 hours.
Everybody loves "Vultures." There's just the one problem. Since the watershed Tahoe "Tweezer" and throughout last fall and this summer, the crowd has developed a habit of shouting "Woo!" on every rest. But the end of "Vultures" is a parade of rests, where the band lays out to give Jon Fishman room to explore the studio space. As a result the crowd shouts "Woo!" at the end of "Vultures" when it's supposed to be listening to the Greatest Rock Drummer Alive strutting his stuff. Future generations will wonder: what the fuck?
Photo © Elliot Byron
It's not all gravy. Even Charlie Dirksen would pause before raining praise upon this short and anodyne "Fast Enough for You." "Back on the Train" hops onto the train for only one stop, before getting off again. "Taste" falls to pieces during the third verse, with Mike dropping off and then Trey losing his mooring before WHAP Fish brings them back on the downbeat.
"Gumbo," "Halley's," "Tube." GHT. One of many Phish triads. Songs that used to jam but no longer do. Tunes that inspire 1.0 fans to gripe and grouse. “Gumbo” and its explosion, so long after its debut, at Star Lake. “Halley's,” always a fire-starter but for a little while, between Hampton '97 and Portland '99, so much more. Well, hold on here: “Gumbo” looks ready to dissolve into ragtime as always at the 4-minute mark but suddenly turns left. Pleasant and funky, it sounds like it could bounce laterally into "Boogie On Reggae Woman." Instead it curdles and drops into a minor key and gets a little mean. It's dub; it's funk. Page is on the clavinet and Trey is barking like Peter Frampton's talk box. It's the best “Gumbo” in ten years, without question. Best you can remember. Deer Creek 2003? Was that the last one worth remembering? You are daydreaming when the beautiful jam is brutally truncated by Trey. Murdered really. Throat slit. Done in. Sent to meet the reaper. El finito. The big snuff. Blown to bits. Processed into a slurry.
Miraculously, the set ends as horribly as it began but you still love it. "Stealing Time from the Faulty Plan" into "Suzy Greenberg," with Trey sprinting like he has a tee time and also needs to take a shit. You love the precision, you love the tempos enabled by Jon Fishman's beast-like presence. But it surges past so quickly. Even the set break is fast, and before you know it they're back, Mike now with the scarf swaddling his torso like a juicy date wrapped in prosciutto.
"Chalk Dust Torture" detonated across this summer. It had periodically been used as a jam vehicle before now, but four times in summer 2014 the band picked it to open the second set – extending the trend from Dick's, Hartford, and MSG last year. Routinely "Chalk Dust" was veering into type II weirdness, never coming back to its moorings, providing the grounding for entire second sets and entire shows. But even if it was less exploratory by virtue of its placement later in the second set, "Harry Hood" had been every bit as good. "Hood" was the band playing together, listening to each other with precision. With one show to play the league table stood as follows:
Yet another extraordinary "Chalk Dust" peaks and twists and dives and are you in an IMAX movie of some sort? No, you're not, you're just at an amphitheater in suburban Atlanta, a little past sundown on a nice cool evening. The keyboard player moves over to his cute tangerine electric piano. Maybe things should slow down, but the drummer won't let them. He is thundering along, creating massive acres of space. The rest of the band builds to a drone, feedback from the guitar and honking synth now rather than piano. Then a rock progression from the guitar, then another, then – is that "Substitute" by The Who? Close enough I guess, everybody get on the bus, everybody get on board the wave.
"Scents and Subtle Sounds" hadn't been played in 100-plus shows, since Dick's in 2011, but what's the point if they don't play the intro and don't bother with the jam? "Twist" has regressed this tour, always coming in under the 10-minute mark, always fun but never seeming to move the needle. "Fuego" – well, everybody knew we'd get one. Every state gets a “Fuego.” Every venue gets a “Fuego” but Oak Mountain, where the audience is so dominated by aggressive dirtbags that they actually had to remove the lawn, for the crowd's protection. "The Wedge" was a normal version, not the rocket-propelled excursion that knocked us stupid the third night in Chicago.
This most exceptional summer tour was the best since 2003, when Phish threw a big festival called IT and set as-yet-unequalled standards with the Camden "Scents" and conjured magic like the Alpine "YEM." Or maybe since 2000, with the long opiate set breaks and the ridiculous northeast run with GSAC's "Drowned" -> "Rock and Roll" and then the Hartford "Ghost" and finally Camden and its "Jibboo." The point is it has been exceptional, and we can figure out how to rank it later.
When Trey needs somewhere to go in the second set, "Light" is there. It's there by design. It's been there five years, a rock in the center of the river, as long as the band's been playing it. When Trey has a mental block, and needs safe passage, he can always rely on "Light." When the tempo drops away and things are not as they seem, when boredom begins to creep into the second-set soundscape, why not give the staccato chords of "Light" a try? This "Light" is a bottom-end disco soiree that for all the world seems headed toward "2001" – Page setting the prospective segue out for the rest of the band on fine china, formally requesting a response.
Alpharetta, GA LE poster by David Welker
Finally the alienating harmonics smooth out. And it's bliss, essentially. A feint toward "Sand" and then, for the first time all night, the bass player grabs the reins and says here's what I can do, let me have a turn on the mic.
In the contest for Song of the Tour between "Chalk Dust Torture" and "Harry Hood," "Hood" has the hammer. With "Chalk Dust" notching a methodical 1-0 win earlier in the set there is no question "Hood" needs a big performance to take the title. You can judge for yourself whether it got there, but I want to say I was legitimately touched by the sweetness of the interplay between these 50-year-old men who have been playing music together for over 30 years. From the slowdown during the intro, to the sweet communal jam with Trey's foot up on the drum riser, trading fours with each of his bandmates in turn, everybody smiling, Fish with a grin like the ones we've seen from Mike when Trey has called him over to duet during "YEM." It's half-Caribbean, lilting, leisurely, good intentions from men who appear to genuinely love each other.
The bass player is drumming on his fight bell with drumsticks. Where did he get the drumsticks, anyway? The guitarist has stopped trying to use his instrument percussively and is just drumming, batting on his vocal mic, flicking it insistently. Then there's piano and throughout it all the drums.
They build and build and suddenly they're at the "Chalk Dust" tempo and just one step low, playing the "Hood" jam in D instead of "Chalk Dust" in E. They feint at it but they're not squaring the circle today. Instead they thunder back into the "Hood" ending. Surely the end of set. Surely nothing more except a "Character Zero" encore.
But Trey is talking to Fishman. Then, more quickly, to Page. All on the same page. Trey is counting off. One, two—one, two, three, four. And then BOOOOMMM—
"First Tube" has been nominated for a Grammy and this summer has finally started to stake its rightful claim as a song that should be in heavy rotation as a show closer. Fuck yes. Give me this every fourth show and I will never complain.
When Phish was hanging on for dear life, trying to act like things were okay when they weren't: they held a festival called IT. They played two long shows and at the end the fans chanted for them to play "Fluffhead." They didn't. One suspected they didn't think they could. When Phish came back from the dead, the first song they played was "Fluffhead." Tonight, August 3, 2014, Phish closed out their summer tour with a sharp and facile "Fluffhead" encore.
Summer 2014, guys. Phish is back.
"Friday is for the fans, Saturday is for the bros, Sunday is for the band. Think about it." – Ancient Wook Proverb
DISCLAIMER: The author watched the webcast from his home last night, after smoking pure DMT crystals off a katana he got from Sharper Image, using an arc welder formerly owned by Tommy Chong. He had spent the week leading up to the show sending messages to other phish.net Working Group members about his plans to "brutally savage" Friday's show in this recap, promising "carnage" and expressing an intention "to tear the show a third asshole, since it's so full of shit it already has two." He apologizes for not getting this recap up sooner, but it's the World Cup quarterfinals for Christ's sake, give him a break.
Two big questions hung over the middle SPAC show like ominous twin stalactites, and both got answered with "hell yes, apparently." The first question was, is Phish ever going to play a good show this year. No, no, I'm just playing.
The first question was, how legit is "Fuego" going to be? We all were hoping. Each of us has his or her favorites, but it's fair to say "Fuego" was the consensus best-in-show and most-likely-to-succeed from the Wingsuit set. The band seemed to think so anyway, changing the name of the ensuing LP release to Fuego and slotting in the now-title track in the favored spot after "Auld Lang Syne" on New Year's Eve, like NBC premiering The A-Team right after the Super Bowl. It seemed designed to be the next "Down with Disease" or "Ghost," an open-ended jam that can carry an entire set on its shoulders. But there was no real jam on New Year's, and the other night's limp performance at Great Woods had some posing the disquieting question whether "Fuego" was going to be "DwD" or "Ghost," or if it was more like "Walls of the Cave," which gets plenty fiery but apart from some early exploratory versions has always colored reliably within the lines.
But there was no need to worry, and now those of us that did maybe feel a little silly. Remembering that Phish doesn't go far out when it plays "Down with Disease" in the first set either, the Great Woods performance was no omen. Sure, last night's "Fuego" eased into the chilly evening waters with almost comical hesitancy, feinting and building, probing and dying down. But they stayed with it, and then as often forms the basis of great Phish improvisational moments these days, Trey found a simple ascending progression and the band surged patiently to a deliberate but awesome peak. I actually found the subsequent "Down with Disease" more satisfying than the "Fuego," but they've been playing "Disease" twenty years as opposed to eight months, so this is no slight on the first exploratory "Fuego." I am sure we will get many more over the next few weeks.
The rest of the second set was your basic throwdown, without ballads or breathers, along the lines of the third show from last fall's Hampton run. A spare and patient "Twist" didn't overstay its welcome but gave way to "Light" – why does Trey have trouble finding the right key at the start of "Light"? – which did what "Light" does, generating huge momentum through weird harmonics. "First Tube" was the sledgehammer driving the last spike.
Which brings me to the second question: this no covers thing is for real, huh? Yeah, homie, it appears to be. Don't quibble like a pedant about "The Star-Spangled Banner." It's essentially a traditional like "Auld Lang Syne" and they do it once a year on a particular day. It doesn't count. Other than the odd exception of "Funky Bitch" Phish hasn't played a cover since the "Sneaking Sally" encore that closed Phish.net's consensus favorite show of last year.
And this year it's not just no covers. No Gamehendge songs except for "Possum," which isn't really part of the narrative anyway. Also and more significantly, no Junta songs. No "YEM," though tonight seemed poised for a big one following "Theme." We haven't seen my personal second-favorite Phish song "David Bowie" close any first sets. Again, they could have gone that way Friday night, but they turned left with "Split Open and Melt" instead. No "Divided Sky" or "Fluffhead" or "Golgi." Nobody can imagine all these songs staying out of the rotation for long, but Trey has talked in interviews about the frustrations created by such a large repertoire, with too many children vying for the attention of an older, less intense band that plays fewer shows these days. If limiting the repertoire, even arbitrarily, is a way to keep the band focused, I say roll with it. As long as they're playing music together Phish is always going to play awesome jams, and it's okay with me if those jams come out of "Fuego" or "Seven Below" or "Twenty Years Later" rather than "Crosseyed" or "Rock and Roll" or "Golden Age."
I'm not going to assign last night's show a number. You could quibble with certain things. Sure, the first sets could be stronger, more improvisational. I am not going to defend another lifeless "Moma Dance" at this point and I can take or leave "Kill Devil Falls" and I have hated "Rift" forever. The "Jim" and "46 Days" were perfunctory. But the "Reba" jam was gorgeous, with burbling melody and surging in temperature until its brutal Fishcording. And take your hat off to the tone-perfect 1993-era closing sequence, with a dark and viscous "Split" jam (listen to Page!) that even stuck the landing, then the brisk early-morning jog and long cooldown of "The Squirming Coil." It has come to my attention that some people think "Coil" is a buzzkill, and you can't see me but I'm shaking my head at all of you right now. Don't like "Backwards Down the Number Line" deep in the fourth quarter? I'm not going to fight about it, but today actually is my birthday so I'm pretty sure Trey was playing it specifically for me. This version actually raged, also. Bottom line, this was a very, very good Phish show, right up there with the best of last fall's incredibly strong nor'easter.
CHEERS to Jon Fishman, who is playing his ass off, dictating the scope and tempo of jams, slowing "The Moma Dance" to a crawl, which didn't really work, but later catching "Split" on the hook of his wrecker and dragging it bodily into the swamp, and shutting the place down by bringing a little New Orleans (or maybe Nashville) to a swaggering "Character Zero."
CHEERS to Chris Kuroda, constantly reinventing himself to the point where it's not clear if he's an obsessive perfectionist or just gets bored easily. He's now rocking four stations across the stage, one for each band member, with a horizontal grid up high and a rack descending vertically toward the floor, plus big racks on each side. Last year's setup is gone. His go-to look last night seemed to be big, bold horizontal stripes of immaculate color across the white backdrop.
JEERS to vodka-enthusiast turd man Billy Joel for too many reasons to count, but I guess if his oafish self-regard leads Phish to a career reinvention by focusing on their own idiosyncratic repertoire, then possibly also CHEERS to Billy Joel, America's beloved "Piano Man."
JEERS to the LivePhish app, last updated during the Eisenhower Administration.
CHEERS to the Randall's tickets sitting next to me on the desk.
The date December 29 has historical significance to Phish fans. Back in 1994, the New Year's Run followed a magnificent fall tour that had seen the band deepen and extend its improvisations, learning to move quickly and sometimes abruptly from one idea to another, from one riff to a variation to chaos to deep space and then back. The month between 11/12/94 at Kent State and the end of the tour in particular featured consistently sophisticated and exploratory second sets the likes of which Phish had never been able to deliver before. After taking a couple of weeks off for the holidays and a warmup the night before, Phish showed up on December 29, 1994 and emotionally demolished the ancient Providence Civic Center with possibly the most storied single jam in its history. As readers of this site know, the 35-minute, multi-part Providence "David Bowie" recently placed first in the Phish.net working group's (admittedly off-the-cuff and informal) poll of Phish's greatest jams. Even those (like me) who wouldn't rank it number-one have to acknowledge its immense significance and wondrous beauty.
Red Light is shooting itself in the foot by overscheduling the northeast and ignoring its fanbase in the south and west ... If I had to pick one first-set closer to see at every show, I would choose "David Bowie" ... Let's be honest, gang, the majority of the bustout covers during summer '98 were not well rehearsed ... My favorite guest appearance at a Phish show would have to be Baby Gramps on 8/26/93 ... Fishman played better in the suit ... The art for sale in the lots, particularly the beadwork, has never been better ...
The narrations in "Forbin/Mockingbird" are always great, but for my money, nothing beats the narration during "Icculus."
I was never comfortable with the rape imagery in "Jennifer Dances" ... Maybe I'm crazy, but Vladimir Putin is a man I would trust to chaperone my daughter ... Pound for pound, no Phish song has delivered as consistently across all eras as "Bathtub Gin" ... Speaking of "Bathtub Gin," although I concede the Ventura "Gin" was a tremendous show opener, the Riverport "Gin" a week later was without question the best show opener of all time ... Riverport Ampitheater was the St. Louis-area venue where they arrested Axl Rose for assaulting a security guard ... "Waste" is a horrible lyric, but "Friday" is perhaps the single worst lyric in the history of music ... Personally, I never clap during "Stash." I find it demeaning ... The best thing Phish ever did was losing showboat percussionist Marc Daubert ...
Many Americans first grew to love Phish through the novel Run Like an Antelope ... Have you noticed that, in horror films, where there's a hippie character, he generally dies? ... Mike Gordon has tremendous calves ... I cannot be held responsible for my actions if I hear another "Loving Cup" encore ... I am fairly certain the cheesesteak I enjoyed after the third show at Bethel Woods contained neither cheese nor steak ...
Somebody needs to tell the kids sucking balloons after shows, it's just not smart, gang ... The most courteous staff I have ever dealt with at any venue were the fine people at Alpine Valley Music Center in East Troy, Wisconsin ... If you go behind the 200 section Fishman side in Alpharetta, they have a dog track with all the amenities ... The people who feel "Tweezer" peaked in 1994 and 1995 are wrong; I believe "Tweezer" has yet to peak ... The men's basketball team at Goddard College is shockingly bad ... I'm concerned that keyboard player Page McConnell is going bald.
Larry King is a retired broadcasting legend who lives in the Atlanta, Georgia metro area. He has seen 133 Phish shows since his first show at the Pickle Barrel in Killington, VT on 2/7/91. His favorite jam is the GSAC Drowned -> Rock & Roll, just like yours should be. He enjoys smoked whitefish with capers and regular, vigorous prostate massage.
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