, attached to 2014-08-03

Review by hdorne

hdorne First of all, thanks to everyone involved in putting on this amazing free webcast. It looked and sounded fantastic, there were zero dropouts or hiccups, and it brought me pure joy.

This show isn't about the bustouts, the 20+ minute Type II jams, the segue-fests, or the Phishy silliness. Anybody looking for these criteria from this show, or from any show, will be sorely disappointed and is probably missing the point. This show was about love.

There was a moment in Harry Hood when Trey began to walk to each member of the band, one by one, and trade mini-solos with them. It started with Mike, while Fish looked on with admiration and a big smile. This was a truly touching moment. The moment extended through the set-closing First Tube, which saw Trey jumping and dancing like a little kid. As the band collected the roses thrown for them and took a bow, they put their arms around each other in a classically unrehearsed, genuine way. After all these years playing together, the ups and downs of a long-term group relationship, the grueling work put in to get them where they are, they seem to love each other more than ever. Most bands that have been around this long are merely tolerating each other, if not suppressing outright contempt, and putting their kids through college by taking your money and going through the motions.

This is the same band which, after going out with a whimper at Coventry ten years ago, walked to their separate tour buses and went their separate ways. It's easy to forget, as we dissect and compare shows and jams, that in an alternate universe we are all sitting around listening to 11/22/97 for the millionth time, or have moved on from Phish altogether. It is no small miracle that Trey is sober, the band is back (and I mean BACK), and they have rekindled their deep friendship. It was undoubtedly very hard work and there must have been some tearful heart to hearts in the process, and they are to be commended on getting back together for the right reasons.

This was not a perfect show, but it was the perfect show. It was a celebration of the serendipitous meeting of these four musical masterminds, their grassroots evolution from a local bar band into an iconic pop culture phenomenon, and how their music has brought us so much joy over the years.

The first set was a fairly standard first set for these days, but there were some highlights. Bathtub Gin wasted no time going straight to the stratosphere, with some emotional and rocking soloing from Trey. It was the true opener for me, as My Soul is a people-are-still-filing-in sort of tune. Pebbles and Marbles is a personal favorite, though I wish they would slow it down just a few clicks. I don't need it to go into a huge jam, though I certainly wouldn't complain if it did, but the intricate arrangement would benefit from a slightly slower tempo a la the Round Room version. Nitpicking aside, I loved watching Fish during this song. He is a master of technique, his arms gracefully floating over the drums and cymbals as he plays, making even the most complex patterns look and sound effortless. As Trey remarked in the Specimens of Beauty short film, if he were at a Phish show, he would be watching Fish. As a drummer myself, I can say without hesitation that he is a master of the instrument.

Vultures was another nice surprise, even if the curse of the "woo" still hangs over every song or jam with a rest. Here the rests serve as a rhythmic playground for Fish, and the crotchety old man in me wishes the damn kids would hush and listen to the man in the donut frock lay it down on the drums. Oh, and get off my lawn.

Fast Enough For You was beautiful as always, another personal favorite, but the must-hear jam from this set was Gumbo. The first jammed-out version I think since 2003, it got very funky and even toyed with a segue into Boogie On Reggae Woman. Trey kept things very tasteful and rhythmic, allowing the deep funk to develop without feeling hurried. Taste was sloppily played, with Trey getting ahead of the rest of the band and having to be reset by Fish, but I think it was sheer excitement that caused Trey to speed up. Taste is also a very rhythmically complex piece, and the band was locked in and relaxed by the time Fish's vocal came around.

The set seemed unsure of when or how it would end, with the last few songs seemingly picked at random, but they were having so much fun on stage that I didn't mind at all. A very playful rendition of Halfway To The Moon preceded a rocking Suzy Greenberg, an exquisite double feature for Page. Beautiful singing and soloing in the former, nasty key-pounding in the latter. He's the guy who talks to the crowd now, a confidence which extends to his magnificent solos as of late.

This is only enhanced by the fact, by way of my opinion, that the current mix of the band is better than ever. Each instrument and voice is beautifully and equally represented, and the amount of crowd ambience is perfect. 2003-2004 soundboards still rule in terms of absolute precision and clarity, but they could also sound somewhat Trey-heavy and sterile from the total lack of crowd noise. Listen to a current soundboard and compare with, say, the Island Tour. To me, there is no comparison. You can actually hear Page's piano, not just its keys. You can hear the rich tone of Fish's drums, not just sticks hitting heads. The mix has been steadily improving since the muddy, overly crowd-heavy recordings from '09 and '10, and in 2012 began to sound quite nice. Right now, I can't imagine them sounding any better. But back to the show ...

The set break featured some funny bits about a version of Wombat featuring Iggy Azalea, the band starting the tour by playing the wrong Portland, and a Phish show widely considered to be the most average of all time. A nice reminder that these guys are still a bunch of dorks.

The second set got going with an excellent Chalk Dust Torture, the major improv vehicle of this tour. This one is half as long and twice as energetic as the epic Randall's Island rendition, and the transition into Scents can be heard a mile away, even if the segue itself is a little choppy. I love this song, and while this version contains little jamming, it is beautifully played. The same goes for Twist, a short rendition which is nevertheless playful and fun, and which lands right in the lap of the inevitable Fuego. This version is neither jammed out nor particularly well played by Trey, but I still love the song and the album. Trey's flubs are always forgiven when he's jumping around with a huge grin on his face. As he said in Bittersweet Motel, it's not about nailing the changes or hitting all the right notes. It's about the energy shared between the band and audience, and this show has that in spades. A standard rendition of The Wedge reveals that the jammed-out Chicago version was an inspired performance and not a harbinger of all future versions of the song. I like this approach. If an inspired jam blossoms out of it, that's fantastic. If not, that's OK too. I think I'd get bored if every single version went into a routine jam which may or may not have much going for it (see: Down With Disease).

Light goes to some fairly dark places. My wife was struggling to put our fussy toddler to sleep during this song, so I don't remember much about it. He also loves Phish. He clapped when they walked on stage and danced through most of the first set. He's going to turn out alright.

After the aforementioned outpouring of joy in Harry Hood and First Tube, I was eagerly anticipating the encore. There was no way they could top the unstoppable energy and catharsis of First Tube, and I was hoping for anything but Character Zero. Trey quickly strapped up and strummed the opening chords of Fluffhead, and all was well in my universe. It is an extraordinarily difficult and complex composition, but they absolutely nailed it, and at a relatively brisk tempo to boot. The final "Fluffhead!" peak made the crowd go absolutely batshit crazy, and rightfully so. Phish had just capped off one of their best tours in years with a joyous and note-perfect rendition of one of their signature songs.

I became a Phish fan during the post-hiatus era, my first show being 12/29/03. The next shows I heard via AUD trades were those of the disastrous 2004 Vegas run, and it became clear to me that this band was in trouble. Four months later, I was listening to the Coventry XM broadcast, sadly resigned to the then-fact that my musical heroes would never again grace the stage with their majestic presence. Fast forward ten years, and we are deep into another career peak for the band. The haze of drugs is gone, the band seem to be closer than ever, and the musical communication has an emotional beauty and maturity unheard in the past.

That's not to say we shouldn't call the off nights when they do happen. Being glad Phish are healthy and happy doesn't mean that every show should be heralded as one of the greats. But let's not forget, they've always had off nights. Even the supposed glory days of the 90's had flubs, jams that went nowhere, missed cues, choppy segues, etc. However, there are times when analysis and critique should take a backseat to basking in the glory of a performance so full of pure joy that you can't help but get off your couch and start jumping up and down with Trey. This was one such night.

Thank you, Phish.


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