There have been developments. Just three shows into Phish’s summer tour, ten percent of scheduled shows not including the festival, the boys have given their fans reason to reassess what Phish 3.0 can mean. It is easy to overreact to such a small sample size of a tour that has barely just begun, but the discerning Phish fan can’t help but notice a number of developments, from subtle to significant, that made this opening weekend in Bethel so exciting. Here’s my top 10:
10. Jon Fishman, Band Leader: Well, maybe it’s a stretch to say Fishman was the leader—or MVP—of the band over the weekend. But his presence was felt all over the place, from the way he ripped it up in Wolfman’s to the yeoman’s work he did holding down a sprawling Gin jam. The two times he really asserted himself, forcing unique segues into Hood and Weekapaug, the results were fantastic. Let’s hope he keeps it up.
9. Page’s House: Page is up higher in the mix now and it sounds awesome. It’s not just about hearing every note of his killer organ solo in Funky Bitch—it’s about the beatific chord he laid down underneath Trey as Hood rose to a climax, the communication between him and Fish in the Gin jam that led to Manteca and the dirty peak from BOTT. Maybe I’m just an unabashed Page fan, but I can’t see how hearing more of him in the mix could possibly be a bad thing, especially with the more balanced jamming we’ve grown accustomed to in 3.0. Nice work, sound peeps.
8. Back on the Train: Speaking of BOTT, when was the last time Phish started a tour with a set like that? Not including the Island Run–since four shows does not a tour make–I’m not sure I can come up with a better first set of a tour. However, before we let ourselves get overexcited, we have to be honest about what went down over the weekend….
7. Spotting the Rust: Yes, it was there—in the beginning of BDTNL, in Fluffhead, in Weekapaug to name a few. Plus, Sunday night did evidence some of the head-scratching jam abortions and awkward set list choices we’ve grown accustom to. Overall, the band was sloppier than they were at the end of last fall. This is normal for the beginning of tour, of course, but we shouldn’t pretend just because the level of creativity was so high that there isn’t still rust to knock off. They still have plenty room to grow over this tour—and that is great news considering where they already are.
6. Pro-Shot HD Video: You mean Phish is playing their best music in years and we get to see amazing video of it the day after each show? Say what you will about Phish Inc., but that is some straight niceness right there.
5. Arise, Young Jedi: You know what’s great about HD video? It’s the best way to tell how locked in the band is. Like baseball fans who can tell when their favorite hitter is “in the zone” by his demeanor at the plate, Phish fans have learned to read the many faces of Ernesto to decipher what’s going on in his head. And according to the video, he looks as focused and locked in as ever in his sober life. I won’t get into specifics, but we all know it when we see it. And it always means good things.
4. Stash, Bowie and Hood=Life is Good: All three of these songs have given Trey some trouble in past years and all have seemingly lacked their prior capacity for explosive creativity. Between last year’s NYE run and now Bethel, we can finally feel good about Hood, Bowie and Stash again. Meanwhile, fans wait with baited breath for Reba, a song that ended last year on a spectacularly high note, and YEM, a song that had been getting consistently blander until NYE’s Manteca throw down.
3. First Set Fire: Did the band sit down the day before tour, watch the Utica DVD and say to themselves “let’s do that more often, shall we?” There have been plenty of lackluster first sets followed by killer second sets, but how many amazing first sets have been followed by shitty second sets? I can’t think of any. When the band launches into a deep jam in the first set, you know they came to play for the whole night. Save for a few nice moments, the first set fire was extinguished in the third night of Bethel. But the fact that we saw it for two nights in a row to kick the tour off is a great sign for the future.
2. Twelve Minute Kill Devil Falls, Anyone?: What if I told you that Fluffhead and Weekapaug would be two of the worst played tunes of the weekend, that there would be no YEM, Reba, Ghost or Divided Sky…but the shows would still contain some of the best jamming of 3.0? KDF, BOTT, BDTNL and, of course, a resurgent Halley’s were just a few songs that were stretched way past the norm. The band has apparently put some conscious effort into revitalizing their communication and creativity on stage, and the result is that now anything can truly happen in any song. Considering this is a trend that has carried over from the end of last tour, don’t expect if to go anywhere soon.
1. A Shining Light in Darkness Deep: Phish is a band that works best in extremes. Their extreme goofiness is stuff for the ages, as is their extreme darkness. While it may be too harsh to say that 3.0 had been bland, it was certainly been missing some of the emotional extremes that have characterized so much of Phish’s prior years. In just the past three days we saw a classic moment of Phish humor in Makisupa, a pitch black psychedelic excursion in Waves, a high buttery peak in Gin and a condensed but very biting section of tension in Stash. The goofiness is back, the darkness is back and the tension/release and butter jams are nearly back. Say what you will about Phish 3.0, but with a stunning Bethel opener behind us and 27 shows plus a festival to look forward to, it is a fantastic time to be a fan.