If Summer Tour were a playoff series, then Phish would have started out with a 2-0 lead, following blowout victories in the Bethel openers. But after two much closer matches on Sunday and Tuesday, the band’s edge would be looking more tenuous. Entering last night’s show – the last of five in their home territory – it was up for debate whether they’d even have the lead as they headed to the midwest.
Who, you might wonder, is the band’s opponent in this analogy? Last night answered that question definitively: themselves. Phish is always best when they’re able to get out of their own way; in one interview after another, they’ve acknowledged that on stage, the more they’re thinking, the worse they’re playing.
Last night in Holmdel, the band – and let’s be more specific: Trey – sounded like they were doing way too much thinking.
The band largely held things together in the first set, beginning with energetic but standard versions of First Tube and Stealing Time, and a flubbed but always fun Camel Walk. The set’s highlight, Jibboo, featured some great gentle interplay between Trey and Page as Mike danced around them, before shifting into a more upbeat section with some tasty licks from Trey.
Set 1: First Tube, Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan, Camel Walk, Heavy Things, Gotta Jibboo, Wilson > Seven Below > Kill Devil Falls, Axilla > Split Open and Melt, Suzy Greenberg
Set 2: Tweezer > No Quarter, Carini > Piper > Twist > Ghost > Backwards Down The Number Line
Encore: Show Of Life > Tweezer Reprise
The second half of the set had many moments of great potential, but poor execution. Page led Seven Below into a low-key, summery groove, but Trey immediately cut it off for Kill Devil Falls. The tune, which put on its jam hat in Bethel, was more straightforward here.
Trey’s playing in Split Open and Melt gives the impression that he was attempting to create an eerie, dark modal landscape. But he failed. As in so many 3.0 Splits, he simply sounds lost, and the resulting jam is almost unlistenable. Mike and Fish do some fascinating stuff, and some of Trey’s later loops almost work. This jam is challenging, which for Phish can often be a good thing, but here it is not. And unlike many dark Phish jams of yore, which culminate in a blinding beam of light, this one stumbles across a sort of half-lit swampy finish line. The tension is not resolved; there’s just an awkward realization at some point that, oh, it’s time to end the song now.
Looking at the list of songs in the second set, you’d think the band found its footing at setbreak. Seven songs, including five jam vehicles, Carini, and a huge debut cover. But the set list is deceptive: the set was barely an hour long, and Trey drove almost all of the jam vehicles straight into a ditch.
The Tweezer featured some of the strange modal soloing that Trey loves laying down in 3.0. My music theory knowledge isn’t sophisticated enough to pinpoint what he’s doing, but my ear is sophisticated enough to know that it never sounds good. Later in the jam, he goes into some nice trilling and straight-ahead rock, but the Tweezer is long lost. It floats into an atmospheric space, which eventually takes a familiar form. The crowd goes nuts as they realize they’re witnessing the debut of No Quarter. This wasn’t a complete surprise: many fans had heard the band soundchecking the song yesterday afternoon. But it was a huge treat. Plus, the band has proven, with their regular covers of Good Times Bad Times, rarer ones like Ramble On and The Rover, and of course the Atlantic City show last October, that they do very well as a Led Zeppelin cover band.
This No Quarter was no exception. The tune is less hard-rock than many of Phish’s Zeppelin covers, but that’s no obstacle. Page’s effects-laden vocals, Trey’s spacey soloing, and the rhythm section’s slow, persistent work allow the song to stay true to the original while applying the Phish stamp.
From here to the end of the set, it just sounds like Trey had somewhere else he wanted to be. One jam after another is aborted just as it begins getting interesting. Carini dips into a trippy groove, with some excellent layering from Page, when Trey decides he’d rather be playing Piper. That song – whose quick pace and complete lack of intro reflect Trey’s obvious tightness – includes an uneasy guitar solo, before Trey again kills the jam, starting Twist with absolutely no transition. Twist is a smidgen more stretched out than the rest, with a short spacey jam that actually leads rather organically into Ghost, but there is nothing very interesting here. Ghost includes some No Quarter teases, a nondescript jam, and another push of the Shutdown button by Trey.
The set closes with Number Line, which has some of the night’s more inspired playing as well as another No Quarter tease. But when Trey thanks the crowd and says he had a great time, it’s hard to believe he’s serious. He seemed to grow more and more uncomfortable as the night wore on, and as tends to be true, the music suffers for it.
It’s hard to pinpoint what’s going on with Trey. He seems to be on a bit of Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde thing of late: he sounded looser and more energetic than ever over the New Year’s run, and his finger speed was finally returning from the hiatus they went on just as Phish was returning from their own. His patience and inspiration only increased at Bethel: for what I would consider the first time in 3.0, Trey sounded like Trey, and Phish sounded like Phish.
But all that seems to have disappeared over the last three shows. Although Trey’s dexterity was certainly in order the first night at PNC, and somewhat at the other two most recent shows, he’s sounded tight. If the band and crowd remembered over the first two nights at Bethel just what Phish was capable of, Trey seems to have forgotten it remarkably quickly.
And so, as we head into the midwest stretch, Phish seems to have made less of their home-court advantage than it initially looked like they would. The good news is that they’re obviously able to put on a spectacular show. The bad news is, they’re also clearly capable of a spectacular dud. Time will tell which the midwest is in for.