Phish’s Mojo Returns In Detroit

06.03.2011 (Photo by Dave Vann)

It’s fitting that the next Phish show I’m seeing will be at an amusement park, because this summer is starting to feel like a roller coaster ride. After the stunning quality of the first two shows was unmatched in the following three, many fans wondered what the rest of the tour would sound like. Well, there’s still much to learn on that front. But after last night’s show in Detroit, one thing is for certain: Bethel was not a fluke.

But before we get to the meat and potatoes, let’s back up a bit. We don’t see Phish because they’re perfect; we see them because they’re imperfect. The reason the band has amassed such a large group of fans who will follow them from one show to the next is not because every one will be great, but because any one could be. Even in the periods of the band’s history in which extended improvisation was a given at any show – Fall ’97 and Summer ’03 – top-notch improvisation was anything but a given. You knew you might see a 12/5 or a 12/9, but those pretty good shows were well worth the drive when you got to see 12/6 and 12/7 along the way.

In my opinion, the biggest reason the band’s ticket sales have taken a dip is that the frequency of improvisational transcendence has fallen dramatically in 3.0. Don’t get me wrong – the band has kept things interesting with things like Guyutica, Zeppelin-fest, and Killing In the Name. But the jams have been much slower to return, and when they have, they’ve been far less spectacular and less original than in other eras.

Until now. In last night’s Down with Disease, the band picked up where they left off last Saturday night in Bethel, and over the following 25 minutes–which exceeded the length of Wednesday’s Piper, Twist and Ghost combined–they carved out a piece of improvisational history. Coupled with their successes in Bethel last weekend, it is undeniably true that Phish is again a band worth traveling for.

Set 1: Wolfman’s Brother, Funky Bitch, Sample in a Jar, NICU*, Mike’s Song > I Am Hydrogen > Weekapaug Groove, Tela, Chalk Dust Torture, The Wedge

Set 2: Down with Disease > Fluffhead > David Bowie, Waste > 2001 > Cavern

Encore: Good Times, Bad Times

* with Happy Birthday teases

06.03.2011 (Photo by Dave Vann)

The quartet opened their first show at the Detroit-area DTE Energy Music Theatre (formerly Pine Knob Music Theatre) with Wolfman’s Brother. The song, which has been reliably very good but rarely excellent, was better than usual last night. Trey’s accented rhythm work during the verses hinted at the fact that he was feeling loose, and his soloing during the jam confirmed it. Mike, celebrating his 46th birthday, provided some excellent counterpoint to Trey’s soaring lines before the song came to a close.

After standard versions of Funky Bitch and Sample, the birthday celebrations began. The “swim with the cactus” line in NICU was replaced with “happy birthday, Cactus,” and Trey played “Happy Birthday” on his guitar at the end of the song, before firing up Mike’s Song. Mike’s got its usual 3.0 workout, rocking out for about 10 minutes, before giving way to the first Hydrogen since Telluride.

Weekapaug, a song that has suffered from Trey’s decreased dexterity, was better last night than most recent versions. Though Trey’s fingers prevented him from laying down a truly clean solo, his mind was moving just as quickly as ever, and the resulting solo was imaginative and energetic. This is a step in the right direction for this song, and as his dexterity continues to improve, we can expect Weekapaug to improve with it.

Tela, which is still fairly shocking to see in semi-regular rotation after its 11-year hiatus, was mostly well-played, although the band was out of sync for most of the instrumental outro. A long-ish Chalkdust, which had some great ideas but never really found its direction, came next, before the set closed with The Wedge–the first time that song has occupied that position since 1998.

06.03.2011 (Photo by Dave Vann)

But all of that is secondary. This show is all about the Disease that opened the second set. Although Trey’s soloing early in the jam is quite sloppy, he eventually lays down some loops and lets the others take over. Trey then starts up a great groove himself, which peters out fairly quickly, and the band slides into ambient territory. But Trey keeps playing. This has been rare the last couple years: that Trey sounds like he wants to play. That he leads. When it happens, it’s almost always a sign of good things to come.

The theme Trey lays down is melodic and pretty, and the rest of the band rushes to complement it. The pulsing jam grows, thanks to Fishman. The band is moving as a unit. This is Phish. As was true in last Saturday’s jams in Bethel, Trey’s playing consists largely of punctuated bursts of repeated notes, and as was true with those jams, it works beautifully here. This sounds like a new style of Phish jamming, and it’s exhilarating to hear it.

The jam sounds, possibly consciously, like John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” It is gorgeous–inspired and inspiring. The band moves into a section that recalls Seven Below. As Trey takes the lead, we are reminded that Phish jamming these days is at its best when Trey is not soloing.

Finally, after nearly 25 minutes, the band transitions into Fluffhead. This is a surprising call – I might have expected something smaller, like Taste or Mango – but it seems like a statement: they were not finished bringing the goods.

The above-average version ended, and the goods kept coming. Bowie, which was strong last weekend in Bethel, was even stronger in Clarkston. The over-16-minute rendition featured a thrilling major-key mid-section, whose driving rhythm almost recalled an I Know You Rider jam. Trey’s soloing during the tune was some of his best of the night, securing this Bowie’s place among the best versions of the current era.

Waste served as a welcome come-down after the phenomenal, nearly hour-long opening three songs of the set. 2001, which was as short as other modern versions but well played, led into Cavern, which put the exclamation point on a six-song set that is in easy contention for the best set since the band’s 2009 return.

06.03.2011 (Photo by Dave Vann)

But that wasn’t it. Many were expecting a Contact encore, to put the birthday boy in the spotlight, but Trey was feeling grabby. And let’s be happy he was: the Good Times, Bad Times drips with Trey’s sweat. He absolutely rips the song apart–to my mind, the best version since the 12/1/03 scorcher. And so the statement was made: to all the Trey-nay-sayers, myself included, Trey says yea. And if that’s what he’s going to say, I’m more than happy to listen to him.

The tour continues tonight in Cuyahoga Falls. OPT, who writes most of the reviews, will be at the show, so I’ll be on review duty again tomorrow. See you then.

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