Phish Goes Heavy On Rock, Light On Jams in Cincy

Phish 06.05.2011 (Photo by Dave Vann)

Phish closed out their three-night midwest weekend with a show that recapped many of the tour’s defining themes. The first set was filled with jam-vehicles, while the second included multiple covers; Trey’s playing was strong, but his band mates shined when they got the chance. And once again, the band pushed the Stop button almost every time a jam got started–but found a way to rock nonetheless.

As it did a week earlier in Bethel, AC/DC Bag performed its opening duties capably. This may not sound like much, but this is another song that keeps reminding us of the heat that’s newly returned to Trey’s fingers. That he can rip through songs like this like it’s 1995 should make the whole fanbase breathe a collective sigh of relief.

A solid Punch You in the Eye keeps the energy up, and Bathtub Gin even elevates it. The Gin jam never leaves the structure of the song, but with Trey laying on the tension in gobs, with Mike’s punchy bass lines supporting it, I can live with its lack of adventurousness.

The band follows with the first Taste since Amherst last October. The jam plods along with almost no sign of the rust one might expect after a seven-month break until the very end, when Fish seems to initiate the final chords before Trey was ready to do so. Still, this is an impressive version.

Phish 06.05.2011 (Photo by Dave Vann)

The show heads next for Page’s house, for a standard Lawn Boy whose most exciting moment comes at the end, when Fish says, “Page McConnell! Page McConnell!” — and promptly kicks into the unmistakable opening to Mound. Though Mike has given his composition plenty of attention in his solo band, it’s been much rarer to grace a Phish stage: since leaving regular rotation in 1996, the song has been played only at 12/31/02, Red Rocks ’09, last December in Worcester, and now in Cincinnati. Aside from a couple minor blips, the song was well executed last night.

Jibboo has a somewhat strange jam, largely due to Fishman’s unusual drum work. For much of the song, Fishman keeps the hi-hat and kick drums going, but hits the snare on odd beats (normally, throughout a Jibboo jam, he’ll hit the snare on the third beat of every measure). It gives this version an uneasy, somewhat tense feeling. On one hand, this keeps things interesting, but on the other, it’s not matched by his band mates’ playing, so it seems kind of arbitrary. For those of you familiar with the 7/30/03 Camden show, this reminds me of Fishman’s incessant use of the crash during the YEM jam.

The song wraps up nicely, and the hits keep coming: the first Reba of the tour follows. Without leaving the song’s structure as in the standout take from Augusta last fall, this version is among the best straight-ahead Rebas of 3.0. Trey’s playing is focused and melodic, while Mike adds some great counterpoint high on the fretboard.

A solid Fee with an extended harmonic-laden outro yields to Backwards Down the Number Line – the third version of the young tour. Unfortunately, Trey’s solo never really finds its footing, and the set’s ending is its lowest point. But with excellent song selection and solid versions of just about every song that was played, this is a strong, if not particularly adventurous, opening set.

Phish 06.05.2011 (Photo by Dave Vann)

The second set opens with Carini, another song making its third appearance of the summer. This puts Carini on pace to shatter its record of five plays in a single tour, as it did in spring ’97 and fall ’00. Trey ends a brief guitar solo with the opening notes of Tweezer, yet another song stretching its legs for the third time in eight shows. Like Bethel’s and Holmdel’s versions, this one doesn’t do too much exploring. But it covers 12 strong minutes, with Trey and Mike sharing leadership roles–the former, alternating between funky staccato guitar passages and raging solos; the latter, a mix of ethereal, octave-pedal-enhanced lines and dissonant fretwork.

The jam is cut short for Free, which, characteristically for 3.0, is short and uninteresting. Crosseyed and Painless follows, a song that is now in more regular rotation than at any point since the band began playing it 15 years ago. Page injects the short jam with some excellent clav work, but it is a guitar-heavy version. Trey, as previously mentioned, has done some exciting things of late with his guitar, but unfortunately, his favorite pedal seems to be the “Abort Jam” pedal, which he hits eight minutes into Crosseyed. Light abruptly starts.

The jam out of Light has some excellent moments before being cut short. After falling into a dissonant section that works better than usual, Mike hops on his octave-doubler (pedal-heads out there, please forgive me for not knowing the actual name of the effect he’s using). Trey eventually adds an octave of his own, looping himself–an effect similar to the one many fans will recognize from the Cities at the Greek last summer. But just as the jam seems to have picked up steam, Trey begins the groove that becomes Boogie On Reggae Woman.

On the plus side, the band’s playing in this set seems far less impatient than the June 1st show in Holmdel. But on the minus side, they are (or perhaps, Trey is) still obviously reluctant to experiment too much. If impatience is not the culprit, it’s hard to know what is: perhaps a concern that their audience is less adventurous than they used to be? After Detroit’s Disease, one has to imagine the band recognizes that they still have the ability to explore. Let’s hope that they become willing to more frequently as the tour progresses.

Phish 06.05.2011 (Photo by Dave Vann)

Boogie On ends after less than six minutes, and Julius takes its place. Like Sneakin’ Sally, Julius has become a victim of Trey’s ever-shrinking vocal range; he has to sing half the lines up an octave. Presumably, we can expect more and more songs to suffer the same treatment as time goes on. Who knows, maybe YEM will eventually be the only Trey-sung tune the band will be able to play. I could think of worse things.

Of course, the range of Trey’s guitar is as wide as it ever was, and he covers both ends of the fretboard in a scorching Julius solo before launching into the predictable set-closing You Enjoy Myself. As in Holmdel, this version was not particularly long, but it does feature some nice interplay between Trey and Mike before the vocal jam. The Loving Cup/Tweeprise encore provides an appropriately rocking end to the Cincinnati show and midwest run.

There are a lot of reasons to be optimistic about what’s in store for the final couple weeks of this leg of summer tour. Trey is playing better than he has at any point since the band’s return; when the band takes risks–as in Friday night’s Disease or Bethel’s Gin, Halley’s, and Disease–they yield great rewards. But too often, the band is playing risk-averse sets. Too often, the jam ripcord–which, as reader Jake points out has been pulled multiple times by Fish in addition to the more well-established Trey jam-kills–is pulled just as an improvisatory excursion seems likely to begin. And thus, while the band is playing good shows night after night, they’re playing great shows much less frequently. Let’s hope that, as the band heads back to the northeast and then continues in the south, they’re willing to take some risks.

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