All Hits, No Substance: Only Up From Here

6.14.11 (Dave Vann)

Last night’s concert in Alpharetta was impressive.  Impressive in that they proved my  “it can only be more exciting than the first night” claim wrong.  As JDG pointed out on Phish Net in his review, Samba in the Rain, Phish “played like a nostalgia act”.

The band moved from hit song to hit song with Trey taking time in between to let the rest of the band know what the next cookie-cutter song would be.  Were the songs played poorly?  Not at all.  As I’ve said in my piece The Feeling I Forgot, Trey’s chops have returned.  Every song, repeat or not, Trey is playing with passion and accuracy.  Trey is playing with his eyes closed and his head in the sky again.  That’s what makes shows like this so awful; despite ripping into Timber, playing a Slave that is better than any other 2009/10 version, and a Bowie with soaring guitar licks, it seems that Phish’s creativity is in a downward trajectory since the Midwest shows.

After the Bethel shows, Pine Knob, and Blossom, I figured we finally had it all back.  Trey miraculously returned with his machine-gun fingers again, and they were blowing nearly every show up with creative improvisation–in both sets.  Since Blossom, Trey’s finger dexterity or passion haven’t dwindled–his creativity has though.

Set 1: Paul and Silas > Back on the Train, Foam, Water in the Sky, Runaway Jim, Army of One, Roses Are Free > Timber (Jerry) > Mound

Set 2: Mound > Tweezer > Julius > Slave to the Traffic Light, David Bowie, Suzy Greenberg > Gotta Jibboo > Harry Hood > Character Zero, The Birdwatcher > Kung

Encore: Funky Bitch > Tweezer Reprise

There were some great moments as recently as Merriweather–this slump may be totally temporary.  I might be eating my words after their next show–I hope so.  But I’m sick of the fans that are okay with this playing.  The people that get mad at me for pointing out that Phish played Bathtub Gin back-to-back.  The people that say I don’t “know anything about Phish”, because the “crowd was dancing and the band was having fun” in a show I didn’t give a glowing review to.  You guys got into Phish for the same reason the girl with butterfly wings in Bittersweet Motel did.  I got into Phish because their insane musical ability, mixed with brain-melting improvisational skill, took me to a place where nothing else can take me.  I don’t get off from how much fun everyone is having, I get of from Phish’s music.

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I don’t need 30-minute jams either.  Shows can be like the second set of Blossom.  No jam exceeded 10 minutes, but the creativity was fresh.  The only thing creative about last night was that Mound had a 50-minute rain delay in the middle of it, and the band did an acappella Kung for the first time.  Slave was played for the first time before Bowie, and for the first time next to Bowie since (I think) 1989, but last night’s show was so bland I almost don’t even want to acknowledge these statistics.  It was like them playing for Austin City Limits–yea they played those songs, but do they really count towards statistics?  Last night didn’t feel like a real show.

"Let's cut Page short for Jibboo!" - 6.14.11 (Dave Vann)

Trey played really well last night.  His on-point guitar playing during Bowie showed he can still play masterfully.  Hood was beautiful too.  But when you play a second set that contains, arguably, seven set closers with no exploration at all, it implies Phish thinks fans just want to see a greatest hits show.

As Tweezer started after the extended rain delay, I thought we’d be in for a real treat.  Instead we were greeted with the most generic take possible on the song.  When it came time where real improvisation could have taken place, Trey started up Julius.  David Bowie, although well-played, was short and cookie-cutter–I expect every Bowie to be ‘well played’.  The short Suzy Greenberg featured some amazing playing by Page, but the entire time Trey was looking at Page for when they should end it.  Eventually, Trey forced the ending before Page was ready to stop and an awkward transition ensued.  Trey, what was the point of that?  Why not let the music play you?  Where did you have to be at the end of Suzy?  Why did you have to selfishly end it?  Gotta Jibboo was played like a first-set opener.

6.14.11 (Dave Vann)

The only reason I have this concert in my collection of Phish shows is because it’s so easy to attain recordings now.  If we were still swapping Maxell XL-IIs, there is no way I’d go out of my way to trade for this show.  Unlike the Bethel shows and the Midwest shows, I will never have a reason to listen to Alpharetta 2011 again.

The upside, Trey’s playing is fantastic lately.  The downside, Phish’s creativity has been in a slump lately.  When they can combine their newfound insane playing ability with creative improvisation again, only then do we have a truly great Phish show.  This idea of playing repeat songs is growing awfully tiresome too.  Chill out on the Gins, DwDs, Rock and Rolls, Bowies, 2001s, launchpad Tweezers, and Suzys.  Why not let some 2.0 or 3.0 songs evolve?  Keep pushing the envelope, that’s what we’re all paying $80-a-pop to see.

The silverlining is that Phish shows can’t sink any more from last night.  Barring a total collapse in Trey’s playing again (which I don’t see likely at all now), their concerts can only get more interesting from here.