If you are like me, Summer tour ’11 probably has you feeling a bit schizophrenic. In just a few weeks we have witnessed both the highest of highs (Bethel, Midwest, Great Lakes) and the lowest of lows (PNC 2, Alpharetta 1 & 2). In retrospect, much of the distress has to do with timing. A Bethel tour opener many fans wrote off turned out to be one of the most exploratory shows of the summer, while a webcasted, storm-contending Alpharetta throw-down featured perhaps the most infamous abortion since Roe v. Wade. And so it figures that, just two nights removed from the most disappointing show in recent memory which had phans literally burning effigies of their favorite band members in the streets (and by literally I mean figuratively, and at their computers), Phish would head down south and unleash an absolute smoke stack.
Last night’s show was also interesting, in that it simultaneously was a show where Phish tried to be memorable and a show where Phish was memorable—but for almost completely different reasons. Yes, the Forbin’s/Mockingbird/Icculus/Bike bust-outs were alternatively wonderful and/or hilarious. But as Hartford ’09 along with other high-profile 3.0 shows have proved, a bunch of enjoyable bust-outs and banter do not a memorable Phish show make. So where were the real meatballs in this heaping bowl of spaghetti? You’d better get ready…
The night kicked off with a short but intense Mike’s Groove. It’s becoming harder and harder to complain about Mike’s Song’s lack of jamming when Trey’s Type I leads are as fiery as they were tonight. Although the peak felt a little rushed, an explosive Weekapaug more than made up for it. Weekapaugs have been downright explosive this tour and this one is no exception, with a funk breakdown in the middle featuring some nice Boomerang Pedal-infused licks. Also, let me add, if I may, that it’s refreshing to see I Am Hydrogen used as the norm again—like a well-selected wine and cheese pairing, there’s a reason these songs are meant to be played with each other!
Bouncing, NICU and Sample followed, before a deep Mike note signaled the beginning of the first Forbin’s since last Independence Day in Alpharetta. This is a super-tight version with some great tension and playing by Page. Trey’s “narration” in the middle was not much at all, but hinted towards what was to come in the second set. Mockingbird got out of the gates a bit sloppy, but once Trey got locked in to the difficult middle composition, the piece took flight. Certainty the best playing of the Gamehendge duo we’ve seen this era.
Axilla, a song that has settled nicely into rotation, rocked us into the set closing trio of Wolfman’s, Mule and Stealing Time. Wolfman’s picked up from where the last version at MPP left off and featured some delicious funk interplay between all four band members. Apparently the Mule Duel has been officially decided in Page’s favor, as this was another version where Trey backed off after just a few seconds. I love Stealing Time as a set closer—this one fumbled a bit at the peak but featured a super-strange ambient outro with a lyrical reprise that I hope becomes a fixture in every performance.
Coming into the second set, fans were all wondering (worrying perhaps?) whether the band would finally let loose with some of the patience we were treated to earlier in the tour. A smooth but decidedly in-the-box Number Line opener did little to assuage anyone’s fears, but when the band segued into Rock & Roll, fans sensed they were in for something. When featured at the top of the set, this song has become one of the most reliable Type II jamming numbers in the band’s catalogue. On this night, an absolutely ripping version melted smoothly into delicate conversation between Page, Trey and Mike, with Fish laying down some patient snare-driven ambience to lead the jam further. Trey finds a gorgeous groove towards the end that one wishes he might have stayed with a bit longer, but it was impossible to complain when the band seamlessly segued into just the second Ghost of the tour.
While the band has taken a lot of flack for their song choices this tour, it is really hard to deny how powerful a song like Ghost becomes when shelved for just a couple weeks or so. This jam takes no time at all before Trey starts laying down some loops to make it clear to everyone that the ripcord has been dropped along the highway in Georgia. Just like the NYE Ghost—the version everyone will be comparing this with for a while—Trey takes full command and locks into a series of fantastic grooves to lead this jam to a glorious peak. While not technically a butter jam, this one brought out cream cheese, the jelly and the marmalade. I’ll have to listen to NYE again to see which one I prefer, but it’s neck and neck.
A high-energy Free led into a beautiful Reba. The composition was perfectly played and the jam was delicate and stunning. While I would love to see the band extend the jam more in another second set outing, there were absolutely no complaints here.
As Trey brought out the opening licks to Icculus, he clearly wanted to share some of the energy he was feeling with the audience even if he didn’t really have much to say in terms of a narrative. It didn’t matter—it was even more hilarious than Hartford’s pong rant and even featured some great audio/visual T-shirt imagery. The following HYHU>Bike>HYHU Henrietta suite continued the hilarity and, more importantly, showed just how much fun Phish is having on stage these days. When moments like these combine with top-notch jams, it truly says something about the band’s future.
A fantastically placed Chalkdust that flirted with an extended jam led instead into another long-awaited number—You Enjoy Myself. Unfortunately, unlike Ghost, this “bust-out” did not have anything special to offer in its return to the stage. The only low-light of the evening, this was a paint-by-the-numbers YEM jam. Fans of the song (and who isn’t, really?) all hope the band will inject some of their overflowing creativity into turning this song around for the rest of the tour. Phish ended the night with another atypical and welcomed song placement in Wilson followed by a typically rollicking Loving Cup.
As Leg I wraps up in Raleigh and Portsmouth, it will be fascinating to see whether the boys are able to build off of last night’s success. A show like last night just further reinforces why fans can’t help but be disappointed when the band chooses to play without creativity or risk-taking. Phish allowing themselves to become a straightforward rock and roll band is like an alternative universe were Babe Ruth never moved on from being a pitcher. Sure he was good at it, but my god what a fucking waste! Let’s hope Phish keeps knocking out those dingers.