He’s Got A Head Full Of Ideas (And It’s Driving Me Insane)

Last night in Raleigh, Phish let loose a show that was overflowing with ideas but had little patience or structure.  This has become a bit of a trend this summer, and ultimately I find shows like this much more palatable than many of the 2009-2010 shows that featured far less creatively.  Judged against the rest of the band’s work this summer, this is a thoroughly average show, with a fair share of highlights and head-scratchers.   In fact, if I wanted to offer someone an honest account of what Leg I was all about, for good and for bad, this would be the perfect show to play for them.  Let’s start from the top.

A two-song instrumental bust out—Cars, Trucks, Buses and Peaches En Regalia—kicked us off.  CTB was played flawlessly, Peaches not so much.  The good news?  Maybe we’ll get to see Peaches again this summer, as Trey will surely wish to give this one another try.  AC/DC Bag stepped out of the box for a brief but enthralling moment before Trey brought it to an atypical peak.  This is the type of thing that sets Summer ’11 over any previous 3.0 Phish tour, and it speaks volumes about how much potential the rest of the tour holds.  A standard Guyute led into a top-shelf Possum.  I, for one, have been generally OK with the heavy Possum rotation because it’s led to some fantastic versions (Cleveland, Camden) and last night’s, while a bit more inside the box, was right up there.

Since Bethel, non-jammed Halley’s have become a sore point for fans.  Last night’s was the most painful yet.  I haven’t felt that teased since elementary school.  I’ve since learned to stand up to bullies, so Trey: Stop fucking around with us!  If you don’t want to jam Halley’s, fine.  But don’t spend a minute pretending you’re going to and then force an awkward segue into 46 Days, OK?  You big meanie.

A shreddy 46 Days led into Divided Sky.  Since one of the worst flubs in the band’s history with this song in Holmdel, every version has been superb and filled with creativity.  This was no different.  I now get excited when this song starts again—good shit.  Crooner Page came out for an always-appreciated Curtis Loewe, which was followed up by a straightforward Antelope.  Not that it was bad, just nothing to recommend it by compared to the more interesting versions earlier in the tour.  End set.

Set II opened with a Twist “bust out” (only second time played this tour).  Trey toyed with some staccato licks before Page and Mike tried to push the jam deeper, but to no avail.  The band segues nicely into a Rift that struggled a bit in the normal places but was about as tight as you’re bound to see.  Prince Caspian followed.  You may dislike the song, you may like the song’s placement even less—I fucking loved it.  These are the kind of out-of-left-field decisions the band has been making all summer that I find refreshing.  It helped that this version was flat-out gorgeous, with smooth melodic leads melting into ambience.  I wanted it to go on forever.  At one point it seemed like they were trying to build it back into the song’s iconic peak, but instead segued into Esther.

Esther was an even stranger song placement, but again I’m not complaining.  A well-played version ended and saw Trey bringing out Brian Brown to set up a new mic for him, which Mike evidenced his approval of by banging on the foot bell.  Then, after some banter and set up, Trey began riffing some chords that sounded like—holy shit it is—Been Caught Stealing!  Not content just to reprise their ’98 fan favorite Jane’s Addiction cover, Trey introduced a completely new vocal effect that had him sounding like a 13-year-old T-Pain.  It was weird, it was awesome, it was Phish.

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Up next, Piper.  These days, Pipers blast out of the gates with no hesitancy.  This is not a problem—the problem is they rarely go anywhere.  But in such a featured slot last night, fans were all looking for this one to buck the trend and it showed every signs of doing so—until it didn’t.  Rudely interrupting the rest of the band’s good times, Trey segued in My Friend, My Friend.  But it’s no use crying over spilled jams, and My Friend packed its normal punch.  The following Kill Devil Falls was perhaps the strangest song placement of the night—even I can’t defend this one.  It was straight filler and simply unnecessary.  If you remove it and allow Piper to go where it wants to go, all of the sudden you’re looking at one of the best sets of the tour.  Por Que?

The highlight of the show followed in Split Open and Melt.  This jam had all the exploration the rest of the set was missing.  It dropped into type-II territory so quickly, it almost sounded pre-planned.  And the jam was pure atonal, avant garde SOAM craziness.  Earlier in 3.0 Trey would have stepped back and forced his bandmates to carry the load—here we find a perfectly balanced stew of sonic strange.  With about 4 minutes left, when it seems Trey is ready to push the band back into the song, Page and Mike make it clear that they’d rather stay and play in the mud some more.  Wonderfully, Trey actually listens and they dip back down into a completely different, even stranger and more ambient soundscape.   Type-II jamming with two fully developed and distinct segments?   I must be dreaming.

Eschewing their recent trend of playing five set closers in a row, the band wrapped things up with Golgi followed by First Tube.  Both were standard and rocked hard, as did the Good Times Bad Times encore.  In all, this was a show full of creativity and potential, with some of it realized and some of it left in the dumpster outside Planned Parenthood.  Nearly every time the band takes a risk—whether improvisational playing or unusual song placement—it pays off.   And with the quality of playing so high, it is not hyperbole to say that when they decide to let loose, this iteration of Phish could match up with any other era. With only one show left for Leg I but plenty of tour to look forward to for the rest of the summer, lets hope they agree.