Last night’s tour-closer was Phish’s second concert at the tiny (under 7,000 person) outdoor venue in Portsmouth, VA. The show followed the pattern we have seen more often than not since Camden–random songs with little flow/well-played songs with little experimentation.
This show had some definite highlights for me, along with some parts that left me with my head shaking. The show started with one of the highlights: Harpua. The last time a show opened with Harpua was 10/20/1989 at The Front in Burlington (Harpua -> Bundle of Joy > Forbin’s > Mockingbird — now THAT’S an opener!). The “oom pa pa” beginning of the song is such a “freak-out moment”, I’ve never thought about how it could be any more exciting–well, starting a show will do it. It’s the last thing you expect to ring out of the speakers when you’re trying to predict the show-opener. Despite the undeniably-rushed narration, the last part of the song is the reason it was played. The fathers of Mike, Page, Fish, and Trey came out to help with the “son, I’ve got some bad news” lyrics.
Set 1: Harpua, Brother, Down with Disease, Back on the Train, Funky Bitch, Timber (Jerry), The Wedge, The Moma Dance, Thunder Road, Tube, Alaska, David Bowie
Set 2: Crosseyed and Painless > Walls of the Cave, Slave to the Traffic Light, Fluffhead > Sand > Sneakin’ Sally through the Alley > Light > Backwards Down the Number Line, Suzy Greenberg
Just because they brought the Phish dads out for the first time on Father’s Day didn’t mean they couldn’t bring out the generation of Phish children in their now-annual bathtub celebration during Brother that was started at Alpine Valley in 2009. After Brother, the dads and the children–including “Question Mark McConnell that’s ‘in utero'”–Down with Disease dropped.
It’s pretty safe to bet that a Down with Disease in a first set is going to be around 10-minutes, have a closed ending, and be rocking; while a second set Disease is going to be more improvisational and have an open ending. I thought we were getting a real treat last night at about the 6-minute mark of the Disease. The normally straight-forward jam departed it’s usual rocking theme for something that sounded as if it was going to branch out for a set one jam. Unfortunately, Trey quickly returned to the ending to wrap it up before a Back on the Train.
The middle of the first set would be made up of very well-played, shorter, summery songs–much like many first sets in the last 1.5 weeks. However, after the section of standard songs, came the first-time cover of Bruce Springsteen’s Thunder Road. Although Trey struggled with the lyrics, it was nice to hear a song that we weren’t expecting.
Alaska finally found its way back to where it belongs, the first set, and it set up for the set-closing Bowie. Since the version on 6/7, Bowies have taken a step backwards–they are ebbing back from their adventurous progress into true improvisation. That being said, every Bowie this year is played fantastic–each one is better than any version from 2009 or 2010 (Utica’s only beats last night’s for me). Last night’s, however, was probably played the least-well of the year. Trey couldn’t seem to grab the song by the nuts as he has every other time this tour. The intro was nearly non-existent too.
The second set boasted some fantastic songs–all songs I love seeing. However, like Trey often does in 3.0, he tried to do too much. One thing consistently awesome about 2011 has been set length. Last night’s first set was over 90 minutes and the second was nearly 103 minutes. These are amazingly-long times. To pack a 103-minute set with too many songs and ideas shows just how wild Trey’s ADD has been lately. It’s funny that the longest and most impressive jams came during a tour that had the shortest sets ever–Fall ’97. Now we have the longest sets ever, but the fewest jams and most songs. They could pack so much exploration into a 103 minute set–it’s almost criminal.
Last night’s second half opened with Crosseyed and Painless, but the headlining jam wouldn’t come until the Sand later in the set. After last night, 1/4 of all the times Crosseyed has been played have been in 2011. The soaring jam doesn’t quite reach the level of Merriweather’s peak and dissolves to go into the first Walls of the Cave of the tour. The song, requested via sign by the person mentioned during the Harpua narration (31 Minute Walls of the Cave for my 31’st Birthday! — according to Hidden Track), was technically unfinished too. It sounds like Trey is going to go into its final segment that closes the song out (listen to 1.1’s), but instead slows the song down for a segue into an interestingly-place Slave.
After another middle-second set Fluffhead with an energetic release at the end, the band eerily segued into the show’s main feature: Sand. The distorted and ‘trilly’ loop that Trey set during the segue into Sand surfaced each time during the musical bridges between the lyrical sections. It’s faint, but it’s there–and awesome. These are the little things that Trey has been doing this year that have contributed to his overall improvement from last year. The loop surfaced again at the beginning of the jam for a bit before leaving for good. Once the jam sinks in towards the middle, Mike starts standing up–taking internal-organ-rattling bass leads. This is when the stop/starts began flowing, first keeping Page in the mix during the stops. Trey went back into the Sand theme with Fish following him, making it seem like the song was coming to an end–and prompting me to say “I guess Trey wants to kill it”. The jam completely stopped–then POP–they went right back into the Sand jam. Stop/starts is one of my favorite things Phish does–when another stop came, I figured they’d go back into the jam but they came back with Sneakin’. It was an awesome segue. The communication during the end of Sand is something I really appreciate.
Unfortunately, there is literally no jam after the vocal section of Sneakin’. Instead, Trey forced the song that was supposed to be their new jam vehicle, Light. Although Light flutters into territory that could have proved promising, Trey felt the need to drop another basic version of Number Line before ending the set with an inside-joke-laced Suzy. The end of the last set before SBIX culminated with the two running jokes of tour: Page’s House and What?! Also, it appeared that Trey encouraged Page to explode during the jam by repeatedly yelling “yeah!”, a way of saying “sorry” for cutting him short in Alpharetta.
A rocking Julius ended the show after Trey told a story about his oldest daughter, Eliza, being able to kill him in Rock Band’s Wilson; he went on to say that he should be proud of her, but “really, it just pisses [him] off”.
In conclusion, the show didn’t do a lot for me. It didn’t get me any more excited for Super Ball. If they would have ended the leg with one of the Bethel or Midwest shows, I think there would be a run on SBIX tickets. This leg has shown that Phish is far better than any other time in 3.0, but they are still not consistent and Trey still has a problem with trying to do too much in a set. While the Harpua and Sand are worth a listen, I have a feeling no one will be listening to this again a next year–unlike some of the other gems they’ve treated us to this June.
Stay tuned for tour wrap-ups and more articles about what’s to come at Watkin’s Glen!