On the first of three nights at Watkins Glen International, the site of many NASCAR races and one historic concert event, Phish put on a show that was entirely enjoyable, but memorable more for the context than any of the musical moments. Over the course of two very long sets, the band unloaded a whopping seven covers (though none after the second-set opener), 25 songs, and a couple of pretty good jams.
But following a June run that featured a whole bunch of good shows and only a few great ones, this show was firmly in the former camp. Although there were plenty of solid versions of songs, none will make it into festival lore in the way that 12/30/99 Mike’s or 8/3/03 Ghost or 8/15/98 Gumbo > Sanity have.
Phish: Fri, Jul 01, 2011
Watkins Glen International, Watkins Glen, NY (setlist via phish.net)
Set 1: Possum, Peaches en Regalia, The Moma Dance, Torn and Frayed > NICU > Bathtub Gin, Life on Mars?, My Friend, My Friend, Wolfman’s Brother, Roses Are Free > Funky Bitch, Quinn the Eskimo
Set 2: Jam > Crosseyed and Painless -> Chalk Dust Torture, Sand > The Wedge, Mike’s Song > Simple > Bug, The Horse > Silent in the Morning > Weekapaug Groove > Joy > Character Zero
Encore: Show of Life
This is largely a result of the band’s continued reluctance to extend jams. Actually, I should amend that. Because as we learned during the 20-minute jam that closed Thursday’s soundcheck, and re-learned from the Bethel Tech Rehearsal version of Waves that Kevin Shapiro shared with us during Thursday night’s From the Archives show, the band apparently loves to jam when no fans are watching. And furthermore, they sound incredible when they do it.
So why is it that when the shows start, the jams (for the most part) stop? It has to be one of two things: either the band thinks the fans don’t want to hear jams, or something–maybe nerves?–makes them feel uncomfortable jamming in front of a crowd. Whatever the reason, it is very difficult to understand how, with three days and upwards of 15 hours of stage time ahead of them, and with the home-field advantage that comes with designing your own concert grounds, the band still lacks the will to jam out anything but a 14-minute Simple, most of which is an ambient outro. A very good ambient outro, but still, a tiny fraction of the jamming from the first day of It, or Cypress, or Coventry, or any other festival besides 8.
I’ll get back to the specifics of this show, but the sparseness of jamming looks different in light of what we’ve learned in the last couple days about the band’s taste for jamming during soundchecks, and that context is important to understanding this show.
The first set was an energetic, setlist-driven romp. Featuring six covers in twelve songs, including fan-favorite rarities like Peaches en Regalia (which was much better executed than Raleigh’s version 13 days earlier), Torn and Frayed (played for the fourth time), and Life on Mars? (only played once since ’97), as well as some great banter in which Trey had the whole crowd wave to one person on the Ferris wheel, this was a hard set not to like.
The performances were solid, especially Bathtub Gin, which reached a peak that was soaring if a bit similar to many recent versions, and Wolfman’s, which included a funkier-than-usual mid-section, enhanced by Trey’s wah pedal. Earlier in the set, the band sounded nervous–as in Moma, which did more searching than finding in its 11 minutes, and Possum, in which Trey seemed to be trying to cram as many notes as possible into his solo. But once the nerves wore off, the set was, like many 2011 first sets, perfectly enjoyable but unremarkable in Phishtorical terms.
The second set was a bit looser, opening with a playful jam before Crosseyed and Painless, which has now opened as many 3.0 second sets as Tweezer. The Crosseyed jam stayed in familiar Trey-led Type I territory before ending in a few minutes of spaciness that led, patiently and impressively, into Chalk Dust. The Dust jam seemed to have trouble deciding whether it wanted to be Type I and Type II, and suffered for it.
The remainder of the set’s songs stuck mostly to the formula of rocking out for a few minutes: Sand, Mike’s, Weekapaug, and Bug had some of the night’s best guitar work. The one departure from this formula was Simple, which, as I mentioned, had a lovely spacey jam that sounded like a mellower take on the New Year’s Day version, and included an extensive tease of Jimi Hendrix’s 3rd Stone from the Sun. Simple was the clear improvisatory MVP of the show, even if it had less energy than most of the songs surrounding it.
Most of what Phish did tonight, they did pretty well. But that’s the thing: those of us who’ve spent enough time with the band know that they’re capable of doing much, much better than “pretty well.” The band members are all playing with creativity and technical proficiency; when they do let loose, great things happen. But those moments are far too rare. It’s clear that there’s an epic show just waiting to be played. Phish has two more nights at Watkins Glen that could be it. Will they be? We’ll have to wait and see…