Day two of the Super Ball IX found the band trying to capitalize on a Friday night opening show that was long on excitement, anticipation and energy, but short on improvisation. Over four sprawling sets, encompassing more than twelve hours of real time, Phish reminded us why they can get people to drop everything and spend one of the busiest weekends of the year ensconced in a racetrack in Upstate New York. A perfectly pleasant three set show full of all the hits would follow, but it would be the ambient late night set that people will remember.
The afternoon’s festivities kicked off, as so many great shows do, with Tube, before moving into a jammed out Kill Devil Falls > Ocelot combo that paired two of Joy’s most popular tunes, allowing the band to stretch its legs for the first time. After a crisp Divided Sky, the boys paired another tandem of funky tunes as they made an energizing romp through Boogie On and Camel Walk. The Cities which followed show signs of the syrupy thick funk which would engulf the band nearly twelve hours later, but quickly stepped aside as the band dropped into Poor Heart. While always a welcome portion of the Phish catalog, Poor Heart seemed to make strange bedfellows in a segment that found the foursome getting funky, so they quickly shifted gears into an elongated 46 Days. At the moment that the blues funk riffing of 46 Days reached an empasse, the band slipped effortlessly into the first set’s highlight: a debut of the Mike Gordon penned Suskind Hotel. The Gordon tune was perfectly placed, and a perfect example of what a shame it is that the weird one’s solo tunes don’t get more airtime. This forward leaning, but still quirky groove proved to be the perfect landing spot for the four song sequence of songs which had preceded it.
When the Circus Come followed in the breather position, a rare occurrence in the first set, but nonetheless needed after the knee deep grooves which had preceded it. The band cranked things back up a notch for the Timber > GBOTT > Suzy run of tunes that followed, which lacked the energy of the engaging sequence prior but never the less kept things pushing forward towards the end of the set. The band curiously closed the set with a Phish debut of the Rolling Stones’ Monkey Man, from Let It Bleed. For my perch on my sister’s couch, it seemed that setbreak had started and I didn’t peg it as Phish until Trey’s guitar came in. While interesting, especially to the setlist fetishists, it seemed that this debut was a tossed off afterthought that didn’t do much to close the set.
After a couple hour break, the band returned just short of eight o’clock to dive into their second set of the evening. Runaway Jim kicked things off and found the band honoring the winner’s of that morning’s Runaway Jim 5k before segueing into a rough version of McGrupp and the Watchful Hosemasters. As if feeling the need to up the rock quotient, and fast, the band tore into Axilla, a song with so much firepower it’s liable to give one spastic fits. Axilla quickly gave way to another version of Birds of a Feather that reached moments where you thought it would actually spread it’s wings… but didn’t. Luckily Birds was immediately followed with the set’s standout piece of improvisation, a Stash whose dark grooves foretold of a rich and soupy ambient jam that would emerge much later in the night. And, of course, as been the case with much of the comeback era Phish… they followed something dark and dirty with a duo of Sample and Heavy Things. Look. I don’t know why they do the things they do, but maybe there’s something inside them that makes them revert to pop sensibility immediately after opening things up. Call it a ripcord, call it what you want, but putting the brakes on things really seems to be what they like to do these days.
That said… after an interlude in sing-a-long land, they embarked on what would be the first of many truly engaging sections of music. In a heavily Rift emboldened sequence of Horn > It’s Ice > Mango Song > Rift, the band showed that sometimes it’s not the depth of the jam, but it’s effortless ability to move from point A to point B. This stretch didn’t feature any out of the box jamming, but it did show Phish moving deftly throughout a portion of their catalogue with the aplomb to keep the listener engaged and enticed at what would come next. Excitingly, what followed was a dusting off of the criminally underplayed Scents and Subtle Sounds, complete with intro and heavily peaking outro. This bust-out, last seen in 2009, moved beyond simply being a setlist watcher’s dream, and instead found the band continuing the thick and forward leaning grooves that had permeated the day’s two sets to that point. Cap it off with a perfunctory, but nevertheless blazing Antelope and all ears were ready for what would follow.
The band emerged for their final announced set of the night with a cover of TV on the Radio’s Golden Age. There’s something about this song that strikes me as tremendously fitting for the style of jamming Phish is going for right now. I’m not sure if it’s the groovy base of Trey’s intro licks or what, but this song just strikes me as right when Phish slips into it. The highlight of the show came, however, when Phish slipped out of it, delving deep into Plinko territory, for lack of a better term. The disjointed and cryptic sounding jam dragged on for what was the night’s deepest piece of improvisation, severing any ties with the original song or groove from the outset. When that dissonance had run its course Trey dropped into the opening strums of Caspian, proving my point from above: he loves to wash away the jam with the sing-a-long. I’m not sure why he does it, but in this case the basic feel of Caspian proved the perfect antidote to the unsettling barrage of sounds that had come just prior. That said, from that point on the band kept their eyes focused firmly on the song itself and unleashed an uptempo set which resembled much of the 2011 summer tour. That is to say, there was a ton of energy, and a ton of songs, but not much else.
Actually, that’s too harsh. Twist and Tweezer both got out there and a got little bit evil, but both were nestled awkwardly smack in the middle of the Phish jukebox medley that started with Julius and Backwards Down the Numberline and ended with a closing trio of Cavern, Golgi and A Day in the Life. Twist was the set’s highlight, and Harry Hood found heat during the closing section, but essentially, it turned into Phish’s greatest hits live, as the band has been found doing for much of the summer.
I said to my brother in law that I thought the encore would probably be Tweezer Reprise and something slow, to which he suggested Sleeping Monkey. I said that sounded about right, but I turned out to be wrong on the song, but right on the Tweeprise. Loving Cup was played in standard fashion and the band let Tweeprise do what it does, which is put an exclamation on show. Oddly enough, the Monkey would rear it’s head sometime later.
I was ready to pass out but immediately but, somewhat predictably, tweets started flooding in that the band would be playing again in an hour. I figured what the hell, I’d stay up for the stream.
Best. Decision. Ever.
Over the next hour the band moved from dense ambient and industrial soundscapes, coated in their own ghostly murmurs shifting between pulsating and undulating jams that seemed somewhat absent from the sets that had come before. Performing in Ball Square in what was billed at USA Storage, the band was shrouded from view, but proved that with no one looking: they can still jam. A staple of previous festivals, the late night instrumental set is often Phish’s best chance to really push the boundaries of music, and this time was no different.
It’s hard to categorize what went down. Different motifs shifted back and forth, sometimes crawling to a standstill while other times seeming to mimic something that had been launched from a catapult. All in all, the band turned in a one hour set that was one continuous jam. With 3.0’s longest jam only clocking in a 26 minutes (I know, I know, “only”…) this was an almost obvious statement by the band that said essentially: “Look. We know we can jam. We know we can go to nowhere, and back, but in a rock concert setting, we’re just going to bring the hits and the heat”.
In a lot of ways, that’s fine. For the folks in Watkins Glen, this set was played for the last folks standing. Folks who hadn’t had enough, and were more than ready to go off the deep end. For me, a social night listening to the couchtour turned into a late night session with the headphones. In those outlying situations, maybe this is the best. Dense, dark, ambient and more than a little spooky. Maybe the band’s at the point where at a “rock and roll concert” they just want to blaze through songs. Looking at the setlist tonight, that’s what they did for three whole sets. But late at night, something was different. They produced something sinister and special that won’t happen again for a long while.
And then they closed with Sleeping Monkey. I don’t know why. It doesn’t make sense to me at all, but when I put the headphones down I smiled. You can label the “USA Storage” setlist as simply “One Hour Jam > Sleeping Monkey > Outro Jam” and you wouldn’t be wrong. It might not make sense at first, but listen, it will.
07/02/2011 Watkins Glen International
Set 1: Tube, Kill Devil Falls > Ocelot, Lawn Boy, The Divided Sky, Boogie On Reggae Woman > Camel Walk, Cities > Poor Heart > 46 Days > Suskind Hotel, When the Circus Comes, Timber (Jerry) > Back on the Train > Suzy Greenberg, Monkey Man
Set 2: Runaway Jim > McGrupp and the Watchful Hosemasters, Axilla > Birds of a Feather, Stash, Sample in a Jar, Heavy Things > Horn > It’s Ice > The Mango Song > Rift > Scents and Subtle Sounds > Run Like an Antelope
Encore: Loving Cup
 Phish debut.
 Introductions of Runaway Jim 5K winners.
This was the second of the three-show SuperBall IX festival. This gig featured the Phish debuts of Suskind Hotel and Monkey Man. Runaway Jim included introductions and trophy awards for the winners of the Runaway Jim 5K road race held earlier in the day. The first Secret Language of 3.0 was a Simpson’s Signal after BOAF.
Encore: Loving Cup>Tweezer Reprise
 Phish debut.
 Introductions of Runaway Jim 5K winners.
Notes: This was the second of the three-show SuperBall IX festival. This gig featured the Phish debuts of Suskind Hotel and Monkey Man. Runaway Jim included introductions and trophy awards for the winners of the Runaway Jim 5K road race held earlier in the day. The first Secret Language of 3.0 was aSimpson’s Signal after BOAF