Fans who follow Phish closely know that a tour opener can be a mixed bag: on the one hand, the energy is always high when the band has spent some time off the road. On the other, the playing is usually less polished than later in the tour. But it’s a Phish show, so it’s going to be fun, and if you’re lucky, the band will offer at least a hint at what direction they’ll be heading in next.
By that metric, the first night at the Gorge delivered, and then some. While the show will be remembered primarily for the groundbreaking jam out of Rock and Roll, the band scattered the evening with one small treasure after another.
Over the course of 12 songs that clocked in at about 90 minutes, Phish laid out a textbook opening set: rocking opener, a diverse blend of tunes, a few short but punchy jams, and a hot closer. Nothing from this set was extraordinary, but it was all quite good. Trey reminded us in Bathtub Gin, Taste, Walk Away and Funky Bitch how strong his riffing is this year; Mike and Fish locked in for some excellent dark moments in Bowie; and the audience got an extended bit of chill time in a beautiful 11-minute Roggae.
But the second set is where this show’s magic happened. Following a quick, uneventful take on Backwards Down the Number Line, Rock and Roll started immediately, and by the time the music stopped, the band had opened a new chapter in the improvisational rock history book.
The nearly 20-minute version of the song was, simply put, a classic Phish jam. Over the course of several distinct movements, the band made a series of twists and turns, with each member taking the lead and each contributing ideas that sounded fresh, and at times unlike anything they’ve ever played before. With Fishman getting his money’s worth out of his cymbals, the jam went first into an airy, summery segment that sounded like Seven Below.
From there, things got weird. Trey hit his pedalboard hard, Page made an all-too-rare trip to his theremin, and a dark return to the “it was all right” refrain popped up. This combination resulted in a sound that brought to mind the last time the theremin surfaced: in the late-night set at Superball. That this style of jamming was taken out of storage could not be a more welcome development. Far from rehashing the events of that incredible night, this jam set a new course. At 19 minutes, Mike started spanking his bass, and the resulting groove was dark and dirty.
It didn’t last long: Trey laid some major chords over his mates’ beats, and the jam flowed unexpectedly but seamlessly into Meatstick. As the song progressed, the band’s looseness became apparent: the jam became extended, with Trey looping some staccato notes and Page overlaying some wonderful textures over Mike’s envelope filter.
This segment gave way to yet another excellent, patient segue, this time into Boogie On Reggae Woman. The tune, one of the show’s seven covers, slithered into a prickly funk groove that picked up right where Meatstick’s jam left off. As Boogie On faded out, the band cooled down from their magnificent three-song statement with a particularly mellow performance of Farmhouse, the first version of the year and an understandably rusty one.
Things stayed light with Show of Life, and even with Julius, which was far less fiery than most versions. Perhaps wanting to reach the smoking-lick quota that Julius left unfilled, Trey started up Character Zero, and kept up the rocking vibes through the Loving Cup encore.
If we’ve learned anything from 2011, it’s that one show does not a pattern make. On any given night in June, the band might bring the jams or they might bring the ripcord. So only time will tell what this August run holds. That said, it’s hard to imagine a more encouraging start than last night’s.