Tales of Mental Tangle: Best 3-Night Run of 2011

The Skinny
Phish has clearly become pretty fond of 3-night runs. After returning to the stage in 2009 with a 3-pack in Hampton, they played several more that year – Jones Beach, Festival 8, MSG – not to mention 4-nighters at Red Rocks and in Miami. This trend continued in 2010, at the Greek, Broomfield, Atlantic City, and MSG, and again this year. Perhaps not surprisingly, many of Phish’s most memorable shows have taken place in these three-night stands. What’s more, since many of them fall at the beginning or end of a tour – or outside of a tour context – they can be seen as landmarks, snapshots of the band’s identity at a particular moment in time.

For this Tale of Mental Tangle, we looked at three of those landmarks from 2011:

  • Poster Nutbag will argue for Bethel, which opened the first leg of summer tour.
  • Adam B. (aka OPT) will argue for UIC, which closed the second leg
  • I (Guy Forget) will argue for Dick’s, which of course was a stand-alone 3-nighter over Labor Day weekend.

Download these shows from the spreadsheet.


THE TANGLE

Guy Forget
Guy ForgetWith only one or two exceptions (*cough* Broomfield), each of these three-packs has been better than the last. That’s not so shocking; after all, Phish has gotten better and better since they returned to the stage in 2009.

But this improvement isn’t simply about how well Phish plays at their best; it’s also about their consistency. If I’m being honest, I’d say that the best show from any 2011 three-night run is Bethel 2. The best jam is probably the UIC Disease. But I believe Dick’s is the best run of the three because it’s the only one with three really high-quality shows. Even 9/3, which was the weakest of the Denver gigs, had a phenomenal jam in Tweezer, and strong playing throughout. I don’t think the final show in either Bethel or Chicago lived up to that standard.

Poster Nutbag
Forgive me if my writing is an incoherent mess, as I have just returned from a week in Paris and may very well be jet-lagged, but it is a feeling similar to returning to reality from a 3 night run, so maybe this is a good thing. I like 3 night runs because they usually follow a progression: the first night is good, not great, as both the band and the crowd get the jitters out; the second is usually the highlight as everyone is feeling good about the previous night and things start to loosen up a bit; and the third has a tendency to go a little further than the previous two – sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t – but everyone goes home happy and with a smile on their face. Plus, a 3 night run is perfect for my aging body…extend it to 4 and the old man starts to get just a wee bit tired.

That being said, I think Bethel follows this formula to a T: night 1 was a great way to kick things off, night 2 took the playing to the next level, and night 3 was a great show and sent everyone home with a smile. The great playing, combined with the fact that Bethel kicked off summer tour and the majesty of being in the gorgeous venue that Bethel is, makes Bethel the best 3 night run of the summer.

Adam B.
opt73x73Like Poster mentioned with Bethel, UIC followed that similar formula. However, there was much more to UIC than the perfect three-night-run formula; it rolled many of the best elements of Phish into one package. There was the summer lot-party in the middle of one of the best cities in the world, there was the arena-rock Phish that boasted the 1st-set light show not usually seen in a summer tour, it was an intimate venue with a storied past, and it had serious Phish improvisation.

Although I think the UIC run started with its strongest first and tapered from there, the depth of improv, song selection, and show flow was the most impressive we’ve seen in 3.0. After the first night, all I could think about is how this is what a Phish show is supposed to be like. No one had to make the usual 3.0 excuses as to why it was a good show: “well, they don’t jam as much in 3.0”, “well, we have to get used to second sets being built around typical jam vehicles (Rock and Roll, Drowned, DwD, Light, etc).

The first night of UIC proved that Phish can once again let the music play them, with perfect segues and all. The second night showed us that the depth of their improv has not been hindered like many of us thought in ‘09 and ‘10. The third night let us know that they can, in fact, still have fun. And all the nights told us that they can play whatever songs they want, in any order, to produce some of the best concerts this planet has ever seen.

Guy
Guy ForgetI think you both captured the combination of depth and variety that make a great three-night run. Ultimately, I think that Dick’s eclipses UIC and Bethel in each of these areas.

Depth is easy: Dick’s is the only one of these three runs that closed on its strongest note. While I think the overall statements that the band made at Bethel and UIC were powerful, the last night left things on a less ecstatic note than each run’s first two shows. When you leave a three-night stand with your jaw on the floor, as many Dick’s attendees did, it elevates the entire experience.

And it’s not just that the third night of Bethel and UIC were weak by comparison; they’re just not very good shows. Bethel’s finale (which I attended) was fine throughout, but I’m not sure there are any moments that warrant much re-listening. And while I appreciate the sentiment behind UIC’s final set, it was one of the worst examples of impatient, ADD-fueled song selection we’ve seen.

By contrast, Denver’s weakest show, 9/3, had a jam out of Tweezer that stands up there with the best improvisations from 2011.

As for variety, Denver had it in spades: the first night was powered by the S theme; the second was a straightforward Phish show with lots of great improvisation; the closing night had bustouts, debuts, segues, excellent jamming, and of course, Guy Forget. While there’s plenty of great Phish to be found in all of these three-nighters, the Dick’s run is unique in showcasing all the things that make Phish great.

Adam
opt73x73Yes, Dick’s closed with some serious heat, but I really feel that there is not much to be relistened to from the second night. Even though it contained the best Divded Sky and Llama of 3.0, I don’t think many people will pop it in their stereo just for those. The Tweezer was a beautiful jam, yes, but I’d argue that it’s getting more credit than it deserves. That’s how I expect a standard Tweezer to sound–not very explorative, but with a good meshing of 4-person improv. I’d probably prefer the SBIX to Dick’s.

The first night’s “S” theme was exciting and contained some fantastic playing, yes, but the improvisation wasn’t too spectacular. I see Phish for the improvisation first. A lot of people are gushing over the Seven Below–why? The Steam > Soul Shakedown was awkwardly excecuted, and the Sabatoge is painful to listen to. My favorite parts of that show are for reasons other than jamming (with the exception of the Sally jam): Probably the best Slave of 3.0 (Essex is close though), the fact that they played Sparks again, and the fire contained in Stealing Time.

The bottom line is, when I see Phish, I want to see the band harnessing pure music, pure improvisation. The silly, gimmicky stuff is fun, but only if it has the musical backbone to support it. I’m not saying that the “S” show is a poorly-played show, I’m simply making the point that the first night of UIC (since they are both the first show) is the most fantastic example of Phish turning off their brains and simply being conduits to the music gods above–no pressure, no overthinking, pure music.

One thing Phish does best at UIC compared to all the 3-night runs is make a first-set setlist that is unusual–I talk about it on typeIIcast here. True, both Bethel and Dick’s have some very unexpected gems to start and finish first sets; the Tweezer, Theme, and Maze openers. But each of those exciting openers has a painfully expected counterpart in the other shows: Possum, AC/DC Bag, Sample. UIC has one for each night: Forbin’s, Dinner & a Movie, BOTT. Same thing if we look at 1st-set closers. UIC has one for each night: Alumni Blues (one of the best ever), Let it Loose, and First Tube. The only unexpected first set closers out of the six shows UIC is up against are Wolfman’s, Gin (which are only unusual because they don’t close sets with jams often), and Bold as Love. Again, each impressive closer is countered with a painfully ordinary closer: Coil, CDT, and Antelope.

I know some people will look at the setlist opener/closer argument as splitting hairs, but opening and closing sets with songs that are not normally in that position are a very exciting aspect of Phish shows to me.

Poster
I think you all are overlooking some important factors about Bethel. Lets start with the fact that it was the tour opener. To come out of the gate as strong as they did (not to mention a Tweezer opener to the Summer Tour) really set the bar high. Some tour openers just set the table, but all three nights of Bethel were statement shows that Phish came to play. It’s much harder to produce on this level at the beginning of a tour than it is at the end of a tour.

As far as song choice goes, while Bethel might have been somewhat conventional compared to the “S” show, it still had song choice in spades. To review, night 1 opens the entire Summer Tour with Tweezer>MFMF, the return of Waves (oh, and let’s not forget the Bethel soundcheck Waves), the first Possum & Julius of the summer (I kid), and one of the best Coils I can remember. Night two has the Theme opener which is very unconventional, Quinn, the GoldenTecaGin, and the Makisupa that started the whole “Page’s House” joke that lasted throughout the summer. Night three had an AC/DC opener (while AC/DC may be “painfully expected”, is there really a downside to an AC/DC opener?), Curtis Loew, an intense Mike’s, and a pitch-perfect Slave. A great mix of songs, jams, jokes, and spot-on placement. Everything I want from Phish. All 3 make for solid listening, and night 2 is must-hear listening.

I also think that Bethel is suffering from time, as our memory of the beginning of the summer fades and is replaced by the newer, more recent shows. I have trouble remembering what I did yesterday, so while UIC and Dick’s are fresher in our minds, I think we really need to remember how awesome and special Bethel was, not just for the music, but for the venue, setting, and all the other factors that go into making shows. I can’t speak for UIC or Dick’s, but I can say that I would take Bethel over almost any other outdoor amphitheater out there. Of the ones of comparable size, only Deer Creek jumps to mind. The vibe inside was almost unbeatable. From what I heard, inside of Dick’s was pretty lax too, but inside Bethel was like being inside the grounds at a festival. Pretty much no hassles and plenty of space to wander and explore. The music and the setting all came together to produce one of the most magical 3 night runs the band has ever played.

Guy
Guy ForgetAdam, you hit the nail on the head with your comments on improvisation being the bread and butter of Phish shows. And while you’re right that the S show wasn’t about traveling to uncharted territories, I think the territories it did travel to were totally satisfying. I actually think there’s a lot in common between the second set of the S show and the second set of UIC 1: neither has a huge jam, but they both have lots of great smaller ones expertly woven together. I will concede that the UIC set is superior, but not by a huge amount.

As far as first sets go, I think all three of Denver’s first sets were well played, and two of them kept the fans guessing. Yes, night 1 opened with Sample, but starting every song with the letter S, and busting out Sparks and the Stones songs make this anything but a run-of-the-mill opener. Third night, same thing: new cover, a rarity, and teases aplenty.

Poster, I agree with you that the distance hurts Bethel. It also deserves bonus points for being so strong right at the beginning of the tour – after five months off the road, the band came out guns blazing. But my feeling is that the band became much more comfortable, and Trey’s playing improved immensely, as the summer wore on, and I think the general quality of play is just higher in the later runs.

Adam
opt73x73Bethel is a great run, and it’s very even more impressive because of the fact that it was the tour’s opening stanza. Also, you make a good point about having everything wrapped into the run, including the Page’s House joke that carried through the summer. However, UIC is the full package too–the only difference: jamming and song selection. What are the best jams of Bethel? Wolfman’s, Waves, Halley’s, Number Line, Gin. And out of those, I’d only really care to listen to the Gin, Waves, and Halley’s again (there are other moments from the run I still listen to, but I’m talking about the improv here). UIC has Wolfman’s, Sand, Light, Waves, Undermind, Limb x Limb, Disease, Gin, Crosseyed, Piper, and Ghost (not).

Guy, I think the second set of Dick’s and UIC are much different than you are leading on. The flow in the second set of UIC1 cannot be touched by any 3.0 show. The segues in the S show are not nearly as organic or smooth as UIC1’s second set.

And, yes, the first music was played very well at Dick’s–I’m not saying the first sets were not as good as UIC’s, I was just commenting on the fact that UIC first sets’ openers and closers were very unique and original choices.

Again, it comes down to the bare bones improvisation to me. The only real improv I find exciting (this isn’t to say I’m not gonna listen to that sick Llama again, I’m just talking about the open improv here) from Dick’s is as follows: Sneaking Sally, Scents (where the hell did the intro go again?!), Tweezer, Gin, Piper, and obviously Ghost.

I should add that the guitar in Ghost leading into Guy Forget is some of the more intense raging I’ve heard from Trey this era–so hot. Also, I would like to know if Come Together was planned or unplanned. If it was unplanned, that was awesome; but if it was planned, that was horrendous.

Poster

Adam, if we are only going on true improv, then yes, you have a point. But I am kind of surprised that you haven’t brought up the thing that I think makes UIC the most unique: the encores! Can you think of 3 shows in a row that had encores like that? Two? They were all practically mini-sets! Maybe we should disqualify UIC from the discussion because they were basically 2.5 set shows.

So, while there was no consensus reached on which 3 nighter was the best of the best, I think the one thing we can all agree on is that these 3 3-night runs exemplified the best of Phish 3.0. Bethel was the one that set the table for the summer and UIC and Dick’s both sent us into the fall season wishing for more Phish. All had memorable highlights that fans will talk about for ages: GoldenTecaGin, Page’s House, the “S” show, and the UIC encores. But, alas, as with Phish 3.0 prehaps the best moment of any of the nights didn’t happen in a show, but rather at soundcheck. If we had only gotten the Bethel Waves from the soundcheck at any of these shows, this discussion would have been a moot point.

What do you think is the best 3-night run of 2011?

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