As I sit here listening to Hollywood Bowl’s Crosseyed and Painless, I am ecstatic. I have been listening to a lot of the recent summer tour; listening in my car, at my home desk, at my desk at work, and wherever else I can bring my iPod. I was happy in 2009 and 2010 that Phish were back playing, but I nearly never listened to a complete show months after it was played from those years. In fact, I can probably tell you the few versions of songs that I enjoy relistening to from ’09 and ’10:
- 6.07.09 Tweezer
- 6.18.09 Tube
- 6.21.09 Piper
- 7.31.09 II
- 8.07.09 Gin (which I no longer care for)
- 12.03.09 DwD (a lot)
- 12.04.09 YEM (a lot)
- 12.29.09 Tweezer
- 6.12.10 Number Line
- 6.17.10 DwD
- 6.25.10 CDT, 2001
- 8.06.10 Cities
- 10.16.10 Crosseyed
- 10.20.10 Bowie
- 10.26.10 II
- 10.31.10 Ghost -> Spooky
- 12.28.10 Hood
- 12.30.10 Tweezer
- 12.31.10 Ghost, YEM
That, for the most part, the list of songs I have seeked out on numerous occasions months after they were played. It doesn’t look like a small list, but it is considering how many shows have been played in those two years. It’s also not to say that there wasn’t good playing between those jams, there was, just not good enough for me to pop in a random entire show and be content with it. This isn’t the case anymore.
The playing in both short, composed songs and long, improvised songs has improved exponentially since the end of 2010. Yes, there were glimpses of it in fall/winter 2010, but the quality still wasn’t what made Phish the king of the concert. Although I consider Trey the weakest link during that time period, the entire band had improving to do as well (well, other than Mike).
I truly thought that if Phish couldn’t harness the nightly magic they once held (even in most of 2.0) by the end of two years back, we were destined on settling with a shadow of what the band once was. I made my opinion no secret either–many of you emailed me or commented with piercing remarks on how I “suck at Phish” or I should “k[m]s”. Despite these impressive arguments to my well-thought-out opinions, I held steadfast to my idea that Phish, mainly Trey, couldn’t get IT back.
That all changed for me after Bethel.
Yes, the jams during Bethel were an eye opener to be, but not as much as were the fundamental changes the band made during the weekend. Some people got excited from the Halley’s Comet and Bathtub Gin from the second night–I did too, trust me. However, The jams in those songs could have been flashes in the pan (they weren’t as it turns out), they could have been another 7.31.09 Tweezer or 12.04.09 YEM. What got my rocks off was the first-set Cities and the second-set Bowie (and Trey’s peak in BOTT the night before). My head exploded when I heard these. Trey was playing his guitar like he hadn’t for years. Listen to the snarling chops towards the end of the Cities jam or the evil finish at the end of the Bowie jam–the first non-Utica Bowie of the era that was actually impressive (and Utica’s Bowie isn’t all that impressive, I’ll take 6/3/11 or 6/7/11 over it any day). Like 9/11, I can remember exactly where I was when I relistened to Bowie for the first time after the show. I was in my car approaching an off-ramp to meet someone for dinner. My jaw dropped as Trey entered the pre-trilling segment at the end. I ended up missing my exit and having to get off on the next. Trey was playing with meaning, direction, and, thank God, dexterity. A full article on Trey’s 2011 playing is coming soon enough though.
The whole band has been more impressive in 2011 relative to the two years before–each in their own way. The Bethel Gin is certainly one of my favorite versions of the song ever; but it’s one of my favorites for more reasons than the obvious. Listen to Fish in it. It was common opinion among phans that Fishman was very weak in 2009 and better in 2010, then the first show of the 2011 tour Fish lays down some of the nastiest funk rolls during Wolfman’s Brother–so nasty it reminds me of 7/24/98‘s Wolfman’s. He’s one of the reasons the Gin is so fantastic. The way he moves from Gin to Golden Age to Manteca and back is top-shelf stuff.
Was it just me or did Page seem disconnected in 2009 and 2010? He, seemingly, only talked to Trey when he had to onstage, when Trey approached him. He didn’t smile as much as he had in earlier eras and, albeit slightly, just had a general aura of lack of excitement around him. Then came the Bethel Makisupa. The Bethel Makisupa put a whole new face on Page’s role in the band, and ever since the “Page’s house” fiasco, Page has been noticeably more happy, receptive, chatty, and silly on stage. I’m not saying the Bethel Makisupa started this, I’m just saying this is the first glimpse of it we got.
I’d imagine that during the off-season, between MSG and Bethel, Page and Trey rekindled something in their personal friendship once again. It seems to be common knowledge that Page was one of the most upset members of the band following the 2004 breakup, incredibly angry/disappointed with Trey for what he was doing to himself, his family, and the band. Could this tension have carried over to 3.0? Maybe. But I do know that there is something wonderful going on between them now. Aside from them popping up at events together like Mets games, they regularly are pictured and recorded joking and talking with each other during soundchecks. Not only are they listening to each other when they speak, they are listening to each other play. The exchanges between them during jams has gone from nearly-nonexistent to beautiful.
The healthy relationships, physical dexterity, and listening ability have yielded one of the best tours Phish has put forth in over a decade. I brought up the examples from Bethel only because some of the best examples are the first examples of this. The quality of playing has lasted nearly the entire tour. Phish are finally playing entire shows worth relistening to months after the fact (which should translate into years after the fact).
Nearly every song of nearly every show this year is better quality than most of what was played in 2009/2010. Twist came on after the Crosseyed I was listening to when I started writing this (Hollywood Bowl, remember). It’s a sexy little seven-minute number. Trey’s guitar is pristine and snarls into a raging finish.
It doesn’t matter what they play now, long or short, jammed or not, it’s worth listening to because it’s real Phish. Real Phish is what we came to love, what made them so popular. It’s the explosive Blossom ’11 Character Zero with the unexpected Possum jam reprise ending. It’s the sheer beauty of the UIC Dirt. It’s the newfound style of storage jamming that took us to another planet during Rock and Roll at the Gorge. It’s the unexpected return of the theramin from Page. It’s the fact that they actually tease things during songs once again. It’s the chops during the Bethel Cities. It’s the Dick’s Divided Sky and Llama. It’s the return of song-sandwiches. It’s the inside jokes that last an entire tour–jokes in which only they and us…just like their music. (Pick your favorite moments here)
I just mentioned the fact that they tease things again–that’s a huge deal. Teases have been nearly-absent in ’09 and ’10. Teasing takes thinking, ability, and thoughtfulness. 2011 has been laced with teases. One of the my favorite examples of this is during the Darien 2001. Among other teases, Trey starts a What’s the Use? tease. Page listens to it and follows along.
After the Bethel Manteca, slight Manteca teases could be heard from Trey in a number of jams from concerts following the show. Another reoccurring tease is the Dave’s Energy Guide tease. Central themes, teases, inside jokes are important to a tour. It gives a tour character, it gives it an identity. This past tour will be well-known for the “Page’s house” theme and “What?!”. Nearly each night incorporated something that was unique to the tour: a Sign opener, “Page’s house”, “What?!”, Dave’s Energy Guide, Manteca from Trey, etc. Aside from being generally fun for us, these themes show that the band is truly in ‘tour mode’. They are thinking about the shows behind them and what’s in front of them. They are carefully crafting a show within the greater tour rather than a completely random concert on any given night. It’s showing they are vested in this just as much as we are. We aren’t the only ones following them, they are too.
One problem with Phish from 2009 and 2010 is that, while there were some “flashes in the pan”, there was no feeling that traveling far to see the band was going to yield something particularly special (that is, more special than the average Phish show). One of the reasons Phish grew to be so popular in the 90’s is because they were always trying to one-up themselves regularly. A show would be out of this world, we had no idea how the next show could hold a flame, but then the next show would either meet expectations or blow right past them. They knew how to keep people on the edge of their seat (or leaning over rail). We’ve seen examples of this in 2011. There was the Bethel Waves and then there was the DTE Disease. There was UIC and then there was Dick’s. The idea of them not making each show better than the last reminds me of the blog post Moving On: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Leave Phish Behind on rowknows.com. Although I’ve never reached the point of giving up on Phish (that would take a lot), a lot of the sentiments in the piece were similar to mine. His article was written a month before Bethel, I’m curious to see if this summer changed his mind.
My point is they are keeping things interesting. They are making it so we don’t think twice when one of their tour stops is 10-hours away. I attribute their lack of one-upping themselves and using thematic touring to their poor ticket sales following 2009. People didn’t want to waste time and money going to a show that was going to be standard relative to what Phish has been known to play. I know I was definitely feeling that way. After this tour, they are reeling me right back in–some non-phans in my life may call it irresponsible, but I call it irreplaceable. I didn’t go to NYE last year because I didn’t want to spend the time and money it would take for me to go there. I didn’t trust that there was a good enough chance Phish would make it worth my while. No matter where they play this NYE (assuming they do), I will be there.
I feel the best way to describe Phish in 2011 is a hybrid of ’93-style playing with newer effects, songs, and venues. Sure, they are throwing us some tasty bones with the DTE and UIC DwDs and the Gorge Rock and Roll, but their overall style is song-after-song. I was often accused that “all [I] want is along jams! That doesn’t make a jam good, OPT!”–that’s right. Long jams don’t mean good jams (although all the long jams in the past year have been great). I always just wanted fierce playing, and that’s what we’re getting now. Remember how hideous segues were in 2009? Now just listen to Waves -> Undermind from UIC or Gorge’s Rock and Roll -> Meatstick. Phish is crafting masterpiece sets around perfectly-connected songs, high-energy playing, jokes, and unconventional improvisation much like the early 90’s. Do I want them to extend some of their jams a bit more when they are in the zone (like the Essex DwD)? Yes. But I’m perfectly happy with the model they’re using right now.
Also, take a look at the incredibly long sets they’ve been playing this year. During almost all of 3.0 we’ve been treated to sets that average 90 minutes, but in 2011, the average set length is pushing 100 minutes–that’s insane. In 1997 no one would believe they’d be averaging 100 minute sets in 14 years (’97 saw some of the shortest sets, despite long jams).
I’ll probably get a lot of people calling me a hater (many of whom won’t read more than half of this piece). I’ll get people saying I’m too harsh. I’ll get people saying I should be thankful they’re back and playing for us again (I am, of course). But I don’t understand how people don’t hold them to a certain standard. At what point would these people actually say that Phish isn’t playing up to par? For a band that prided themselves on raising the bar nearly their entire careers, I’d say the band themselves would be offended that you don’t hold them to a standard. They were not meeting the my personal standard for the music in 2009 and 2010–of course I still saw them (the worst Phish show was still better than nearly any other show you can attend) and I still danced and went wild. But they were not encouraging me to go further out of my way than I already was planning. They were not producing music that I was likely to listen to years from now like I do with many 1.0 shows. That all changed with this summer tour for me.
I feel bad for the people that don’t hold the band to any sort of standard, because they have no clue how amazing, glorious, and emotional this past tour has made people like me feel. To the people that say I “suck at Phish”, I say it sucks that you see this past tour just the same as you’ve seen the past two years.
Here’s to continuing on the trajectory they’ve been on since their return. Great job, Phish. Your past tour has given me more happiness than I think most people on this planet can attain and/or understand.