I’ll admit, back when this show was announced I was a little disappointed. I’d hung my hat on the “Hampton in February” rumor and knew that the orchestral Trey tour would quash any possibility of late winter/early spring Phish. Add to that my extreme disappointment with Trey’s 2004 Bonnaroo appearance with the Nashville Chamber Orchestra and I just wasn’t that amped up. I didn’t even bother getting a ticket when they went on sale, bogged down at the time by financial realities associated with buying my first home. I really wasn’t going to go, which I told myself repeatedly. Of course, deep down I knew that was a lie, since I’ve never been able to let Trey come within two hours of where I live without dropping everything to be there. When I was offered a 13th row ticket last week, I jumped at the chance, and I’m glad I did. Last night’s performance with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra was one of the most engaging and entertaining performances I have ever seen. Despite songs that may appear in both places, last night’s show was far from being a Phish show, which is what made it so great.
My crew made it to Pittsburgh in plenty of time to grab a couple of drinks across the street before heading into Heinz Hall a few minutes before showtime. Heinz Hall is one of the most impressive venues I’ve ever seen, a throwback to the grand old concert halls of a forgotten era. Some phans chose to go the classy route by dressing to the nines which made for fun people watching. Everything about Heinz Hall is over the top classy, though the ornately decorated lobby area seemed to be about two sizes too small to accommodate the overflowing crowd. It would have been nice to check out some of the venue’s ornate decorations, but there was hardly room to maneuver in there.
I made it to my seat just before Trey emerged to a raucous standing ovation. The crowd was bristling with energy but knew that it could only be released at certain appropriate times which gave this show a unique dynamic. While a Phish show is like a rolling ball of energy punctuated by peaks and valleys, last night’s performance was a series of explosions. It seemed as if that all the energy built up in the course of the song would be released at it’s conclusion, leading to an interesting stop/start series of standing ovations throughout the show. From the looks on the faces of the members of the orchestra, I surmised they weren’t really used to getting three standing ovations before intermission.
The crowd was quieted and the orchestra started up “First Tube”. From the first notes of the evening, it was apparent that this was going to be an interesting show with songs behaving far different in the concert hall than in the rock and roll arena. While Phish’s version is lethally refined and hard charging, the orchestral version offered much more delicate dynamics. While I would never describe Phish’s version as “pretty”, last night the Trey and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra turned in a version that was just that. From the get-go it was apparent that the orchestra would make songs seem far more complex than they seem when Phish tears through them.
“Water in the Sky” followed, and was one of the only disappointing moments of the night, principally because it confirmed to me that we would get the exact same setlist as Atlanta did a week prior. While everyone knew the songs would assuredly be the same, there had been some thoughts that the order might be switched up, but that was quickly quashed. “Divided Sky” followed, and you could feel the whole place lean forward in their seats when Trey strummed the opening chords. The orchestra seemed to ebb and flow with the tune perfectly, providing a gorgeous fluttering of sound as they emerged out of the palindrome section of the song.
“Brian and Robert” was up next, and the strings basically set up the tune as a quiet sing a long. It worked well, but it is obvious that there are two types of tunes in this setlist: the huge orchestral pieces and then the songs that could be shined up with some strings. This song was the latter. “Goodbye Head” followed and the orchestra seemed to dig into this piece with abandon. Of the songs seeing their first appearance as orchestral pieces on this tour, this one shone the brightest. The timpani player got into it at the end and gave the outro section a dramatic flair.
The orchestral version of “Guyute” followed and would be the standout piece for me for the first set. The introductory portion of the tune, which would become “My Friend My Friend” got me pumped from the get go. It wasn’t until the orchestra had moved into the evil pig’s instrumental breaks before I was completely aware of what was going on. This one worked perfectly, and it was interesting to watch Trey sneak a look over his shoulder to conductor Scott Dunn at various points in the tune. Normally, Trey’s the one giving cues, not looking for them. It was one of the many dynamics of last night’s show that acted as vivid reminders that this was not a regular show. I thought the orchestra gave the “bouncing like a newborn elf” section of the tune an extra evil dynamic reminiscent of a classier version of “Careful With That Axe, Eugene”. It’s proof that you can still get a little evil, despite the elegant setting.
“Let Me Lie” worked well in its role as the sing-a-long strummer sandwiched between two “big” songs. I’ve actually come around on this tune, shifting from utter hatred during the summer of ’09 to it becoming one of my favorite Phish ballads. It was great in this setting, but there’s not much more can be said about it. “Stash” followed and closed out the set with a classic track that almost everyone loves. The opening riff was explosive and brought a big response from the audience. This rendition bounced around with a vibrant energy that evoked a comical silent movie soundtrack. The orchestra members seemed to all get a kick out of the audience’s claps, and generally ate it all up. Whoever was on the xylophone (maybe it was a melophone, I’m not so great at orchestral instruments) was getting down and it was great fun to watch. By the time the orchestra ended the first set by bowing in unison, the whole room, orchestra, audience and Trey himself, looked giddily happy about what was going down.
Setbreak was short and sweet. On one hand, it’s nice that the “we’ll be back in 15 minutes” isn’t bullshit all the time, but on the other hand Heinz Hall’s facilities, whether they be bathroom, bar or just lobby standing room were completely overwhelemed. If you got a drink at set break, you probably started waiting in line midway through the first set. I wandered for a bit, caught up with a couple of friends, and headed back to my seat since that was the only place I could find any elbow room.
The second set began, as anticipated, with “Time Turns Elastic”. This was far and away my second set highlight. You know how I feel about this tune already, I’m a fan. What was most amazing about last night was just how well it worked in that setting. While much of the show was modified versions of Phish songs, it was readily apparent that Phish’s version of “Time Turns Elastic” is the modified version of what we saw last night. The tolling of bells gave the piece a dramatic quality that gave way to the epic rises contained within. In many ways, Phish’s rendition is the two dimensional version of the song, while the orchestra breathed new life into its depth and subtleties allowing it to be fully realized in the third dimension. It seemed to me that the difference between the two was as dramatic as the difference between an apple and a picture of an apple. This version was one that you could really sink your teeth into. At Heinz Hall last night, “Time Turns Elastic” alone occupied over a half an hour of show time, but it seemed like half that. In fact, when the show ended at 10:30 is seemed later than it should have been since each song had so much to process, time seemed to fly by. (I will take this moment to point out I refrained from making a Time Turns Elastic pun. I’m very proud of myself.)
“If I Could” followed, and kept with the theme of pretty songs filling the spaces between the complex ones. Last night’s version had an incredible harp interlude that was one of the evening’s high points. Also, I’m proud to report that no one got engaged last night. My crew joked beforehand that maybe getting engaged at shows would be the new trend for phans in 2012 , like signs had been in 2011. I’m glad that trend has been averted.
A highly anticipated version of “You Enjoy Myself” closed the set and the phans began to let out the energy that had built up with some hoots and hollers, something that had been held in check for most of the evening. With the exception of a few ill-timed declarations of love for Trey, the audience was on its best behavior all night long. It was obvious that Trey relished playing with an orchestra all evening long, but at no point was it more apparent than during YEM. Each time a section of the orchestra would burst forth, Trey would just grin ear to ear, as mesmerized by its novelty as the audience itself. None was more apparent than the overwhelming drumroll that led into the Boy/God/Man/Shit portion of the tune. I was curious going into the tune how Trey would handle the vocal jam section and was very impressed with how he did it. As they approached the final section Trey very slowly, delicately and deliberately put down his guitar almost as if he wanted to keep the crowd from applauding when he did. He then stood there with one hand on his abdomen as he stared blissfully into the balcony and began singing over top of a fading orchestra. It seemed fitting in that context that the psychedelic mind-fuck that is the vocal jam could be removed in favor of something pretty. It was soothing and gorgeous and when the orchestra finally put down their bows the audience leapt to its feet in an explosive show of adoration.
The encore of the Beatles’ medley of “Golden Slumbers > Carry That Weight > The End” and “Inlaw Josie Wales” were great but were just gravy by that point. They were nice choices but both paled in comparison to what we had just witnessed. It was great to see the end of Abbey Road performed with a full orchestra but, for the most part, it just sounded like it does on the record. The true joy of last night’s show was seeing songs in new ways, and seeing parts of songs spotlighted in a way that just can’t be accomplished by a four piece rock band. My only criticism of the show, if you could call it that, is that Trey mostly played the Trey parts. As obvious of a statement as that is, I would have liked to see him hand over more of his iconic licks to orchestra, who amazed me at every turn.
I may never listen to a bootleg of this show again, and it’s not the kind of thing worth seeing for a week straight, but it does enter my show history with a bullet. If you have any love for the music of Phish, you’re going to want to check this out. After what I witnessed last night, I’m amazed I tried to talk myself into staying at home. That would have been a critical mistake. Trey’s orchestral tour may not be the same as a raging Phish show, but it will leave you with that same loopy grin afterwards.