Following the lauded Worcester run and the less well-received Bonnaroo show, fans seemed to crave a sign from the band that Worcester was not a fluke. After an excruciating five-day wait, the band delivered that sign — and then some — last night in the first of three shows at Bader Field in Atlantic City.
Though most of those who criticized Bonnaroo gave the band a pass for playing something less than the perfect Phish show, since, after all, it wasn’t a Phish show at all, the freshness of last night’s show brought smiles and sighs of relief in almost equal quantity.
You don’t even have to listen to the show to understand why. At Bonnaroo, the “average show gap,” (the average number of shows since each song was last played) was under 3 if you exclude the busted-out Shafty — about as low as Phish will ever get in the modern era. Last night’s average gap was 14, with every single song seeing its first appearance of 2012. And aside from being less recently played, the songs were great: who’s going to complain about a first set that opens with The Sloth, ends with Coil, and includes Camel Walk, a rare first-set Simple, and a jammed-out Tube in between?
While the opening set was interesting mostly for its song selection, its bits of improvisation were strong, and hinted at what was to come in the second set. 46 Days and Stealing Time — two songs that tend to see Trey at his wankiest — were more patient than usual. Where Trey usually swings for the fences, last night he hit solid doubles on both tunes. Cities had a short jam that segued beautifully into It’s Ice — one of several solid transitions over the course of the night. Simple and Coil had pretty jams, as well.
But the standout moment of the set was Tube. Like Roses Are Free, fans had lamented the disappearance of the jam from what had long been one of the band’s most reliable jam vehicles. But, as Roses did in Worcester, the empty vehicle picked its jam back up last night. And though Tube only clocked in at six and a half minutes, it was an excellent six and a half minutes, and a happy sign that the band is interested in letting the song take a ride.
But the biggest ride of the night was yet to come. Set two, in many ways, felt like an old-school second set. It was packed with jams, segues, teases, impromptu crowd participation, and high energy throughout — all the things that make Phish Phish.
Opening a second set for the first time since 10/15/98 was My Soul. Trey blazed through the song, delivering his best solo of the night. Birds of a Feather — a song that often does some blazing of its own — went in a different direction last night, settling into a cool summery groove that at times brought to mind last summer’s Pine Knob Disease. The jam’s spacy outro, with Fish tossing drum rolls and Page on synth, was downright beautiful, as was the transition into Back on the Train.
BOTT didn’t last long, but its closing section saw an excellent funky Mike-led section, with Trey laying down some beeps that turned into Heavy Things. A strong version of that song was followed by the second main section of the set: the 14th Twist/Piper combination since the songs were debuted 15 years ago.
Phish seems to have reached a point, now that they’re all pushing 50, where they can really appreciate the appeal of silly noises. Hence the “WHAAAAAAT?!” craze from last summer, and the “WOO!” refrains that surfaced as last night’s Twist was moving into Piper. The crowd eventually took over, chanting “WOO!” in rhythm with Piper (and later, First Tube). Fueled, as they tend to be, by the crowd’s creativity, the band laid down a nasty psychedelic jam in Piper that kept getting heavier and darker. A spooky space followed, which, after a gloriously patient couple minutes, subsided into Billy Breathes.
Billy was taking his first breaths in 81 shows, but you’d never have known it: the song, which had been soundchecked in Worcester, was as well executed as it has been in recent memory.
The set closed with a Bowie that was anything but typical: in the tradition of 2/20/93, the band went through a medley of teases of previously played songs, touching on It’s Ice, Ginseng, Birds, Stash and Simple before they were through. With the crowd as amped as they’d been all night, the band returned to the stage for First Tube, which has now enjoyed sole encore duties a whopping eight times in the modern era.
If Bonnaroo was a crowd-pleasing show for the non-Phish crowd, the first night at Bader Field was a crowd-pleaser for the die-hards. Featuring surprises of every kind, the concert left the fans happy, and left them wondering just what the band might have up its sleeves these next two nights.