If Phish’s 2012 concerts have become a bit formulaic, the band’s first of two shows at Deer Creek demonstrated why that formula often works so well. A first set loaded with punchy Type 1 jams and 2012 debuts kept fans dancing and kept them guessing; the second set brought a healthy mix of adventurous improvisation and antics.
The heat was brought by the weather gods: even as the band came out just after 8:00, temperatures were still in triple digits. With many expecting a heat-related opener — Steam, perhaps; Talking Heads’ Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On) was also mentioned on twitter — the band had other plans, taking the a cappella positions and opening with The Birdwatcher. The song’s 2012 debut was followed by 5 more first-of-tours. Among these were inspired performances of The Curtain With and Pebbles, the always fun Fuck Your Face and Weigh, and the first Old Home Place since 12/5/09.
The set’s improvisational highlight came shortly after, in Wolfman’s Brother. Though the jam covered very familiar territory, Trey simply burned this familiar territory to the ground with some of his most fiery guitar playing of the night.
Just as fans were giving up hope of a musical nod to the heat, the set took a heat-ward turn, with Cool It Down, Tweezer, Tela (“the sky is burning”) and a set-closing glass of cold green tea in Stealing Time. Tweezer was the most musically notable of the four, delivering a strong if by-the-numbers performance that included the old-school slow-down ending.
After a short setbreak, the band emerged with a new energy, blowing the roof off the Klipsch Music Center in what may well be the strongest set of the tour to date. This was one of those sets that delivered on all measures: great setlist, every single song powerfully played, and where the setlist + playing quality don’t even tell the full story of what went down.
The tone was set with a blazing Mike’s — of the 5 versions played on this tour, quite possibly the strongest. McGrupp’s followed Mike’s for just the third time ever and first since Nassau ’99. The jam section, rather than stay in its light, ethereal comfort zone, featured some discordant playing from Trey. Just as the jam was venturing into uncharted waters, though, it came back to shore.
But the darkness continued in the Back on the Train that followed. In one of the jammiest and strongest versions of the song ever played, the band went to places that were alternately groovy, spacy, and downright evil, before hitting a riff that some thought might lead into Psycho Killer, but instead went in the polar opposite direction: Hold Your Head Up!
As Fishman took center stage, many — including Trey — began requesting Sexual Healing, but Fish admitted that the only words he remembered were “sexual healing.” The banter continued, until he eventually settled on Bike.
The fun continued after the closing Hold Your Head Up, as Trey fired up (or tried to fire up, anyway) the opening beats of Weekapaug. As Mike started slapping, Fish picked up Trey’s guitar, and played some riffs that were characteristically horrible but actually sounded a bit like Dave’s Energy Guide. Finally, he and Trey switched instruments.
The set still had a couple more highlights in store: first off, Waves, getting its first treatment since UIC ’11, and arguably its best treatment since the Bethel tech rehearsal. Settling into a tight, punchy groove, the jam became more and more airy before Trey and Mike began leaning heavily on their effects pedals, reaching a beautiful space perfectly suited for a hot summer night.
To close the set, Bowie saw one of its most inspired performances in recent memory, with Trey running circles around the fretboard before building to an awesome peak.
The band played a stellar show last night, with moments of phenomenal improvisation, some truly fun antics that didn’t overpower the show, and a fantastic setlist that pulled from all eras. At this point, my main complaint about this tour is that it lacks an iconic jam on the level of Pine Knob Disease or Gorge Rock and Roll. The only way it’s going to get one is if the band stretches out a jam; though they’ve done a lot with songs in 10-14 minutes, but they can only do so much in that time. Let’s hope we get one of those before the tour is up, and in the meantime, let’s hope tonight’s show at Deer Creek is as strong as last night’s.