Alpine 1: Always Short, Often Sweet

Expectations are a tricky thing.  Sometimes an expectation feels so right that you don’t even consider it an expectation anymore.  When a community latches onto it, it becomes dogma, accepted wisdom.  It becomes, at least in our minds, an inevitability.

For the last few years, Phish fans have split into various camps–there’s your jaded vets, your 3.0 fluffers, your noobs, your Trey apologists, your “blame Trey first” crowd, and your “fuck it, I’m done with this band” quitters.  Aside from the last group, who only really count as fans in the past tense, all other groups have been united under one belief (in two parts): “The band will keep getting better, the jams will come back”.  No matter how good, or terrible, you think the band has been since their return, this expected improvement and return to form has been cast as an inevitability.

But expectations, even when an entire fan base holds them, are not inevitable.  Not as long as they rely on the actions of four independent human beings who may have their own, very different takes.  In this case, looking at the developing situation in Summer 2012, it seems our expectations were only half right.  Phish has gotten better, much better.  They’ve improved noticeably in every area we love about them–musicianship, set crafting, humor/playfulness, song transitions, improvisation.  But the jamming, as we knew it for the majority of the band’s history, has been as largely absent as ever.  And the longer this tour goes on, the more it begins to seem like it is time to adjust our expectations for good.

Which brings us to last night in Alpine, a place where Phish has traditionally taken their summer tours to the next level (most recently the ’10 DWD->What’s the Use,  which prefaced the leap forward of the following fall).  If the band wanted to build on its significant achievements thus far and start to stretch out and explore some new territory (read: Jam for more than a few minutes each song), last night would have seemed like the time to do it.  How did that play out?  Let’s go to the tapes.

First sets have settled into a pattern of short songs with nice flow and surprising bust outs, and last night was no exception.  Despite noted Phish fan and TV writer Harris Whittles’s tweet (“No offense @phish, but these 14 song first sets aren’t doin it for anybody. What happened, guys?”), I personally find it hard to complain about a first set like last night’s, laced as it was with well played rarities like “Daniel Saw the Stone”, “The Sloth” and the third ever appearance of “Let It Loose”, a song which features some of Page’s best crooning.  A decent Reba fell well short of the band’s last take in Atlantic City–indisputably the best version of this modern era–but the whistling was a nice treat and was even in the correct key.

Cementing this as the proverbial “Solid first set” was the closing triumvarent of Timber>Oh Kee Pa>Suzy.  Timber was dissonant and dark in its allotted six minutes, OKP was lovely as always, and Suzy allowed Trey to end the set at his cock-rocking-est best.  Again, a perfectly nice first set, one any fan should be satisfied with.

Opening the next set was Backwards Down the Number Line, a song I have no clue what to expect from anymore.  I find it works best as a short, upbeat rocker toward the end of the first set, but we’ve seen this song stretched out before, so a Set II opener could mean anything.  In this case, it meant a short, upbeat rocker quickly giving way to Carini.  Carini packed the first punch of the evening with a couple promising minutes of Trey-led exploration before moving abruptly into Wilson.

After Wilson came Golden Age for the third time this summer.  Unlike the previous versions this tour, this one delivered from the promise of the Superball IX take last summer, dropping nicely into a few minutes of full band funk fusion.  Featuring dirty grooves by Mike and Fish, plinko-esque funk by Page and flawless, boomerang-pedal-assisted riffs by Trey, these four minutes or so of 3.0 funk perfection exemplified exactly how far the band has come to this point.

How disappointed, then, should we be when Trey takes the jam over at around the 10-minute mark and moves the band smoothly into 2001? Again, I guess it depends on your expectations.  After another short bout with funk brilliance during the five-minute 2001, Trey used the sonar signals  at the end of the song to make the transition into Rock and Roll.

Before this set began, I texted to AdamOPT “Enjoy the 11 minute Rock and Roll”.  Ever defying expectations, the band clocked this one in at 10:44, leaving about four minutes after Trey’s peaking for a gorgeous, if straightforward, outro.  Led into the ether by Gordo, Trey soon took over and crafted one beautiful lick after another before letting each one fly off to make way for Steam.

I love Steam, I hope they play it more often, and I can‘t think of a single thing to say about last night’s version except it sounded exactly the same as every time they previously played it (excluding the NYE version, which is nearly unlistenable due to the stunt vamping).  At least this one had a minute long abstract segue into Piper, which felt more like an intro to the latter than a jam out of the former.   Either way, it was very pretty and added to the overall smoothness of the set.

With a late set Piper came the knowledge that this was probably the last chance of the night for open-ended improvisation.   A creative “Type-I” jam from Trey led into a slow, steady dissolve.  When Fish’s drums dropped out, everyone (maybe Fish included) felt a transition coming.  But this time, Trey and Page decided to keep going, stretching out another beautiful segue for a blissful two minute transition into Quinn the Eskimo.

And thus ended the jamming portion of the evening.  When you add it all up, the set contained probably ten to fifteen solid minutes of pure, open-ended improvisation.  I hate to call attention to the timing of the jams, that’s not what matters.  Every minute of it was excellent; creative, multi-layered and efficient.  There is not an ounce of extra fat on these jams, they are all muscle.

But no fat also means no real risk.  There’s only so much you can accomplish in a few minutes of jamming, and I think last night was the pinnacle of that.  If this is how you like your Phish–lean and mean with excellent playing and a few minutes of genuine creativity on 4-5 songs a night–than you can safely argue that the band has returned to and maybe even surpassed their previous glory.  But if you’re hoping for the kind of jams that take you on a journey–the kind of journey where the tweaked out guy next to you turns and says “dude, is this still the same song?”–then you may need to start thinking about adjusting your expectations.

The following Hood was well-played and unremarkable, save for the fact that this one had an ending that the previous two takes lacked.  The Character 0 provided the “Trey teaser slot” of the evening, though the Jean Pierre build was particularly creative and unexpected.  Finally, a quick and rocking Good Times, Bad Times encore sent us on our way.

Excitement builds for tonight, where Phish will finish off their four day midwest run in Alpine before returning to the east coast for a run of five shows in six days.  I expect Phish to continue defy expectations, as they always do.