We’re now at about the halfway point between the two legs of summer tour. We at OPT wanted to give enough time for the dust to settle after the first leg so we didn’t offer opinions that may be emotional rather than logical. We wouldn’t want to call something “groundbreaking” only to have to retract it a day later because we were still high on the first leg’s fumes.
The following is what some of OPT’s writer thought about the first leg. Each review is completely separate. Comment below with agreements or how you think we should kill ourselves.
The band had an incredible amount of fun on Leg 1, and it was both the best thing and the worst thing about the tour. Individually, damn near every show of the tour included a combination of setlist surprises, high energy, quality jams, and stage antics — a quintessentially Phishy concoction. If you were to airdrop one of these shows in the middle of any tour from the band’s history, it would still sound exceptional.
But a funny thing happens when you listen to this whole tour: it all starts to feel a bit formulaic. By the time the band reached Saratoga Springs, an eighteen-song first set with lots of bustouts felt pretty much par for the summer’s course. Blister in the Sun is a cool song, but are we really surprised to see the band weave it in and out of the entire set, when they’ve already done the same thing with other songs multiple times on this tour? Kung is always fun, but it felt like the band was busting it out to fill some silliness quota; does anyone in the audience really prefer it to more jamming along the lines of the Piper from earlier in the set?
I am not shitting on this tour. Far from it: Phish’s playing was far superior to anything they’d done in the previous three years. But this is the first time in Phish’s history that their jamming has been so good and yet they’ve done so little of it. Each of the band’s golden eras has been golden because the band was jamming so well and jamming so much. This era could be golden, too, but only if the band lets things go a bit. As anyone on Wall Street will tell you, reward requires risk. And that’s the one thing the band needs more than anything else: to trade in a bit of fun for a bit of risk.
Leg 1 is in the books. Oh how the landscape there has changed. With the two-leg touring format securely in place for four summers (!) now, we have changed how we look at tour announcements and ticket on-sales (“let’s see what the second leg looks like”), planned show attendance, and what can be expected from the band. In 2012, we had a little taste of what to expect courtesy of an interview adding fuel to the excitement fire in which Page (right?) announced that the band was going to try and play more than 200 songs.
The popular response to Leg I recaps has been “they played a lot of songs.” OK, there’s far more to everyone else’s reviews than that, but its one concept that sticks – having attended shows, streamed others on Live Phish and poured over Twitter to watch setlists coming through for still others. I don’t necessarily think the 14, 15, etc. song sets are a bad thing. While it’s definitely taken people out of their comfort zone at shows or online, the days of 55 minute sets are over, seemingly.
As a “tour” leg 1 was fundamentally Phish. The tucking antics, bust-outs, Fishman songs and more have been discussed here so I’ll skip going into great detail, but they have always had their place and have always been part of the show. A lot of discussion has been made about jamming. While I would agree there weren’t the 20+ minute lift offs of the past, much of the jamming did highlight the real reason to see Phish – amazing artists producing their craft at a high level.
Every Tweezer is not the Mud Island Tweezer and every Tube isn’t the Dayton Tube, but the fast-paced technological world we live in has led every fan to download – or at least listen to – every single second of every single show. In 1995, you got the Mud Island Tweezer on tape because a friend was there and said it was worth spending time seeking out. This made it increasingly special to hear something unique. Nowadays, the audio and video is immediately available, perhaps putting unfair pressure on the result. The bottom line, nowadays, is finding those moments that are special. Again, its out of our comfort zone to say “Song A was great but Song B left me wanting more” or “Song C should be compared to how good it was in 1997”, its how the model needs to change.
As with my friend below, I have come to the point where every show isn’t possible, leaving me without another show until NYE, perhaps. This is OK. It’s also OK if one Piper was 14 minutes and the rest were 10. It’s OK if seemingly “dead” songs are busted out or gags and tease-fests are present (but let’s not make it the only key to a memorable show). Its OK to analyze legs of tours and look forward to a new era of Phish.
It’s all great, in fact.
There is a lot to be said about the Leg 1. Phish hit several home runs, dropped some serious bombs, and pieced together a bunch of standout sets. I have little doubt that Phish left the majority of its fans overcome with joy at the end of (nearly) every show, but fans who see Phish solely for the exploratory improvisation might still be longing for more. Personally, I think Phish delivered above and beyond expectations throughout the first leg of summer 2012, especially when you consider the residual effects of New Year’s Eve 2011.
Following an underwhelming NYE run, I lowered my expectations for the band. One of the biggest faults of the lackluster NYE run undoubtedly falls on the shoulders of the fans, myself included. Summer 2011 delivered in such a big way that most of us in the “Phish-osphere” figured NYE ‘11 would build on the previous tour’s developments. Setting the bar unreasonably high combined with choppy set-lists, infrequent jamming (but when they did it was pretty, pretty, pretty good), and some miscues by Trey made for an uneventful NYE run. So, leading into summer ‘12 I readjusted my expectations. I tried to approach the summer from a fresh perspective, but after hearing 6/7/12, Boogie in particular, it was hard to prevent high expectations from creeping in. As the tour progressed it became evident that Phish was building on summer ‘11. Phish’s playing throughout leg 1 proved that NYE ‘11 was an apparition.
If past 3.0 summer tours are any indication as to how leg two will unfold, it would behoove any serious fan to miss shows. Although I don’t think every show during leg 1 was particularly stellar, I thought they were much fresher and more engaging than the first leg of summer ‘11. The chase for 200 songs may have gotten old, but it made for pretty cool live moments. Of course I wish every song was jammed out to the max, but that is unreasonable and simply not going to happen.
While leg 1 produced there are many significant positive developments and classic ”3.0” Phish, I still think there is room for improvement. Three nights aren’t as tight or complete as they could be (aside from Superball and maybe Dicks most 3 night stands have a lackluster show) and some of Phish’s most classic jam vehicles are not delivering in the ways they once had (YEM, Gin, and Bowie to name a few).
In the end, leg 1 was a great success despite an overkill of Fishman songs, the chase for 200, and sucking at tucking. I don’t think every impressive jam was “groundbreaking,” but a jam doesn’t have to be groundbreaking to be sick live or on tape. Whether groundbreaking or not, Phish has given fans a lot of great music to to dive into for years to come. There is plenty to be excited for in the world of Phish even if you aren’t thrilled with the touring schedule, setlist structure, or lack of four song sets. My suggestion…see some leg 2 shows if you can. The best of summer ‘12 is definitely not in our rearview mirrors; rather, it is steadily approaching.
Micah: The Ground Has Shifted
Orwell once said “To see what is in front of one’s nose requires constant struggle”. I have always taken this quote to mean that one must constantly challenge the truths that we take for granted because if we don’t constantly question what is in front of us and accept things as they are, we might miss the things that have actually changed. This quote is especially relevant as it relates to Phish today because I think as a community we are overlooking where the band is and projecting onto them the image of the band we want them to be. The band is forging a new model for the 21st century, one that allows them to meet their personal and professional goals by using a mix of ingredients that helped Phish rise to the top and made them THE band in the post-Grateful Dead world.
So what is the new model? Lets start with touring. The whole concept of “going on tour” is dead. The slow death of going on tour started way back on 7/9/95, but didn’t really keel over until 8/15/04 when the cycle ran its course. 40+ years isn’t a bad run for those of us lucky enough to have been on the bus for any amount of time (disclaimer: I did every show in the summer of ‘99 excluding Japan). But Phish is still a touring band…and that is something to be thankful for…it’s just that the model has changed. With Phish we now get month long tours broken into 4-5 legs. A tight song rotation (200 songs notwithstanding) and shorter jams. Each leg is a mini-tour in its own right with each one getting a special moment or two, whether it be a Fishman song, an inside joke (tucking, Page’s house), or a tease-fest (Crosseyed, Blister in the Sun). Going on tour as we once knew it is now an obsolete concept.
So does this mean that Phish is dead? Well, no, but it raises some questions and offers up some interesting points to chew on. On one hand, Phish 3.0 is getting back to their pre-’94 roots of jokes, Fishman songs, tight jams and teases: the very things that helped them build a fanbase. We forget that Fishman songs were much more prevalent leading up to ‘95, serving both as comic relief or as the denouement of a show, depending on the night (not to drag the Grateful Dead into this again but I look at Fishman songs the way I look at Pigpen songs…once the Grateful Dead eliminated Pigpen songs from their repertoire in ‘72, their shows took on a different feeling and focus, much like Phish’s music changed from ‘94 on. Granted, circumstances were different for the change [Pigpen died], but the effect on the band and the music was the same).
On the other hand, this back-to-the-basics move is a refutation of the business model the band built in the post-Jerry world, a model that is much more suited for the digital age than the pre-’94 model. In the late ‘90s we saw the music take over: setlists were thrown on their head (in ‘97, 2001 was a first set song!), 20+ minute psychedelic excursions were the norm (not to mention the 4 song set!), and shows would contain multiple moments of pure hose which added to the incentive to travel from show to show to chase IT. These are the moments that people are still chasing today, and in today’s digital world where every show is available instantly, those moments, more so than a Fishman song, are the ones that will keep fans buying tickets and Livephish downloads…but they aren’t.
I don’t really know what all this means. What I do know, is that we need to stop chasing “what was”. As the Deadheads used to say “it was all downhill after ‘68”, and they might have a point. We can never reclaim the acid test glory of primordial Dead. We can also never go back to [insert favorite Phish year here]. I personally don’t think the jams are coming back. The Phish we have seen this year, and to some extent the Phish we saw in 2011, is the Phish we have. Shorter tours. Mini-runs which function like mini-tours complete with Fishman songs, teases, jokes, ripcords and poor ballad placement. For me, this works (minus the poor ballad placement). I am now entering the “I have commitments and can’t drop everything to do a lengthy run of shows anymore” stage of my life. I am fortunate that I live on the east coast so I can see more than my fair share of shows and I can imagine that I might be singing a different tune if I lived in Seattle, but all things being equal it works for me. Would I like to see a little more hose? Sure. The AC Tube gives me hope, but as a general rule, those 20+ minute Bowies from the summer of ‘95 aren’t coming back.
I’m still having fun at shows and have no plans to stop. I still can’t focus at work in the days leading up to my first show of the tour. I still get butterflies in my stomach when the lights go down. I am still chasing Peaches and am rapidly approaching my 100th show. I think we need to take the time to see what we have in front of us and stop projecting what we want to see. Phish is still really, really good at what they do – in fact they are still the best at what they do – they just don’t do it the way they used to, or, depending on how you look at it, have reverted back to the old-school. It’s OK to hope and want the band to improve and to be the band you want them to be, but don’t let that get in the way of seeing the band as they are.
I have mixed feelings on the first leg of this tour. I think the communication between the band members is the best it’s been in over a decade. I think Trey is more comfortable with his playing than ever before too. He got his finger dexterity and chops back in 2011, but now he’s able to change his tone, volume, and effects with confidence and creativity. He also seems to be more content with sitting on the back burner during a jam if the other members are going somewhere with it; this was obvious to me from as early as the DCU Down with Disease. The levels of improvisation in the Lights and Ghosts of the tour shows just how well the band can mesh again.
However, I feel that, after the Atlantic City run, Trey became too focused on playing as many songs as possible. After Page made the comment to Rolling Stone about breaking the song record by playing 200 songs, it seems like they cared more about that at times than constructing a show with good song flow and jams that could really breathe. I’m disappointed that the funk jams they laid down at DCU and Bader disappeared after the incredible Tube (with stop/start jamming!) and pair of 2001s. That funk was gorgeous and I hope that they bring it back in the second leg.
That all being said, the song-focus is over. They broke the record. It was their “thing”, just like 2011 had the “what?!” and “Page’s House” and 2010 had the new covers. I just want them to get to a point where their wonderful, newfound improv style will take focus rather than gimmicky things like playing as many songs as possible or making the crowd laugh.
Once the improv takes full focus, we’ll hopefully see things like the Sand -> Nellie-Kane-type segues every night with You Enjoy Myselfs that aren’t as stale as nearly every other one the past 2 years. They are playing, by far, the longest shows EVER of their career. They are creating a wide-open canvas for them to work with–the last night of the tour has a 120-minute set! Every set, on average, is between about 90-100 minutes now too. This is one of the most impressive things about the band now. I look to see them inject this large amount of time with the magic they touched upon in their jams on leg one rather than as many old songs as possible.