Phish returned to San Francisco for the first time for a non-festival show since the late-nineties on Friday night for a three-show weekend run at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. West coasters are often vocal about their pain of not getting enough tour dates by them–rightfully so–and Phish saw to it that they got the biggest bang for their buck this weekend. Coming off the heels of an outstanding tour opener in Long Beach, Phish played a trio of shows that would quench even the most serious of improvisational cravings. Bookended by the more impressive gigs, the jams in these shows were fresh, well-coordinated, innovative, and downright dirty. The improvisation seems to be reaching a new level of communications. Communication we haven’t seen between them in decades.
Friday’s opening act set us up with a lively Moma Dance, solid first-set Sand, snarling Funky Bitch, and a now-rare first-set Slave to close things down. Breaking the common structure of 3.0 shows only Saturday night really, Fridays jams arose starting with the set-opening Down with Disease. Trey showed us as he did early in leg one that he’s able to take the back seat to his bandmates. Fish and Mike were firing on all cylinders all weekend and they drove much of these jams. The Birds of a Feather that followed a long and West-Coast-relaxed Disease was foreshadowed by some quick strums from Trey before finally breaking into it. The rendition was short but showed some serious teeth. Trey, in something he’s been doing a lot lately, came to an explosive peak and then pressed his bandmates to snap right into the ending exactly after the peak–something that requires a lot of communication and physical dexterity. He did this in Twist too; immediately following his snarling peak he moved the band right into the “woooo!” part without allowing anyone to take a breathe. Just because Trey is taking the back seat in some jams, that doesn’t mean he’s playing lazily by any measure–quite the contrary in fact. The Tweezer reminds me of the Red Rocks ’09 Tweezer–I’m not sure why–perhaps it’s the plinkish guitar breaks and the punctuated jamming, but this version blows ’09’s out of the water. Trey uses loops, pinko and hot guitar leads over Mike and Fishman. During experiments with full-band improv, the gang reaches points of perfect musical ‘throbbing’ where they all are attached to one another and collectively bring the jam to another level. After the sonic sex dissipates, only Trey’s loops are left with a hi-hat driven beat for Mike to take an incredible bass solo over. In all the jams I’ve reviewed, I find high-quality 3.0 jams the hardest to write about; they are so dense with so much new stuff going on.
Saturday night’s show proved to be a bit of a dud; the band found absolutely no groove or flow. Unique to most 3.0 shows, the highlights were mostly found in the first set rather than second. Wolfman’s brother, the second song, reached some interesting places. Out of the gates, the band did a vocal jam before going into a rock jam and then eventually sinking into heavy dance funk before coming back up. Ocelot and Maze gave Trey some nice space to take his Ocedoc out for a spin and shortly thereafter we were treated to yet another incredible, but waaaaay too short, Tube. After what is probably the cleanest version of Sugar Shack Trey has ever executed, they played a very spacey Melt. I wasn’t a fan of where the Melt ended up. I feel that Melts all-too-often become so spacey and disconnected, they have no clue where they are anymore. Trey, forcing the ending upon us, just started randomly scratching the end licks out to signal Fish to end it. Why not just let the jam flutter into space, put down your instruments, and walk off the stage like a boss? Regardless, a lot of phans enjoyed this Melt and I’m happy they did–just doesn’t float my boat.
The quartet saved the best for last, however, with Sunday night’s super-jammed throwdown. In one of the longest shows of the era–clocking in at 3.2 hours–Phish played a frist set with choice song selection and a second set that flowed like the salmon of Capistrano. Over a year ago, OPT had a piece on how the key to the best jams are ‘patterns and themes’ and that’s just what made this show arguably one of the best of the era.
Opening a second set by popping into Crosseyed and Painless always gets the crowd in a frenzy, but the band didn’t let the frenzy fade as they moved seamlessly into different jam segments and songs for the rest of the set. The 17-minute Crosseyed (well, 45-minutes if you consider the fact that they finish the song later in the set) settles down quicker than usual after the “still waiting” refrain. It sounds like the song could end but instead it keeps going with a delicate jam between Mike and Trey circling around each other before the unique jam eventually throbs into Light.
So far, Light has been the MVP of summer for me, and it once again topped itself. In fact, it might have topped every other jam of 3.0. The jam starts typical enough: Trey shooting out some screaming guitar leads over the Light drumbeat/bass line/piano notes. Once the jam gets locked in, it starts building for a peak during which Trey starts teasing Crosseyed. Trey quickly dives into funk with some heavy wah licks coming from his Cry Baby pedal as if to tell the band, “okay, we’re going a new direction now”. Fishman quickly responds but going into a heavy and poppy drumbeat akin to Timber’s. Mike takes a heavy lead with some incredibly melodic bass playing before Page destroys the crowd with his evil synthesizer. Mike finds a PATTERN that allows Trey to build his notes off a foundation while Fish is tapping his plastic block. Mike digs deeper and Trey starts something that I can only explain by calling a ‘theme’ with his guitar–it’s a series of strums that sound almost composed; when a jam sounds composed you know that the band is feeling it indeed. Soon, the orchestrated strumming from Trey became composed-sounding notes that occupied all the pockets Page’s, Mike’s and Fish’s dense jamming left open. The communication and improvisation during this segment (the last three minutes of the song) cannot be properly expressed through words, this needs to be heard by everyone. After saying Light would never find it’s improvisational voice from 2009 through 2011, I’m being proved incredibly wrong with every time it’s being played this year. Last night’s version was like a giant “fuck you” to me. Then whole band comes to a peak to quickly reprise the theme Trey started before segueing into Sneakin’ Sally better then they have since 1998. Buckle up because Phish was taking no prisoners.
Phish was incredibly lively during the composed section of Sneakin’ Sally, using the vocal jamming during the song before the vocal jamming normally occurs. Then in the part where the drums drop out to leave the other three members making sounds into their mics, Fish pops back in after the traditional vocal section but instead of Trey immediately shooting for the stars with his guitar, he sinks down low with funky strumming and Mike lays bass licks atop. Trey and Mike soon find a pattern to build off of and Trey comes in with serious swagger over the bass riff they created with the musical pattern just before and they start building to a screaming climax. Trey’s guitar is absolutely snarling, ejaculating notes everywhere like he did in the Centrum Boogie On just a couple months ago. Fishman kept the backbone relatively slower during this frenzy and Page was rocking right up there with Trey on the baby grand. Soon the jam slows and Trey directs everyone into the end of Crosseyed and Painless, lyrics and all. The space that follows eventually ebbs back to reveal Page starting a perfectly-placed Theme From the Bottom.
Rocky Top injected some playfulness into the set after some very serious music before launching into an all-too-short Boogie On. Despite it’s length, the jam was pretty cool. Towards the end Page and Fish have their own little breakdown during the jam with Mike stomping on his foot bell.
The set closed with the best YEM of the year. After two cookie-cutter versions earlier this summer, this one broke the mold with an interesting jam that segued seamlessly into the bass and drums section. The move into B&D was so smooth it’s almost like it caught Mike by surprise. Needless to say, Mike and Fish go on to make this the best B&D of 3.0. Mike uses both his envelope filter and slapping to make this dynamic duet of jamming incredibly impressive.
The long stanza of music was encored with the second Ride Captain Ride of the year, obviously played for the reference to the ‘San Francisco Bay’, before ending the weekend with the Tweezer Reprise connected to the opening night’s Tweezer.
So far this leg has had three outstanding shows out of four shows total–I like those odds. Why isn’t Phish playing in fall?