Phish opened their two-night run at Merriweather Post Pavilion with one of their weakest shows of the tour, and we should all find that incredibly encouraging. Why? Because, as in all of Phish’s golden eras, even on their off-nights, they still put on a damn good show. This one just so happened to feature consistently strong playing throughout, with medium-highlights scattered across the entirety of both sets.
The first set was bolstered by unpredictable song selection: the Kill Devil Falls opener was followed by four tunes that got their 2013 debuts. But the set really began to take off during the Maze jam. Following what seems to be a pattern in recent years, Trey’s rhythm guitar over Page’s solo fired up his superpowers for his own solo. He stayed energized through the set-closing Melt. Unlike the SPAC version, this one ended in something other than a trainwreck, but also unlike the SPAC version, it was not a history-making Melt. Still, it was a nice closing punch to a fine first set.
Phish has, thankfully, stopped flipping off the improvisational switch halfway through their second sets, but their willingness to really explore after the third quarter is still quite limited. Though the trio of Mike’s > Simple > Weekapaug were stretched a bit more than many 3.0 versions — Simple, in particular, has some lovely improvisation near the end — the Disease is the improvisational centerpiece of this show.
Following an especially powerful rock-bomb guitar fest to open the jam, the band slipped into a quiet, slinky, summery groove that lasted for most of the remainder of the song. Then, toward the end, something special started to happen. Trey very gradually began to build. The underline is purposeful, because the transition back into the Disease refrain was one that 2009-2012 Trey would too often have rushed. But this one, he absolutely nailed. And there we see one of the hallmarks of 2013 Phish: the return of the composure and the patience that helped make this band the greatest rock improvisers of their generation.
The middle of the set doesn’t lag — on the contrary, every song is played powerfully, and a few well-placed teases help keep them interesting. But none of the jamming is nearly as noteworthy as what transpired during Disease, or for that matter toward the end of the set.
Everything from this show should be heard by any serious Phish fan — including the fiery Good Times Bad Times that closed it — and that brings me back to my original point. Even on the nights that aren’t their absolute best, Phish is playing great music these days. And on nights when they are? Well, watch out.