After seven shows that were as significant for what they suggested was possible as for what they accomplished, the second night at Merriweather Post left little room for suggestion. In this show, Phish laid out all their best cards, and let the audience marvel at what a spectacular hand they have to play.
One of the best things about last night is that the band clearly had a lot of fun, but you’d never know it from the setlist. Because where, in earlier 3.0 shows, they’d have fun by tucking or by weaving a song into every jam, now they have improvisational fun. They toy around creatively, by funking out the middle section of It’s Ice, and by infusing a 5-minute Boogie On with some composed-sounding guitar lines.
Before all that, the band began the night with First Tube. While this song opened almost half its appearances in its most prolific year, 2000, it has mostly been limited to encore appearances in the modern era. The rest of the first quarter of the show was energetic, if ordinary.
This all changed with Stash. Like many of the best Stash jams, this one stretched out without degenerating into noise. Instead, it drifted from a lyrical major-key section a la 11/14/95, and then to some dark funk before returning to the Stash theme, which capped off what is arguably the smoothest and most powerful version of the song in the modern era.
Scent had an extended and unusually exploratory duel jam, with the premiere of Fishman’s Marimba Lumina. This ain’t the Chevy Lumina of marimbas. Far from it; the electronic pad yielded a torrent of dissonant arpeggios that sounded terrific — it reminded me of Gorecki’s harpsichord concerto.
Though Antelope wasn’t any more powerful than the quite strong versions from earlier in the tour, the aforementioned touches in It’s Ice, along with the huge Stash and Scent, left that special feeling in the air that seems to waft through the setbreaks that precede the best second sets.
And sure enough, this set delivered on its promise, and then some. The opening Golden Age may not have surpassed the version from Bangor, but it had some totally unique improvisational flourishes throughout the jam, and in the Third Stone from the Sun teases that opened it.
Likewise, though Twist was not a very long version, the best kind of Trey drove it — the kind who plays solos so purposeful that you’d swear he’d never even seen a noodle.
But to overextend the metaphor, it was in the Light jam that this set became truly al dente. This jam is pure improvisation: every moment feels completely natural, and yet completely unpredictable. It combines what makes Phish great in the modern era — patient, rhythmic, democratic playing — with what made them great in their mid-90s heyday — dissonant, composed-sounding exploration, with Trey leading yet being pushed forward at full speed by his bandmates, especially Fishman. It is shockingly good, literally: I was honestly shocked that Phish was able to pull off a jam like this in 2013. And I am even more excited than ever to see what else they can do.
The band rode the energy of this beast of a jam through the end of the set. A glorious segue into an inspired-though-short Boogie On was followed by a rocking Julius, a stellar YEM, and a fitting Loving Cup encore.
I may be stating the obvious, but what actually transpires when Phish is at their best is that they’re so comfortable on stage that they can completely relax — relaxation is a prerequisite for risk-taking and having musical fun, which in turn is a prerequisite for great improvisation. It all starts with comfort, though, and as last night’s show demonstrated, the band is clearly more comfortable, both on their individual instruments and with each other, than they’ve been in years.