Northerly Island Night 3: It’s All About The Music

Following two shows that will go down in Phish history primarily for non-musical reasons, the band closed out their Chicago run Sunday with an appropriate mix of musical brilliance, theatrics, and rain delays. Capping off a three-night stand whose footnotes list runs almost as long as its setlists, this show managed to be both the musical superior and the eccentricity equal of its two predecessors.

7/21/13 Northerly Island | Photo by Dave Vann

This show was eclectic from the beginning, with a rare bit of banter even before the Dinner and a Movie opener. This song is dependably great to hear, but also dependably a bit painful to listen to the band struggle through. This one was worse than most, with horribly off-key singing late in the song. The band more than made up for it in Maze, a blazing version that was brutally thumped by Mike. Perhaps as a reward for his good work, Mike took the vocals for the next two tunes, Mound and Funky Bitch.

7/21/13 Northerly Island | Photo by Dave Vann

As with most recent versions, this Bathtub Gin was about a 6 or 7 out of 10. The jam was energetic, but aside from a crescendo toward the end, it contained little that we haven’t heard in this song many times before. After so many years of shape-shifting, Gin has become disappointingly predictable in 3.0.

Boogie On had a bit more exploration, but the weather was largely to thank: as the rain was pouring down, the band seemed to be aware that they might have to stop playing any second. And sure enough, as Antelope began, the set came to a premature end.

Thankfully, the band was able to return to the stage, and they returned with their jamming engines roaring. The opening Energy was the easy highlight of the entire Chicago run, finding several distinct melodic themes in its 15 minutes. Like many 2013 highlights, this jam was a patient wanderer: the band seems to be constantly moving — varying melodies and rhythms in search of uncharted improvisational terrain — yet giving each musical moment its due before moving on to the next one. If ’93 was Phish’s period of ADD jamming, then 2013 is the period in which they have found their Ritalin.

7/21/13 Northerly Island | Photo by Dave Vann

The spirit of the Energy jam was recaptured in a lovely yet economical Ghost that was a mere 9 minutes away from ending before it even started. Its major-key jam, which recalled Water in the Sky at points, dissolved into Lizards in the night’s sole segue.

Now halfway into a set that had already clinched the best-of-run title, the band took things in an altogether different direction, switching from musical to comedic improv. I won’t describe the theatrics of this Harpua; if you haven’t seen it, fix that. Though the band has pulled a couple recent gags involving audience plants, this one had real potential, if for no other reason than because some great performers were involved. Unfortunately, they didn’t take full advantage of the incredible wealth of character comedy that’s offered to them as improvisers pretending to be Phish fans. Given the amount of low-hanging fruit there for the picking, the “Best Eastern” hotel joke and Al Gore rap seemed like odd comedic choices.

7/21/13 Northerly Island | Photo by Dave Vann

But I’m not here to review comedy, so let’s get back to the music. The band closed the set by finishing up the first set’s Antelope with a version that kept the song’s 1.000 batting average for the year intact. This one wasn’t a home run like a couple of the tour’s earlier versions, but, largely thanks to Mike’s playing, it was at least a stand-up double.

Character Zero — a song that seemed to be banished from the encore slot after a handful of show-closing performances early in 3.0 — has become a go-to encore, closing its second show of the tour and fifth since last July. Trey unleashed some of his most explosive playing of the night, a reminder that though not many are that thrilled with the selection when this song starts, virtually everyone is smiling by the time it ends.

This show had a bit of 12/1/03 to it, where you have to wonder what might have happened if the incredible musical trajectory of the first half of the second set hadn’t been interrupted by guests in the second half. Nonetheless, the Harpua was unique and entertaining enough, even if it veered into Merry Pranksters Forbin territory, and half a set of excellent jams would alone be worth the price of admission. And though this was an undoubtedly strange show from an even stranger run, it seems clear that in the arc of this summer tour, last night’s concert pointed the band back in the direction where the headlines about this show pertain to the quality of the music.