One Final Jewel in the Summer 2013 Crown

If you ever went to summer camp, you’re probably familiar with a paradoxical phenomenon that occurs on the last day of the summer, in which everyone is running on pure nostalgia, which makes it difficult to fully enjoy the activity for which they are nostalgic. After weeks making these incredible memories with people you loved, the moment the end was in sight, you became capable only of reflecting on the existing memories, and not on creating new ones.

Photo by Brantley Gutierrez © Phish 2013

It was this thought that ran through my head on the final night of a Phish tour that was as unforgettable and as life-affirming as the greatest childhood summers. On this night, would a band and audience that were equally weighed down by exhaustion and sentimentality be able to produce an experience on par with what was created on the nights when we didn’t have to worry about packing our bags, returning to real life, and showering for the first time all summer before rejoining civilization?

The answer, it turned out, was complicated but ultimately thrilling. Complicated, because for 3/4 of the show, Phish performed at a level that simply did not rise to the lofty standard they’d set for themselves over the previous month, but thrilling because, for the last 1/4, they somehow managed to create something as surprising and arguably as magnificent as anything they had done all year.

The show started in the most conventional way imaginable: with the tour’s (tied-for-)most common opener, AC/DC Bag, followed by its most common 2nd-slotter, Moma. Following standard renditions of Stealing Time and Lawn Boy, the set proved its worth with the 1-2-3 punch of Wolfman’s — a characteristically funky, gritty version for this tour — Roses, and Scent of a Mule.

Photo by Brantley Gutierrez © Phish 2013

The latter picked up where Merriweather’s left off. While that one was notable for the debut of Fishman’s Marimba Lumina, this one saw Fish playing another new-to-him instrument — namely, Mike’s bass. The effect of him pounding Cactus’s strings with his mallets produced a percussive effect similar to Tony Levin (of King Crimson, Peter Gabriel, original 70 Volt Parade, and a million other things), who often plays his bass with “funk fingers,” which are essentially long chopsticks. Trey and Page started banging Fishman’s drums, in what seemed, in its band-unity and experimentation, to encapsulate the whole tour in a moment. (Incidentally, it was also the moment when my show-mate, who had to stay late at work, walked in to his first Phish show; quite a first impression to have of the band.)

A decent, i.e. non-horrible, Ocelot, tight Cavern, and always-welcome While My Guitar Gently Weeps closed out a first set that was perfectly fine, if not particularly memorable.

But we expect those first sets; we only hope that the second set of a show like this will be as unforgettable as the first was standard. And throughout the summer of 2013, Phish met those hopes. While some second acts were better than others — some contained era-defining Tweezers, while others just had some nice, compact jams and wonderful fluency — every second set (well, except Chicago night one) was really quite good.

Halfway through Monday night’s second set, this trend seemed to be in serious danger of being broken. It kicked off, as many great sets have, with a nice rocking type I Chalkdust. But then began a long string of jam songs whose jams just never quite found their footing. First up was Golden Age. The moment his major-key solo was over, Trey hit the wah pedal for some dependable funk. Fishman quickly dropped out, and while Page and Trey funked it out without a beat, the terrain seemed perfect for Fishman to come blazing back in. It worked a hundred times in Fall ’97; why not try it again? But when Fish returned, it was for the first notes of Birds.

Birds is often a jam vehicle in the second set though, right? Not this time. Like Chalkdust, this was a straight-ahead rock workout.

Next, they turned to Sand. But this one was, again, a well-played but entirely standard version. So far, it seemed that the show’s sights would be far more notable than any of its sounds: Kuroda lit up the shell of the Hollywood Bowl even more impressively than he did in 2011. The pictures do it some justice, but if you were not there, check this out for starters.

Photo by Brantley Gutierrez © Phish 2013

But they weren’t giving up — or so it seemed: the fifth slot of the second set was the fifth consecutive candidate for type 2 treatment. And sadly, it was the fifth one to fail. Though Disease was, to this point, a highlight of the set along with Golden Age, it still failed to break any new ground.

The band’s intentions were unclear. Were they trying to jam but failing, out of exhaustion or perhaps preoccupation with the impending end of tour? Or were they falling victim to the same forces — giant crowds with many non-die-hard fans — that doomed their Outside Lands and Bonnaroo sets? Whatever the answer, they seemed, after Disease, to give up on the idea of jamming. My Friend came first, and it was followed by Hood. It would seem that Harry’s lovely but predictable build would be the last improvisation of the summer.

But if there’s one thing that sets this band apart from every other musical act that’s walked the planet, it’s their ability to defy every expectation. And so it was that, by the time Hood was over, we had witnessed one of the most shocking and glorious bits of improvisation the band has produced all summer — made that much more enjoyable for the sheer surprise of its placement.

I was certain the band’s creative juices had all been squeezed. Shows on four straight nights, plus 400 miles of travel since the last one, plus five weeks on the road will do that to you. That their synapses weren’t firing throughout the second set was entirely forgivable. And so, when Trey first left the structure of Hood 10 minutes in, I gave him all the credit in the world just for trying, and was grateful for what I imagined were 30 more seconds of rocking in the minor key.

But over the next 10 minutes, the band first built on Trey’s theme, then transitioned into one final start-stop “Woo!” jam, and then into a space-rock excursion that was not quite like anything they’d played all summer, all before finally returning to the Hood theme. In short, the band was able to forget their exhaustion, forget the end of tour, and lay down the last addition to a stunning roster of summer jams. Though this may not have been the greatest Phish jam I’d ever seen, it was one of the most magical to experience.

Whatever restrictions I thought human nature placed on our ability to enjoy the end of a great experience without being addled by nostalgia, Phish clearly broke in the course of a single Hood jam. I’m sure that I was also not the only audience member who was exhausted through most of the show, then found a second wind during the HollyHood. What is most inspiring to me about Phish is their ability to wring creativity out of themselves that ordinary humans — even innovative and ambitious ones — would never have the willpower or strength to find. That this bit of brilliance came at the end of the tour made it that much more bittersweet and sentimental, like a final huge, unforgettable laugh between friends on the final night of summer camp.