There’s a sign that Phish has erected above the gates to the venue at Randall’s Island that reads, “WELCOME TO OUR JOY.”
The wording is interesting.
The decision to put “Joy” in there should raise an eyebrow. Sure, it’s a song where the band sings, “We want you to be happy” over and over, but it’s also possibly the single Phish song that people are least happy to actually hear.
But I’m less interested in the word “Joy.” I’m more interested in the “Our.” This whole thing, the sign seems to be saying, is not about the audience’s idea of joy. It’s about the band’s.
This is a sentiment that has pervaded the Phish experience for at least several years now — see “Garden Party” — but it’s one that has begun to settle into a new equilibrium, now that the band’s improvisation has reached a level of near-universal acclaim among fans. Where a couple years ago, fans were skeptical of the band’s desire to do what made themselves feel good, now, we’re much more willing to trust them — to surrender to the proverbial flow.
Which brings us to the second night of Randall’s Island, a show that featured an utterly forgettable first set followed by a second that merits comparison with the greatest sets of the modern era.
About that opening set. Fans have been grumbling about the pedestrian first sets for several years, but the grumbles have gotten more audible this tour. Part of the problem surely stems from the repetitiveness that comes with having just released an album. But much of it is that the bones the band has thrown us in the first sets have grown ever smaller. Friday night’s “Bathtub Gin” aside, the first set jams have been few and far between. Tonight, the best we got was an 8-minute “Song I Heard the Ocean Sing” that was solid, but far from remarkable.
And yet, fans’ comments on these first sets have been playful complaints — “c’mon, Phish!” — not vitriolic, like the equivalent comments you might’ve heard four or five years ago. Why?
Because these sets are so frequently followed by throwdowns like the one that came in this evening’s second half. This is the deal the band seems to be striking. “You want a set of jams? Well, there’s an hour’s worth of songs we want to play first.” *Our* joy.
This second set was wired directly to the audience’s joy centers. It was six songs long. It included two of the best jam vehicles in Phish’s repertoire, a type II “Hood,” one of the most classic set openers they’ve got, and “Rock and Roll.” And the set’s one slow song was “Wingsuit” — the most popular jam-landing-pad the band has written in well over a decade.
So you don’t need to hear a note to know that it’s a pretty good set.
This may shock you, but hearing the notes makes it even better.
“Carini” and “Ghost” were last paired to historic effect in the third set of last Halloween’s show in Atlantic City, and this iteration of the 1-2 punch was, arguably, just as much of a knockout. The songs swapped roles this time around: “Carini” came first, and it ceded some of its epicness to “Ghost.” However, the lumpy one held its own: the jam went spacy, but lost none of its focus. Page eventually laid down some proggy lines (think Billy Joel’s “Angry Young Man”) over the lovely major-key bed Mike had made. Trey added some tasteful, restrained leads before the glistening group improvisation dissipated.
Though this “Carini” would be the highlight of many sets, in this one it proved to be a mere warmup for “Ghost.” By the 5-minute mark of “Ghost,” things were already ambitious: Trey was popping a dirty rhythmic lick that seemed to point squarely in the direction of so many wonderful, evil, twisted “Ghosts” of the past.
And then, with a snap of the fingers, the band was in a major key, in bliss-Ghost territory. Things rocked out in this fashion — entertaining, but fairly standard — for a couple minutes before Trey looped some octaves, and the jam seemed ready to fizzle.
But fizzle it did not. Instead, the band began one of these wonderful hushed musical conversations they’ve been having on this tour. It’s as if they said, “how low can we turn the volume and still have this rock?” The result might not leave you headbanging, but it sure does sound good.
Three minutes into this — 12:30 into the jam, in all — they began to bounce around darkly, like a clown who dreams of being a mad scientist. Page pounds his clavinet while the rest of them keep bouncing, around each other and off of each other. Finally, this mad-scientist-clown revealed himself to be a funk-mad-scientist-clown, the jam settling into a dark, danceable groove.
At last, the jam did fizzle — into the sweet new fizzle pool known as “Wingsuit.”
It and “Rock and Roll” played their standard roles, but “Harry Hood” did one better. Though it wasn’t taken for quite as crazy of a ride as in the tour opener in Massachusetts, this “Hood” took a left turn, spent a few minutes exploring the terrain it found over there, then came back. What did it find there? Well, to put it simply, a smooth minor-key groove. This version is not an all-timer. But it’s super pleasant, and all the more so because the band is comfortable enough to make it happen. And capping off a set like this, well, it all goes down pretty damn nicely.
To the utter delight of the crowd, the band played both “Tube” AND “First Tube” in the three-song encore. In between, there was a bit of medicine squeezed in the middle of that sandwich: a little song called “Joy.”
There was no more fitting pair of messages for the crowd as they left: “We want you to be happy,” the band sang. But there, on the way out of the venue, was that sign, which reminded you: this is still “our joy.” Well, this may be what makes the band happy. But judging by the reactions of most fans — myself included — to this show, it makes the audience pretty damned content, too.