There’s a lot that can be taken from the three-night run on Randall’s Island. We’re going to get into the music of last night but it’s also important to discuss what we’re witnessing this tour. I think we’re finally seeing 3.0 Trey ‘surrender to the flow’. I don’t want to make this all about Trey because it indeed has been the entire band, working as a unit, that have pieced together the insanely impressive improvisational movements we’ve seen this tour including the jaw-dropping Chalkdust Torture > Light > Tweezer from last night. We’re not just witnessing big jams though–we’re watching a man embrace his destiny (forgive me for the dramatic hyperbole, I have last night’s tear-inducing Tweezer playing as I type this).
What do I mean by “embracing his destiny”? I’m talking about Trey’s return to crummy thin t-shirts (which are probably still $500) and messy hair. I’m talking about his knees giving out when he hits the high notes and him staring at the moon, mouth agape, forgetting about the thousands surrounding him as he comes up with improvisational inspiration. I’ve had the idea ever since 3.0 started that Trey viewed Phish as only part of his life. Phish paid the bills and was fun for him, but it was more a means for him to depart onto other musical edeavors, furiously trying to prove that he’s more than “Phish’s guitar player”. He can do classical music, he can do Broadway, he can play big-band arrangements! He wasn’t a simple-minded jamband guitarist–he wore button-down black shirts and sport coats to concerts for crying out loud!
That was how I have been viewing Trey in recent years. A man avoiding a typecast. Then 2014 happened. I credit two main things: the live musical progress made since 2011 and recording Fuego. Between 2011 and today, the band has laid solid musical groundwork, evolving into something better with every show. Fuego forced Trey to think only about Phish, practice Phish, be with the other members of Phish. It forced him to see the big picture–not just the picture of what he was and could do. The big picture is Phish and all that they created. Phish is a four-headed beast, each member as important as the next, creating something bigger than the parts put together–it can’t operate properly if one member sees it as just another musical project. Perhaps the embarrassment and disappointment of Hands on a Hardbody failing immediately on Broadway moved this revelation along too. He was trying so hard to fit into places he doesn’t belong when he has something bigger, better, and more unique that he created from scratch. Welcome home, Trey. Phish doesn’t belong to Trey; Trey belongs to Phish. He exists for Phish, not the other way around.
So when I see Phish drop epic jams out of the gate this tour, it’s all a reflection of Trey’s general onstage demeanor now. He looks comfortable because he is comfortable. You don’t dress up when you’re at home, right?
Enter last night’s show. On the heels of two astounding nights, phans were curious if they could keep the progress rolling. Not only did they keep it rolling, they blew doors down yet again. After another standard first set (let’s hope this trend changes soon), Phish opened the second set with 55 minutes of completely open improvisational acrobatics. The 30-minute CDT is too diverse and fantastic to even attempt to put into writing right now. The Light that followed sounded glorious, perfect, as if part of the jam was scripted–showing just how perfectly they are working together right now. The Tweezer was the icing on the cake, taking a real rock-oriented attitude in this one, reaching hose-levels with all the members locking in on each other’s different nuances throughout. CDT provided tons of themes but settled on extraterrestrial space funk, Light showed the beauty of life, and Tweezer showed their full-band rock improv. Nothing was stale, nothing sounded alike, everything was fresh.
Wading in the Velvet Sea, sometimes groaned at in second sets, was totally appropriate after such a journey of different musical emotions. After another great rendition of Sing Monica, the band returned to another more reflective tune, Slave to the Traffic Light. The jam started slow and contemplative before slowly building up by long dramatic notes from Trey. Then, with the flick of a switch, Trey starts trilling and bending before coming up to an emotional peak that fades away a bit, letting Page come in with the baby grand/organ duo. Trey comes back in wailing right before the finish. What a glorious end! However, I don’t want to get too bogged down in analyzing every individual song (like I normally do after shows). It’s important to see how the Randall’s Island run is a microcosm of Phish: it’s greater than the sum of it’s parts.
I want to avoid the now-humorous cliché in our community, “Phish is back”, so let me change it a bit: Trey is back. Welcome home.