7/27/14 Review: The Town Threw Down On Me

Photo (c) Phish 2014.

Tonight, Phish played a song that everyone in the room including them agrees is horrible, and the drummer skipped half the lyrics and then made fart noises into a vacuum cleaner before circling the stage like a disoriented puppy while his bandmates played an awful song from the 70s. And somehow, deep within this bundle of intentional terribleness was the strongest evidence you’ll ever find that Phish is the greatest band in the world.

Now admittedly, I am about as biased as any “Jennifer Dances” reviewer could possibly be — after all, I was the one (flanked by OPT’s Zim; aided in sign-design by friends Brad, JM and Dave) from whom Trey grabbed the JD sign at Darien Lake on 6/8/11.

But here the band was, laughing directly at themselves (this was, after all, a song they actually used to play seriously). It was Phish being utterly silly and completely unrehearsed. And coming as it did at the tail end of a set that epitomized the band’s musical spontaneity, it was a reminder that jamming is but one of the infinite ways Phish has of surprising the hell out of everyone.

Screenshot from 7/27/14 Webcast

It’s easy to forget that Phish even played a first set on a night like this, but this was quite possibly the strongest opening chapter of the summer. The first “Fee” of the year had no jam, but had a bit of spontaneous energy, courtesy of Trey forgetting then re-remembering one of the verses. It was like the inverse of a 2004 “Fee” — the man’s short-term memory has come a long way in 10 years.

“The Curtain With,” like “Sand” and “Fuego” later in the set, had an inspired Type I jam, with some excellent, melodic work from Trey. The set also benefited from rarities: “Saw It Again,” possibly a nod to the 6/27/10 show at Merriweather, and “You Enjoy Myself,” returning after its tied-for-longest gap in Phish history (13 shows), kept things interesting. YEM was relatively subdued, but still interesting, thanks to a face-to-face duel between Mike and Trey that was about as romantic as a Phish show ever gets, and what could easily be construed as a tease of Parliament’s “Flashlight” by Mike.

But these days, even when a first set shines, it’s mostly a sign that even greater things lie ahead. And though many suspected that the back half’s specialness would come care of “Tweezer,” no one could anticipate the insane shape this one would take.

There’s only so much you can tell from a setlist. But tonight’s list could only belong to one type of show, and that is one of the “fucking throwdown” variety. Per phish.net’s labeling, “Tweezer” was played 5 times, and that’s conservative. The song was part of not one, but two double-decker sandwiches.

Screenshot from 7/27/14 Webcast

And again, that’s only what’s on paper. The first iteration of the song (the one with all the “Back on the Train”s) also included one of the elite and most exploratory jams of the tour. This one did the major-key thing that so many of this summer’s jams have done, but then it got *weird*. That screenshot at left is from this section. As you can see, even the camera was seeing double.

But the madness was only beginning. Following a “Waiting All Night” breather, the jam out of “Free” went right back into “Tweezer,” hanging out there for a minute before a smooth segue into “Simple.” That jam, too, would quickly change course for “Tweezer,” before yet another left turn. Turn left enough times, and you’ll end up where you started, and sure enough, there we were, back in “Free.” Almost like it was planned.

Now, the danger with a segue-oriented set is that the band is so eager to segue that the transitions feel forced. And while it is undoubtedly true that any chance “Simple” had for an extended jam was overpowered by the boomerang pull of “Tweezer” and “Free,” it is also true that those transitions felt natural.

In fact, the only place where the segue impulses felt inorganic was in “Disease” (which, by the way, followed the first “Catapult” in 5 years and a lovely “Slave,” but gosh, there’s so much more to get to that I can’t give everything a paragraph!) Fishman tried to pull the band back into “Tweezer,” but was reneged by Trey, who then seemed to be steering in the direction of “Walk Away,” all before a mutually agreed upon, and actually quite excellent, segue into “NICU.”

Photo (c) Phish 2014.

Straightforward song, right? Wrong again. As the regular portion of the song ended, the band just kept on jamming. This was actually one of the improvisatory highlights of the night, though what followed was far more memorable. Trey began teasing “Hold Your Head Up,” which turned into a full-on version. Fishman had little choice but to take the mic, but he confessed that he didn’t know any songs. He suggested a sing-along, then consulted with Trey, who cracked up at whatever he said.

Well, what he said was apparently “Jennifer Dances.” And though Fishman credited Trey with the idea, something tells me he just didn’t want to admit to unleashing it on the crowd himself.

On a personal note, this was — and I say this without any irony — one of the most electric moments of my entire Phish career, even though it took place on the comfort of my couch. Within minutes, I had received texts, Facebook messages, and tweets from dozens and dozens of friends and strangers who remembered my sign. It’s such a stupid goddamn song, and yet the outpouring of joy and love, both towards me and broadly toward this tremendous feat of absurdity, was tremendous. Few moments in my 20-odd years on this bus have so fully captured for me what Phish is all about. To everyone who shared some kind words, thank you — it was truly appreciated.

So that happened. And then the band played “I Been Around,” another silly-but-joyful tune that hadn’t been played in a while, but had been soundchecked throughout this tour. A full-band lap around the stage was followed by a white-hot “Boogie On” encore, followed by the obligatory “Tweeprise.”

The obvious two shows that tonight’s brings to mind are 5/7/94 and 6/22/94. In my mind, it deserves to be discussed alongside those two giants. Though the jamming wasn’t quite as transcendent as the Bomb Factory’s, this concert featured a healthy dose of everything that makes Phish so special: the improvisation, the playfulness, the spontaneity, the joy, the humor, and of course, the salty gravy.

In conclusion, just go listen to the damn thing.