Phish has hit quite the stride in 2014. Amazingly, and unlike nearly any other band with a vintage of over 30 years, they continue to be fresh sounding. The band is playing as well as ever before in their careers, mixing songs of all their eras together seamlessly, and all playing with a keen ear for one-another. What other band of similar age is able to do this, able to put together a show that’s anything but nostalgia. I have to admit in 2009 I feared I’d only be seeing Phish for the nostalgic feeling it gave me–what a joy it is to see them continue their legacy of improvisation, creativity, and overall freshness (I’ll probably use the word “fresh” a lot in this piece).
The band opened up their mid-week two-night stand at nTelos in Portsmouth with another unorthodox opener and pairing–a common theme among many shows this summer. Timber opened up its first show ever and used the rolling drums to go into Undermind. One of my favorite things to watch this year is how they put songs from one era next to another, showcasing just how dynamic they have become over the years. The set opened and closed with covers not yet played this year, GTBT closing (an unorthodox first-set closer).
The first sets are also moving from throw-away song-based efforts to truly tight and thoughtful song playing and placement. Melts in 3.0 were hitting a creative wall in my opinion. All of them falling off into noisy ambiance where no one knew what was going on. Virginia’s, while dissonant and spacey, was played with a group mentality. It’s really quite enjoyable and brought darkness to this daytime set.
Both second sets of this run opened with quality jams: Chalk Dust Torture and Fuego. Both jams were about twenty minutes and featured various musical segments of Type-II jamming. Both jams also had a quieter or understated edge to it. Gone are the days of 3.0 where Trey’s blowing speakers out with screeching notes and overpowering riffs. These jams are turned down a notch in a most contemplative manner. Quiet and understated doesn’t mean tame or dull. These jams highlight their full-band improvisation better than any other year of the era, and perhaps since 1.0. There’s just a mature feeling to their fresh takes on 1.0 songs like CDT and brand new 3.0 songs like Fuego. It’s actually totally stunning they’re able to still create new-sounding jams out of songs that have been around for almost 25 years.
It’s also nice to see Phish remembering songs that we love that don’t see the stage very often lately. The CDT blended so beautifully into the first If I Could in two years and the first Mountains in the Mist since the NYE run in 2010. Both of these rarities were treated with delicate emotion that surely matched the feelings of the crowd while being played.
The second set of the first night went through a number of songs that didn’t quite take off but all were played well. The ASIHTOS was no doubt too short. The jam was mind-bending and eerie that ended far too soon for Mike’s Song. The Weekapaug intro lacked the teeth recent versions boasted and unfortunately after ASIHTOS the set was on a downward trajectory. Not so is the case following the show-stopping Fuego that led into a funky Gotta Jibboo.
Meatstick was placed right in the center of the set. Normally this isn’t the most desirable situation. A goofy song that has Japanese lyrics and a crude dance can suck the life out of a great-flowing set of improvisation. Not last night. This Meatstick opened up after the lyrics into an free-form funk jam. The crowd went bonkers. Looking back, we can see it’s not terribly long but at the time it was magical not knowing how long it would go. The 10+ minute song found its way into a Piper that reached over 12 minutes long full of melodic rock jamming. They opted to make this jam, too, more thoughtful than just straight forward “play rock as fast as we can” which Piper often is. What happens at the end is my favorite though. Piper just drops like a feather in to a glorious Billy Breathes. Billy Breathes, right up there with Lifeboy, is one of the best landing pads ever. No song, not even Wingsuit, can compete for that title.
Seven Below finally was played after Billy Breathes–a song not played nearly enough and not jammed out nearly enough anymore. It’s unfortanute that Number Line was longer than the 2.0 gem, but it does show how dynamic sets are becoming.
Phish is playing completely unpredictable shows from song placement throughout a show to what songs will be improvised. Phish is quite literally as fresh sounding as they ever have been with new and old songs alike. Phish is making themselves a live act not to be missed once again, a band to travel far for (which can’t be said for early 3.0). And they are having fun while doing it, just listen to these ridiculously funny soundchecks from the two night stand: