Phish backstage 10/28/14.

Fall Tour’s Do-Or-Die Run

As Phish reached the midpoint of their 12 show fall tour last weekend, there was a pervasive sense in the fanbase that the tour had reached a do-or-die moment. Not only were the shows receiving middling reviews, but fans considered the playing so weak that rumors began to circulate about the band members’ physical health, the strength of their friendships, and whether the era of Phish-as-creative-entity was coming to an end. With some all but ready to leave the band for dead, Phish had something to prove in their three-night run in San Francisco.

Phish backstage 10/28/14.
Photo by Rene Huemer © Phish.

Before we get to the shows, it’s worth asking: were fans blowing things out of proportion? Sure, the rumors were almost completely baseless: the only evidence for any intra-band tension was a single comment Fishman made about Trey failing to signal a song choice to him in Santa Barbara — hardly the murderous rant some seemed to interpret it as. As for their health, anytime Trey hits a single wrong note, a dozen fans will line up to offer their medical diagnosis of the debilitating disease that caused the flub.

But what about their playing? The jamming from the first half of tour, in my opinion, was actually quite good — where it happened. Eugene’s “Crosseyed”; Santa Barbara’s “Drowned” > “Theme” > “Steam”; LA’s “Down with Disease” — none of these are best-ever versions, but all of them are on par with the band’s improvisation over the summer.

On the other hand, the numbers don’t lie. Every one of the tour’s first seven shows featured an 11- or 12-song first set, followed by a second with 8, 9, or 10 songs. What’s more, the four longest jams of these shows, per LivePhish.com, were within 15 seconds of being the same length: 16:36, 16:30, 16:24, and 16:21 (YEM is excluded from this tally). On the bright side, at least they’re playing 16-minute jams. But these shows were unusually predictable, and even formulaic.

In my eyes, the staleness, more than the actual playing, is the primary fuel feeding the fans’ flames. What turned those flames into a wildfire was — to put it euphemistically – Phish fans’ talents for speculation.

Phish 10/28/14.
Photo by Rene Huemer © Phish.
But regardless of the accuracy of the fans’ imaginings, it was indisputably true that Phish came to Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in need of some strong shows to turn the fall’s narrative around.

So what ended up happening in San Francisco?

There were no superheroics; these were not the undisputed greatest three shows of Phish’s career; they didn’t make every naysayer suddenly say yay.

But they did play a really solid three-night run, with a ton of great jams — and with some incredibly promising signs hidden between the notes of those jams.

Monday night’s show opened with a touching tribute to a fallen fan, in the form of his de facto theme song, “Walfredo,” immediately establishing an intimate connection between band and fans that would stick around through the run. But the musical highlight of the night one, by a longshot, was a “Ghost” that reached both the dark-mysterious and the bright-sunshiny ends of Phish’s improvisational spectrum.

Still, though, many fans were complaining. “If they’d only jam,” some said, as if the quantity of jamming were a simple, conscious decision on Phish’s part to extend jams or cut them off. In reality, anyone who’s improvised knows that a good jam has as much to do with the intangibles — the setting, the moment-to-moment mental states of each musician and chemistry between them — as with anything that is within their direct control. Another way of saying this: they jam when they’re feeling it. And if they’re not feeling it, guess what: they’re not going to just let the jam drip on for 10 minutes.

Phish 10/28/14.
Photo by Rene Huemer © Phish.
Tuesday night, they were feeling it in a way they hadn’t all tour. This shined through in the small moments. Those moments like in “Twist,” when a jam sounds like it may be petering out, and you’ve been conditioned to expect Trey to give up and start another song, but because they’re feeling it, the jam turns into something special. Those moments where one of the musicians plays a little riff, and it reminds another one of a song, and all of a sudden, they’ve just teased “Funk 49” and “Have Mercy,” and the crowd is roaring. Those moments.

Those moments were plentiful in Tuesday night’s show, and they were indicative of a looseness that hadn’t been recognizable in even the strongest shows of the tour. It’s no surprise, then, that the band’s streak of 8-10 song second sets was finally broken with this 7-tune run.

So with one show left, the question was: had something changed, or was Tuesday a fluke?

Wednesday’s first set was high on energy, thanks in large part to the Giants World Series victory that interrupted the set, but as most Phish shows do these days, it all came down to the second set.

On paper, 10/29/14 II is a pretty standard second set. And in and of themselves, the jams — out of “Light,” “Split Open and Melt,” and “Down with Disease” — don’t do a whole lot to differentiate themselves from the tour’s other improvisatory offerings. But again, the barometer is best read in the small moments. There’s a point in “Light” – around the 8-to-9-minute mark, on LivePhish – where this jam seemed destined to die. On another night, it would have. The bottom had dropped out of the jam, and the delicate space in which the band found itself was ripe for a “> Possum” or “> Bowie” to close the set.

Instead, the band exercised patience. Trey tried out light soloing, then settled on a subtle, persistent rhythmic pattern, as Page complemented him with some ambient beauty. An utterly minimalistic passage, but the band was fully locked in. There were several more minutes of creative juice to be squeezed out of this jam, and it’s all thanks to the comfort and cool that the band displayed in that one moment in “Light.”

That is what had been missing from Fall Tour: good musical decisions at crucial moments. Not the flipping of some 25-minute-jam switch, and not Trey taking his meds for arthritis or finger ebola.

Phish’s three-night run in San Francisco was not the greatest string of shows in their career. It could be argued that it wasn’t the three best consecutive shows of the tour (though I’d strongly assert that it was). But that’s only because there’s a lot of luck in improvisation — a good jam can just be one drum fill or chord change away from an epic jam. What’s important is that something did change in San Francisco: the band began to relax. They began to let the music guide them, rather than the other way around. And you can hear it in the jamming. One can only hope that, after this weekend in Vegas, we’ll see that San Francisco was only the beginning of a game-changing six-show run to close out the tour.