Since their July 31 gig in Atlanta, Phish has been undefeated, turning out expert jams and top-to-bottom throwdowns every single night they’ve taken the stage. On Sunday night, at the end of a long week of shows, where other bands would ride the wave of momentum, Phish did the impossible: they turned the dial past where most bands’ dials end. With a monumental first set comprised entirely of songs that hadn’t been played all year, including a “Col. Forbin’s Ascent” with narration, and a second set that easily stands up with the best sets of the tour to date, the band added yet another notch to the Win column.
It’s amazing to think that grumbling about first sets was even a thing earlier this tour. Trey’s improved playing alone has made the Type I jams with which first sets are filled far more enjoyable than in recent memory. But the song selection has been great, too, as the band has kept audiences guessing with unusual show openers and first set rarities.
This show took that concept to a completely new level. The only song that had been played in 2015, “Split Open and Melt,” was played just 3 days into the current year — over 7 months ago. The set also included a song we might have thought we’d never hear again (“The Very Long Fuse”) and in “Forbin’s > Mockingbird,” a pairing that is among the most requested, and most elusive, in the band’s catalogue.
As for how it all sounded? Not shockingly, there was a bit of rust. But it was okay! The improvised moments, as in the false-ending/restarts of the jam of “Saw It Again,” and the dissonant chaos of “Melt,” were fantastic. Plus, “Fuse” is a great song that absolutely belongs in the band’s repertoire. And the narration in “Forbin’s” made it crystal clear, as if there was any doubt, that age hasn’t changed Trey: he’s still getting inspired by bird shit, and that tells you all you need to know about the current state of Phish.
By setbreak, my jaw was on the floor of my apartment as I listened to the stream, so I can only imagine what the live audience was experiencing. The closest recent analogue to this show is 7/29/03, which opened with 9 bustouts. That show’s biggest bustout was its opener, “Daniel Saw The Stone,” which hadn’t been played in 6 years. None of tonight’s bustouts had quite that much bust. That said, the median show gap of tonight’s first set was actually 40 shows — even higher than 7/29/03 I’s median. So in a sense, this was even more of a bustout set than that one.
So now came the obvious question: what the fuck do they do for the second set? Many people expected more bustouts. After all, 7/29/03’s second set opened with a busted out “Crosseyed” (which features a phenomenal jam), as well as a “Harpua.” It quickly became clear that tonight’s shenanigans had been left behind at setbreak. Aside from the unconventionality of opening a set with “Antelope,” the setlist choices in the second stanza were by the numbers.
And if we’re being honest, tonight’s second set was roughly as good as every other second set from this past week. Like those, it contained a couple jams that were disappointingly abbreviated (“Carini,” “Weekapaug”), and a couple that were transcendent (“Tweezer,” “Mike’s Song”). But to compare it to the preceding shows is a compliment, not a complaint.
“Tweezer” was the kind of jam that will, ever since July 25, always make me think of Bill Walton’s arms extended skyward. A major key bliss jam of the most classic Phishy construction, the jam was legitimately beautiful. Still, I often wish that jams like this would do a little more. Merely by initiating a major key, upbeat bliss jam, Phish elicits roars. But when the jam is brought to an even higher place — either via a soaring peak or an unexpected turn — it goes from great to phenomenal. Think of the Went “Gin”: the chord progression is fantastic on its own, but Trey’s guitar work as he brings it to a peak is what makes the jam so legendary. This one was not legendary, but it was quite good.
“Mike’s,” on the other hand, was a truly special version. On the heels of the second jam’s return in Nashville, it was incredibly heartening to learn that the extended “Mike’s” was not a one-time occurrence. And this version was arguably even better than that one. As Trey pounded his pedals, Mike and Fish did some of their best work of the night. Fishman’s ability to play such unconventional, syncopated drumbeats while remaining so funky is a wonder to behold. With Mike unleashing basslines that could shred steel, Page held his own on the clav, and the end product was a groove that was dirtier than an 8-year-old on the second-to-last day of overnight camp.
The encore didn’t include any nods to Jerry (whose life came to an end 20 years ago tonight), but it was inspired nonetheless, bringing one of the great Alpine Valley runs to a thrilling close.
Phish is firing on all cylinders right now. And what’s most exciting to me is that we still don’t have a clear jam of the tour — though the band is turning out A-grade material every night of the week, we still haven’t seen their A+ game. What that means is that when lightning strikes, like it did last July 13, it’s going to leave behind something even more magical than what we’ve already seen on this tour. Philadelphia, Raleigh, Merriweather, and Magnaball: strap on your seat belts. There’s no telling what this band still has up its sleeve.