Phearless – On The Third Week Of Phish’s 2013 Summer Tour

942411_10151477068446290_461141722_nRemember way back on July 2nd when all those pictures popped up on Twitter of the rain that had consumed central Maine?

This wasn’t the way to kick of summer tour, we all thought at the time. Surely mother nature would realize the imminent onset of Phish’s 30th Anniversary 2013 Summer Tour and act accordingly, right?

Right?

Wrong.

In a fortuitous twist, the rain clouds that greeted everyone in Bangor, ME three weeks ago have yet to recede from Phish’s 2013 Summer Tour. From SPAC to the postponed show in Toronto, from Jones Beach’s torrential Set I downpour to 07/14’s Set II storm, from the rain that engulfed the Alpharetta pavilion to the mayhem in Chicago that resulted in 07/19’s cancellation, 07/20’s three-setter, and 07/21’s perfectly executed Set II, rain has defined the 2013 Summer Tour as much as the music itself.

For a band that has played its fair-share of weather-affected concerts – Coventry anyone? – Summer 2013 may take the cake as THE tour where the weather has affected Phish more than any other.

And yet, through all the rain, through all the on-again/off-again shows played, that Phish has continued to evolve this tour with the kind of energy, passion, and foresight as they have is more than anyone could ask for considering the circumstances.

The key? Phearless-ness and Energy. Like no tour since 1.0, here in the 2013 Summer Tour the band is attacking their shows with a sustained combination of focused precision and egoless exploration, resulting in fully-realized jams, flawless segues, and unyielding energy throughout each of their shows.

Below are another collection of thoughts and questions I’ve compiled about the last week of the tour.

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Energy (As THE Song Of, And The Keyword For, Phish 2013)

Certain songs appear in Phish’s rotation at just the right time.

Think “Maze” in 1992, “Down With Disease” in 1994, “Ghost” in 1997, “Seven Below” in 2003, and “Light” in 2009.

When the band debuted The Apples In Stereo 2007 song “Energy” to kick off 07/05’s second set it immediately felt like a Phish song and fit the initial mood of the tour. A bouncy melody combined with populist lyrics, it carried the tone and communicable message that has consumed so many of Trey Anastasio’s original songs for the last ten-odd years.

And then, with little effort or force, the song moved into Type II territory resulting in a moody, psychedelically-infused jam that bled seamlessly into “Light.” Eleven days later the band revisited the song midway through Alpharetta’s final set, expanding further on the jam that – in many of the same ways as “Light” has for the last four years – just builds outwards from the song at will.

When Trey walked on stage for the final set of the Chicago run wearing his “Phearless” shirt, (two t-shirt Sunday’s in a row!) following what must have been one of the most frustrating weekends the band has experienced in years, there was really only one song that the band could open with that would both fit the mood of the show while simultaneously altering the course of the tour going forward: “Energy.”

Resulting in one of the most patient, contemplative, and overall hooked-up moments of the tour thus far, the 07/21 “Energy” moved through various untapped musical terrains without any of the restraints that have, at times, held many 3.0 jams back. The performance was a statement on the musical peak the band is experiencing this summer, and on the overt role energy has played in Phish’s now-30-year career.

Think back to Trey’s rant in the hotel room in Europe in the middle of Bittersweet Motel. Angered that Brad Sands would slag off a show he clearly thought rocked, Trey spoke directly to the camera saying: “I couldn’t fucking care less if we missed a change, or a number of changes. Doesn’t have anything to do with how we’re playing. It’s all about energy.”

A concept that has always driven many of the band’s best shows, energy as an idea, and “Energy” the song are starting to define 2013 in a retrospective, yet forward-driven way, perfectly aligned as the band simultaneously celebrates their 30th year of existence. A song that speaks to the communal power of what Phish has created, while musically opening itself up to the untapped potential of the band’s improvisational journey’s, “Energy” is clearly THE song of Phish 2013.

One more thought on this, listening back to the “Energy -> Ghost -> The Lizards” segment one can literally hear the musical journey that Phish has embarked on over the past three decades in 35 uninterrupted minutes. From the sprawling, patient endlessness of “Energy” to the seedy minimalism of “Ghost,” which then evolves without effort into a bright, rhythmically-laced jam, before segueing seamlessly into “The Lizards,” the song that ushers us into Gamehendge, it’s a musical journey that takes us through the evolution of Phish both musically, emotionally, and thematically. It’s, no question, the jam segment of the summer so far.

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Alpharetta: Combining Gimmickry With Dick’s-esque Jamming

After everything that went on in Chicago this last weekend, it’s hard to remember that mid-last-week, Phish threw down two barnburner’s in the pristine suburban purgatory of Alpharetta, GA. Caught between their absolutely masterful two-night run at Merriweather Post, and the survival experience of Chicago that clearly had so much more to do with than just the music, Alpharetta’s at risk of being both overlooked and underrated.

While neither of the shows offer complete packages due to their underwhelming first sets, something clearly happened in Alpharetta that both altered the overall contour of this tour, and injected it with some fresh ideas that’s worth noting.

Whereas the run from 07/10 – 07/14 featured an exploratory-driven, top-of-their-game band that simply could do no wrong, the Alpharetta shows saw Phish truly tinker with their approach for the first time since SPAC. Eschewing the overtly old-school approach that saw the band reach their biggest peaks of the tour thus far in the aforementioned shows, Phish dedicated their two second set’s in Alpharetta to a combination of playful gimmickry, and Dick’s-esque jamming, resulting in a boost in energy and variety, while still consciously evolving their jams forward.

Summed up most perfectly in the 07/16 “Rock & Roll -> Heartbreaker -> Makisupa Policeman> Chalk Dust Torture> Wilson> Tweezer -> Silent In The Morning> Birds Of A Feather” segment that consumed the first hour of the set, the band blended Type-II jamming while threading the “Heartbreaker” theme throughout, resulting in a run of must-hear music. What makes this block of music ultimately so rewarding, so memorable, and so impacting is, whereas the band has attempted this type of set throughout 3.0 – 10/30/2010, 08/17/2011, 06/16/2012, and 07/07/2012 immediately come to mind – never before has it worked quite as well as it did in Alpharetta. By dedicating 35min of the segment to improvisational jams out of “Rock & Roll,” “Chalk Dust,” and “Tweezer” the band avoided the sloppy, and often awkward pitfalls that tend to plague sets such as this. Displaying an effortlessness in opening “Chalk Dust” up for the first time since 08/31/2012, while also experimenting with their Dick’s-esque melodic-driven jams in “Rock & Roll” and “Tweezer” gave the set far more depth than most gimmick-laced-tease sets of 3.0 have carried.

On the next night the band centered experimentation in two under-11min jams that proved once again how irrelevant song length is in 3.0. Rather than anchoring the set under one massive jam, “Energy” and “Piper” were featured as bookends to the return of “Fluffhead” in the middle part of the set, offering both abstract and thematic jamming which gave diversity to the set and their improv. A set – and an overall run – that carries far more weight than would be initially assumed by simply glancing at the setlist, Alpharetta combined energy, playfulness, and innovative jamming to play the role of celebratory cap to the east coast leg of the tour, while also helping to thematically push the band forward towards the west.

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What’s The Deal With All The Repeats?

For anyone following Phish’s 2013 Summer Tour, there’s one thing glaringly obvious about each setlist: repeats. I addressed this topic in my last essay, yet feel it needs revisiting due to the unending communal discussions surrounding it.

Fourteen shows into the tour, we already have two songs played in nearly half the shows – “Chalk Dust Torture,” and “Backwards Down The Number Line.” In addition to that, from run-to-run, and show-to-show, songs are being repeated night after night with a frequency that harkens back to the early-90’s; back when the band had a song catalogue half the size it is now.

As expected, many are openly complaining and lambasting the band for their apparent inability (or desire) to diverge from a strict rotation. Cause, no matter how well the band’s playing, you’ve gotta bitch about something, right?

Coming off a year that saw the band bust out song after song at literally every show – a tour in which they set out with the goal of playing 200 different songs – there is certainly something a bit jarring about the frequency with which the band is playing just their core classics here in 2013. Not to mention the fact that on paper, some of their shows tend to look a bit blasé at first glance.

Yet, when one removes themselves from the dreaded zone of personal expectations, when one allows themselves a shift in perception, it’s actually stunningly clear why the band would focus on such a small rotation.

So clear, it actually makes perfect fucking sense.

To me there are two reasons why the band is focusing on a tighter rotation in 2013:

1. Coming into 2012 it was apparent the band needed some sense of outward motivation to keep their relative high of August 2010 – September 2011 going strong. While they’d rediscovered their sea legs at the Greek Theatre in 2010, there’d been so many bouts with inconsistency strung throughout the 18months leading up to Worcester 2012 that it was clear the band still needed exercises to keep them fresh. (Think of this in the same way as the improvisational exercises the band relied on from Summer 1993 – Summer 1995, and parts of Fall 1996.) Throughout 2012 though, the band once again became completely comfortable and inherently confident with their ability to craft complete shows and innovative jams, that their need for bust-outs and rarities simply to spice up their shows became less and less necessary. (ala the peak music of December 1995 and Fall 1997 that was a result of said musical exercises, and thus just sounds like a band effortlessly playing, rather than attempting any specific style.)

While sure, thrilling as it may be to hear a song for the first time in 5-10 years, the bust out exercise is more telling of a band seeking inspiration in their past, rather than discovering it in their present and future.

Point being, something was clearly discovered at Dick’s that showed the band how truly powerful their music was right now, in the moment. They tapped into something in the “Carini,” “Undermind,” “Chalk Dust Torture,” “Light,” and “Sand” that they hadn’t experienced with that kind of consistency or ease in years. As a result, they grew beyond the need to center shows around a one-time rarity, hence the reason 2013 shows are now centered around jams, such as the 07/05 second set, 07/06 “SOAM,” “Carini,” 07/10 “Crosseyed,” 07/12 “Rock & Roll -> 2001> Tweezer -> Cities -> The Wedge,” 07/13 “Simple,” 07/14 “Light -> Boogie On Reggae Woman,” 07/21 “Energy -> Ghost -> The Lizards,” and 07/22 “DWD,” rather than unique song choices.

2. 2013 marks the band’s 30th anniversary. A monumental achievement for a band that just nine years ago was essentially left for dead by its creators. Throughout 3.0 there’s been a clear focus on systematically rebuilding what made Phish Phish. From 2009 and early-2010’s foundation setting, late-2010 and 2011’s experimental excursions, and 2012’s fully-realized jamming, bust outs, and shift towards a new era in Phish history, the band has essentially rebuilt themselves using the tried-and-true method that saw them rise throughout the early/mid-90’s on way to their initial musical peak period of 1994 – 1998.

Yet, through it all, regardless of whatever process the band is engaged in, one thing has always remained, and will forever define them as musicians: their songs. Specifically, their classics.

In light of their anniversary, and their ability to now focus on a totally new musical era of Phish, it makes sense that in 2013 the band would want to highlight the songs that, more than anything else, got them to the veritable summit of the musical mountain first.

If you made a mix-tape of all the songs that just sound like Phish to you, chances are they’d all be receiving heavy airplay here in 2013. And that’s the point. 2013 is both a year of celebration and a year for the band to take another leap forward musically. And what better way to both celebrate the legacy they’ve built, and take their next evolutionary step forward musically than through the songs that got them here in the first place?

Far from a sign that the band is unpracticed, lacking creativity, or just disinterested, the tightened setlists are instead a clear message from the band of how much they respect and value the songs that will ultimately live on long after they do.

We all got into Phish, and continue listening to Phish for various reasons. Yet one thing will always be true: it was their songs that we heard first, and their songs that we will always return to. Instead of focusing on what they’re not playing in 2013, let’s instead focus on why they are playing what they are playing.

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What Do We Make Of 07/20/2013?

I’ll come right out with a disclamer: I wasn’t in Chicago. In many ways I realize I have no business writing about the experience as I wasn’t there to live through everything that came with the weekend. All’s I can base my perceptions from the ground on are the texts I received from my friends at the show, the tweets I followed throughout the weekend, and the reaction of the writers and thinkers in the community who were there.

That said, how could I possible write anything about the last week of tour without addressing something about the Chicago Run, specifically the three-setter on Saturday?

With a specific focus on the music created, here are my thoughts:

Following the first show that was cut short due to weather since – I believe – 07/01/2000, a wave of negativity permeated through the Phish scene. Thanks in large part to the inexperience of the Northerly Island staff and crew, along with the fact that across town Pearl Jam was able to resume their concert around midnight – ultimately playing until 2am – many felt the band had made a bushleague move in canceling the show.

The next day however the band informed their fans that, in response to 07/19’s cancellation, they’d be performing a three-set show, their first non-holiday/festival three-set show since 07/12/1996 in Amsterdam, and their first state-side one since Amy’s Farm back on 08/03/1991. In many ways it was the ultimate sign of communal understanding, and band-oriented sentiment about the regret felt over the debacle on Friday.

In addition to the good-vibes that now suddenly stretched far-and-wide throughout the Phish scene, many began making additional requests and predictions for the show in effort to make it somehow even more epic and even more important than it already stood to be.

The band’s response: An opening quartet that read “Prince Caspian -> Twist, Ha Ha Ha> Possum,” or: PT Hahaha Possum. The first dose of band-led criticism of their fans own backseat driving of the weekend, the message was either completely lost on the fanbase in its initial moments, or bitterly soaked up.

The remainder of the show was modeled in many ways like the Saturday Night Rockers that are littered throughout 3.0, featuring an energetic song-based approach, devoid almost entirely of deep improv. Avoiding rarities of any sort, many felt the band simply wasn’t up to the challenge of both making up for the previous night’s cancellation, and the headiness of a rare three-set show.

Once again, I wasn’t at the show. I’ve just listened to it a few times, and these are my thoughts.

I believe the weather impacted the weekend in Chicago in ways that the weather leading up to Coventry wasn’t even capable of. The mindset the band must put themselves in prior to performing has to be one of a meditative freeing of all outside expectations and challenges. To then be taken so completely out of it by real life weather warnings and safety precautions, must be jarring, unnerving, and frustrating in the highest sense. Add this to the fact that the band had been dealing with torrid weather all tour, and I’ve got to assume that by the time they were told they had to cancel the Friday show, they experienced combined exhaustion and negative energy.

In many ways, the 07/20/2013 show sounds like a band trying to fit a massive show into a confined space.

The middle show of a three-night run – typically a Saturday night – is always the most popular showing, featuring many fans who either don’t see Phish very often, or may just be checking them out out of curiosity. A result of all these outside forces the band had to juggle, I feel like the band was trying to appease everyone involved by consciously playing a lot of their biggest “hits,” while also maintaining energy and flow, all the while dipping a bit into experimentation.

To that point, the show lacks nothing for energy and flow. Particularly in the final two stanza’s, the band weaves thematic sets that never relinquish energy, nor musical connectivity. The second set especially is one I will revisit throughout the year for it boasts some of the smoothest segues, and emotive music the band has played thus far this tour.

What the show does lack however is a clear attempt by the band to truly reward all invested in the event with a moment of sheer unique Phishy-ness, (i.e. bust out/gag) nor a period of freely-improvisational-exploration.

Would the two above qualities have made the show an all-timer?

I have no idea.

Should the show be lambasted based upon its inherent inability to satisfy so many people’s unattainable expectations?

You’d have to ask someone who was there experiencing it all.

To me, the show sounds like a band willing themselves out of an un-winnable situation. Essentially residing with one-foot in a creative world, while another is trying to both live up to the shared expectations of everyone involved, and deal with the logistical barriers that were venue/weather-related, and had to have been wearing them down.

In the end, that they were capable of such musical ambience in Set II, and in the third set’s “Light -> Harry Hood” should in many ways say all that needs to be said about just how trying the experience was, yet how much this band clearly cares about their fans and their music.

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The Brilliance Of The “Harpua” Gag & The Role Of Conflict In Phish’s Music

James Kaminsky over at the One Phish Two Phish blog already addressed the “Harpua” Gag in a really excellent piece earlier this week, so I’ll spare you a massive recap. Seriously, you should just check out his essay, for it breaks down perfectly the band’s message through the elongated gag.

What I’ll say is this: Since their choice of opening up with “Garden Party” to close out their best year of 3.0 and 12/31/2012 – and most successful year overall in over ten years, no less – the band has been sending out a clear message to their fans that, ‘while we respect your passion and enthusiasm for the band, don’t forget why you’re here in the first place.’

Essentially: Quit telling us how we should play our music for you.

This is both the right message for the band to deliver, and one their fanbase should heed at all costs.

As fans of a band as diverse, and willfully experimental as Phish – a band that has reached far more musical peaks than most bands could ever conceive of – it’s understandable we each have our own stylistic aspects and songs from the band we want to hear over others. For me, the peak of Phish will always be the unyielding experimental jams of 1995, 1997, and 1999. Being at Dick’s last year was an absolutely peak moment in my life because I felt as though the band was playing right to me. After witnessing numerous 3.0 shows that featured an array of aborted jams and uneven setlists, to see the band play with the kind of freedom they did last Labor Day was the best experience I’ve ever had with Phish on a personal level.

While this kind of passion towards one aspect of Phish is important because of the eventual reward it offers fans who travel to numerous shows, it becomes problematic within the scene when fans force their expectations and individual desires on the band. As a writer of Phish, I’m as guilty of this as anyone.

Yet, as I sat there watching the band seemingly fall on their faces through an awkward gag with the Second City Comedy Troupe, (I specifically say ‘seemingly’ because in hindsight it became blatantly obvious that the band did not in fact fall on their faces, rather nailed their gag…) I realized all over again why I see and listen to Phish in the first place. It’s not because of my expectations, or my wishes, it’s because of the communal force, and metaphysical connections in play when those four guys walk on stage without any idea where there show might take them. Watching them weave through a horrible rap about how “Harpua” should really be told, into the first Mike’s-narrated “Harpua” since 10/31/1995, and all the jokes and snide remarks that emitted from the stage throughout, I was transformed back to the halcyon days when I was 16, hearing Phish for the first time, and felt as though I’d unearthed a world I never knew existed, yet so desperately wanted to be a part of.

That this came in the midst of the bands best tour in fifteen years, and in the most perfectly placed “Harpua” since 07/29/2003 only made the message that much more relevant.

In addition to “Harpua’s” brilliance as a message to their fans, the song also shed a larger light on the role of conflict in the band’s music.

For a band that espouses such philosophies as “surrender to the flow,” one would think at face value that conflict has little place in Phish’s history. Yet, the truth is, much of the best music the band has ever made came directly out of conflict.

In 1994 and 1995, the band was searching for way to expand their songs in effort to find passageways to linear musical communication, resulting in the abstract musical storm of Summer 1995, and the effortless tidal wave of connectivity in December 1995.

In 1996, minimalism was a musical obstacle to overcome which resulted in the shedding of their skin in 1997.

On a more personal level, the internal conflicts, addictions, and uncertainties that littered the band’s immediate community in 2.0 directly correlated to the stew of dark and seedy jams that defined that era.

Here in 3.0, conflict has been missing in many ways from the Phish scene, due in large part to the positivity and health of each of the band members. Where they have found conflict though, has been in their own evolutionary steps forward, addressing moments of stagnation and writer’s block with the aforementioned exercises such as “The Storage Jam,” and the bust-outs of 2012.

In a lot of ways, the weather that has followed the band throughout the East Coast Leg of the Summer 2013 Tour has provided the band their first dose of external conflict in years. Resulting in the postponement of 07/09’s Toronto show, the cancellation of 07/19’s show, and an aborted “Run Like An Antelope” to close out Set I of 07/21, when the band finally emerged on stage for that night’s second set, they had literally weathered the storm, responding with their most relaxed and freeing set of the year. From the brilliant musical explorations of “Energy -> Ghost -> The Lizards,” to the shared comedic energy of the “Harpua” gag, to the rage of the completed “Antelope,” the conflicts that had been brewing within and around the Phish community finally gave way to a set for the ages.

“Look, the storm’s finally gone! Thank God!” The line has never felt so appropriate on so many levels than it did when Trey exclaimed it in the latter stages of 07/21/2013.

Proving that the “right way” for Phish to both play and evolve is always centered upon their way, 07/21’s second set displayed a band at their peak: jamming with ease and conviction, while goofing on their fans like they have been throughout their entire career.

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The Toronto “Down With Disease”: The Phearless Moment Of Tour & The Great Transition West

Coming on the heels of Chicago’s weather-impacted weekend was the make-up show in Toronto that was originally scheduled for July 9th. A Monday make-up-show following a massively hyped weekend in The Second City? Toronto had sleeper show written all over it.

And while the show didn’t really live up to its sleeper potential, it did result in yet another monumental exploratory step forward for the tour, this time in “Down With Disease.”

Akin to the 07/13 “Down With Disease” and 07/10 “Crosseyed & Painless” in many ways, the Toronto jam explored a litany of musical terrains all while remaining somewhat connected to the “DWD” theme. Building towards a plain of melodic blissfulness, Trey emphasized chordal jamming, locking in with Page for a five-minute segment of music that’s among the most connected of the summer in a tour growing thick with them. Progressing from 10:22 onwards, and ultimately resolving itself in a glorified peak around 15ish minutes, the jam is in many ways the polar opposite to Chicago’s spacious exploration in “Energy.” Displaying an elevated sense of musical diversity in back-to-back jams, the Toronto “DWD” expresses the phearless vibe currently permeating through Phish, and provides a notable transition point as the band moves westward.

After reaching an initial peak in the tour from 07/10 – 07/14, then fusing energy and gimmickry into their Alpharetta and Chicago shows, (all the while dealing with the external impact of weather) the Chicago “Energy,” and the Toronto “Down With Disease” appear to represent a conscious shift back towards exploration, something which has suited the band well out west in 3.0.

Entering the west coast leg of their tour like no tour since Summer 1997, (in a structural sense) the band will now emerge at The Gorge with three weeks of consistent shows under their belt, rather than following a five-week break which has been the norm in this era. Building upon an established foundation, rather than having to start anew, one has to assume, that for all the incredible music crafted over the past three weeks, the best of the tour is still to come. Just listen to the effortless jamming, and intrinsic connection on display in the 07/21 “Energy -> Ghost,” and the 07/22 “Down With Disease,” and imagine how much more relaxed, how much more free, how much more phearless the band is going to sound once they hit the open soundscapes of The Gorge and Tahoe, and the urbane hotspots of BGCA and the Hollywood Bowl!

All of this without mentioning the brilliant “David Bowie” that closed out the Toronto show! It sure is a good time to be a Phish fan!

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Favorite Shows/Jams Thus Far

Like I said last week, I’ll be updating this list as the tour evolves. Take these with a grain of salt, for their just one man’s thoughts. As we move deeper into the tour, I’ll only be highlighting the shows that have really captivated me as whole-show entities as opposed to listing the entire tour. Rather than ranking the shows, they’ll now just be listed in chronological order, ala the jams.

Favorite Shows

– SPAC 1 – At the time I wondered (wrongly) if we’d even be talking about 07/05’s Set II two weeks from now. Even after three weeks of monumental second sets, there’s still something about the fully-flowing nature of 07/05’s second frame that has me constantly revisiting it. From the debut of “Energy,” to “Light’s” effortless segue into “Mango,” to the late-nite swank of “46 Days,” and the raw power of “Steam,” to the set concluding mastery of “Drowned” and “Slave,” the set is one we’ll be talking about all year long. Throw in the “MFMF> Cities -> Bowie” cap to Set I, and you’ve got a top show of the year.

– SPAC 3 – Perhaps the quintessential Phish show of 2013. 07/07 combines energy, an old-school setlist, and thematic jamming all packed tightly into a show that is far better than the sum of any of its parts. One of those shows you just toss on and leave it playing, knowing you’re gonna be happy the whole time it’s on. 07/07 is one of those special shows that immediately provides a tour with its barometer for greatness.

– PNC – Upstaged by MPP 1 & 2 as my favorite show of the summer, PNC is still an all-around classic that reflects the musical high the band found themselves on in the second week of tour. Featuring an old school first set, a jam of the year contender in “Crosseyed & Painless,” along with top-notch versions of “Hood,” “Light,” and “Slave,” PNC was one of the strongest shows of the tour while it was happening, and will surely continue to be regarded as such for the remainder of the year.

– Jones Beach – Caught between the PNC and MPP firestorm of tour’s second week, and featuring an elongated – and, frankly, weather inappropriate – first set, 07/12 has become something of an underrated gem in 2013. Yet with the lone “Reba” of the year, another masterful “Bowie,” great mini-jams in “CTB,” “Ocelot,” “ASIHTOS,” and “46 Days,” not to mention the relentless, and fluid 50min “Rock & Roll -> 2001> Tweezer -> Cities -> The Wedge” that opened Set II, it’s still one of the best offerings of the year.

– MPP 1 – A prelude to the following night’s mastery, 07/13 features one of the most engaging setlists of the year, while boasting top notch versions of “Maze,” “SOAM,” “Hood,” and the best “Mike’s Groove” in over a decade. For me, it’s all about Trey’s rhythmic playing in “Hood” and “Simple” that puts this night over the top. Talk about blissful innovation at its best. What a high they were on during this run of the East Coast Leg!

– MPP 2 – IMO, the best show of the tour thus far. A tightly wound peak experience featuring two fully formed sets without a single misplaced moment. Energy, innovative jams, perfectly placed classics, this show has it all. The seminal show thus far of the musical style and aesthetic structure Phish has been pushing all summer long. Highlight’s abound, but definitely check out “Stash,” “SOAMule,” “It’s Ice,” “Light -> Boogie On,” and “You Enjoy Myself” to hear the band at the peak of their powers here in 2013.

– Chicago 2 – The much maligned three-setter from Chicago, this show resonates with me based on many of the aspects I wrote about above. While perhaps an underwhelming show barring the circumstances and expectations throughout the community, the second set flows with precision and ease, and the “Light -> Hood” in Set III is up there as one of the better musical pairings of the summer. A show that I believe will outlast all the initial criticism it’s received, it’s one of those special shows that has more to do with the energy surrounding it rather than just the music played within it.

– Chicago 3 – Many are calling this the show of summer. Wherever I’d rank this show, it’s definitely one of the best offerings from the band thus far in 2013. Following a high-energy and well-played Set I that featured a show opening “Dinner And A Movie,” a torrid “Bag -> Maze,” an energized “Gin,” and a silly “Boogie On” that preceded a monumental rain storm, the band emerged for Set II and played the set of the year thus far. Reading: “Energy -> Ghost -> The Lizards, Harpua> Run Like An Antelope,” it’s the kind of set words simply won’t do justice for. If you haven’t heard it, get on it. If you have, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

– Toronto – While not the sleeper show everyone was expecting, Toronto was still an above-average and fun show, packed tight with great song selections, a three-song encore, and a jam out of “Down With Disease” that sets up a perfect transition to the Western leg of the tour. Check out “Undermind,” “Twist,” “Stash,” and “Ocelot” in Set I, and don’t miss the “DWD” or “Bowie” in Set II. A killer show for fans who’ve been waiting 13 years to see Phish again, Toronto caps of three weeks of tour in about as great a way as anyone could hope.

Favorite Jams 

– 07/05/2013: “46 Days -> Steam> Drowned -> Slave” – My favorite moment of SPAC 1 when it happened, and still my favorite today. How they figured a way from the seedy barroom stomp of “46 Days” to the ethereal bliss of “Slave” is beyond me. Perfectly fluid, leaving no music on the table, it’s a segment that proves the band has been on from the moment they hit the road.

– 07/06/2013: “Split Open & Melt” – Without coming off as too much a hypocrite, I sure would love to hear the band mess around with this kind demented melodic jamming more in the first set. Heard here and in the 07/14 “Stash,” there’s something about when the band opens themselves up with such freedom and pure musical communication – particularly in Set I –  that’s unrivaled in my mind. One of the most special moments of the first weekend of tour.

– 07/06/2013: “Carini -> Architect” – One of my absolutely favorite moments of summer thus far, I’m still in awe over how the band fit SO much music into 12 minutes. A beautiful, fluid, relentless jam, this one carried the torch from Dick’s and MSG and planted it firmly in 2013. Cannot wait to hear how the band approaches “Carini” when they take it out for a spin out west.

– 07/10/2013: “Crosseyed & Painless> Harry Hood” – The peak jam of the second week of tour, this one stylistically impacted the tour in ways few others were capable of. Hinting at the 02/16/2003 “Piper” theme, the jam built to an absolutely stunning peak made only the more special by Trey’s rhythmic interplay. Heard in the 07/13 “Hood” and “Simple,” the 07/21 “Ghost” and 07/22 “DWD,” the 07/10 “C&P>Hood” is one of those peak moments that happen throughout every tour and affect literally all the music around them.

– 07/12/2013: “Rock & Roll -> 2001> Tweezer -> Cities -> The Wedge” – Like a jam segment right out of Summer 1998, this seguefest that opened JB’s second set is a must hear for any fan of open-ended improv and groove. Spring-boarding from “Rock & Roll” by way of a take on the 08/08/2009 theme of the same song, the jam weaved through melodic plains before building into “2001.” In “Tweezer” the band locks into a relentless groove that just bleeds into “Cities,” before it segues flawlessly into “The Wedge.” Battling the elements out on the Long Island Sound, the band unquestionably struck musical gold with this jam on this night.

– 07/13/2013: “Mike’s Song> Simple> Weekapaug Groove” – While I was probably wrong to predict that this “Mike’s” would in fact lead the band into their first Type-II “Mike’s” since February 2003, (expectations and predictions are a bitch) there’s no denying the ferocity and tenacity of this version that still holds up some two weeks later. For me though, this jam segment is all about “Simple.” A gorgeous version that sees Trey focusing on rhythmic interplay, teasing at the “DWD” theme throughout the jam, it’s stunningly beautiful, and absolutely perfect. It will be great to hear how the band approaches “Simple” whenever they revisit it next.

– 07/14/2013: “Light -> Boogie On Reggae Woman” – A clinic in Phish crack, the MPP “Light” is as enthralling as it is experimental as it is utterly rewarding. Featuring start/stop groove, noise-based themes, and a fluid segue into “Boogie On,” it’s just one more version in a seemingly endless list of top tier “Light’s.”

– 07/16/2013: “Rock & Roll -> Heartbreaker -> Makisupa Policeman> Chalk Dust Torture> Wilson> Tweezer -> Silent In The Morning> Birds Of A Feather” – One of the most locked-in moments of summer thus far, this 55min segment of music from Alpharetta 1 combines energized and fluid segues, Dick’s-esque jamming, choice song selection, and thematically repeated teasing’s of Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker,” all resulting in a massive tour highlight from the band’s lone southern stop. Particularly in the “Rock & Roll,” “Chalk Dust,” and “Tweezer,” the jams proves how irrelevant song length is in 3.0. Like the 07/06 “Carini,” it’s mind-blowing how the band is capable of covering such musical terrain in such a short amount of time.

– 07/21/2013: “Energy -> Ghost -> The Lizards” – Perhaps the most important segment of music played all year, this trio both spiritually freed the band from the burdens of the weather-related and logistical forces plaguing their Chicago run, while also helping to point the way forward for the tour. Tracking the musical lineage of Phish’s history, this segment’s one of the most innovative and forward thinking of 2013. On par with the best jams in the band’s history, we’re gonna be talking about this trio for a LONG time to come.

– 07/22/2013: “Down With Disease -> 2001” – And this is how you point the way westward. Building off of Chicago’s brilliant second set, the band played the “DWD” of the year thus far, residing wholly in a zone of sublime melodic blissfulness before choicely guiding it towards the ominous grooves of “2001.” A patient and effortless jam, this bodes great things for the tour moving forward. As a band, Phish has typically played their most refined, relaxed, and exploratory music on the West Coast throughout 3.0. Based upon the sustained peak of 07/10 – 07/14, and the explorations in Chicago and Toronto, one can only imagine this trend will continue this weekend.

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Thus concludes tackle & lines 3rd week tour recap. Gonna be traveling to Japan next week, so will probably do a big West Coast wrap-up following the Hollywood Bowl show. Feel free to leave any comments or thoughts to the post. Can’t wait to see what’s in store for all of us as Phish heads out west!

Assorted Thoughts & Questions On The Second Week Of Phish’s 2013 Summer Tour

1045244_10151456729241290_627350807_nThe second week of Phish’s 2013 Summer Tour is in the books, and it’s pretty clear to anyone listening that we’ve got a veritable classic on our hands here.

Torrential weather be damned. Postponed shows no bother. No matter what tries to impede Phish’s path right now, it appears the band simply can’t be halted.

In their 30th year, the band has clearly turned a corner and are showing no signs of slowing down. What was realized in the intimate Greek Theater way back in August 2010, capitalized upon that Fall, busted wide open with the SuperBall IX “Storage Jam” and subsequent experimentally-driven August run, toyed around with throughout a non-stop June 2012 tour, and finally realized in Commerce City, CO, has become the show-in-show-out reality of Phish here in 2013.

The band is just on. No two ways about it.

It’s a damned good time to be a Phish fan right now, both for everyone at the shows, and all of us listening with fervent ears back home. The band is littering shows with segues, jams, tight-knit playing, old school setlists, energy, and increasing humor that can only bode even greater things as the tour moves along.

All this music has gotten me thinking. Below are an assortment of random thoughts and questions I have from the last week of tour.

Hope everyone’s been enjoying this tour as much as I have!

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Is “Mike’s Song” About To Blow Up?

The long-forgotten classic, you’d have to go back to Summer 2000 for the last time the band truly approached “Mike’s Song” with the kind of aggression they are right now. While it’s always been a fan and band favorite, few could deny the overall power that’s been missing from “Mike’s” through the last two eras of the band’s history.

Out of nowhere, on the first night of tour, Phish treated us to a “Mike’s” that carried an extra bit of something – particularly from Trey – and for a minute felt as though it were going to explode into an unrelenting jam. Then, on Saturday night at Merriweather Post, the band again approached the song with a kind of desperation and aggression, once again expanding the limits we thought had been established as law going forward. That it bled into a gorgeously thematic and rhythmic take on “Simple” (more on this later) and a “Weekapaug” that felt slightly elevated, only helped to secure this as, hands down, the best “Mike’s Groove” since 2000.

So the question bears asking: Is Phish ready to blow “Mike’s Song” up again? Are they ready to approach the song with the same kind of fire, energy, and exploratory zealotry that made it one of the MUST-SEE songs throughout the entirety of Phish’s first 17 years?

Historically, one only has to look at the band’s patterns when they’re trying to will a specific song into the unknown. Two recent examples: the 08/16/2009 “Backwards Down The Number Line” and the 08/31/2012 “Chalk Dust Torture” each display that when the band is consciously trying to expand a specific song into a monumental jam, they typically build the song up through a series of versions that gradually push it further into the unknown. For “Number Line,” the 07/31/2009, 08/08/2009 and 08/11/2009 versions paved the way for the 20-minute monster that opened SPAC’s tour closing affair in 2009. For Chalk Dust, the 08/25/2012 and 08/28/2012 jams clearly helped to free the band up for the ethereal Dick’s version.

Beyond these two historical examples, it’s clear the band is focusing more time and attention on their classics throughout this tour. (More on this later) With the recent performances we’ve heard from “Bowie,” “Antelope,” “Hood,” “Reba,” “Stash,” “SOAM,” and “Slave” one wouldn’t be too surprised if one of these upcoming shows featured a “Mike’s” that fused the past and present of Phish in one monumental jam.

Can you even imagine how the crowd would react to a jam off “Mike’s” at this point?

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About The Celebratory Rhythmic Jamming…

If one clear-cut musical pattern is emerging from Phish’s Summer 2013 Tour it’s that the band is spending a large percentage of improvisational time focused on overtly melodic jams that have – in their best moments – resulted in segments of celebratory rhythmic hook-up’s that achieve transcendence on a number of levels. Heard most notably in the 07/10 “Crosseyed & Painless” and 07/13 “Harry Hood” – though elements of it are certainly abound in the 07/06 “SOAM” and “Carini,” the 07/12 “Rock & Roll” and 07/13 “Simple” – it appears the band is reflecting their ecstasy over this Summer Tour directly in their music.

Much like how jams in 2003 and 2004 descended into a dark and twisted underworld without reprieve, many jams in 2013 are the diametric opposite, rising to the heavens in rejoice over the current state of the band.

What’s perhaps most unique about this trend – at least to these ears – is that it’s taken Phish under eight shows to reign in on, and commit to this style. While there have certainly been a plethora of incredible jams that have littered 3.0, each of the past four years have been more notable for the fact that the band has restlessly jumped from style-to-style throughout tours, very rarely committing to one singular style to build through. Granted, August 2011 featured a number of “Storage”-based jams, and Dick’s 2012 highlighted the band’s ability and desire to weave a number of different ideas and themes under one singular piece of improve, those are more exceptions than the rules in the past four years.

Here in 2013, with the band at the top of their game, and an entire tour in front of them to explore the unknown, the band is fully communicating the peak experience their having as a band through their improv. Like how 1995’s abstract excursions spoke directly to the band’s fascination with how far their music could go, 1997 displayed a band in completely seamless communication, 1999-2000 showed how effortless and in many ways, uninspiring Phish had become for its members, and 2003 was the sound of a band dying in front of our very eyes, 2013 jams are full of celebration and revival.

It’s been a long time coming for Phish to return to the place of consistent playing – both within their songs, and outside of them – and to hear them attack their improv with the kind of celebratory zest they are this summer can only make fans feel great about the state of Phish as we continue moving forward.

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The 2013 Setlist Model

A simple perusing of PT or Twitter will display an even-handed amount of opinions on the structural approach the band is pushing forward with their setlist’s in 2013. A complete diversion from the recital sets that dotted much of 2009 – 2011, and a stark change from the rarities and bustouts that colored 2012, 2013 setlists have – thus far – been noticeably trimmed down and sharpened up. Emphasizing a stricter rotation throughout the tour thus far, repeats have been abound, while at the same time, few sets (first sets in particular) haven’t been subjected to the knee-jerk flow and unending feel that marked so many throughout 3.0.

So the question bears asking: is this new setlist model a positive for Phish, a negative, or just a part of the continual evolution of the band?

I see the effects of this evolution in two ways. First of all, to me, the recital approach – while certainly great when it worked; see: 11/29/2009, 12/04/2009, 06/13/2010, 07/03/2010, 08/14/2010, 10/26/2010, 10/30/2010, 06/11/2011, 08/16/2011, 06/15/2012, 06/28/2012, 07/03/2012, 07/06/2012 – had become somewhat stale and outdated by the time 2011 rolled around, when it was clear many of the growing pains of 2009 and early 2010 were behind them. In that sense, I both welcome the consistently trimmed down setlists – they’re tighter and flow better overall – and welcome the sequential emphasis of a stricter rotation.

The second effect of the band’s current approach to crafting setlists is an overt emphasis of their classic songs and jam vehicles. Whereas in 2009 through, even parts of 2012, the band was making a conscious effort to showcase their entire catalogue, here in 2013, there’ve been a number of shows that have specifically featured songs written before 1995. A result of this has been a newfound electricity and energy within their classics. One needs to look no further than the 07/03 and 07/13 “Mike’s,” 07/03 “Antelope,” 07/03, 07/10, and 07/13 “Hood,” 07/05 “Bowie,” 07/05 “Slave,” 07/06 “SOAM,” 07/07 and 07/14 “You Enjoy Myself,” 07/12 “Reba,” 07/12 “Tweezer,” 07/13 “Simple,” 07/13 “Weekapaug Groove,” 07/14 “Stash,” and the 07/14 “It’s Ice,” to see the effect this approach is having on some of Phish’s historically great compositions.

I argued yesterday on PT that while this last weekend’s Merriweather Post highlights were “Destiny Unbound,” “Maze,” “Hood,” “Mike’s Groove,” “Stash,” “Mule,” “Ice,” “Light -> Boogie On,” and “You Enjoy Myself” would have represented a horrendous pair of shows from 2003 – 2012, here, in 2013, suddenly these shows reside in the upper echelon of the tour thus far. This is a sign of a band fully focused on reinventing, and reigniting their classics like they haven’t consistently in years. And this is without mentioning the excellent “Gins,” “Wolfmans,” and “Themes” we’ve heard, nor the one-off performances of song’s like “BOTT,” “Ya Mar,” or “CTB” that have popped with fresh energy and playing.

It’s an amazing reversal on the trend that had dominated much of the last ten years of the band’s existence. For too long their time-honored classics felt forgotten, appearing in shows only because they had to. That the band is rediscovering how to approach so many of these songs, particularly within the structure of more refined setlists, can only bode great things moving forward.

While yes, there’s no doubt something missing from Phish shows due to the lack of surprise that was so associated with the random bustouts and rarities that littered much of 2010 – 2012, but in all reality, I’d personally rather hear Phish crush their classics like they have been over the past two weeks than compile sets that lack flow and energy just to get a one-off glimpse of a long-forgotten song. I definitely argued before the tour that we’d hear more bustouts this year, and so far I’ve been wrong on that prediction. So long as the band keeps playing the way they are, count me as one totally cool with the current approach to setlists, and consequential lack of bustouts in 2013.

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The Impact Of Trey’s Rhythmic Playing

From the first Type-II jam of tour (07/03’s “Golden Age”) one this was immediately different about Phish’s jamming approach in 2013: Trey’s emphasis of his wah-wah pedal like no time since the late-90’s. A stylistic move that’s allowed Mike and Page more space to continue their individual dominance in 3.0, this move has led to some of the most unique and colorful moments of the 2013 tour thus far.

From the 07/06 “Tube,” and 07/12 “Tweezer -> Cities,” to the 07/14 “Stash,” “It’s Ice,” and “Light -> Boogie On,” the wah has been at the center of some of the most unexpected funk clinics that have dotted 2013.

Moreover though is the full impact of Trey’s rhythmic approach. Even when he’s eschewed the wah, he’s still approached jams with a rhythm-centric mindset that’s led to the aforementioned melodic and celebratory jams that have stood out as the best of the year.

Like how 1997 – 2000 benefitted greatly by Trey’s deliberately minimalistic approach, so too is 2013. Playing within the pockets created by Mike and Fish, allowing Page to shine like he has since Hampton ’09, while giving Mike the proper space to lead jams, Trey’s coloring the jams with chords and rhythmic patterns that are leading to full-band-connectivity and linear musical communication with consistency and ease. For examples, look no further than the 07/10 “Crosseyed & Painless,” 07/12 “Rock & Roll -> 2001>Tweezer -> Cities -> The Wedge,” 07/13 “Harry Hood” and “Simple,” or the 07/14 “Light -> Boogie On,” and “You Enjoy Myself.”

Fusing their past with their current state, Phish is benefitting greatly from 30 years worth of musical experience as they diverge deeper into the unwinding conversation they’ve been sharing together on stage.

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Is This The Best Summer Tour Since 1.0?

Jumping the gun a bit here? Perhaps.

Remember how good 2012 was, kid? Yes, yes I do.

Didn’t you just write a 3000-wd piece praising 2003? Yes, that’s me.

Look, I hate the redundancy of certain Phish writers who review and comment on shows/jams/tours as if THIS is THE BEST ___________ since ____________, only to emerge a week or two later saying the exact same thing.

But we’ve reached a point with this tour, now two weeks in, where the question certainly bears asking.

Is this the best summer tour since 1.0?

My arguments in favor are as follows, in four points:

1. The band is jamming with a consistency and brilliancy the likes of which we simply haven’t seen since 1998.

Yes, I fully realize the absurdity of this statement when one considers how heavy the band jammed from 1999 – 2004, but hear me out.

While so many jams went deep throughout that period, there are unfortunately a litany of jams that simply jammed for the sake of filling space and jamming, rather than pushing forward with consistent purpose. Moments of brilliance and transcendence were often times separated by lengthy wanderings of a band that oftentimes appeared lost, or worst, careless. And yet, for however deep and methodically demonic those jams were – and this is coming from a proud-1999 -2003 fluffer – those jams didn’t really speak to the historical and emotional legacy that is Phish. So moody and ominous so many of them were, they represented a dying band’s last gasp at relevance and sustainability. That they went so deep spoke more to the individual member’s emotional struggles than any true evolutionary step forward. As I said throughout my essay on Summer 2003, (and this point is certainly transferrable to 1999 and 2000, and especially 2004) it’s clear in hindsight that that jamming approach was simply unsustainable. No one can be that lost and hope to persist in any sort of productive and healthy manner. For however monumental, or artistically innovative many of the jams were, they belong to their own era of Phish that’s in many ways separate from the band’s overall historical legacy.

Here in 2013 we’re hearing a band who has climbed the mountain once again, and is jamming with not only conscientious purpose, but also celebratory revival.

2. Phish’s greatest songs are being showcased like they haven’t since the mid-1990’s.

I’ve made this point ad nauseam throughout this piece, so I won’t go too deep into it here. But, the point remains, in 3.0, up until this tour, “Bowie,” “You Enjoy Myself,” “Hood,” “Slave,” “Mike’s,” “Antelope,” “SOAM,” and “Stash,” all felt like dinosaurs in Phish’s catalogue.

Sure, they made their required every two-to-three show appearance.

Sure, they got their resounding cheers from the crowd.

But rarely did they feel like an opportunity for the band.

Instead, they always felt played because, well, they had to be played. Even in 2012 – by-and-away the best year the band has played in full since at least 2000 – these songs always felt like a shell of their former selves, no matter the fact that the band was beginning to focus additional attention on them. Now however, the band is approaching their time-honored classics like this were 1993 or 1995, and they have to explore them for all they’re worth.

3. This is the strongest opening to a tour the band has played since Summer 1998.

Go back through each of the summer tour’s of the band’s history. At this point, I count six shows that are unquestionably keepers – 07/05, 07/07, 07/10, 07/12, 07/13, and 07/14.

SIX, out of EIGHT shows total. This is unprecedented in recent Phish history!

At the end of each year I compile a list of the ten best shows of the year, along with three honorable mentions. I shudder to think how I’m going to widdle this list down to 13 by year’s end.

While Phish has treated the opening legs of 3.0 tours to some of the best overall shows of the year, none of the 3.0 summer tour’s can compare to 2013’s opening two weeks. The only tour that could carry a candle in my mind is 2011, and that tour petered out following an incredible opening week from Bethel – Cincinnati.

Going back to 2.0 – 2004 is disqualified based on the fact that the exceptionally strong June Run was no more than a week’s worth of music – the 2003 Tour sputtered for much of it’s first two weeks before finding consistently solid ground on it’s back end.

In 1.0, both 1999 and 2000 featured some exceptional shows starting a week into their tours, but in both cares, their immediate opening shows are dotted with too many head-scratching moments – 07/07/1999, 06/25/2000, for example – to hold a candle to how consistently great Phish is playing these days. Even in their weakest shows this tour – 07/03 and 07/06 – the band is still infusing each with moments of brilliance that make them worth listening to regardless.

So, is this the best opening to a tour since 1.0? That question’s ultimately up to you and your own standards of “best”. For me, there’s simply no question, 2013 has put itself in a pretty heady category thus far.

4. Each member is thriving individually which is translating to some stunning linear musical communication.

For much of 3.0, the continual argument against Phish (lazy or not) has been of the struggles of one Trey Anastasio. For much of 2009, both he and Fishman simply didn’t have the chops to keep up with Page and Mike, to craft transcendent improvisational music on a consistent basis. While Trey was able to dissuade much of the criticism when in August 2010 he unveiled the Ocedoc guitar that helped to deepen his overall sound, thus making him less reliant on the whammy pedal, and more conducive to full-band jamming, it wasn’t really until 2012 that all his practice since 2008 really started to pay off.

On the other hand, Fishman spent much of the band’s first two years back simply getting reacquainted with playing drums. Admitting to give up drums entirely for a time during the band’s break-up from 2004 – 2009, his technical inabilities left many jams rudderless throughout 2009 and 2010. Like Trey though, Fish has been on a consistent rise since 2011, now capable of playing in a variety of styles, and impacting jams with the kind of tactical precision and spontaneity that made him such a key figure in Phish’s mid-90’s renaissance.

Freed from the burdens of the band’s two weakest links, they’re now playing as one on a far more regular basis. As a result, jams like the 07/06 “Carini,” 07/10 “Crosseyd,” 07/12 “Rock & Roll -> 2001> Tweezer -> Cities -> The Wedge,” 07/13 “Simple,” 07/14 “Stash,” “It’s Ice,” “Light -> Boogie On,” and “You Enjoy Myself” are popping up throughout shows with far more consistency and ease than at any other time since certainly 2003, and more realistically since sometime in 1.0.

Is this the best tour since 1.0? Right now, it sure as Hell feels that way!

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So, Where Is This All Going?

I talked with Zachary Cohen of the phenomenal Please Me Have No Regrets blog at length yesterday about the state of Phish 2013. We’re at two interesting places with this tour, seeing as he’s been to most of the shows, and I’m simply absorbing them from 8000 miles away in South Korea. To him, these shows have been a spiritual celebration from the moment 07/05 began, whereas for me, from my perspective, little about the tour made total sense until around PNC. To me, the band was simply laying the groundwork for a the tour from Bangor through 07/06. Yet, in hindsight, while I still believe the first few shows were more or less feeling out how the band would approach this tour, it’s become clear to me that we were essentially immersed in brilliance from the moment “Cities” faded into “Bowie” on 07/05.

The bulk of our conversation however, dealt with where this is going with Phish. How’s Phish going to build on the musical achievements of the last two weeks? Where are these two weeks going to reside in our minds come October, December, next February…?

We’re both absolutely thrilled with the music Phish is currently making, but both of us agree that it’s clear there’s more that the band could be doing. For as incredible as all of these shows have been – and in all sincerity, there isn’t a show played this summer I wouldn’t have wanted to be at – it’s clear the band is somewhat still reigning it in on a nightly basis. From an unwillingness to totally let go with their jams like they were at Dick’s, to the lack of surprise quality often associated with bustouts and rarities, there are a few aspects of Phish’s storied career that could elevate this tour that much more.

Is this all necessary? Probably not. These are phenomenal shows after all.

If Phish cancelled the rest of their tour, we’d still have a massive amount of musical gold to sift through for the rest of the year.

And yet, if you’d ask me my honest opinion I’d say that this tour reminds me in many ways of how the August 2010 run felt like an immense corner turned, yet appeared as an obvious starting point by the time the mastery of Fall 2010 rolled around. This isn’t to compare the quality of music with those two eras, just the structure of them.

My point is, I’ve got a feeling this is all building towards something even bigger, and that by year’s end, these shows – which have been SO great so far – may appear more as building blocks towards some unforeseen goal. Kinda like how NO ONE could have predicted 08/31/2012 was just around the corner on 08/29/2012, regardless how innovative most of Summer 2012 was. Based on all the points I’ve made throughout this essay, the obvious excitement permeating the community based surrounding the band’s 30th anniversary, and impending Fall Tour and Holiday Run, one can’t help but think this whole year is only going to get better.

Be it a fusion of the band’s level of jamming at Dick’s with their emphasis on their storied classics, or gimmicky rarities timely placed throughout standout shows that just elevate them to another level, or a run of shows that musically rivals the true peaks of the band’s career, essentially everything is on the table now in 2013.

On a high like they haven’t been since the mid-90’s, at the top of their game, there’s simply nothing it appears Phish can’t do here in 2013.

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Favorite Shows/Jams Thus Far

I’ll be updating this as we move throughout the tour/year. Take these with a grain of salt, for their just one man’s thoughts on music that’s continuously interpreted by totally different people in totally different ways all at the same time. But here are my favorite shows/jams of the 2013 Summer Tour thus far:

Favorite Shows

1. PNC – First Set is that classic Phish energy set, containing a blistering “Gin,” a rarity in the opener, “Llama,” a full-on funk-fest in another nailed “Wolfman’s,” and great takes on “Ya Mar,” “Stealin’ Time,” “Theme,” and “Suzy. Set II flows with fiery precision, and contains a revolutionary jam in “Crosseyed.”

2. MPP2 – On paper, from 2003 – 2012 this show would look like crap. But groundbreaking performances in “Stash,” “SOAMule,” “Ice,” “Light,” and “You Enjoy Myself,” along with solid flow and all-around killer playing just elevates it to previously unknown heights.

3. MMP1 – Very similar to MPP2 structurally, this show benefits from a fresh setlist, notable playing in “Destiny Unbound,” “Halfway To The Moon,” “Maze” and “SOAM” in Set I, another glorious “Hood” in a year already full of them, and without question, the BEST “Mike’s Groove” since 1.0

4. SPAC 3 – The first show where the band appeared to be fully comfortable and in command from note one of the night. Just an all-around classic Phish show featuring only one cover, and no songs written after 2002. From the moment they descend into a quiet and rhythmic jam off second-song “BOTT” one thing was clear: it’s on.

5. SPAC 1 – Following a first set that failed to get off the ground until a stunning “MFMF> Cities -> Bowie” segment closed it out, the band emerged from setbreak and played without pause. Crafting the most fluid set we’ve heard this entire tour thus far, the jams in “Light,” and particularly “46 Days -> Steam> Drowned -> Slave” will remain on many people’s Best Of lists for the entire year.

6. Jones Beach – A similar first set structurally to 07/05, this one lost a bit of steamin the face of the worst storm the band’s played in since 07/22/1997 before being rescued by a sublime “Reba”/”Bowie” combo to close it out. After the break, the band emerged with a 19-minute “Rock & Roll” that faded into a “2001>Tweezer -> Cities -> The Wedge” seguefest that’s as smooth to the ears as it appears on paper.

7. SPAC 2 – The most inconsistent show of the tour thus far – at least to these ears – perhaps the only aspects I’ll revisit in the future are “Tube,” “SOAM,” and the “Carini -> Architect” jam. A notable show for the fact that it was SO well played regardless of it’s issues with flow, it simply doesn’t carry the mystique the above shows do.

8. Bangor – A solid tour opener that foreshadowed much of the brilliance we’re currently witnessing. However, this one, like SPAC 2 just doesn’t have that IT factor that any of the first six shows on the list do.

Favorite Jams (Listed Chronologically)

– 07/05/2013: “46 Days -> Steam> Drowned -> Slave” – A fully flowing and organically thematic jam segment that anchored the back-half of 07/05’s brilliant Set II, this run of songs is sure to remain as one of my favorite’s of the year by the time we wrap things up at MSG. From the minimalist funk workout of “46 Days,” to the impassioned, and fully realized peak in “Steam,” from “Drowned’s” rhythmic duel between Page and Trey, to the masterful performance of “Slave” that’s unquestionably the best we’ve heard in this entire era, this sequence is a fucking capital ‘K,’ KEEPER.

– 07/06/2013: “Split Open & Melt” – For a song that has endured so much controversy and dysfunctional experimentation in this era, everything was realized in this first set closer from the middle night at SPAC. Leaving the structure of the jam entirely, the band wove this “Melt” into a gorgeous plain of improvisation, connecting for five minutes on some of the most blissful music they’ve ever made. At one point it sounded as though they’d never find their way back home. While the end of the jam ultimately became a forced re-entry to the “Melt” theme, little could taint the brilliance of this jam.

– 07/06/2013: “Carini -> Architect” – My vote for jam of the year thus far, the band simply annihilated “Carini” before perfectly segueing it into Trey’s first Traveler debut with Phish (Save “Let Me Lie”). Diametrically opposite to the descent into Hell version from 12/30/2012, this “Carini” was lilting, it was ethereal, it was sublime, it was complete bliss. There’s a point midway in the jam where it sounds like the band is composing a new song out of thin air. It’s the stuff of legend. I can’t wait to hear how the band approaches “Carini” the next time out.

– 07/10/2013: “Crosseyed & Painless> Harry Hood” – Following an ambient soundscape that was reminiscent of the 08/19 version, “Crosseyed” built into a celebratory rhythmic jam that touched on the 02/16/2003 “Piper” while crafting one of the most transcendent passages of music Phish has offered in 2013. A thematic jam that has since been adopted in various other jams since then, it’s clear the band discovered something at PNC that had been lurking beneath the surface throughout the tour’s initial week. That they chose another brilliant version of “Hood” to serve as the song’s landing pad of sorts, spoke wonders of how highly the band immediately regarded this jam.

– 07/12/2013: “Rock & Roll -> 2001> Tweezer -> Cities -> The Wedge” – After stumbling a bit through a song-based first set that seemed to take the life out of their cold and wet fans, the band delivered a blistering 50-minute segment of uninterrupted music to open Set II at Jones Beach. The “Rock & Roll” shares musical qualities with the brilliant 08/08/2009 version before segueing into “2001.” The “Tweezer -> Cities -> The Wedge” is as fluid and masterful a segue as it looks on paper. They fucking earned those -> this night, and sure as Hell earned the “Sleeping Monkey> Tweezer Reprise” that closed things out.

– 07/13/2013: “Harry Hood” – Dropped in the middle of Merriweather Post’s Saturday night Set II, this “Hood” capitalized on the brilliant versions from Bangor and PNC, and then some. Fusing the thematic peak of the PNC “Crosseyed & Painless” into the “Hood” peak created a transcendent version that will be hard to top going forward. It’s clear the band just loves playing “Harry Hood” again, a sentiment that should be praised and rejoiced by all of their fans.

– 07/13/2013: “Mike’s Song> Simple> Weekapaug Groove” – A “Mike’s Groove” tour highlight?!?! What!?!? I’ve been following this band since 2001, and saw my first shows in 2003. “Mike’s Song” was one of those original’s that got me hooked on Phish. But never, I mean NEVER, have I ranked any version of “Mike’s Groove” since that time as a Best Of jam in all my years listening. Until now. A torrential “Mike’s” that nearly pushed itself into the unknown was followed by a gorgeous “Simple” that fused the melodic and rhythmic playing Trey’s been espousing throughout Summer 2013 with the “Down With Disease” theme to brilliant results. Capped off by a funky and sparse “Weekapaug” and you have the first “Mike’s Groove” in ages to push a show into the ether.

– 07/14/2013: “Light -> Boogie On Reggae Woman” – Is there anything Phish can’t do with “Light?” Even in the PNC version that left a bit to be desired, the band still managed to infuse it with themes of “Maria” from West Side Story before segueing it fluidly into a perfectly place “Good Times, Bad Times.” Here, deep in Merriweather Post’s Sunday Set II, the band conducted a thrilling funk/rhythmic experiment on the modern jam vehicle, leading it into a start/stop jam that brought back memories of 1997 for everyone involved. Building into dissonance, they ultimately led the jam into a playful “Boogie On” that felt neither forced, nor out of placed. Make that three fluid segues from “Light” in 2013, along with three completely unique jams that have emerged from it. It’s clear 2013 is shaping up to be yet another banner year for “Light.”

– 07/14/2013 – “You Enjoy Myself” – Perhaps the most telling jam on this list, the band’s seminal song has been everything from overplayed, to stale, to underplayed, to rarity, to now, fresh and completely open again here in 3.0 That “You Enjoy Myself” is being attacked in the way it have thus far this tour, is reason alone to believe we’re in for something unprecedented with Phish this year. Building off a top-notch version at SPAC a week before, the Merriweather Post “You Enjoy Myself” featured a seismic funk workout from the band, infusing dissonance and elements of the “Light” jam before peaking and leading to a ferocious vocal jam. Will this be the peak of the band’s experimentation with “YEM” in 2013? I gotta believe this, like with “Mike’s,” “Stash,” “Hood,” and “Bowie,” is only the beginning. How crazy would it be if this excellent version were simply knocked off this list by the next “You Enjoy Myself” played? I wouldn’t doubt anything of the sort here in 2013.

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That’s all I’ve got for this last week of tour. Please feel free to share any comments or thoughts on the essay. Can’t wait to see what the band has in store for us in Alpharetta and Chicago!

Review: Saratoga Springs, NY – 07/07/2013

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Saratoga Performing Arts Center – Saratoga Springs, NY – 07/07/2013

Set I: AC/DC Bag> Back On The Train> The Divided Sky, Free> It’s Ice> Mound, Maze, Limb By Limb> Walls Of The Cave

Set II: Down With Disease&> Ghost# -> Piper## -> Wading In The Velvet Sea> Run Like An Antelope$> Meatstick$$> You Enjoy Myself

Encore: Loving Cup

& “Down With Disease” was unfinished

# “Ghost” contained “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” teases

## “Piper” contained a “Dave’s Energy Guide” tease from Trey

$ Lyrics changed to “Run Like A Meatsick Outta Control!”

$$ “Meatstick” contained Japanese Lyrics

——–

It’s almost stupid to to even try to write a review after a show like that.

Phish was just on.

For the entire night, the band crafted a fluid, thematic and overtly old-school show that goes down as the most complete offering we’ve heard from them thus far this summer.

If the whole goal of Phish – and, live music in general; specifically live improvisational music – is that of communal connection and energy, then shows like 07/07/2013 are the epitome of why we travel/listen to/and analyze Phish like we do.

Packed to the brim with a phenomenal setlist, masterful playing and execution of their songs, and enough surprises and intrigue to keep the show interesting and playful, there’s nothing you can really say bad about a show like this.

I mean, I guess if you really wanted to be critical you could say that the “Down With Disease> Ghost -> Piper” section left a bit on the table. (It did) But in the end, does that really matter? It was clear that the “DWD” had reached something of a dead zone by the time they segued into “Ghost,” and for whatever could have happened in the “Ghost” when Trey discovered the major key following a mesmerizing plinko-jam, little was lost by the segue into “Piper.” Moreover, the more contained approach to these three jam vehicles just fit the old-school feel of the show more than any lengthy jam could have.

This was pure Phish at their best. This was the kind of show the band has been working towards and perfecting ever since they returned in March 2009.

——–

Kicking things off with the opening combo of “AC/DC Bag” and “Back On The Train” was as sure a sign as any what kind of show we were in for. Whereas the first three nights of tour, the band has somewhat eased into their shows, 07/07 was straight energy from the onset.

“Bag” displayed how locked-in Trey was, as he sounded incredibly clean, and just on-point throughout the solo. In the next song, the band entered the “BOTT” jam much quieter than normal, allowing themselves the time and patience to explore the subtle rhythms that drive the song forward, before building it to a resounding peak. It’s only further proof that the Type-II “BOTT” on 12/30/2009 ushered in an era of consistently great versions that the band is only continuing to push forward. Following with a perfectly placed “The Divided Sky,” along with a trio of “Free> It’s Ice> Mound” their song selections only helped to keep the energy at a max level.

(One of my initial struggles with writing these pieces has been overcoming this notion that one can’t get a show unless they’re there. While I fully understand the power and immediacy of being present at a Phish show, I’ve always argued that if the band just wanted us to experience their music live, in a venue, they wouldn’t offer so many opportunities for connection to those who aren’t there. From embracing the taper culture, to the vast library of SBD-quality archival music they’ve released, to LivePhish.com which makes their shows immediately available to all their fans once a show concludes, to the audio and video streams they now regularly offer; it’s clear the band knows their music has lasting power beyond just the singular medium of a one-time live event. To argue that one can’t get a show because they weren’t there is both shortsighted, and missing the overall point of Phish’s music. How else can you explain the fact that I’ve felt a pure spiritual connection to the 09/14/1999 “AC/DC Bag,” or the entirety of 12/30/1993 – shows I never saw – or that the first time I heard 11/17/1994 – also the first time I heard Phish – I felt like I’d just experienced a moment with a higher power, or, that just this morning, when the band began their rising solo in “Divided Sky,” I felt that feeling I get every time I’ve heard “Divided Sky,” live, or in the privacy of my room/car? Further, if music is as powerful a force we all claim it to be, doesn’t it make sense then that it’s transferrable across space and time, and that its power is both accessible and understood by those not immediately present at its creation? I digress… All’s I know is I felt like I was there this morning even though I technically wasn’t there.)

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Continuing a masterful first set, Phish closed things out with an agressive take on “Maze” that featured both excellent interplay between Trey and Page, and a weird little reggae breakdown in the middle that just added to the overall feel of the night. That it didn’t lead to any full-on reggae jam, but instead, just colored the jam, felt proper in a show that featured such playful playing, and SO much energy.

“Limb By Limb” continued the flawless setlist, providing the first breather of the set, while also being a beautiful and emotive version in its own right. Hinting at taking the song on another jam (ala, 08/28/2012) the song ultimately remained contained, but not before making its mark. “Walls Of The Cave” brought us home in Set I, taking the honor as the youngest song played in a set filled with classics. Reminiscent of 11/24/2009, 01/01/2011, 08/19/2012, 08/28/2012, and 12/30/2012, this was the kind of Set I that receives unanimous adulation and love. The kind of set where it matters little what song is played, for the band’s just nailing everything regardless.

——–

Is there any song in the Phish canon that would have been more fitting to open that second set than “Down With Disease?” It’s one of the classic Set II openers for a reason, and 07/07 just had “DWD” marked as the second set opener by midway through the first set. A version that tore out of the song on a mission before fading to a beautiful space of nothingness, the jam ultimately touched on a prodding rock jam while channeling some serious Floyd and Zeppelin. (Yes, it did) Opening itself up to a spacious segment of music, Trey played with a soulful drive, willing the jam forward. It wasn’t to be however. On a night like this, where energy reigned supreme, when in the first moment the band found themselves lost in the jam, they immediately abandoned it for “Ghost.”

Like I said above, no harm no foul with this move in “DWD,” or later in “Ghost” after that jam found itself deep in plinko-land before being ripcorded just as it reached a rousing melodic jam. When the band is playing with the kind of fire, emotion, and humor as they were on 07/07, jams tend to matter less. Perhaps the defining moment of the “Ghost” jam – aside from the plinko madness that made one wonder how in the hell this band has managed to find so many musical avenues to explore inside a song that’s essentially just an Am-G groove – came when Trey egged Page to mess around with his voicebox in between the second and third versus. Clearly unprepared, the off-handedness, and back-and-forth between the two only added to the anything-goes, playful spirit of the show.

“Piper” featured some of Trey’s best playing all night, (which really is saying something) and was notable for being the third straight “Ghost -> Piper” segment (09/02/2012, 12/31/2012). The jam built to the evening’s biggest peak, and for close to nine minutes the band just peaked and peaked and peaked in celebratory fashion, before fading beautifully to a baby grand solo from Page, wherein which you felt the first breather of the night approaching in “Wading In The Velvet Sea.” Like every other song of the show, “Wading” just felt perfect at the time, and was delivered with thoughtful precision, and patient soloing from Trey.

At this point – as in many a 3.0 shows – we found outselves at something of a crossroads seeing as song selection – which had made this show so memorable thus far – is clearly still of the utmost importance in 3.0.

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Thus, when they burst into a rare mid-set “Run Like An Antelope” it was all the more clear that the band was just as high on this show as everyone at SPAC, and all those watching from home. A high-octane version that never quite reached – nor really attempted to – the intricate and chromatic jamming of the 07/03 “Antelope,” this one instead was here solely to pack a massive punch and deliver yet another dose of humor.

One of the most brilliant aspects of Phish’s humor is how spectacularly lame it is, and yet how it rarely fails to arouse 20,000 people. Simply replacing the word “Antelope” with the word “Meatstick” only added another layer to a show already full of them, while guaranteeing a late-set “Meatstick.” A song that embodies the root of Phish’s humor – complete with dancing and Japanese lyrics – it fit the vibe of the show like everything else before it, and kept the energy high for the fade into the now-expected “You Enjoy Myself.”

I mean, could anything else have capped this set/show??? Like the Set II “Down With Disease” Opener, “You Enjoy Myself” closed out the set in perfect fashion, and that’s not even considering the sparse, rhythmic and plinko-style jam that emerged within the song’s jam segment. A fresh and original version of “You Enjoy Myself” to close out easily the best show Phish has offered us in 2013 ended the night on a distinct high. And when they emerged for the encore, the “Loving Cup” that followed felt both preordained, and ideal.

Oh, what a beautiful buzz indeed…

——–

An absolutely brilliant display of energy, flow, crisp playing, and whole-band communication, 07/07/2013 immediately raises the bar on this young Phish tour. That the band is already able to toss out an old school show chock-full of highlights only displays what kind of tour we’re currently experiencing.

What’s more is that this show suddenly puts the three shows that preceded it in perspective. As I’ve argued over the last few days, the first three shows in many ways felt like groundwork and foundation being laid for a massive tour. While obviously there were numerous highlights throughout, none of the first three shows clicked for me as complete shows.

Perhaps this is due to my absence from them.

Perhaps it’s due to my personal taste.

Perhaps I’m onto something and the band was treating them more as a way to ease into the tour, rather than come out immediately on a high.

Whatever way you look at it, it’s clear that each of the first three shows of the tour led in someway to the brilliance that occurred last night in Saratoga Springs, NY. From the old school setlist that dotted 07/03, to the fluid and thematic Set II from 07/05, to the expansionist playing in “Split Open & Melt,” and “Carini” in 07/06, each of these shows added another layer to the foundation that ultimately resulted in a near-perfect outing from Phish on 07/07.

Where we go from here is anyone’s guess. All’s I know is last night the band played a show that displayed them at their best, at yet another peak in what’s seemed like a litany of them over the past calendar year. Since 08/06/2010 we’ve watched Phish consistently get better as their tours progress, adding more and more to a constantly evolving live show. The idea that they could continue to compile better shows than one’s like last night, or better sets than 07/05’s second, or better jams than 07/06’s “Carini” is a bit perplexing. Yet we’ve watched them do just that over the past three years. Can they continue this hot streak?

As Page once said to a delirious crowd of 70,000 in Northern Maine: “Stick Around…”

———-

Thanks to Phish.Net (www.phish.net) and The Mockingbird Foundation (www.mbird.org) for organizational assistance and sourcing of setlists!

Review: Saratoga Springs, NY – 07/06/2013

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Saratoga Performing Arts Center – Saratoga Springs, NY – 07/06/2013

Set I: Crowd Control> Chalk Dust Torture, The Wedge, Funky Bitch, Heavy Things, Bug, Bouncing Around The Room, Tube> Julius, Split Open & Melt

Set II: Backwards Down The Number Line> Tweezer> Sand> Carini -> Architect^, Wilson> Boogie On Reggae Woman> Possum

Encore: Show Of Life> Tweezer Reprise

^ “Architect” made its Phish debut

——–

Phish is so good. (well, duh)

Phish is so good right now.

The fact that they’re able to play a show like they did tonight, and achieve as much musical greatness as they did is a huge testament to everything they’ve worked towards since March 2009.

In a show that, at worst, felt run-of-the-mill, and at best felt like more foundational work for the year ahead, that the band was able to connect like they did in “Split Open & Melt” and “Carini” is nothing short of remarkable. Both alone are reason enough to give this show a full (re)listen. They’re easily the two best moments of this young Summer Tour.

Perhaps though, the show could best be summed up in the Set II closing “Boogie On Reggae Woman> Possum” segment. While yes, the second set was the kind of classic Saturday-night-hits set the band routinely throws out in 3.0, these two songs – neither of which did anything surprising – both featured the kind of interplay that defines where Phish is right now. They listen to each other, and toy within songs in ways they just couldn’t from 2009 – parts of 2011. A show like this would have been as bad to listen to/attend as it would have looked on paper.

Yet here, in 2013, the band is able to turn a standard “Boogie On Reggae Woman> Possum” into an engaging and memorable closing segment. Sure, it’s not the greatest way they could have closed a set. Sure, there are probably a hundred more songs fans are clamoring to hear in that part of the show than “Possum.” But it’s as sure a sign as any that the band is back to crafting greatness at will when even their most standard moments become transcendent.

——–

The first set worked in essentially the same way that each of the two previous first sets of tour did: a well-played run through the band’s standard first set ‘singles’ followed by time-honored connection to take us to intermission.

In many ways the “Crowd Control through “Heavy Things” segment sounds exactly as you would expect it to sound. The songs are nailed, and immediately create the type of summery/no-worries vibe that constitues a Phish show. A rare Set I “Bug” – first since 09/25/2000 – provided the first moment of surprise in a set that I’m guessing won’t be granted a re-listen by many-a-fan.

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Musically, “Tube” offered fans the first moment of space and exploration as the band took a lengthy stroll through the song’s funk breakdown between the second and third verses. Moving into the semi-unknown, the jam seemed to be extended by way of the rousing applause that accompanied each continued moment the band didn’t return to the song proper. While it never truly left the structure of “Tube,” it’s the kind of moment that makes listening to and following Phish so rewarding.

You’re at a show, everything’s going along as expected. Everything is GOOD. You’re dancing, you’re drinking $14 schwill. It’s hot as hell. Everyone is happy. Then, you start to hear something, and wonder if you’ve ever heard it before. I mean, you’ve heard the band jam “Tube,” but you haven’t hear this, this thing that they’re playing right now.

Is this a jam?

Is it an extension of “Tube?”

You don’t know.

But it is happening. It is being created right now, right in front of your eyes. It’s these brilliant little moments, these steps out into the unknown, in the present tense, that only work to elevate a Phish show from its already expected release of emotion and elation, to something more unknown, muddying, and interesting.

Two songs later the band expanded upon this kind of exploration in what has to be regarded as, if not the best, then certainly the most compelling “Split Open & Melt” of the entire 3.0 era. A song that has been voraciously lambasted by many fans for the band’s insistence on employing dissonance and noise into the jam, last night’s “SOAM” transcended any musical landscape the song has traversed in years. Through an initial segment dominated by Trey’s pitch-shifting, Fish just stops playing at one point, moving the jam into an abstract/beatless territory, before it finds itself in a beautiful zone of pure melody.

It’s all the more powerful that they found themselves here in “Melt” because the song has represented in so many ways the conflicts present within 3.0, at least until 2012. Trey has long been persistent in playing dissonant harmonies over Mike, Page, and Fish creating a wall of sound – which, by the way works perfectly for the industrialized lighting rig Kuroda’s using – that rarely has led to any legitimate hooking up. While I have personally loved everything about 3.0 “Melt’s” I can certainly understand why so many fans take issue with its jarring nature.

For all those who’ve long despised what the band has done with the “Melt” jam in 3.0, the 07/06/2013 “Melt” should go a long way to change minds. It is literally representative of everything Phish does so well. It’s weird, it’s beautiful, it’s discomforting and embracing all at once. Throughout it all, the band is constantly moving forward. It’s only flaw is that Trey forces a jarring transition back to the “Melt” theme as the band continued to push deep into the unknown. And yet, maybe the transition had to be so jarring. Maybe it works. After all, how they landed in such beauty out of “Melt” of all songs is jarring in and of itself, right?

——–

If there’s anything guaranteed with Phish these days it’s that Saturday night’s are rock shows. Routinely, the band has treated their Saturday shows throughout 3.0 to a more structured, energized, rock-based approach that tends to feature less improve, and more songs. In some ways 07/06’s second set broke this mold, in others it played right into the pattern.

A quick glance at the show’s setlist and one would have to assume the “Tweezer> Sand> Carini” segment was upwards of 50 minutes of uninterrupted improve. Well, that’s what we thought about 06/01/2011 as well.

Rather than attempt to explore “Tweezer” or “Sand” in any meaningful way, the band instead hung within the song’s structures. While not bad versions by any means, the “Tweezer” and “Sand” were simply unspectacular in the way that tepid songs tend to be when they last ten minutes. In short, “Tweezer” and “Sand” just aren’t good enough proper songs to simply be played without any additional effort or will. There’s a reason they were both written structurally to allow for a seamless passage into the musical unknown.

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“Carini” on the other hand instantly developed into what has to be regarded as the best, and most complete jam of the Summer Tour thus far. Like all GREAT 3.0 “Carini’s” this one immediately became interesting once the band switched into a major keyed-theme. Quickening the pace, the song took on almost something of a bluegrass feel, featuring delicate and poignant lines from Trey, and linear musical communication throughout. It’s up there with anything from Dick’s or MSG, and surpasses the 07/05 “Light” and 07/03 “Golden Age” based wholly on the fact that it left nothing on the table, even resolving itself in a perfect segue into the debut of “Architect.”

(I kinda hate the fact that I just compared it to two jams from the past four days as if this is some sort of competition. I really hate that this is my third comparison of the piece. Both the “Light” and “Golden Age” are phenomenal in their own right, and each of the above jams just fit their individual show in an overtly thematic way that wouldn’t have worked in the other shows. Maybe I just like the “Carini” more. Maybe it just clicked. Maybe had the other two concluded a bit more naturally I wouldn’t feel this way. Who knows. I’m trying to avoid comparisons in these reviews, and I’ve only lasted three shows.)

One of the better songs off Traveler, “Architect” completed easily the most seamless part of the set and show, and instantly feels like a rotation song for Phish. Like many of Trey’s post-rehab work, this song is heavy on themes of redemption and gratitude. Like many of his post-rehab work, it’s also incredibly cheesy, a bit too direct, and could use some serious editing, especially in the imagery department. Regardless, it fits the aura of 3.0, and provided a proper landing pad for the phenomenal “Carini” jam, while also boasting a moving solo itself.

The set ended with “Wilson” (cause sometimes you just need to rawk-the-fuck-out mid-Set II) and the aforementioned pair of “Boogie On> Possum.” Capping the night with a “Show Of Life> Tweezer Reprise” I couldn’t help but wonder why they didn’t just save the latter for the final show of the run. Sometimes, particularly when the band plays an uneventful “Tweezer,” or a somewhat incomplete show, it feels a bit like cheating when they still close with “Reprise.” I mean, did they really earn the “Reprise” tonight?

——–

From where we stand right now, three shows into the 2013 Summer Tour, one can’t help but wonder if there’s that BIG show just lurking in the near future. Don’t get me wrong, none of the first three shows have been bad. They’ve all been essentially flawless shows boasting energy, improv, fresh setlists, segues, and three excellent debuts. At this point in the tour, you’d be a fool to suggest the band is a.) mailing it in, b.) rusty, or c.) delivering underwhelming shows. And yet, one has to consider that, based upon the unprecedented highs of 2012, and the fact that the band just sounds great right now, bigger things are both possible and immediately attainable.

With one more night at SPAC to cap off the holiday weekend and the tour’s first week, that show, that unexplainable gem of a show where everything just works, regardless what songs they play – think 12/30/2012, 08/28/2012, 08/19/2012, 07/06/2012, 06/22/2012, for recent examples – feels within reach. The foundation has been laid in the Summer of 2013. Phish sounds incredible, they’re playing is fresh, and their jams have been expansive. Throw in a complete show to the mix and this tour would immediately look unstoppable.

——–

Thanks to Phish.Net (www.phish.net) and The Mockingbird Foundation (www.mbird.org) for organizational assistance and sourcing of setlists!

Review: Saratoga Springs, NY – 07/05/2013

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Saratoga Performing Arts Center – Saratoga Springs, NY – 07/05/2013

Set I: Kill Devil Falls, The Moma Dance, Sample In A Jar, Roses Are Free, Birds Of A Feather, Yarmouth Road^, Bathtub Gin, Nellie Kane, Army Of One> My Friend, My Friend&> Cities -> David Bowie

Set II: Energy^^> Light -> The Mango Song#> 46 Days -> Steam> Drowned## -> Slave To The Traffic Light

Encore: Character Zero###

^ “Yarmouth Road” made its Phish debut

^^ “Energy” (The Apples In Stereo) made its Phish debut

& “My Friend, My Friend” was unfinished

# “The Mango Song” contained a “Light” tease

## “Drowned” contained a “The Divided Sky” tease

### “Character Zero” contained a “Jean Pierre” tease

——–

Two shows into the 2013 Summer Tour, and there’s a pattern developing. Whereas in 2011 and 2012 Phish emerged from hibernation with a focused determination, and immediate connection, thus assaulting their fanbase with some of their strongest overall shows in each respective year, it appears that in 2013, the band is taking a bit of a more refined approach.

No one in their right mind would say the last two shows have been bad shows. No one would either say they’ve been resoundingly great shows. (Quite frankly I’ve seen both extremes espoused on PT and Twitter, but we’ll just assume those extremes are, well, extremes…) What they’ve been instead are solid overall shows that have featured both patient foundation setting, interspersed with moments of chemistry and hooking up, which if nothing, but foreshadow great things to come as the tour unfolds.

In some senses you could look at 07/03/2013 as Tour Opener A. and 07/05/2013 as Tour Opener B. Like I pointed out yesterday, let’s not go calling either of these the best shows ever, nor the onset of Phish’s demise.

——–

In many ways Set I of 07/05/2013 played out like the first half of a basketball game. With Trey playing the role of facilitator, he made certain to get each member involved throughout the somewhat uneven frame. Setting the foundation for the tour, Page got his moment with the delicate, contemplative, and (while, yes, a bit mawkish) deeply personal “Army Of One,” Gordo debuted a bubbly, reggae number, that just sounds like summer at a Phish show – “Yarmouth Road” – even Fishman got to stretch his vocal chords with a second song “Moma Dance.”

Kicking things off with the banally standard triumvirate of “Kill Devil Falls,” “The Moma Dance,” and “Sample In A Jar,” each song did what they needed and nothing more, much like the “Possum> Runaway Jim” opening segment from 07/03. “KDF” rollicked in its musty barroom stomp, proving no matter how unsurprising it is to hear, it’s never not fun, “Moma” was graced by the Meatball effect, and “Sample,” well, “Sample” couldn’t quite get to that place that ever justifies its existence.

The middle part of the set took on something of a recital feel to it with the energy combo of “Roses” and “Birds” – the latter of which featured a blistering solo from Trey – a resoundingly boastful peak in “Gin,” the aforementioned debut and Page-number, and the always welcome prettiness of “Nellie Kane.”

(I say none of this with any overt criticism, mind you. And, like I pointed out yesterday, these songs, and their intended effect, was assuredly elevated by the idyllic setting of SPAC, the left-over day-drinking buzz, and the sweet stench of recently puffed marijuana lingering listlessly in the air. If you want my honest opinion, I feel like the band more than deserves the three sets they’ve opened the tour with. They more than proved their improvisational ambitions and abilities in 2012, and, now, coming off a seven-month layoff, in preparation for what’s most likely to be their heaviest touring year since 2009 (and perhaps even longer) have more than earned the right to take their time settling into this tour. If they want to focus on establishing chemistry, confidence, and full-band communication through “Possum,” “Kill Devil Falls,” “The Moma Dance” and the like, more power to them.)

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Closing with a phenomenal “My Friend, My Friend> Cities -> David Bowie” segment was  just the thing the set needed to send it into setbreak. “MFMF” featured some choice theatrics from Trey who used his mic stand as a slide effect; he then looped the noise to be used as part of the fade to “Cities.” I’ve always loved how “My Friend” begins in such pristine territory, but by the song’s end, you’re grasping your skull, wondering what the fuck went so wrong so quickly?!?!

“Cities” initially felt a bit flat only to pick up a groove that then led into an interesting Page-led jam segment. A moment that felt like it could have turned into something had the band stuck with it, instead turned into an effortless fading segue into “Bowie.” No harm/no foul here. An improvisational end to “Cities” would have certainly felt jarring at the end of such a structured set. The “Bowie” built upon the phenomenal 12/28/2012 version without surpassing it. Finding itself in a genuinely beautiful zone of music, Trey led the middle-segment of the jam which featured patient and melodic trills, rather than aggressive chromatic shifts. It’s clear at this point that the band simply loves what’s possible once they’re in the middle part of “Bowie,” something that’s gotta resonate throughout their fan base.

——–

Is there anything worse than this kind of sideline reporting? Couch tour rehashing of music that was made four hours ago, some 8000 miles from where I sit?

I mean, I can’t even feel the grass of the lawn below my feet. I haven’t paid $14 for a beer since NYE. I haven’t tasted the chemical wonderland of Molly since the night prior.

There’s truly a distinct feeling that comes with being AT a Phish show that can’t be surmised in 2000 words from a couch (ahem, chair) in the middle of the afternoon in Osan, South Korea, right? Right?

I don’t know. That’s in large part why I’m attempting this project to review the entire Summer Tour from where I currently reside. You have to admit that I’m at least right on a few of the points from Set I, no matter that I simply couldn’t have felt the roar – that roar – of the crowd when they peaked “Roses” like they always peak “Roses.” Yet, this was that “Roses” that happened when you found yourself in that perfect pocket of dancing space, and the mix of white and red lights were just fucking perfect in the way they shone on the balcony, even peaking through to the endless hordes of people on the lawn, thus bringing EVERYONE in for one unified roar, and for one second, one moment in time, it felt that everything, I mean EVERYTHING, was going to be okay.

EVERYTHING, for one moment felt solvable. It lasted only a second, but it happened. It’s been recorded. And you were there. It’s why you came to the show, afterall, for that one moment in time.

Did I feel this moment? I know I certainly felt something as I watched this show while simultaneously cooking eggs. I know my wife and I turned and smiled at each other in the way we always do when those moments of communal purity happen at a Phish show.

But could my feelings, which are in so many ways so removed from the feelings of the 20 – 25,000 attendees at the show, yet so connected in the way that technology and music can only allow them to be, could my feelings help to explain what happened musically tonight? Or any night of tour for that matter?

I still don’t know.

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Set II flowed in the kind of way every Set II should. The kind of set you can just put on and let it go, do your own thing, check in from time to time, work out to, mow the lawn to, cook to, read to, write to, etc. When the band creates a fully-flowing album-like set in the live setting, in front of 20,000 people, it’s a remarkable thing.

While it may be forgotten by the end of the weekend – remember, everyone was lauding 06/08/2012 in the break between Worcester and AC, but you hear nothing about it anymore – for the moment, it’s a perfect representation of Phish in the zone. Thematically it ran the gauntlet through an intriguing swath of emotions that retraced many of Trey’s biographical steps in essentially reverse order.

— the ecstatic-preacher (“Energy)> new-agey celestine explorer (“Light”)> momentary bliss -> resident goofy/loopy prankster (“The Mango Song”)> middle-aged drug-fueled disillusionment (“46 Days”) -> secret D&D extraordinaire (“Steam”)> rawk/cawk guitar god (“Drowned”) -> expansionist minimalism -> simple nonsensical beauty for the sheer sake of being nonsensically beautiful (“Slave To The Traffic Light”) —

Could it have been better? (Sure, but that depends on your definition of better…) Could the band have pushed “Light,” “46 Days,” and “Drowned” even further into the unknown in search of the elusive Dick’s/MSG improvisational aura? Of course. But that would have in some ways compromised what they did do so well.

Opening with a cover debut of the Apples In Stereo 2007 song “Energy” felt initially out of place, but ultimately worked with the overall set. Filled with a sung “Awww Yeah,” from Trey, and repeated lines “In The World (!)” from Mike and Page it resonated in the cheesy new-agey way that so many of Phish’s 3.0 songs do. Flirting with dissonance, the song ultimately gave way to “Light,” in all actuality, the song everyone WANTED to hear.

Building off a solid foundation that held true to the 08/19 and 09/01 versions, the jam left “Light” for a more rhythmically-centered terrain before effortlessly (really emphasize the effortlessness here. It’s amazing how fucking easy Phish makes transitioning mid-jam appear these days.) moving into a subdued, Trey-led segment. It then entered an absolutely gorgeous realm highlighted by a Page/Trey interwoven duel (ala 07/01/2012) that represents the best pure moment of the Summer 2013 Tour thus far. A jam that felt destined for greatness (in terms of further evolution and a natural resolve) Trey forced – a bit – a pre-meditated segue into “The Mango Song.” While a bit jarring on re-listen, in all actuality there are worse fucking songs you can segue into than “Mango,” so who can really bitch at this point?

The “46 Days -> Steam” segment just flat out kicked ass. The band just kills “46 Days” every damn time they play it now. They’ve got it down to a science (similar to how they crush every “GBOTT”) and this version simply did not disappoint. From the all-out cawk-rawkiness of the Trey solo, to the hints of dark funk that ultimately led to a reprised, full-on funk workout that hinted at “Manteca,” the song crushed its mid-Set II placement. Following what many presumed would be the closing coda of the song, Trey initiated brilliantly led the funk jam into the first “Steam” in over a year.

Is there anything cheesier than releasing steam in the chorus of a song when the the band says “Steam”???

Is there anything more perfectly Phish-like?

Like the way this song just fits the nerdy/70’s arena rock vibe that constitutes so much of a Phish show, the use of the steam just fits the song and the band’s overall show so perfectly. Placed perfectly in the middle of the set, “Steam” proved to be one of the overt highlights in a set full of them. Reaching a massive peak while flirting with dissonance and infringing melodies, this version is easily the best we’ve heard the band play thus far.

The set ended with an apropos “Drowned” (a nod to the pre-show rain storm) that rocked in the way it should before landing in a gorgeous ambient jam that led seamlessly into easily the best damn “Slave To The Traffic Light” the band has played in all of 3.0. Building off the sublime 12/30/2012 version, this “Slave” was emotive, it was patient, it built to a proper and rewarding peak, it was a beautiful take on a song that’s there simply to provide beauty and release. Similar to the previous show’s “Hood,” it’s clear the band has re-embraced playing their classic emotional rock peak songs with the kind of patience and power that the two require.

A cawk-rawkish “Character Zero” ended things, and in many ways was a fitting send-off to a show that balanced a rock-based, structural approach, with the fluid, and improvisational high points in “Bowie,” “Light,” Drowned,” and “Slave.”

Two shows into the tour and the band is clearly laying the groundwork for some massive music to come, while also interspersing their current shows with some of the most fluid and improvisationaly-strong music they’ve played in all of 3.0. Could they be doing more? Sure. Should they be doing more? I think not. The approach they’re taking as they ease into their 30th year is but a microcosm of the one they’ve taken throughout 3.0. Great things are sure to come.

——–

Thanks to Phish.Net (www.phish.net) and The Mockingbird Foundation (www.mbird.org) for organizational assistance and sourcing of setlists!

Review: Bangor, Me – 07/03/2013

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Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion – Bangor, ME – 07/03/2013

Set I: Possum> Runaway Jim, Stash, NICU> Wolfman’s Brother, Rift, Theme From The Bottom> Chalk Dust Torture> Mike’s Song> Silent In The Morning*> Weekapaug Groove

Set II: Golden Age> Twist> Backwards Down The Number Line, Ocelot, Rock & Roll -> 2001> Cavern> Run Like An Antelope

Encore: Harry Hood#

* First “The Horse” – less “Silent In The Morning” since 17 June 2012

# “Harry Hood” contained a “The Divided Sky” tease

——–

The first show of a summer Phish tour is always about more than just the music played.

It’s a celebratory rejoicing of the band being back and making new music once again.

It’s an opportunity for old friends to reunite in a random parking lot, open field, or sports arena.

It’s – as Andy Greenberg, Zach Cohen, and Mr. Miner so eloquently said yesterday – a return to that metaphysical quest we’ve all undertaken for truth and purpose through music and travel.

It’s the first chance we all have to gauge what the layoff did to the band, and surmise at what music we may hear from them in the coming touring season.

It’s like Opening Day in baseball; in the end, it matters little if your team wins or loses, just that the game is back in your life. For the first time since winter, there’s opportunity (and reefer, of course) in the air.

——–

Historically, tour openers have typically been regarded as opportunities for the band to simply re-settle into the road. However, in the 3.0 era, Phish has regularly come out firing on all cylinders from show one. From 06/11/2010 to 05/27/2011, 08/05/2011, and 12/28/2011, to 06/07/2012, 08/15/2012, and 12/28/2012, the band has, in recent years, jumped fully back into a tour with standout shows that typically set stylistic tones for the tour ahead.

Yet, what a tour opener can really tell us about a tour is up for the debate. The Chicago 2010 show preceded the weakest overall tour in 3.0. The 12/28/2011 show looked to carry the fire from Dick’s straight through to MSG, which turned out to be all for naught. To the contrary, a severely underwhelming three-night-run to open Fall 2010 in Broomfield, CO did little to hinder the magic of that tour’s final two weeks. Even in 2012, when the band opened with perhaps their best opener since 1999, (though what does that really mean anyway?) few could have predicted the highs the band was going to hit as the tour unfolded.

Essentially, it’s best to take tour openers with a grain of salt. Enjoy them for the sheer fact that Phish is back in our lives, but don’t go calling anything the best/worst ever before, during, or after them.

1012304_10151444225366290_976737831_nAll this brings me to the first night of the 2013 Summer Tour, and the onset of the band’s 30th Anniversary.

By showtime two things were clear:

1. The band had made their first adjustment in their stage alignment since Coventry. Fish rotated to the back between Mike and Trey, on level with the band, and positioned slightly ajar facing Trey. It’s essentially a mix between their 1999 – 2000 and 2.0 set ups. Enacted so Trey can clearly hear the entire band without the drums being in the monitors, the move bodes big things for the band in terms of overall communication and improvisation.

2. Kuroda has totally overhauled his lighting rig. Gone are the three screens that he used to create patterns, and write Phish on with his lights. In their place are a vast array of canned lighting, some new, old-school floor lighting, and a canvas screen backdropping the ENTIRE stage that allows for even bigger and bolder lighting patterns.

What these two aesthetic adjustments do to the music is still unknown, but you’d nary find any fan with a good reason not to praise the band tinkering with their system here, some thirty years in.

As for the music…

Set I kicked things off with a run through a litany of old-school Phish classics. By set’s end, there wasn’t a single song played that had been written after 1995. Reminiscent of 10/31/2009 and 06/13/2010, the set was a clear nod to the past, here at the onset of the band’s 30th Anniversary.

“Possum” got things rolling the way “Possum” is meant to get things rolling; nothing more, nothing less. At first listen, Trey’s use of his older Languedoc gave him a much cleaner sound, as he offered spry and playful licks throughout both the opener and the subsequent “Runaway Jim.”

Neither shocked nor awed, though neither one had to.

I’m sure that being in the venue, ankles deep in the sodden grass, perspiring beer in hand, that old, funny feeling rushing through your veins, the sight of balloons and beach balls bouncing through the air, the sheer greenness of a post-rained sunny summer day in Maine, the pot drifting through the air, the energy of 15,000 fans and friends cheering with all their might, helped to make both tracks feel bigger, and more impactful than they were.

In terms of your own personal memories and emotions tied to the show, it is neither my duty, nor my desire, to alter them.

From my perspective however, much like the opening combo, “NICU,” “Rift,” “Theme From The Bottom,” “Chalk Dust,” and even “Mike’s” did exactly what the were placed there to do – which was reacquaint both band and audience with being at a Phish show, while subsequently keeping the energy flowing – and nothing more.

The most interesting aspect of Set I came in a “Stash” which toyed with dissonance, as the band played around with the concepts of darkness and light. While never fully embracing the underworld, nor becoming an overtly major-keyed, happy-“Stash” jam, (ala, 10/31/2010) the song proved, nonetheless, that the band is both excited to build from their monumental 2012, and is also feeling that loose-tightness that only comes from practice and chemistry.

Beyond the “Stash,” “Wolfman’s Brother” messed with some seedy funk before resolving itself in a satisfyingly high-fiveable type of arena-rock peak, “Chalk Dust” featured incredible energy due to its placement and an excellent solo from Trey before fading into “Mike’s.” The high point of energy from the set, and perhaps one of the peaks of the show, the two songs paired perfectly together in the moment. While “Mike’s” still remains a caged beast, it’s nevertheless, always effective at offering an energy burst to a show in just seven minutes that few other songs will ever be capable of.

Ending things with the first “Horse”-less “Silent In The Morning” since Father’s Day 2012, and a Mike-a-fied “Weekapaug Groove,” the set ended in not only more interesting territory than it began, but also displayed a consistent upward mobility of energy and playing from the band. Solid, solid way to kick off 2013. While few may revisit it from here on out, this is the kind of set you can throw on at a bbq and not catch too much flak from your non-Phish fans. Great songs, great energy, great fun.

Welcome to Phish 2013.

——–

I recently wrote an essay about “Golden Age” highlighting while I believe the band is struggling with improvising on the song. You can read it here.

Regardless your opinion on how the band is fairing in terms of jamming it, one thing will always be clear: it’s just a damned fun song to hear at a Phish show. A perfect song to open the second set of the first night of their 30th Anniversary year, the song speaks directly to the Phish community, and the 3.0 era, like few of their originals ever could.

Musically the jam on the TV On The Radio hit moves effortlessly into a pseudo-funk dance-territory almost immediately. Employing subtle rhythmic licks from Trey, its Page who takes the lead here on his Rhodes. Anchored by Mike and Fish, the jam is immediately less frenetic than it has been in past versions, allowing Trey a bit more leeway to trade leads with Page rather than scatter ideas all over the place. Following some meatball magic from Gordo, Page infuses the jam with some major scales offering a distinctly different take on the jam.

A year to the day after the most successful and transcendent version the band has played of the song, here they were, once again harnessing a new approach to the jam. Space is key in the jam’s final minutes, as each member balances rhythmic groove with patience and atmosphere. Yet right before it had a chance to take off into some truly untapped space, the jam was cut short for a fade into “Twist.” A hopeful sign nonetheless for the jam in the coming year, I myself am incredibly eager to hear how the band can build on yet another version that almost got there.

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A lot has already been said about the middle part of the second set. A lot more doesn’t need to be said. They played “Twist> Backwards Down The Number Line, Ocelot.”

Individually I love each one of these songs. (Hate if you will, “Number Line” just sounds like Phish to me in the happiest state, and “Ocelot” always makes me feel like I’m dancing on the lawn at Alpine no matter where I am.) Together, in the 2,3,4 slot of the first second set of the tour, not so much. From the seedy bounce of “Twist,” to the bubbly happiness of “Number Line,” to “Ocelot’s” slow-trotting western groove, they are an odd mix at any time in a show. Props to the band for mixing up their sets, and I for one, would certainly love to hear “Ocelot” expanded upon in a future second set, but we’ll chalk this segment up as the first genuine misstep of the tour.

The second set ended however, in commanding fashion with a segment that reads: “Rock & Roll -> 2001> Cavern> Run Like An Antelope.”

A thrilling run of songs, it’s more energy than jams, and a great cap to the first night back. “Rock & Roll” does it’s cawk-rock thing before it finds itself in some interesting space through its last minute and a half. Ultimately, however, it serves as a lengthy fade into “2001.” Offering Kuroda his first chance at truly testing out the new lighting rig, the song does what all modern-day “2001’s” do: groove, peak, groove, peak, fade to next song. “Cavern” adds to the old-school feel still lingering from Set I, and “Antelope” shines for a second straight July 3rd. An expansive version that features interwoven chromatic phrases from Mike, Trey and Page, before building towards an explosive, and unified peak, the song is up there with the 08/14/2010, 10/20/2010, and 07/03/2012 versions as the cream of the 3.0 crop.

Is there anything better than a “Harry Hood” encore? How about a standalone “Harry Hood” encore? How about a standalone “Harry Hood” encore to end the first show of the tour?

While something of an odd choice after a show that ultimately just ushered the band back into tour with a standardly solid first set, and an energetic, if a bit uneven, and wholly contained second set, no one in their right mind will ever deny the sublime brilliance of Mr. Hood commandeering us into the post-show reality. This version does what it needs to and even offers a bit more. An excellent take on the classic that builds off the gorgeous versions from 08/15/2012, 09/02/2012, and 12/30/2012, my prediction that 2013 would be a banner year for “Harry Hood” already looks like my safest pick of the year.

——–

And with that, night one of Phish’s 2013 Summer Tour is in the books. The band now heads to SPAC fully charged, kinks out, knowing that on a night when they weren’t fully capable (or, perhaps willing) to take too many chances, they still got to that place with “Stash,” “Wolfman’s Brother,” “Golden Age,” “Run Like An Antelope,” and “Harry Hood.”

A tour opener in the historical sense, my guess is few will be talking much about this show three months from now. Not for nothing, however, for a show that will probably be forgotten by summer’s end, it still carries enough promise to keep all our hopes up for the summer to come. Like I said at the beginning of this piece, the tour opener is like Opening Day in baseball. Phish certainly didn’t play their best show of 2013 tonight. But, so what? Phish is back, that’s all that matters for now. If this is an “off” show, just imagine how the band is going to sound once they really get in a groove.

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Thanks to Phish.Net (www.phish.net) and The Mockingbird Foundation (www.mbird.org) for organizational assistance and sourcing of setlists!

Summer 2003 – Ten Years After

phish100This month marks the tenth anniversary of the 2003 Summer Tour, which saw Phish trek across America – their last to properly span both coasts. A tour that blurred the lines of their overall 2.0 legacy, it also displayed a band – 20 years deep – pushing their music far into the unknown on a nightly basis. A year, and a tour that was unfairly maligned in many ways as it was happening, few tours have aged quite as well as Summer 2003 has. Much of this is due to the band’s relentless exploration throughout its entirety. Much of it is also probably due to the fact that Phish fans tend to come around on every era the band has played. Enough time passes, even 2009 starts to look like the best year of 3.0. Insipid music listening patterns will do that to a lot of people.

After returning from a two-year hiatus with a sub-par reverse-NYE Run in New York City and Hampton, Phish finally rediscovered their form throughout the two-week-long, LA – NC, Winter Tour in February. Hinting at many of the themes that would come to fruition throughout July, they nightly tore down into the rabbit’s hole in search of any light that could guide them through the unknown. That they often found even more darkness only worked to push them even further. Defined in many ways by Trey’s uncompressed, distorted, and gruesomely dirty tone, their jams took on a distinctly bluesy sound, rife with unrefined psychedelia, which bore little resemblance to any music they’d ever made before. For examples and confirmation, direct your ears towards the Chicago “Simple,” Cincinnati “Gin,” Nassau “Tweezer,” and Worcester “Moma Dance” (among, obviously many, many more jams) each of which displayed the untapped musical mine they’d unearthed throughout the tour.

Stylistically, the music they made throughout 2.0 has been called oxyjamming. Whatever that means. While sure, there are stories that Trey was struggling mightily with the on-again/off-again patterns of a hooked narcotics user, by all accounts, the Summer 2003 tour was a totally sober tour. (Whatever that means.) Are these the kinds of jams that would sedate an oxy-addict in withdrawal? Would one recommend steering clear of the pot and LSD and heading right for the pharmies in order to properly understand the musical mess Phish conjured up in 2.0? I have no idea. I guess the name just sounds like these jams in an abused, disoriented, ominous way that certain words just sound like what they’re describing. Oxyjamming has such a sloppy connotation to it, after all.

These were the first jams the band graced me with as a 18-yr-old noob seeing his first shows. To me, they often sound like the literal confusion I was experiencing in the period between high school and college. For the first time, life appeared both full of unknown potential, and increasingly baleful all at once.

At times it sounds like the band is literally fighting to stay afloat. At others, you’d have thought they were on the fringe of a massive breakthrough. It’s all very convoluted and messy.

Some people take issue with the apparent slop that dotted the band’s typically button-tight classical compositions throughout 2003. This is a fair point, to a certain extent. By all accounts the band re-engaged as Phish without participating in a single focused practice session in almost five years. Age and side project obligations played a part as well, as the band had clearly lost the youthful camaraderie – the whole inside-joke part of their performance – that had served them so well in their ascent from outcasted UVM Dead-cover-band, to regularly headlining MSG, and commanding upwards of 100,000 people to make a four-day trek to the upper reaches of Maine. And yet, while you can certainly find moments of slop throughout 2003, it’s not as if you can’t find numerous incidences of slop, and inconsistent dedication to their time-honored approach throughout much of 1997 – 2000 as well. Taken as a whole, 2003 is clearly the tightest they were as a band throughout 2.0. But, then again, I guess that’s not saying much.

The argument people love to make is that in 1995 – the summer tour in particular, which is the closest amorphous musical brethren to Summer 2003 – the band balanced a precision/energy-based approach within their compositions, while regularly spawning maximalist musical adventures into the far reaches of the unknown. To that point, all’s one can say is: true. But, it wasn’t 1995 in 2003, now was it…

The overall point is, that in the isolated Phishdom between October 7, 2000 and March 6, 2009 – a period wherein only 58 shows were played – that the band was able to tap into whatever connective force was driving them, and muster as many memorable shows/sets/jams as they did in 2003, is as true a testament as any to them as a creative engine. That these shows/sets/jams often coincided with the literal breakdown of both the band’s aesthetic, and their own personal lives only further separates the entire era from everything that else Phish has ever done.

People often complained – many times, rightly so – throughout 2009 and early 2010 that we were experiencing an era of Phish Lite. (Some continue to grouse this same point today, but it’s best to just ignore them.) Essentially saying that the music being created by the band was something of a weak imitation of everything they’d been capable of just eleven and twelve years earlier. Granted, in 2009 they had five years separating them from their last tour – ten from their last year of consistent touring – that was all moot in the face of the fact that the jams – THA JAhhhMS brAh (!!!) – were lacking. Yet, for however justifiable the criticism was in 2009, that the band needed essentially no time diving back into the netherworld when they reemerged in 2003 (technically speaking 2002, but…) is, well, the aforementioned testament.

Perhaps the key to all this inspiration can be found in the loose, late-nite-stoned-laziness of The Victor Disc. But, what was the spurt for that? That’s for another post and another time.

This essay is less here to find the historical roots of Summer 2003, as it is to honor and try to understand what happened throughout the tour.

While yes, 2003 initially received a burst in fan support and recognition in mid-2009, once it became clear the jams weren’t immediately coming back in 3.0. In many ways still, 2003 could take the award for ‘most underrated year of Phish’s career.’ Sure, a completely subjective argument – and one probably not really worth anyone’s time trying to quantify – the point is, that for however misunderstood the 2.0 era is in Phish’s overall legacy – I mean, did Parke Puterbaugh dedicate more than two paragraph’s to it in The Phish Bio?? – it’s home to some of the most jaw dropping, innovative, frightening, fall-on-your-face-failure, moody and introspective elations, and simply, unique examples of improvisation the band has ever engaged in throughout their entire career.

As follows is: Summer 2003 – Through The Jams. Ten jams, tracking the entirety of the tour. Each one signifies the various stylistic dimensions the band was willing to toy with, while also displaying the overall unifying elements that gave the tour its signature sound. That each tour has its own distinct sonic quality should come as no great revelation. Perhaps though, aside from Summer 1995, Fall 1995, and Fall 1997, Summer 2003 just sounds like Summer 2003 more so than most other tours in literally every moment of its existence.

Maybe it was a political message about the decade of war, paranoia and instability we were settling into. Maybe it was a response to all the intra-band issues still unresolved. Maybe it was just the right place and the right time. Whatever inspired them throughout the tour, one thing’s for certain: Summer 2003 stood the test of time, and is more than worthy of yours.

Big thanks to the guys over at www.phishtracks.com  for all the links for this piece!

*One quick note about the selected jams — this is neither a “Best Of” nor a “Favorite Jams” piece. These jams were all selected based on my sense of how they display the overall evolution of the 2003 Summer Tour.

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“Bathtub Gin” – 07/09/2003 – Mountain View, CA

Three shows into the tour, Phish dropped their first complete set and show, displaying a musical dexterity only heard in glimpses during the tour’s first two shows. With a five-song first set that opened with a sublime “You Enjoy Myself -> Simple,” and a fluid second set that featured a bizarre and scintillating take on “Piper,” the keystone of the whole night could be found at the end of the first set in “Bathtub Gin.” A song that produced a number of top-notch jams throughout 2003 – see, 02/14/2003, 02/22/2003, 02/28/2003, 07/26/2003, and 12/30/2003 – the version from Shoreline may be the most noteworthy. Less danceable than many of its counterparts. Less obscure that other versions. The 07/09 “Gin” is the sound of Phish 2003, the way one would expect to find them when locked in a studio, or mid-soundcheck.

Emerging from the song’s theme with a rollicking dance-beat from Fish and Mike, Trey intends to keep the jam grounded, employing his over-effect’d tone to explore the spaces between Mike and Fish, rather than command the lead, or try to impact the jam with rhythm. Employing the blues/rock riffs that had become so common throughout the winter, the jam neither meanders, nor stays put, nor necessarily takes off. Sure there’s some climax happening here, and a few moments of tension and release – see, 14ish min – 15:45ish – but it’s clear throughout that the band is far more focused on how far they can push the jam, rather than achieving any defined peak.

To this point, the most compelling aspect of this jam comes from 17:56–on when Trey signals a fade from the lethargic groove. Initiating a stoned, late-night, come-down jam, space opens up, and Page’s ambient washes become the central part of the jam. Hinting at the musical landscape the band would explore with far more earnestness in the IT “Tower Jam” and “Waves,” this is a musical space that’s perilously distorted, and yet soothingly blissful all at once. A unique blend of darkness and light, the Shoreline “Gin” is the first real indication we have in July 2003 of a band eager to dive as deep into their improvisation as possible; in constant search of a musical plane that wouldn’t have been discovered had it not been for the experimental dive that preceded it.

http://www.phishtracks.com/shows/2003-07-09/bathtub-gin

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“Piper” – 07/19/2003 – East Troy, WI

In what’s perhaps the best year for the red, red, worm – though 1997 and 1999 certainly have something to say about it – the version played at Alpine Valley on 07/19 is neither the best, nor even the most interesting. In the summer tour alone, there are two versions that are more coherent, and more dynamic than this particular version – 07/09/2003, 07/31/2003. Yet, what separates the Alpine Valley version from the rest of the tour, and what puts it on this list, is the similarly subdued – read: peakless – jam that shares distinct thematic ideas with the 07/09 “Gin.”

Peaklessness was an overall focal point of 2003, as the band sought – deliberately or not – to direct their jams into more abstract, open soundscapes, rather than groove on a few themes while building towards some all-inclusive “big bang.” Many of the best jams of the year flow with seemingly reckless abandonment. Conflicting stews of alternating musical concepts are tossed together, all leading to an often confusing, if not incoherent, period of wading through the ideas tossed at the proverbial wall, before one is loosely latched onto until the next moment of musical amalgamation. Perhaps the jam that most displays 2003’s union with Summer 1995, the 07/19 “Piper” is more about the journey of the jam, than any sense of destination.

If there is any moment of full-band-connectivity, it comes from 12:01 – 14:05 wherein which Trey brilliant employs his Tremelo effect over a sturdy support system from Mike, a top-of-his game, abstractly holding-a-driving-beat, Jon Fishman, and Page littering the entire section with ascending and descending scales of complying melodic and dissonant passages. Yet once they discover this moment of unified jamming, they dive head-long back into the swamp, surrendering the last 10-odd minutes to soupy, psychedelic-driven-mayhem. Akin to a Fall 1997/Island Tour jam gone mad, there are moments where it feels like if the band just willed it, they could hook-up and discover transcendence – see, 20:55 to the end.

And, yet, that’s not the point of the 2003 Summer Tour. Less was the band in search of the simplified moments of ubiquitous groove that defined their 1999-2000 period, which directly preceded the hiatus. Instead here, the whole goal is the depth of music discovered. Often times, in jams such as the 07/19 “Piper,” this search yielded few tangible rewards. And yet, this was a band undeterred by the potential of falling on their faces. Like so many of the jams that needed large swaths of muddingly tedious experimentation to discover bliss, the tour itself needed a host of jams akin to the 07/19 “Piper” to overcome both their fears of the unknown, and prove that even if the band didn’t always come across brilliance, the rewards of simple exploration were more than worth it.

http://www.phishtracks.com/shows/2003-07-19/piper

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“Harry Hood” – 07/25/2003 – Charlotte, NC

The much-revered Phish classic – capitol C – for it’s historical legacy, consistently transcendent versions from 1993 – 1996, and emotive peak that is often positioned as cap to whatever show it appears in, in 2003, the band regularly took “Harry Hood” where it had rarely even hinted at going before. While yes there were some truly captivating exploratory versions throughout 1997 – 08/14/1997 and 12/30/1997 immediately come to mind – you’d be hard-pressed to find a single traditional version of the song played on the 2003 Summer Tour. (The lone example comes as the second set closer to a 07/13/2003 Gorge show that, quite frankly, needed the warm and comforting familiarity of “Hood” after the psychologically destructive “Seven Below” that preceded it.) Perhaps out of a need to shake things up, maybe out of bordem, maybe out of an innate desire to fuck with their trusty old friend, 2003 – and to a large extent, 2004 – featured a stunning variety of lengthy, Type-II takes on “Hood.”

The jam in question is, in my humble opinion, the most interesting, and most diverse of the Type-II “Hood’s.” Granted, one could make the argument that the 07/18 version, which sticks closer to the “Hood” theme, while still breaking new ground, or the 07/31 version which is an overall tighter take on the sprawling jam are better representations of the extended “Hood,” there’s just something to the uncompromising endless push of this version that just resonates with me.

A sublime post – “Thank you Mr. Hood…” section is highlighted by particularly gorgeous piano work from Page, until, at 10:16 Trey finds his way out of the theme through at jarring chord, before backing off and allowing the band to shift downwards. Yet it’s at 12:10 where things really move in a totally opposite direction as Trey forcibly imparts an aggressive rock structure into the jam. Note Page throughout the jam, as his response to this somewhat abrasive decision is to paint a wall of keys behind Trey’s impatient lead, creating the ideal cushion for the jam’s immediate shift. That they find a unified moment of connection is a miracle; the segment from 15:54 – 16:53 is some of the most hooked-up Phish you’ll find in all of 2003.

Perhaps what’s most remarkable about the jam is – music aside – the simple fact that it’s reminiscent of the messages the band sent to their fans with their sprawling jams in June 1995, and their slimmed-down setlists in 1997. Here, in 2003, they’re indicating a willingness to jam any/all of their songs. That their taking such liberties with one of the emotionally coveted songs in their catalogue is all the more bold. I think, in many ways, this was the overall issue many fans had with the band from 2009 – 2011. That lack of aggressive dominance and willfulness over their catalogue had seemingly disappeared.

Ultimately resolving itself in a less-than-satisfying peak off the rock-based jam they’d been toying with through various themes over the past few minutes, the jam spends its last 3ish minutes in a realm of directionless abstract noise before somehow finding the closing peak of the “Hood” jam. (Seriously, listening back, one has to wonder how the fuck did they actually rediscover “Hood”???) A more confounding piece in many ways than even the 07/19 “Piper,” the 07/25 “Hood” shows what happens when a band cares little about the emotional rewards of paying customers, and instead, treats a mid-tour-jam as if they were locked in a room, tossing potentially meaningless ideas at each other. It’s both brilliantly important, and absurdly infuriating all at once.

http://www.phishtracks.com/shows/2003-07-25/harry-hood

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“Crosseyed & Painless” – 07/29/2003 – Burgettstown, PA

If one were to rank the best jams of 2003, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more enthralling, resolutely satisfying, or unanimously praised jam than the “Crosseyed & Painless” from Star Lake. After littering Set I with nine-straight bustouts, that Phish would open the second set of their one-night stop in Western, PA with a song that had only been played three times in the previous six calendar years was enough to push the show into untapped territory. That the jam that emerged contained nearly 22-minutes of the most connected, unified, and determined improvisation of the year was the kind of thing that only happens in the historically brilliant moments of Phish’s career.

From essentially the moment they leave the structure of “C&P,” the jam is distinctly more focused than literally anything else played throughout the tour. And, yet, for however determined and hooked-up the band was, they sacrifice none of the exploratory zest that had thus far defined the entire summer. Led by the tour’s MVP – Jon Fishman – the jam turns on a dime at 6:20, leaving the Latino/North African sway of “Crosseyed” for something more electronic and post-modern. Like a cross-breed between the infectious grooves of the Funk Era, with the distorted and grungy hangover-rock of 2.0. With a plethora of ideas coming from each member, there’s none of the meandering psychedelia from the majority of the tour to be found. This is vintage, locked-in Phish. In the pocket; unprecedented in 2.0

So, why include a jam that so clearly deviates from the unified sound of the tour?

Because, this jam in many ways displays the total worth of the band’s relentless exploration throughout July. Were it not for all the moments of wandering experimentation, who knows if the band would have discovered such a stream for the kind of unified dive down into the rabbit’s hole they took with this “Crosseyed.” And yet, perhaps the imagery of them diving into the rabbit hole is purportedly incorrect. There’s something heavenly about this jam that’s just not present throughout the entire tour to this point – save for the 07/22/2003 “Gumbo.” It’s as if all the darkness that’s surrounded the preceding jams has led to a spiritual awakening within the band, thus guiding them away from the underworld they’d been so insistent upon residing in. This impact of the melodic, the positive spirituality, the salvation rather than damnation, is perhaps never clearer than in the moment when they band loses momentum and direction from 10:48 – 10:58, and yet, as if they’d planned it all along, discover a completely new, totally untapped, essentially more rewarding musical landscape to play around in.

This, the same band who two days earlier bickered an entire show away.

That this jam features easily the most assured playing from Trey throughout the entire tour is not for nothing. There’s a clear break from the tour that came before, and the remaining five shows, and there’s no coincidence that the brilliance of the Camden and IT shows are directly correlated to the whole-band exploration within the 07/29 “Crosseyed.” Seriously, in some ways this jam sounds like the prelude to everything achieved in the Dick’s “Undermind” and “Chalk Dust.” It’s the kind of jam that makes you wonder what could have been had the bottom not fallen our for Trey.

The peak that begins in earnest at 12:03 and lasts until 14:39 is easily the most celebratory piece of music they’d played thus far in the tour, and a direct building block to the massive “Ghost” five nights later. That they still had twelve minutes of quality exploration left untapped after the peak just goes to show how hungry they were for the unknown in 2003.

16:21, another instantaneous change. From the aggro-groove-rock that defined the previous five minutes, to a more subdued, melody driven jam. There’s simply no time in this jam for the band to become lost. Even when they meander, as they do throughout the jam’s final ten minutes, none of it feels unnecessary, nor forced. It’s one of those jams where they’re simply playing the music they’re supposed to be playing when they’re supposed to be playing it. One idea emerges and the band follows suit, exploring it to all its worth, until another member comes up with another. It’s musical democracy in its highest form. That it happened within the vaccum of 2003 is difficult to understand.

Finally at 22:40 we enter the final segment of the jam, as Trey signals with a appropriately placed “Wilsonesque” downstroke that the jam has reached its organic lifespan. The stylistic brother of the 07/30 “Scents & Subtle Sounds,” the denouement is akin to the smoldering coals on a fire. A fade to darkness after so much natural light.

Perhaps part of the reason the 2003 Tour took so much flak is that it took the band until the fifth-to-last show of the tour to produce such a naturally unified jam as the 07/29 “Crosseyed.” And yet, that’s part of the overall brilliance of the 2003 Summer Tour, something that’s increasingly become apparent in the 3.0 era: the band is neither capable of, nor willing to participate in Phish with the same relentless time/energy as they did in the late-80’s/early-90’s. As a result, their leaps forward are more gradual, and a result of more publicized failure than they were perhaps risking early on.

Regardless, they got to the 07/29 “Crosseyed.” That’s the key. The rest of the tour was a run for the ages. Also, it’s about damn time they brought back “Tunderhead” as a landing point for jams.

http://www.phishtracks.com/shows/2003-07-29/crosseyed-and-painless

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“Scents & Subtle Sounds” – 07/30/2003 – Camden, NJ

A microcosm for the entire 2.0 era, perhaps no show – aside from 02/20/2003 – received more vitriol immediately following it, only to be reborn as a veritable classic in later years. Coming on the heels of the Burgettstown show, which featured numerous bust-outs the fanbase had been clamoring for, a brilliant jam in “Crosseyed & Painless” and the first “Harpua” since 11/02/1998 taboot, it made sense the first night in Camden would underwhelm. Yet, for whatever expectations fans held about the final stand before IT, it’s clear from the moment the band dives into a monstrous third-song jam off “Scents & Subtle Sounds,” that they intend to use the show as an opportunity to push their music even further.

The lone keeper of the new songs unveiled over the course of the tour, “Scents” spent the first half of the tour locked in a 2-show rotation, wherein which the band focused on the melodic bliss of its post-lyrical “Hoodesque” jam. On 07/23 however, they opened the show with it, and, feeling inspired, took it on a 20-minute journey before resolving it in “Theme From The Bottom.” Not seen in seven days, when they initiated the new-agey preach for spiritual enlightenment, the depths of its musical expansion was really all the band could focus on.

A lethargic, yet still beautiful – in the way that only 2003 songs could be – composed segment led to the jam’s initial movement. Though, just watching the YouTube clip of this jam, it’s clear Trey is eager to get the band into the unknown. A signal to both Mike and Page brings an ominous tone of darkness to the jam at 8:15. What’s clear about the jam though, is that, once they fully push beyond the “Scents” theme, they’re as locked in as they were the previous night during “Crosseyed.” The jam ebbs and flows with organic (un)precision, each member offering an idea that fits the puzzle as it constructs itself. Far more seedy than the spiritual awakening of the “Crosseyed,” the “Scents” finds Phish toying with the under-worldly, and brooding concepts that had overtaken their music in 2003, yet doing so without the meandering, soupyness that had so far defined it. This is a band fully focused on their goals, diving deep into the dark matter of their music, and crafting brilliance.

Yet for as focused or democratic as the band is in conducting their jam, up until around 15minutes in, its clear this is not the music you play in a live concert. (Not to mention the music you play three songs into a show.) There’s a late-night sludge to the jam, a stoned-haziness that sounds like a direct-link between The Victor Disc from eight months earlier. It’s as if there’s no one watching, or pressuring the band. The weight has been lifted, and it’s abundantly clear that all the time spent simply pushing their music further and further – for the sheer sake of pushing it – has resulted in a musical clarity, and an organic conversation that couldn’t have come about without said experimentation.

A period of downtempo, contemplative rock highlights the middle part of the jam from 18:23 – 19:59. Then, at 20:01 Trey finally settles on  hazily beautiful tone and theme, building the jam towards a sustained peak that only relents at 24:06.

Dedicating the final five minutes to the same murky, and foreboding music that brought “Crosseyed” to its resting point, the jam dissolves organically; a proper cap on the entire journey. They’d reached a point in the tour where their jams breathed with new life until, there was no more life. That the final five minutes are often as horrifying and jarring as they are, only speaks to the musical outskirts they’d trekked to. Displaying both the full worth of their improvisational exploration, and the command they had over their communication, and their music, the Camden “Scents” is one of those jams that just could only have happened in the Summer of 2003.

http://www.phishtracks.com/shows/2003-07-30/scents-and-subtle-sounds

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“Twist” – 07/30/2009 – Camden, NJ

After achieving such musical brilliance in the first set “Scents & Subtle Sounds,” Phish opened the second set with a muddled, tedious, bewildering, and ultimately transgressive jam off a song that’s seen its fair amount of them: “Twist.” Whereas the “Crosseyed” and “Scents” that came before it produced organically-driven music, where untapped landscapes appeared effortlessly, there’s simply nothing subtle about, when, at 7:00 into “Twist,” the band nosedives straight into Hell.

A maddeningly bleak jam ensues, defined more by a unified swamp of noise, than any forward-progressing music. This is a wall of sound being built, rather than a journey being undertaken.

Returning to the core of abstract psychedelia that had defined much of the tour, the “Twist” at times feels like a statement made in opposition to the successes of the “Crosseyed” and “Scents.” It’s as if the band – acutely aware of their tour nearing its end – is actively trying to become uncomfortable once again. The jam becomes a dizzying swirl of noise, and reaches points of chaotic experimentation that has a direct correlation with June 1995.

All of a sudden, at 12:05, an industrialized pattern begins to emerge. The drumming becomes sparse, the piano and guitars take on a more polyrhythmic feel. It’s like nothing that has been played since perhaps the 07/18 version of “Twist.” They’ve broken through again, and in doing so, have found a key in which to push their music even further in the tour’s waning days.

Back to the swirling descent into Hell, the jam becomes the full-band conversation that had been ever-present in the “Crosseyed” and “Scents,” only here, the focus is less on letting the music carry them, as it is they who are actively pushing the music forward. That they’d found such communicable brilliance in the two aforementioned jams resulted directly from the fact that they, as a band, surrendered to wherever the music would take them. It’s so clear though throughout the “Twist,” that it’s them as a unified group who are doing the controlling.

And yet, for however they try to infringe upon the organic nature of improvisational music, they’re powerless to the plane of musical bliss they reach at 18:07. That they find a light at the end of the tunnel of dizzying madness is a remarkable feat. Proof once again of the total value in their experimentation. A concept we’d see put into practice in two more standout jams from the tour, the Camden “Twist” only furthered the musical renaissance of 07/29 – 08/03/2003. That it did so by going so totally against the grain of the two best jams of the tour thus far would help to lead to the unprecedented musical brilliance found at IT.

http://www.phishtracks.com/shows/2003-07-30/twist

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“Waves” – 08/02/2003 – Limestone, ME

Few songs appear ready to be jammed as did “Waves” when it first debuted on NYE 2002. Perhaps the most Dead-like song the band has ever written, “Waves” both fit the downtempo feel of the post-hiatus era, and was recorded as an open-ended jam to close out Round Room. Thus when eight months later, it had failed to produce a single version that traversed beyond its structure, many wondered if the band was simply unsure of what to do with it.

In the midst of the most fluid set of the IT Festival, the band finally delivered the “Waves” everyone had been waiting for.

For a song that musically just sounds like standing on a beach in the NW as clouds gather and grey waves swirl in front of your eyes, and lyrically referes to a loss of control, and a sense of peace being found under the water, the jam that ensued on 08/02 combined both of these sentiments in one unified and mesmerizing experience.

I know I’ve tossed around the term unprecedented a lot here in this essay, but, seriously, is there any precedence in the 2003 Summer Tour for the IT “Waves”??? So much of the sound of the summer was based off of a muddled drive forward into the unknown, led by Fishman’s expansive rhythms and Trey’s grungy tone. Yet, this “Waves” is the sound of a band just there. It’s like they’re just residing in space. It’s so ambient. It’s so patient. It’s so unified. It’s so much a peak moment of the band’s entire career.

It’s as if all the sounds, all the jams, all the hours spent wading in unknown perdition have led to this moment of absolute clarity, focus, and presence. You can’t even really say they’re focused though, because it all sounds so effortless. They’re just there, playing, because they’re there playing.

It’s also a moment that’s so bittersweet for any Phish fan. It’s such a clear peak moment for the band – really, the entire IT Festival was one enormous peak for 2.0 – and yet, it was all so unsustainable.

As the IT “Waves” and the three jams that follow each show, no matter how sober, how unified, or how focused the band may have been in the Summer of 2003, the jams that were produced were a clear result of demons surfacing from within. In the context of their history, these jams make complete sense when one accounts for the personal trials of each member.

A singular moment of clarity within the 2003 Summer Tour, the 08/02 “Waves” sounds nothing like the band in Phoenix on July 7th, and exactly like how Phish has always meant to sound all at once.

http://www.phishtracks.com/shows/2003-08-02/waves-jam

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“The Tower Jam” – 08/02/2003 – Limestone, ME

When Phish followed their 08/15/1998 Lemonwheel show with a candlelit Ambient Jam in the style of Brian Eno, it was both the culmination of the minimalist style they’d been toying with since Halloween 1996, and a self-conscious decision to focus more on Ambient jamming.

When Phish locked themselves in a USA Storage Unit on the night of 07/02/2011 and went on to shock their fans by playing an entire set of uninterrupted space and noise, it was a revolutionary step forward in the 3.0 era.

“The Tower Jam” from IT is somewhere between those two extremes. In many ways it sounds like the culmination of the muddying, hypnotic, everything-in-the-pot-stew that defined the improv of that summer. At other times, its a statement on how much further, how much deeper, how much more the band could take their music. It’s like an amalgamation of everything the band has accomplished up to this point, and how much further they could go. It feels like a rebirth in places.

Aided by the visual effect of the fiery traffic control tower re-awakened after years of inactivity, and the added psychological mind-fuck of the sheer remoteness of Loring Air Force Base, the fact it was the middle of the night, and the history of UFO activity that has dotted Limestone, ME’s past, the jam takes Phish’s music to places it simply can’t go in a standard rock concert environment.

The entire jam is an unravelling work of art which must be listened to in full, and truly, any written breakdown of it would be an injustice. Just know that this is a moment in Phish’s history that deserves your full, unyielding attention. It’s the sound of a band exploring the inner reaches of their mind and soul, and also discovering, after twenty years, just how much more they can do with their music.

That the band would only play 25 more shows between here and 03/06/2009 is an absolute tragedy.

http://www.phishtracks.com/shows/2003-08-02/tower-jam

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“Ghost” – 08/03/2003 – Limestone, ME

The celebratory roar to the “Tower Jam” and “Waves” deep and expansive masterpieces the IT “Ghost” is home to both the most massive peak throughout the entire 2003 Summer Tour, and the largest glowstick war that’s ever occurred at a Phish show. Seriously, just listen from 8:03 – 13:47 and try to resist dancing.

It’s in many ways the lone gunslinger of the tour. It’s got the arrogance and the balls that the “Crosseyed” did, plus dedicates its final 10 minutes to the kind of murky exploration that defined much of the tour. It’s that unification of styles in such a blatant way that works, even as it doesn’t

You could certainly make the argument for the fact that it’d be far more pleasing if the jam were to only offer its more refined, rock-based, first half. But isn’t there something to be said for just how far, and how out there the band was willing to stretch, and peel back the layers on this jam? Me thinks so, at least.

There’s this point in the jam, 15ish minutes in, where Trey starts looping a swirling riff over a prodding rock base from Mike, Fish and Page. In that instant, the swirl of noise and harmonic dissonance sounds like the love-child of Summer 1995, December 1999 and Summer 2003. It’s these three eras of defined exploration all meeting in one singular jam.

The IT “Ghost” just feels like the kind of jam that could only happen at a festival, hundreds of miles from the rest of America. It’s so big, it’s so bloated, it’s so free. There’d be no way for the walls of an arena, nor the roof of a pavilion to contain it. Just when you think, around 20:05, that it’s finally reached its breaking point, it discovers a whole new landscape to explore for the next 11 minutes.

The final comedown of the jam is neither totally engrossing, nor really captivating. It’s just there. (Don’t get me wrong, for fans of unyielding noise-ladened jams like myself, it’s pure brilliance. But most people tend not to be…) It’s kind of like the hangover to the previous night’s “Tower Jam.” It’s a statement – much like the following jam – for all that was accomplished throughout the summer. Rules – aside from the aforementioned sobriety – were tossed by the wayside. The only goal was exploration, followed by further exploration.

So what if a jam peaked over ten minutes prior? If the band wanted to follow its smoldering leftovers to the edge of the world, so be it. In this context, that the band would proceed to open their final set of summer with a near-40 minute vomit of unabashed noise and sound is quite fitting.

http://www.phishtracks.com/shows/2003-08-03/ghosterem_Miami-NYE-2003-Behind-the-stage-copy

“46 Days” – 08/03/2003 – Limestone, ME

Is there a single jam in Phish’s extended cannon that both accomplishes essentially everything the band intends it to, and is so resoundingly despised by the overall fan community as the IT “46 Days”?

Following five minutes and thirty-three seconds of toying with the song’s theme, the band dives head-first into the rabbit’s hole, not to emerge for well over 30 minutes. The capstone to an entire summer of relentless exploration, the IT “46 Days” goes further, longer, and deeper than ANY other jam throughout the tour, save, obviously, the “Tower Jam.” Akin to the 11/29/1997 “Runaway Jim,” or the 06/14/1995 “Tweezer,” the IT “46 Days” is a constantly moving organism, wherein which ideas naturally emerge, yet rarely lead to any coherent plane of musical significance. There’s some maddening shit throughout this jam. To experience it live would be to wonder if the band was just fucking with you for the sheer sake of it.

And yet, it’s the fitting denouement to a tour full of unparalleled exploration, the likes of which we simply haven’t seen with as much consistency since. (I guess we did in 2004, but so many of those jams were just excuses to fill time. The 2003 jams had purpose; a goal.) From 11:45 – 16:54 the band resides in a hypnotic, tribal trance that sounds nothing like anything they’ve played before, or certainly since.

Following the systematic destruction of literally everything that had been played since they left the song’s theme, the band discovers one of the most sublime musical passages they’ve ever played. Initiated by Fishman at 22:31, the jam becomes a hazy late-night groove that simply wouldn’t have been discovered without the fifteen minutes of unified chaos that preceded it. It’s like the last five minutes of the 10/31/1998 “Wolfman’s Brother.” After residing in such a nightmarish dimension, the band discovers a seedy and slow blues strut that grooves like nothing else.

The ever present theme of the tour: keep pushing further and further ahead/down, and something is bound to emerge out of all the darkness. The said theme carries the band through to the 30-minute mark whereby it discovers barroom rock before returning to the “46 Days” theme. A segment of music that could only have been produced by a band reeling from a month of heady exploration, not to mention six sets of peak performances, it once again proves the worth of all this seemingly senseless exploration throughout the tour.

http://www.phishtracks.com/shows/2003-08-03/46-days

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Closing the curtain on the Summer 2003 tour, the IT “46 Days” was the send-off to one of the most successful, combative, controversial, exploratory, and unabashed tours in the band’s history. That 20 years in Phish was still this willing, able, and dedicated to the kind of exploration, and improvisational brilliance that emerged from the “46 Days,” and the overall tour, is something few bands could ever hang their hat on. The fact this all came immediately following a two-year break, and almost immediately before the band “broke up” is a whole different story.

In the end Summer 2003 is what it is: a moment where the band sought to reestablish the creative control of their career, and in doing so, careened their music off into the unknown, in effort to see what the underworld would offer them. To say it was a successful tour would be an understatement, and, in some ways, a misnomer. The tour confounded many, and elated others. In many ways it simply couldn’t be fully appreciated until it was long gone.