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

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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.

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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?

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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?

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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.

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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!

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