The Next Level: Thoughts On The West Coast Leg Of Phish’s 2013 Summer Tour

577216_10151503226831290_30855049_nAnd so we’ve come to the end of Phish’s 2013 Summer Tour. Yes, we do have that Dick’s run looming just two-and-a-half weeks away, but Dick’s is something all to itself at this point, right?

After just over a month on the road Phish capped off their summer tour with an eleven-day stretch of shows along the Pacific that has to rank as one of the most profound peaks of their entire career.

(This isn’t to say of course that their music is somehow better than anything they’ve played in, say, the last 15 years – how could one even begin to be able to quantify that, after all? Yet, there’s an undeniable energy surrounding Phish right now that hasn’t been present this consistently for a long, long time…)

More on this later.

Leaving behind the rain for good, Phish built upon, and expanded on the foundations of their NE run, the celebratory vibes of their SE run, and the conflicts overcome in the midwest to produce a string of diverse, exploratory, uniquely engaging, and overall classic shows chock full of highlights.

One night they were throwing down rapturous funk, the next they were weaving together rarities in an unending seguefest. Any style could, and would, be explored from one show to another – and often within each show – displaying a dexterity in a consistent peak that we honestly, may have never truly experienced with Phish to this point.

(It’s the thing that completely separates Phish 2013 from their past. Where their sustained peaks in 1995, 1997, 1998, and 2003 for example, were centered around a singular style, here in 2013, the band is attacking a variety of styles within each show – often times within a single jam. The diversity of music played within this past week is nothing short of astounding from a purely musical level.)

Jams abound, songs perfectly placed, the string of shows from The Gorge on 07/26/2013 to Los Angeles on 08/05/2013 represents the most consistent, highest quality Phish we’ve heard in over a decade.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around everything I’ve just heard.

Below I’ve once again compiled an assorted list of thoughts on the finale week-and-a-half of the tour.

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So, How’d We Get Here?

Perhaps the best place to start is by looking back on everything Phish has done since reemerging from hibernation on July 3rd in Bangor, ME.

While it was clear throughout the opening weekend of summer that the band was focusing on laying the groundwork for the tour that would ultimately unfold, it’s also clear that their plan hit a bit of an unexpected moment of advanced inspiration within the second set of 07/05. Weaving together a fully-flowing set of music that started with the debut of The Apples In Stereo song “Energy” – also the eventual theme song of Phish 2013 – and ended with their age-old classic, “Slave To The Traffic Light,” from the onset, one couldn’t deny the high level Phish was already playing at.

Continuing southwards – following the 07/09 postponement of their Toronto show – the band reached an initial peak in the tour with their PNC – MPP run of shows. Fusing old school setlists with high quality, boundary-pushing jams – 07/10 “Crosseyed & Painless,” 07/12 “Rock & Roll,” 07/13 “Simple,” 07/14 “Light,” – the band showed two differing, yet ultimately united sides of modern day Phish. In emphasizing their most time-honored classics – “Stash,” “It’s Ice,” “Maze,” “Harry Hood,” “Mike’s Song,” “You Enjoy Myself” – while also centering their 07/14 show around a harangued take on “Light,” the band played a show that could only have happened here in 2013.

A point that must be emphasized: 2013 Phish is everything that Phish has been, everything that Phish currently is, and everything that Phish is working towards. This career-spanning sound is no better heard than in these four shows.

A brief midweek stoppage in Alpharetta, GA allowed the band opportunity to let their hair down, while still expanding upon the improvisational advancements of their first week on tour. Basing their entire 07/16 second set around the riff from “Heartbreaker,” the band built a massive seguefest that read: “Rock & Roll -> Heartbreaker -> Makisupa Policeman> Chalk Dust Torture> Wilson> Tweezer -> Silent In The Morning> Birds Of A Feather.” A wholly-engaging musical moment, it fused the band’s modern-day melodic jamming with their endearing sense of humor, resulting in absolutely classic Phish.

The following night’s highlight came in the monumental “Energy -> Fluffhead -> Piper -> Fast Enough For You” quartet, a segment which displays both how keen Phish is right now at sparking creative jams out of the ether, and how aware they are of fusing their past and present together – be it through setlist construction or various jamming styles – within each of their shows.

The first half of Phish’s 2013 Summer Tour came to a close in a three-night run in Chicago, and a makeup show in Toronto. For however memorable the music made at Chicago was – and much of it is very memorable – it will always be overshadowed by the rain that cost the band half of their 07/19 show, and nearly cancelled their 07/21 show. Regardless the fact that 07/19’s first set is among the strongest of the first three weeks of tour, nor the fact that 07/20 was a surprise three-set show that saw the band construct a fully-flowing (sorry, @waxbanks) second frame which featured a sublime “Golden Age> Waves -> Piper> Slave To The Traffic Light” closing segment, those two nights in particular will always be seen as casualties of THE RAIN.

On the run’s final night it poured and poured and poured. (And poured and poured and poured and…) Rain fell from the heavens in biblical fashion cutting the first set short, while also breaking the internet for the first 25mins of the second frame.

It was in the second set however where the band emerged phearlessly, and pointed the way towards the west – and towards their own future – within a 35min segment that read: “Energy -> Ghost -> The Lizards.” Infusing literally every style of improvisation the band has experimented with throughout their career – before giving a nod to their past through a perfectly placed “Lizards” – the band sent a message about where they were, where they’d been, and most importantly, where they were going.

Following this with a “Harpua” gag for the ages, one in which the band sent a message to their fans that it was in fact they, and not us, who knew what the “right way” forward was for Phish, and it simply was a set we’ll be talking about for years to come.

The next night in Toronto they opened Set II with a lengthy, uplifting, and melodic take on “Down With Disease” whereby Trey and Page hooked up for over seven minutes of improvisational bliss. The trail westward had been marked. Little did we know what was to come…

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There Are No More “Standard” Songs

Immediately evident in the rollicking first set on night one at The Gorge – and only further emphasized as the tour wound south along the Pacific – is the fact, that, no matter the setlists, no matter the set, there’s no such thing any longer as a “standard song.” Proof of the absurdly high level the band is playing at right now, there are seemingly no more filler songs anymore.

Listen back to the “AC/DC Bag,” “Timber,” “Funky Bitch,” “Architect,” “The Curtain (With),” “Ocelot,” and “After Midnight” from The Gorge. Listen to the “Bathtub Gin>Tube>Walk Away,” the “It’s Ice,” and the “Stash” from Tahoe. Listen to the entire first set from 08/02, to the blistering seven song opening segment from 08/03, and the “Divided Sky” and “Ya Mar” from 08/04. Listen to the “Wolfman’s Brother,” “Scent Of A Mule,” and “Ocelot” from LA.

First sets, which, particularly from 2009 – 2011, were the definition of banality and sterile song selection, now pop with ease.

You can say whatever you want about how jamming displays the evolutionary steps forward for Phish, but, as the irreplaceable Walter G Holland (@waxbanks) showed us in his insightful piece from last week, the energy the band is now putting into their individual songs – particularly those in Set I – proves the refined peak we now find ourselves at with Phish.

Ever since they stopped focusing on their individual song performances in 1997, this singular aspect of the Phish experience has been missing. A point of emphasis since 2009, not until last year was the band truly capable of stringing together complete shows that featured consistently unique performances of their most time-honored classics. Yet even last year, many shows still relied on extra-musical aspects such as song selection, jamming lengths, and gimmicks to be memorable. Here, now, in 2013, there’s simply no question of whether or not their whole shows are going to be standouts, they just are.

Perhaps we can hear this best in the three-song opening segment from 07/27: “Architect,” “Golgi Apparatus,” and “The Curtain With.” A run of songs that, on paper would appear to be a rigid – even, awkward – way to kick off a show, here, in the idyllic setting of The Gorge – and played with such a unified passion as these were – the songs flowed with an organic, and thematic brilliance.

The kind of moment that signifies Phish at their best, one can only imagine that, by the time the band invades their favorite soccer field just outside of Denver, and then tears through some of their most classic venues back east, that this approach will be further explored and capitalized on.

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About That “Tweezer”…

I recently spent a week in Tokyo, on summer vacation from my job as an English Teacher in Korea. On our second day in the country, my wife and I wandered through the Shinjuku and Shibuya neighborhoods, sampling various ramen and sushi shops, soaking in the youthful and creative vibe that permeated around us. We felt alive with that tangible elevation that can only come from travel in a completely new place. At night we made our way to a pub we’d discovered the previous night run by a Japanese man who obsessively collected classic rock records. He graced us with drinks, music that reminded us from home, and invited us to share in a late-night Izakaya feast with his wife.

At one point he put on the 09/02/2012 “Sand,” and the bar, packed with aging Japanese hippies, boogied down like life-long fans.

It was one of the best days I’ve ever experienced in my entire life..

When I arrived back at my hostel I jumped on the internet to discover that Phish had just played a 37-minute “Tweezer.”

I sat at a public computer laughing hysterically.

Somehow this “Tweezer” made this perfect day even better. I wouldn’t even hear the jam for another week, but somehow I just knew…

The thing about this “Tweezer” isn’t so much its length – yes, it’s incredible to see the band played a 37-minute song, but it could have been half that long and it still would have been one of the best jams of the year – nor is it the connective peaks the band reaches throughout – though they are pretty epic. What ultimately makes it so unique, so special, and yes, so important in the historical lineage of monumental Phish jams, is the fact that it reached such a moment of full-band-interplay that it ultimately peaked with a united band AND audience jam, that will go down as one of THE top moments of Phish’s entire history whenever it is they finally decide to hang it up.

By now the topic has been almost beaten into the ground through a series of follow-up “woo’s” in the tour’s final days, and in the endless discussions on the jam that have spread throughout the online community. But, for a moment, just consider the fact that the true peak of the Tahoe “Tweezer” – and the reason the jam will ultimately be remembered – came as a result of an audience instigated cheer within a start/stop jam, that the band immediately latched onto, leading to an apogee within the entire Phish experiment.

This is the artist creating based upon the environment that their audience has created for them.

For all of their history the band has made a point to emphasize how important their relationship with their audience is; how the crowd’s energy often pushes the band to greater heights. Yet, never before has crowd & band seemed so united, so in the moment, so spontaneously connected as they do during the peak of this “Tweezer.” Just listen to the force with which Trey re-enters the jam following the first set of “woo’s” and try to tell me the band wasn’t completely taken aback, and totally blown away by the unified moment of improvisational connection that had just occurred.

Yes, the “woo’s” became a tad over-exhausted by the end of the tour, but, honestly, could you really blame the band for capitalizing on this moment and trying to replicate it? Like their secret language in the early-90’s, their chess match in the Fall of 1995, and the entirety of Big Cypress, the Tahoe “Tweezer” represented yet another completely unexplainable moment of band-audience interplay where Phish just seemed bigger than a rock & roll band.

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A New Old School Approach – 08/02’s First Set

You can just feel the energy seething from the August 2nd Bill Graham Civic Auditorium show simply from watching the YouTube clips. The first set since the Tahoe “Tweezer,” the band enters to a crowd that has seemingly lost its collective mind. Just watch how shocked Trey is as he humbly waves towards the fervent fans.

It looks like what one might imagine a 1994 show in some dingy IHL Arena might be like.

In the moment, and in hindsight, “Free” was the perfect song to open that show with. Could anything else have summed up the unified feelings of their entire fanbase quite as well?

I feel the feeling I forgot…..

I feel freeeeeee………

Freeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

And then that guitar riff…

Without question, 08/02’s first set is the most diverse first set of the entire tour. Combining rarities – “Meat,” “Oh Kee Pa,” “Vultures – tour debuts – the aforementioned along with “Roggae,” “When The Circus Comes,” and “Babylon Baby” – with absolutely stellar playing throughout, it’s – if not the best – then certainly one of the best first sets of the entire tour. Trey just sounds so alive, and in the moment, in the dirty, and building solo out of “Sand,” and in the patient, yet focused, “Reba” that came two songs later.

While one can’t deny the impact of the band’s tighter song rotation here in 2013 – be it more exploratory playing or an influx of repeats – regardless your stance on their structural approach this year, there’s just something about the feeling of being at a show where the band decides to throw down a number of unexpected rarities and bust-outs. Not something any of us should be actively chasing – particularly now, when the band is at the top of their game regardless what they play – when you hear a show full of songs you’d have never guessed the band would have played that night, it just seems to raise the energy and sentiments surrounding the show to an unexpected level.

By mixing “Meat,” “Oh Kee Pa,” “Vultures” and “Roggae” in with rotational staples “Free,” “AC/DC Bag,” “Sand,” and “Reba,” the band crafted a setlist that both celebrated their diverse history, while also displaying their current peak. That they played each of these songs with fresh energy, innovative musical passages, and precision delivery only further emphasized the new/old school gem they unleashed in 08/02’s first set.

Whereas in recent years, these kinds of sets tended to sound bloated and even awkward, everything gelled on the first night in San Francisco.

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The Second Set Of 08/04 & Where We Go From Here

If the first set of the San Francisco run represented a veritable link between Phish’s past and present, then the run’s final set displayed not only how far the band has come over the last five years, but also, where they’re headed.

All summer long the band has used “Energy” to usher in their most innovative and consequential second sets.

On 07/05 it displayed the high level in which Phish was entering their tour at, and graced us with the theme of the tour: Energy & Electricity.

On 07/21 it was the only song Phish could have played at the time, expanding into a limitless jam that eventually flowed into “Ghost,” summing up the phearlessness Phish was playing with, and turning the focus towards the west.

On 08/04 it closed out the BGCA run in perfect fashion, summing up the entire vibe surrounding Phish’s 2013 Summer Tour, while reminding us of the electricity that coursed through the community.

Like the two previous sets it kicked off, the entirety of the 08/04 second set flows from the intangible force that that song has on the band here in 2013. Following with an expansive, rock-based jam off “Runway Jim,” a “Light” that both explored all the musical terrain contained within itself before moving into the Storage Unit, and ultimately towards the original kiln of the storage jam: “David Bowie,” the set was constructed in a way to emphasize their jamming vehicles of old, and of new, while systematically pointing the way towards Dick’s, and the Fall.

So, where are we going?

I wrote about this in my recap of the second week of tour, just about a month ago, which you can read here. In that essay, I argued that – up until 07/14 – the 2013 Summer Tour reminded in many ways of August 2010, in that, while it was an incredible tour to be a part of, little did we know until October, that it was actually the building block for the first true peak of 3.0.

Lo and behold, as this tour moved westward, faced with torrential weather that had consumed the tour until that point, with the band fully aware of timing and the moment, Phish pushed the tour to a completely new level with their second set on 07/21. From there through Hollywood the tour remained on an absolutely consistent and mind-bending high.

I cannot see this ending any time soon.

Phish is completely comfortable back on stage, communicating with each other like they haven’t since 1998. The growing pains that plagued them in their first years of 3.0 aren’t even a conversational bit anymore. There’s no longer a need for a “settling in” process whenever they get back on tour.

When we look towards the remainder of the year, what we find is a Dick’s run that’s sure to be a HUGE moment for the band. Regardless if it actually “tops” last year’s run – something that has more to do with subjectivity than it does with what the band actually plays – one has to imagine the shows are going to have a deeply emotional impact on the band. Beyond that: Fall Tour, most notably a return to Hampton. If one thinks Dick’s will hit the band emotionally, just think what Hampton’s going to be like…

Following the first three-night run in the Mothership since March 6th, 7th, and 8th, 2009 is a tour that takes the band through their most hallowed stretch of country – returning them to Hartford, Worcester, Glens Falls, Rochester, and a Halloween date in Atlantic City. And after all that is the 30th Anniversary Run the band has clearly been building towards, and then finally a return to MSG to ring in 2014!

When was the last time the back-half of a year looked this promising for Phish fans? 1997??? 1995???

The point is, the band built to a sustained peak out west at a time when they’ve only got monumental show after monumental show on their horizon. The thought of where (mentally & emotionally) the band is right now musically, and where (locationally) they’re going to be playing over the next five months is somewhat incomprehensible.

Moreover, the fact that they’re playing sets like 08/04 II where they’re throwing out stunning jams from new songs such as “Light” and “Energy,” combined with innovative takes on their classics – “Runaway Jim,” “David Bowie,” “You Enjoy Myself” – while also fucking around with the crowd by continuing to play a “Horse”-less “Silent In The Morning,” or encoring with “Sanity” and “Bold As Love,” just raises the possibilities even higher as we move towards Fall.

So, where are we going?

Gamehendge, duh…

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When Is The Last Time Phish Peaked Like This?

In my recap of the second week of Phish’s 2013 Summer Tour, I argued that this was the best start to a tour since Summer 1998. Not only do I not feel this statement was in anyway shortsighted or, even overfluffed, but I firmly believe that the way the tour has unfolded since then has only worked further confirm this opinion.

It’s time to go a bit further….

This recent peak from 07/21 through 08/05 represents the most consistent stretch of high-quality music the band has made since 11/17/1997 – 12/07/1997.

It’s true. Go back through the setlists and the shows of the past fifteen years, and try to find a stretch of ten shows that have been played at as high a level as these have. Add in sets like 07/05 II, the run from PNC – MPP, even the Alpharetta run, and this tour is without question the band has played since at least Summer 1998.

This is not to compare the music made from these two eras – a task that would be as impossible as it would be pointless – rather it’s simply a statement on how great things are in the world of Phish right now.

This is also not to say that this peak here in 2013 is somehow better than any of their peak periods from 1998 – 2012 were. This is only to say that Phish has reached a point of consistency on a high level that is absolutely unprecedented in 3.0 and 2.0, and, that the absence of such a recent period was a major factor in why the band decided to take their first hiatus back in 2000.

Ever since the final show in Chicago, Phish has played with both a driven energy, and an understood ease that has always been present in their peak periods. Regardless if they were exploring minimalistic funk grooves, abstract patterns of dissonant noise, the hellish depths of their souls, or prying open the pockets within their own songs, the combination of a driving force, and a relaxed ease has always been needed for the band to reach these heights.

The only difference between these current heights and those from 1998 – 2012, is that, now, the band can sustain them for weeks on end.

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Favorite Shows/Jams Thus Far

I’ve been compiling this list as the tour’s moved along. Were I to grant you my full list that’s currently occupying an itunes playlist, this post would become a lot more bloated than it already is…. Once again, I’ll be focusing here on only a select number of my favorite shows and jams. Rather than ranking them, or trying to grant any a “best-of” status, they’re all simply listed chronologically. More than anything, these are the shows and jams that have really grabbed me as the tour’s evolved.

For any show/jam listed that I’ve discussed prior, I’ve left any sort of write upon them blank. I’d invite you to check out the past lists/write-ups compiled here and here.

Favorite Shows

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

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

– 07/10/2013 PNC Bank & Arts Center – Holmdel, NJ

– 07/12/2013 Nikon @ Jones Beach Theater – Wantagh, NY

– 07/13/2013 Merriweather Post Pavilion – Columbia, MD

– 07/14/2013 Merroweather Post Pavilion – Columbia, MD

– 07/20/2013 Northerly Island – Chicago, IL

– 07/21/2013 Northerly Island – Chicago, IL

– 07/26/2013 The Gorge Ampitheatre – George, WA – To me, this is the most complete show of the entire summer. Combining rarities, gimmickry, jamming, a crafty setlists, and the overall magic that just permeates The Gorge, this is one of those special nights we spend so much of our time and energy as Phish fans searching for.

– 07/27/2013 The Gorge Ampitheatre – George, WA – A more refined approach after 07/26’s throwdown. 07/27 opens with my favorite opening segment of the year, fully summarizing what makes Phish such a special bend. The second set is the definition of perfection in my mind. Fully-flowing, expert selections, top-notch playing of some of their best songs, one listen to this will go a long way in displaying just how high Phish is right now.

– 08/02/2013 Bill Graham Civic Auditorium – San Francisco, CA – Set I might be my favorite of the entire year thus far. Set II is a gem in and of itself as well. With so many rarities and tour debuts in the first set, one might have assumed by simply glancing at the setlist that the flow was sacrificed, but that simply doesn’t happen anymore with Phish. Energy prevails throughout, and the band busts open “Seven Below” and “Stealin’ Time” in Set II before capping the night off with the first ever “Walls Of The Cave” encore, perfectly setting things up for the tour’s final weekend.

– 08/04/2013 Bill Graham Civic Auditorium – San Francisco, CA – Similar in structure to last year’s 08/19/2012 show at BGCA, this show perfectly displays where Phish is at here in mid-2013. Nailing every single song in Set I, the band focuses Set II on two remarkable jam segments – “Energy> Runaway Jim” and “Light -> David Bowie” – while never relenting energy. A perfect show to cap off the best tour of Phish’s career in fifteen years.

Favorite Jams

– 07/06/2013: “Split Open & Melt”

– 07/06/2013: “Carini -> Architect”

– 07/10/2013: “Crosseyed & Painless> Harry Hood”

– 07/12/2013: “Rock & Roll -> 2001> Tweezer -> Cities -> The Wedge”

– 07/21 2013: “Energy -> Ghost -> The Lizards”

– 07/22/2013: “Down With Disease”

– 07/27/2013: “Down With Disease -> Undermind> Light -> Sneakin’ Sally Thru The Alley -> 2001” – A 50-minute segment of music that opened up the final set at The Gorge, this flowed from sparse/rhythmic themes in “DWD” and “Undermind,” to contemplative melodies in “Light,” before building to a massive funk/rock peak in “Sally.” The first half to my favorite set of the summer, this is just further proof of both the power of The Gorge, and the unique peak Phish currently finds themselves in.

– 07/31/2013: “Tweezer” – 37 minutes. The woo’s. Trey’s riff. Tears. What more can I say?

– 08/03/2013: “Rock & Roll -> Steam” – A diametrically different take on “Rock & Roll” than JB’s extended-Type I jam, this version explores the innate groove within the song before segueing fluidly into one of the stronger “Steam’s” we’ve heard thus far. For me, there’s just something about the force in which the band enters the “R&R” jam segment that says so much about how high they’ve been over the past month.

– 08/04/2013: “Energy> Runaway Jim” – The theme song of the summer combined with an age-old classic that’s jammed to a menacing and lengthy rock-based peak. It’s the kind of stuff that’s becoming commonplace here in 2013.

– 08/05/2013: “Harry Hood” – Three songs before the tour’s conclusion, the band expanded on “Harry Hood,” crafting a 22-minute gem that stands up with some of the best versions ever played. No matter the fact that the band clearly wanted to play an upbeat, if, safe show, IT was still racing through their veins. Times like these, even the band can’t even control when they’re going to hook-up.

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And this concludes tackle & lines recap of Phish’s west coast run. Hope everyone has enjoyed this tour as much as I have! Please feel free to leave me comments here, or at my twitter feed: @sufferingjuke. Can’t wait for Dick’s!!!

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 – 07/06/2013

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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?

——–

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.

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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!

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

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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.

What Can We Reasonably Expect From Phish In 2013?

228575_10151002926501290_1761768171_nWith just over two weeks to go until the start of Phish’s 2013 Summer Tour, the Phish community is abuzz with plans, predictions, and expectations for the coming year. After a peak year in 2012, the expectations for Phish 3.0 have never been higher. Whereas each year since 1999 has ended with a litany of questions about the band’s health, focus, direction, etc, 2012 concluded on a unanimous high note. And, while their NYE Run didn’t quite stack up as a whole to the entirety of their brilliant summer tour, it was still a far cry from the puzzling no-show that plagued the end of 2011.

So, the question begs asking, what can we reasonably expect from Phish in 2013? I emphasize “reasonably” because, more often than not, these types of columns result in writers predicting everything from 30min jams to guaranteed-Gamehendge performances. Here at tackle & lines we try to view Phish’s career and music with as much of an even-handed approach as possible, and this column will be no different.

Before we get to the predictions, however, we must take a quick retrospective look back at how we got to where we are now.

In the five years since Phish emerged from an extended hiatus in Hampton, VA the band has far exceeded the expectations that any fan could have had when they announced their return in October 2008. While during much of June 2009 they appeared to be a band lost within themselves, by the time Leg Two of their tour started out west, they immediately rediscovered what made Phish Phish. Jams returned, gimmicks became something of a norm, and Phish shows became re-listenable once more. With their eighth festival, and an incredibly apropos Halloween cover of Exile On Main Street under their belt, the band toured their East Coast stronghold’s, before celebrating their first NYE in six years in Miami. Featuring two dynamically different sides of Phish, their Fall Tour showed them tightening up and adding a bit more energy into their shows, while their NYE Run resulted in some of the more interesting jams of 2009.

Six months later the band’s second Summer Tour of 3.0 began in Chicago. What started with a string of uneven shows eventually proved to be the band’s weakest tour of 3.0. Dominated by Trey’s overuse of the Whale Call effect, jams lost steam midway through, shows lacked flow and energy, and, by July 5th, the band looked totally lost. While the 06/27/2010 Merriweather Post Pavilion show is still highly regarded among fans, it proved to be little more than an anomaly, as the band entered the second leg of their tour with more pressure to deliver than anytime since 2004.

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In typical Phish fashion however, the band came out the gates on a mission. Armed with a new guitar that gave more overall body to his sound, Trey moved away from the atmospheric sirens of the June Tour, incorporating more notes and rhythm into his playing. The results were immediate with jams off of “Cities,” “Simple,” and “Light” from the Greek Theatre displaying how much more dexterity they had when their sound was opened up to more communal playing. The August Run proved to be the point where everything changed in 3.0. A massive step forward for the band, they followed it up with an even more groundbreaking Fall Tour. Clearly in control of the direction of their music once again, Phish used the Fall Tour to revert back to age-old gimmicks, and an overt playfulness that bled throughout their shows. Shows like 10/16/2010, 10/19/2010, 10/20/2010, 10/26/2010 and 10/30/2010 carried the same energy, element of surprise, and aggressive playing that harkened back to their glory days in the 90’s.

Closing out the year with a five show NYE Run through Worcester and MSG, all was right in the Phish community. While there were still questions about certain aspects of their playing – their jamming was still not totally consistent, their shows still had the capability of becoming tedious recitals at Trey’s initiation, and their fluidity seemed to come and go at will – overall, 2010 ended on an incredibly positive note, in much the same way as 2012.

When Phish kicked off 2011 with a string of shows from Bethel, NY – Cincinnati, OH that ranked as some of the most consistent and transcendent they’d played in all of 3.0, it immediately seemed that all the trepidation and uncertainties of the first two years of their comeback were all but behind them. And yet, while 2011 featured some of the biggest breakthrough’s of 3.0, it was still marred at times by the inconsistency that continued to define Phish’s return. Losing steam midway through the tour when most would have assumed they’d have kicked it up a notch, the band treated their home turf to some of the shakiest shows in recent memory.

However, at their SuperBall IX Festival over Fourth Of July the band engaged in their biggest musical risk in years: locking themselves in a storage unit on the night of July 2nd and performing an abstract, noise-based jam for all who were still awake. On the next night they played their best concert since reforming, weaving the Storage Jam into the first narrated “Col Forbin’s” in eleven years within a first set that saw the band compliment expert song selection with adventurous playing. A show for the ages, they returned to the road a month later with essentially all the baggage of year’s past off of them. Over the course of August and early-September the band infused many of their jams with the seedy and industrial noises of the “Storage Jam,” embracing full-on experimentation in ways they simply hadn’t since 2004.

Concluding with two incredible three-night-stand’s in Chicago and Denver, the band took the Fall off at essentially the highest they’d been in all of 3.0. For whatever reason – rust, lack of inspiration, lack of communication, side-project distractions – their 2011 NYE was one enormous dud. Save for a surprisingly fun 12/28/2011 show, and a scintillating “Piper” jam on 12/30, Phish simply couldn’t muster the ability to play up to the standards they’d created on three of their biggest night’s of the year. As a result, the good vibes that resonated thanks to the breakthrough’s in the summer were overshadowed by the questions that lingered as a result of the NYE Run. Rumors of problems within the band persisted all winter and spring, and Phish entered 2012 with more questions hanging over their head than any time since July 2010. After all their hard work to reinvent themselves in 3.0, it felt to many that the band was back to square one all over again.

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For whatever reason, 2012 was without question the band’s best year since 2000. Armed with a goal of playing over 200 unique songs throughout the Summer, the band injected fresh songs into their setlists, creating an immediate element of surprise at each of their shows. Also, from night one in Worcester, it was clear that a focus on improvisation had been pushed to the forefront. For the first time in 3.0, the band played a better June Tour than an August Tour, as June was filled with humor, bustouts, and a genuine sense of fun from both band and audience. Gone were the clunkers that could dominate whole runs. Phish shows’ felt like Phish shows again. As shows like 06/15/2012, 06/22/2012, 06/23/2012, 06/28/2012, 07/03/2012, 07/06/2012 displayed, the band could now really play any style of show and nail it.

In the Second Leg they battled their first bout with inconsistency in San Francisco and throughout the SE, yet whereas in the past this would have resulted in complete duds for shows, here, in 2012 there are still plenty of moments of inspiration that can be found within each. More to the point, shows like 08/19/2012, 08/28/2012, 08/31/2012 and 09/01/2012 displayed a total command the band had over their sound and sonic direction.

The tour concluded with the best three-night-run of 3.0 at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, CO. A venue they’d closed their 2011 Tour with to rave results, Dick’s featured the band as probably the best they’ve been since 1.0. Taking hold of the “FUCK YOUR FACE” gimmick on 08/31, Phish jammed with dexterity and ambition in ways we simply hadn’t heard throughout 3.0. It was an affirmation of sorts for all who’ve stood by Phish since their return. A Summer Tour that had started with so many questions and uncertainty concluded with the best show they’d played in over a decade.

Following another four-month break before their NYE Run, the band proved far more prepared this time around, assaulting MSG at times with jams on the level of those we’d heard at Dick’s, while closing out a banner year with their best NYE gimmick in years. While it was clear that they could have used a few buffer shows between Dick’s and MSG, overall the run was a success, and has us standing on the brink of the band’s 30th Anniversary with more anticipation than anytime throughout 3.0.

Below are a list of things I think we can reasonably expect from Phish in 2013. Aware of the fact that the overall point of listening to Phish is to embrace the unexpected, these are presented as more of a preview of what’s to come in 2013. As always in 3.0, we’re simply lucky to have the band back, the fact that they’ve reinvented themselves is such a powerful way is simply icing on the cake.

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I. Further Development In The Three Dominant Styles Of Jamming

Everyone can agree that 2012 was the year the jams fully returned to the forefront of Phish. Whereas in the formative years of 3.0 the band would go multiple shows in a row without a single exploratory jam, in 2012 nearly every show contains at least one example of genuine improve. Even more encouraging to fans of their exploratory excursions is the fact that by year’s end Phish had settled on three defined styles of jamming that displayed communication, diversity and regularly produced standout jams.

First, you had the Dick’s “Light,” and “Sand,” and the MSG “Tweezer,” three jams which spent upwards of ten minutes exploring the unknown, before becoming focused and building towards an old-school tension & release peak.

You also had more abstract jams such as the Cincy “Twist,” Alpine “Fee,” Long Beach “Rock & Roll,” San Francisco “Crosseyed,” Dick’s “Carini,” and “Runaway Jim>Farmhouse,” and the MSG “Down With Disease,” and “Carini,” which meandered like many of the late-90’s and 2.0 vehicles, contemplatively covering a plethora of ground with little focus or tension.

Finally, you had, perhaps the most intriguing of all, the melodic-driven jams, that are purely a product of 3.0. From the AC “Birds Of A Feather,” and Burgettstown “Light,” to the Dick’s “Undermind,” and “Chalk Dust Torture,” the band used a melodic approach with each of these jams resulting in whole-band communication, along with a multitude of terrains explored, solidifying them as some of the most innovative and memorable jams of the era. One can only expect that, as 2012 built off the improvisational advancements of 2010 and 2011, that 2013 will display even further the potential each of these styles of jamming have.

II. Bustouts……Even More Bustouts

Entering 2012 with the ambitious goal of playing 200 different songs throughout their Summer Tour helped to infuse the tour with fresh songs, and ultimately resulted in an anything-goes feeling throughout he tour, and overall year. Since the onset, 3.0 has been chock-full of bustouts like no period in Phish’s history before. Partially due to the fact that the band simply played less shows between 1997 – 2004 than they had in the previous eight years, and thus focused more on rotational songs than rarities. Yet, perhaps even more so, thanks to their emphasis on celebrating their own musical history, Phish has brought many once-forgotten songs like “Fuck Your Face,” “Skin It Back,” “Tela,” “Sparks,” and “Alumni Blues” back from the dead over the past five years. Based upon this trend, and the fact that this is the band’s 30th year of existence, one wouldn’t be too out of place to suggest we can expect more of the same in 2013. Could songs like “Acoustic Army,” “Ain’t Love Funny,” “All Things Reconsidered,” “Amazing Grace,” “Axilla (Part II),” “Bye Bye Foot,” “Chalk Dust Torture Reprise,” “Crossroads,” “Dave’s Energy Guide,” “Dear Mrs. Reagan,” “Don’t You Wanna Go,” “Fourplay/Long Time,” “Izabella,” “The Landlady,” “Lushington,” “Spock’s Brain,” and “Prep School Hippie” be far behind?

III. “Harpua,” “Col. Forbin’s Ascent -> Fly Famous Mockingbird,” and “Icculus”

Believe it or not, but 2012 was the lone year of 3.0 that didn’t feature any of the above songs. Lost in the mix of the band’s musical renaissance were three classics that focus more on the theatrical side of Phish than their musical. While one certainly can’t complain about their exclusion from a year that featured so many highlights across the board, one has to assume they’ll be back this year. A year that’s poised to feature a number of surprises, and referential moments towards the band’s legacy, each of these three songs would fit perfectly with the overall vibe of the year. Be it in Toronto or Alpharetta, or even in Chicago, each of these songs are welcome at any show, for they immediately raise the bar in terms of energy and historical significance.

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IV. A Substantial Fall Tour That Builds Off The Achievements Of Summer

For as boundary pushing as the last two Summer Tour’s have been, the only thing they’ve clearly suffered from is a lack of Fall Tour to continue pushing their sound further. Just imagine for a second what would have happened to the sounds of Summer ’95, Summer ’97, and Summer 2010 if they hadn’t had a Fall Tour to be fully realized. Then think about how much more consistency the band could have played with, and how much further they could have pushed their music had they spent the last two Fall’s on the road.

By all accounts a Fall Tour is happening this year. The sheer fact of it is nothing to predict. This is Phish’s 30th Anniversary, the rumors are all across the web. What we can predict however, is that, unlike Fall 2009, the Fall 2013 will better resemble Fall 2010 in the way it will push Phish’s sound even further. Rumors of a Halloween show being tossed in there only raise the bar even further, for we know what positive effects practicing and covering full albums have historically had on the band. With a summer set to hit up some of the most storied shed’s in Phish history, we can only imagine how much music they’ll have to build upon with a short break before Fall.

V. A 30th Anniversary Run That Actually Celebrates The Band’s Legacy

If there’s any takeaway from the 2003 Turkey Run it’s the fact that it really couldn’t have honored the band’s twentieth anniversary any less than it did. After a four-month gap following their IT Festival, the Run featured a band in an awkward state of denial over their current health and dismal future. Sure they brought The Dude of Life and Tom Marshall out. Hell, they even brought out Jeff Holdsworth for the first time since 1986. And, yes, there are some intriguing moments throughout, see: “Ghost -> WTU,” “Twist -> Simple,” 12/01, “Piper,” and the “Rock & Roll -> Weekapaug -> Tweezer Reprise -> FranKungstein”. But the historical legacy of the run is more of failure, and foreshadowing, and less of a band fully embracing their historical significance.

Here, however, in the healthy and joyful era of 3.0, you can be certain the band is going to go to great measures to celebrate the fact that after 30 years, they’re still alive, and going strong once again.

VI. More First Set “You Enjoy Myself’s”

Played only seven times in the last two calendar years, “You Enjoy Myself,” has in three of those instances, been played out of it’s normal slot, and in the first set. Expect this to continue. It appears the band really likes its ability to inject fresh energy and intrigue into a show through a first set performance. It’s also proven to help expand Set I’s from what were strictly song-based affairs, into more fluid and jammable mediums.

A noticeable trend throughout 2012 was the band’s re-embracing of the first set. From 06/15 and 06/22 to 07/06, 08/19, and 08/31, Phish attacked their first set’s with energy and a focus on exploration like they hadn’t since 1.0. Further appearances from the band’s seminal song will only solidify their dedication to explore within Set I.

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VII. A Dick’s Run That Will Fail To Live Up To The Hype

With a two week gap between their UIC run and their initial Dick’s Run in 2011, many wondered if Phish would lost steam from their August Tour and play a rusty set of shows to close out the tour. At the time, Dick’s looked more or less like bonus Phish. As it turned out however, Dick’s 2011 turned out to be the run of the year, solidifying 2011 as the year of the three-night-stand’s, and gracing us with some pretty monumental music to keep our faith alive throughout the winter and spring of 2012.

Last year Phish timed everything perfectly, with their whole tour leading up to Dick’s. Easing themselves throughout the tour, they picked their spot’s perfectly, allowing them to be energized and fresh by the time Dick’s came around. As a result, they absolutely tore the soccer stadium to pieces, playing the best show they’ve played in almost a decade, while littering three nights with monumental jams.

This year, there’s a twenty-five-day gap separating their tour finale at the Hollywood Bowl and Dick’s. Many surmised that this break would allow them to have a storied, mid-August NE Festival akin to 1996 – 1998. This, however, has proven to be little more than baseless rumors. Either way, seeing how the band has crushed Dick’s in year’s past, along with the fact that their going to have close to four weeks between their last show and Dick’s, I’ve got to imagine that this is the year Dick’s fails to live up to the hype. This doesn’t mean there aren’t going to be memorable moments throughout, or even a solid show tossed in the mix. Just simply based on the fact that like how Phish can’t crush MSG every single year – nor any other legendary venue – odds are one year is going to be an off year at Dick’s. My gut tells me this year is that year.

My heart on the other hand, has me hoping they come through once again. Anyone who’s been there know’s, there’s a damn good reason they keep coming back to Commerce City.

VIII. A Banner Year For “Harry Hood”

“Harry Hood” has been something of a wandering classic for the last ten-odd years. In 2.0 the band chose to explore it in ways they’d rarely done in the past. In 3.0 it’s shifted between performances that have completely fallen flat, and those that have just almost reached that place. In 2013, one has to imagine that all the time back, the vastly improved chops of Trey, and the inert communication that’s been brewing for five years will lead to a glorious return of one of Phish’s true masterpieces.

Listen closely, and it’s clear, from 09/04/2011 to 08/15/2012, 09/02/2012 to 12/30/2012, slowly but surely the band has been rebuilding “Hood” back to its former glory heard clearest from 1993 – 1996. While still scattered with versions that were either rushed, forced, or just couldn’t quite get there, 2012 was the best year we’ve had for “Hood’s” since the 90’s. In 2013, expect the majority of Hood’s to be the kind of emotive and connective forces that made us fan’s of it so long ago. No better way to celebrate 30 years of Phish than with a transcendent “Hood” after all.

IX. SPAC, Chicago & San Francisco…

Within the first twenty-two shows of the tour are three individual three-night runs. In 2011, Bethel, SuperBall IX, Chicago, and Dick’s reigned as the runs of the year. While 2012 still faired pretty well with AC, SPAC, San Francisco and Dick’s, only SPAC and Dick’s truly mastered the three-show run. Here in 2013, one has got to imagine the SPAC is going to explode with the energy of the band out the gates, the mid-tour stop at Chicago’s Lakefront will produce some particularly inspired music, and their comfort on the road after a month will lead to a three-night romp in San Francisco. With only Dick’s coming at an awkward time within the tour, these three three-night runs are sure to be the most memorable stops of tour. A unique medium, and one that can either bring out the best in the band, or prove how off they are, the three-night run, when played accordingly, usually result’s in some of the most transcendent moments of a tour. With enough time to get settled into a venue, and ideas that build from one show to the next, there’s simply no way they won’t destroy the above runs.

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X. Even More Six & Seven Song Set II’s

Hand-in-hand with the inspired jamming of 2012 came a plethora of six and seven song second set’s. A simple product of mathematics – when you play longer songs, you have to play less of them – the band filled much of the last part of 2012 with a number of inspired sets focused more on their playing, rather than what songs they were playing. Look no further than 08/15/2012, 08/31/2012, 09/02/2012, 12/28/2012, and 12/30/2012 for some of the best examples.

While, in the same sense that longer jams don’t necessarily mean better, there are also examples to the counter, of 10+song second sets that were fantastic – 06/22/2012, 06/28/2012, 07/08/2012, 08/19/2012, and 09/01/2012 per example.

What makes the six and seven song Set II so special is the fact that it offers the band the unique opportunity to fully incorporate flow and thematic music into a cohesive set. These set’s listen more like albums, rather than a simple conglomeration of songs. With an increased focus on improv, expect these types of second sets to become something of a norm in the summer of 2013.

XI. A NYE Show That Totally Delivers

It’s strange to consider, but, for however good as Phish’s NYE Runs typically are, the band has yet to deliver on a monster 12/31 show since 1999. Sure, 12/31/2012 was an all-around fun show to be at, complete with a fully-flowing Set II and a classic gag to ring in 2013, but more often than not, since the 90’s, NYE shows have often felt more like after-parties to the mayhem of 12/29 and 12/30. One’s got to imagine that coming into this NYE Run the band is going to be so amped up from their 30th Anniversary celebrations, along with a complete Fall Tour, that they’re going to finally put everything together to craft a NYE show of lore.

In the past, their best 12/31 shows have revolved around three factors: classic song selections, monumental jamming, and ideal gag’s that fit perfectly with the music. Look back at 12/31/1993, 12/31/1995, 12/31/1998, and 12/31/1999 for the best examples. It’s bound to happen one of these years, and it just makes perfect sense that the combination of playing, gimmickry and song selection will come through this year. If you’re on the fence about NYE 2013, man-up and make the commitment. This year has classic NYE Run written all over it.

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That does it for tackle & lines 2013 Phish Predictions. As with all these types of columns, the key is to read them for pleasure, and take them with a grain of salt. At this time last year few could have ever predicted the year of Phish we were in for.

Hope everyone’s looking forward to tour as much as we are! Please feel free to leave comments, thoughts, suggestions and rants to the column as we will respond to any and all questions.

The Structure Of A Show – Set II Opener

Dick'sAnd then, after a “fifteen minute break,” they’re back.

Whereas when Phish hits the stage prior to Set I there’s a general sense of euphoria surrounding the unknown, and the newness of being at a show again, by the time the band return’s from their setbreak, we’re all well entrenched to the experience of a Phish show. Seen in the rainbow of glowsticks scattered across the stage, there’s a more settled feeling to the onset of Set II than there is to the show’s opener. The cathartic release of Set I behind us, it’s time to get down to business. Upon entrance, the band is of course greeted once again to a rousing applause, yet here the sentiment is more one of focused energy, rather than blissful exultation.

Simply put, Set II is where shows are won and lost. And, increasingly over the last two eras of Phish, the Set II Opener is typically seen as the crux of the entire show. Perhaps the most crucial song played all night, the Set II Opener plays the role of either picking the band up right where they left off in the first set, or redirecting them into uncharted waters. Further, much of what is played in Set II, both stylistically, and song-wise, are determined specifically off their Set II Opener.

In the same way that the second set has evolved in far more dramatic ways over the years than the commonly more song-based first set, the Set II Opener has too evolved substantially. From what was once just another high-energy number out the gates, to, now, a fluid slot that can become a massive Type II jam, Set II Openers can often lead to a rock-based set, lull the crowd with a sleepy and subtle entrance, or, can surprise fans on the level of many of the shocking Show Openers. The two biggest keys that separates the Set II Opener from the Show Opener however, are the simple fact that prior to the Show Opener there’s no single part of the show played yet that can help gauge what song to play, and, the fact that the second set opener often carries a far more sinister, and “anything goes” sentiment with it. Because of this, the second set opener is certainly far more influenced by the music that came before it than the Show Opener. In essence, there are just those shows that feel like “Down With Disease,” or “Tweezer,” or “Axilla,” or “Chalk Dust Torture” need to open their second set’s.

What was once linked closely with the high-energy numbers that opened both Set I and II, the Set II Openers are now, without question, the most common slot to expect a jam from the band. In fact, in the highly unscientific perusing of my iTunes library – where I have upwards of 300 Phish shows stashed away, mind you – I discovered that, no less than 160 Set II Openers since 1995 have been a 10+ minute jam. A trend that began in the psychedelic summer of 1995, one can more or less predict that, if they’re to hear an open-ended jam while walking into a Phish show, chances are it’s gonna come during the Set II Opener.

What follows is Part IV of VIII in tackle & lines series on The Structure Of A Show. Each category contains write-ups, examples, and video clips for better understand. As with the articles on Set I, the goal of this is not to come to some sort of conclusion about what a specific Phish show is, but rather to explore the various directions the band chooses to go with their shows – here in the medium of the Set II Opener. This is not a means to rank the best openers, or the best shows, versus the weakest – though negative habits and instances will be discussed – instead it is seeking to find points of connection across various eras – and within each – while pointing out their differences. Hope you guys enjoy the piece, we’re now just a month from 03 July!

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I. The Classics

As with each of the other write-ups, there are just certain songs that feel like a proper Set II Opener. Be it their ability to jam, the number of times they’ve opened a second set, or just the sound they contain which fits so seamlessly with second sets, the following songs are the classics because they’re simply ubiquitous with the opening of second sets. From a purely numbers standpoint, these songs have each opened no less than 24 Set II’s, and 246 total second sets. Anyone going to a Phish show has a 15% chance of hearing one of the following six songs open a second set, no small feat.

Examples: ‘2001,’ ‘Down With Disease,’ ‘Mike’s Song,’ ‘The Curtain,’ ‘Tweezer,’ ‘Rock & Roll’

While two of the songs on this list relinquished their role as regular Set II Openers around 1996 – “2001” and “The Curtain” – statistically they’ve garnered so many appearances in this slot that to many fans they will always sound like Set II Openers. Aside from that slight technicality, there’s just something about a second set opening with a monster “Down With Disease,” “Tweezer,” “Rock & Roll,” or an old-school “Mike’s” that just feels right. Scanning the lineage of Phish’s career, there are so many classic shows, and classic second sets that opened with these songs. Off the top of my head: 12/30/1993, 03/20/1992, 08/14/1993, 06/11/1994, 06/26/1995, 10/21/1995, 12/11/1995, 12/14/1995, 08/17/1996, 11/27/1996, 08/02/1997, 08/17/1997, 11/17/1997, 11/19/1997, 12/02/1997, 12/06/1997, 12/29/1997, 07/01/1998, 07/17/1998, 08/12/1998, 08/16/1998, 12/30/1998, 07/10/1999, 07/24/1999, 07/31/1999, 10/02/1999, 06/15/2000, 06/28/2000, 07/11/2000, 09/17/2000, 02/16/2003, 02/20/2003, 02/28/2003, 07/18/2003, 07/23/2003, 08/02/2003, 12/02/2003, 12/29/2003, 08/10/2004, 08/15/2004, 03/07/2009, 03/08/2009, 05/31/2003, 08/01/2009, 08/08/2009, 08/14/2009, 12/03/2009, 12/31/2009, 07/03/2010, 07/04/2010, 08/06/2010, 10/22/2010, 10/23/2010, 12/30/2010, 05/28/2011, 06/03/2011, 08/16/2011, 09/03/2011, 09/04/2011, 06/08/2012, 06/20/2012, 06/22/2012, 06/28/2012, 08/15/2012, 08/22/2012, 12/28/2012, and 12/30/2012 all opened their second sets with one of the six above songs. Further proof that these songs are just the classic way for the band to usher in a second set.

II. The Guaranteed Jam

As was pointed out above, if you’re going to hear an open-ended jam at a Phish show, chances are you’re going to hear it in the Set II Opener. The combined released of the energy in Set I and the unknown quality to the onset of Set II lends itself perfectly to a captivating jam out the gates. Whenever the lights drop following setbreak, and the band kicks into one of the following eleven songs one’s almost guaranteed a lengthy, often experimental, wholly unique, and at times game-changing jam to be unveiled in real time.

Examples: ‘Down With Disease,’ ‘Tweezer,’ ‘Rock & Roll,’ ‘Drowned,’ ‘Ghost,’ ‘Piper,’ ‘Sand,’ ‘Bathtub Gin,’ ‘Seven Below,’ ’46 Days,’ ‘Twist’

As anyone in attendance at 08/17/1997, 02/28/2003, 08/08/2009, 09/14/2000, 09/12/1999, 07/19/2003, 09/02/2012, 11/23/1997, 06/25/2004, 06/17/2004, and 07/30/2003 can attest, once they heard one of the above songs start the second set, they knew they were in for a wild ride. While the band has been increasingly prone to cut even some of the above songs short at times here in the 3.0 era, throughout their history they’ve proven to be so ubiquitous with the concept of Phish’s improv, that one has to at least anticipate a jam emerging from them when they do in fact hear them nowadays. Regardless of current tendencies, throw on any show between 1995 and 2003 that opens with one of the above eleven songs and you’re almost guaranteed at least a 15 minute jam, and in many cases, even a 20+. For those of us who love Type II Phish, these songs, in this slot, is just where it’s at.

III. The Sinister Assault

While the role of the Set II Opener has come to represent a guaranteed jam for many-a-fan, it’s original task was similar to the Show Opener, being more of a quick punch to the eventual set. Still used from time to time – increasingly more here in the 3.0 era – the band will opt for a quick burst of energy before getting down to business. A move that initially leaves the possibilities of the set up in the air – these songs can just as easily lead to rock-based Set II’s, and they can more experimental driven ones – they’re used more to rile up a crowd, and, presumably the band, in anticipation for the set to come.

Examples: ‘Wilson,’ ‘Chalk Dust Torture,’ ‘Llama,’ ‘Buried Alive,’ ‘Axilla,’ ‘Maze,’ ‘Carini,’ ‘Split Open & Melt,’ ‘The Sloth’

While some of the above songs have been used from time-to-time as jam vehicles, their most known in this setting for their role as immediate bursts of energy to kick of a second set. Just throw on 08/07/2010, 08/06/2011, 07/13/2003, 11/27/1998, 07/08/2012, 11/14/1995, 12/28/2010, 12/07/1995, and 08/14/2010 and you’ll hear how powerful a way each of the above songs is at opening a second set. While staying more or less contained in their own structures, their energy has an undeniable affect on the set that follows, leading, in each case, to massive throwdowns. Perhaps not the most anticipated approach to a second set, these songs nevertheless prove to raise the energy of a show substantially, something that can never be argued with.

IV. The Composed Approach

In the same sense as this section in the Show Opener’s piece, the following songs are some of the band’s most cherished classics, and most fans would be absolutely thrilled to hear them open a Set II of any show they were at. While rarely featured in this slot ever since the band took on a more improvisational approach with the Set II Opener, their composed classics used to usher in numerous second sets in the band’s early years. All told, the following seven songs have combined to open 79 second sets, with “David Bowie” leading the way with 25 appearances in the slot. A monumental occasion were it to happen today, these songs represent a bygone era where the first and second set shared far more in common than they do now.

Examples: ‘David Bowie,’ ‘The Landlady,’ ‘Reba,’ ‘Stash,’ ‘The Divided Sky,’ ‘Fluffhead,’ ‘You Enjoy Myself’

A bona fide rarity in the modern age of Phish, only “Stash” and “David Bowie” remain as plausible rotational options for the Set II Opener, and even that’s a stretch. Still, as anyone who attended, or has heard 12/03/1997, 12/28/1990, 10/25/1995, 12/31/2003, 04/20/1989, 02/08/1988, or 09/21/1987 can tell you, these songs each worked in ideal fashion when thrust into the role. A welcome addition to the band’s 30th anniversary year, tossing a couple of their composed classics into the Set II Opener slot would both make Phish stat geeks go crazy, while adding some historical lore to whatever show they appeared in.

V. The Quick Punch

Akin in some ways to the sinister assault, these following ten songs distinguish themselves for the fact that, while their essential role is to provide a shot of adrenaline to a second set, they each do it with such an immediacy, such a quick burst of energy, that they’re almost forgotten by the time they’re over. Used in many ways to segue into a lengthier jam, these songs have been featured throughout the years to essentially set up a set, and wake the band and crowd back up from their setbreak lull. While a few of them have evolved into legitimate Set II Opening jams, in their origins, they were continually thought of as the quick punch that announced the onset of Set II, before fading into a lengthier jam that would come to dominate the overall set.

Examples: ‘2001,’ ‘Llama,’ ‘Buried Alive,’ ‘The Landlady,’ ‘Axilla,’ ‘Halley’s Comet,’ ‘Peaches En Regalia,’ ‘The Sloth,’ ‘Party Time,’ ‘Ha Ha Ha’

From 06/22/1994 to 07/19/1998, 02/26/1997 to 12/28/1990, 12/28/1997 to  12/01/1995 to 09/14/1999, 07/15/1992, 06/12/2011, and 12/04/1996, each of these songs have perfectly sprung us out of setbreak and into the second set with an energized kick that simply can’t be matched. Not only pulling everyone out of setbreak, they also segued into a lengthier jam, thus creating a proper bridge between reality, and the anything-goes spirit of a second set. One of the best Set II Opener’s one can hear, they generally display a fun-loving spirit for the band, almost always resulting in memorable sets.

VI. The Laid-Back Easers

Completely opposite to the previous section, these are the openers where the band takes their time easing into a set, allowing any sentiments towards the show breathe, rather than immediately diving into a jam or assaulting the crowd with energy. Often times hinting at a more contemplative mood within the band, these openers often catch a crowd off guard, yet can many times be full of rewards. Leading to potential jams, or segueing directly into a jam, these songs work in similar ways to the quick punches and the sinister assaults, yet with the opposite mood.

Examples: ‘Makisupa Policeman,’ ‘Ya Mar,’ ‘Lengthwise,’ ‘NICU,’ ‘Limb By Limb,’ ‘ ‘Waves,’ ‘The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday’

While most fans typically correlate an opener with a high-energy number, these songs turn that theory on it’s head, while often times proving to be just as emotionally captivating as the band’s more raucous songs. Check out 12/29/1995, 12/30/1995, 08/17/2010, 12/13/1997, 07/15/1998, 02/15/2003, and 10/31/1987 to see how well these songs worked as Set II Openers. As a general rule, the unexpected is always the best approach with Phish. As each of these songs display, when the band is at their most unexpected, it’s often the best opportunity to sit back and just enjoy whatever show you’re witnessing or listening to. While a bit against the grain to their typical Set II Opener approach, the laid-back easers are, nonetheless just as engaging an entrance into the second set as any.

VII. The Old-School Hits

Some sets, and some shows just call for the old-school hits. The old reliables, some of which have been with the band since their inception, they’re the guaranteed crowd pleasers, sometimes just what the band needs to kick off a set. Sure to result in a boon of energy from the audience to the stage, these songs don’t so much create any sense of the unknown when they open a Set II, for the could just as easily open Set I, rather they’re there to trigger the remembered sensation of why we fell in love with Phish in the first place. Many of these songs are the earliest fans hear when being introduced to Phish, and, while they’re rarely the songs anyone would pick to open a second set, they do tend to add an old-school dimension to whatever show they appear in.

Examples: ‘Runaway Jim,’ ‘Suzy Greenberg,’ ‘Golgi Apparatus,’ ‘Possum,’ ‘AC/DC Bag,’ ‘Sample In A Jar’

First ballot tracks on any sort of Phish Greatest Hits, the above six songs are for the most part called upon in their Set II Opener role to remain within structure. Yet, as any fan knows, “AC/DC Bag” and “Runaway Jim” have numerous times displayed the awesome power of the Set II Opener slot, in expanding their structure, and time and again exploring the unknown. Regardless where the band takes one of these songs in this slot, few can argue with their placement on 06/16/1995, 11/02/1990, 04/27/1993, 10/26/2010, 12/30/1997, or 12/15/1999. Similar in many ways to section IX, these songs either work or they dont. When they do, they inject the show with an old-school feel, surely bolstering the show in some way.

VIII. The Unexpected Gems

While many of the songs in this section have opened their fair share of second sets, there’s always an unexpected thrill that comes with them in this slot. Rarely in a Set II Opener rotation, often times many of these are completely out of the band’s rotation all together, thus when they open a set they create a jolt of electricity to run through the venue based solely on their presence alone. Sometimes leading to a monumental jam, in reality, just the fact that many of these songs are being played is enough to up the energy of their set right from the get-go.

Examples: ‘Timber,’ ‘Crosseyed & Painless,’ ‘Tube,’ ‘Punch You In The Eye,’ ‘Boogie On Reggae Woman,’ ‘My Friend, My Friend,’ ‘Loving Cup’

Remove these seven songs from their placement on 11/28/1997, 06/21/2009, 06/24/2004, 07/23/1997, 09/18/1999, 11/27/2009, and 05/07/1994 and insert any standard opener, and you’ve got a totally different sentiment heading into the set. Upping the ante of their set and show simply with their presence, on the occasions that some of the above songs have been jammed into the unknown, they’ve essentially made their shows right then and there. Akin to the often jarring placement of an easer in the opening slot, these songs prove the power of the unexpected when it comes to Phish.

IX. The Hit Or Miss

Until this point in the essay, the songs featured have more or less been guaranteed hit’s whenever performed. Due to a combination of factors – there’s less pressure on the Set II Opener, and many develop into jams out of their song origin – more songs work as Set II Openers than Set I Openers. Here, however, we find ourself in the first section of songs that could potentially kick the set off on the wrong note. For whatever reason, the following songs either work as Set II Openers, or they don’t. And there’s little room in between. Some of the songs are the kind few would request for a second set opener, and others, while a treat to hear, rely in many ways on their ability to transform into an exploratory jam to fit within this role. Either way, whenever these songs are featured in the Set II Opener slot, fans tend to hold out hope that something will come of them, rather than just sink into the immediacy of the performance.

Examples: ‘Runaway Jim,’ ‘Suzy Greenberg,’ ‘Possum,’ ‘Birds Of A Feather,’ ‘Gotta Jibboo,’ ‘Golden Age,’ ‘Back On The Train,’ ‘Theme From The Bottom’

There are two sides to each of these songs. There’s your 08/11/1998 and 11/18/2009 “Jim,” your 10/08/1990 and 03/13/1991 “Suzy,” your 11/24/2009 and 08/02/1998 “Possum,” 06/04/2011 and 06/29/2000 “Birds,” 07/04/2000 and 08/09/2011 “Jibboo,” 06/08/2011 and 12/29/2012 “Golden Age,” 06/07/2011 and 06/14/2000 “GBOTT,” and your 11/19/1995 and 06/22/1995 “Theme.” Some of these work, some of them don’t, it all depends on the way the band is feeling, and if they find any of the magic in their performance that night. If it’s there, these songs can often times develop into a memorable moment of interplay and exploration. If not, they tend to get the set started on a tepid note that rarely transforms itself into any monumental music made later in the set.

X. The Head Scratchers

Whereas the last section at least provided opportunities for the band to redeem their Set II Opener song selection through their performance, the following songs rarely, if ever, prove to overcome the initial moment they open a set, when the venue lets out a collective, “huh?”. Akin to the crowd groan segment in the Set I Openers essay, these songs just don’t seem to have what it takes to open a second set, yet for whatever reason, the band has gone with them from time to time. Seemingly removing all energy from the venue within seconds of starting, these songs rarely offer any opportunity for Type II interplay, and instead, act as a filler, a well-defined bridge from the setbreak into the second set. The problem with them more than anything is the fact that unless they develop into something outside of their structure, they tend to cater heavily to the type of awkward and uneven sets that offer little in terms of memorability.

Examples: ‘Julius,’ ‘Sample In A Jar,’ ‘Backwards Down The Number Line,’ ‘Poor Heart,’ ‘Heavy Things,’ ‘Bouncing Around The Room,’ ‘Cars Trucks Buses,’ ‘All Of These Dreams’

Regardless how much an apologist you are for the band – and trust me, I tend to be one myself – you can’t really argue that the above eight songs are at the bottom of any fan’s wish list to open a second set. Aside from “Number Line,” none of those songs have proven to evolve into the types of unwavering jams that would make them worth hearing in this slot. Instead, as 10/15/1995, 05/19/1994, 08/05/2009, 04/07/1992, 07/08/2000, 12/17/1995, 09/27/1995, and 08/09/2004 have shown, these songs have typically kicked off some of the less “hooked-up” sets the band has played. While no one should ever discount the potential to be surprised with Phish, until this point, the above song’s track record as a Set II Opener, more or less speaks for itself.

XI. The One-Off’s

Due to the unexpected nature of Phish shows, there are those nights where you’ll hear a song in a slot it’s just never been played in before. Whether to test something out, perhaps as an opportunity to play a random cover, or just because of a wild hair the band’s got that night, from time to time the band will drop a totally unexpected song in a specific slot, only to never feature it there again. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, more than anything it leads to anything-goes spirt that accompanies Phish in their approach to the second set.

Examples: ‘After Midnight,’ ‘Big Balls,’ ‘Camel Walk,’ ‘Character Zero,’ ‘Farmhouse,’ ‘First Tube,’ ‘Gumbo,’ ‘Harpua,’ ‘I Am Hydrogen,’ ‘Light,’ ‘Nellie Kane,’ ‘Sabotage,’ ‘Saw It Again,’ ‘Scents & Subtle Sounds,’ ‘Tweezer Reprise,’ ‘Uncle Pen’

While a few of the above songs were received with rave results, and others just didn’t seem to work, few can argue that their sheer presence as a one-time Set II Opener didn’t add a bit of variety to each of the shows they appeared in. Check out 05/31/2011, 07/03/2011, 08/04/1988, 11/26/1997, 09/28/1999, 09/20/2000, 08/03/1998, 10/28/1989, 01/21/1987, 06/11/2010, 05/29/1994, 11/21/1998, 12/12/1997, 12/04/2009, 12/15/1995, and 04/26/1991 for examples of each of the above songs being featured as Set II Openers. From the above list, one would be hard-pressed not to hope for another “After Midnight,” “First Tube,” “Gumbo,” “Harpua,” “Light,” “Sabotage,” “Saw It Again,” “Scents & Subtle Sounds,” and “Tweezer Reprise” Set II Opener at some point in the future. Fingers crossed.

XI. The One’s That Should Open More Set II’s

Related in some ways to the above section, the following songs are simply those that, while featured from time-to-time as Set II Opener’s, really deserve to be played in that slot more often. Either because they’re a guaranteed jam, or because their simple appearance in the slot would immediately raise the bar of the show they’re in, there’s just no reason the band shouldn’t try to fit these songs in the Set II Opening rotation a bit more. I guarantee these songs would go a long way to countering whatever complaints certain aspects of the fan community have about Phish’s variety, or lack thereof. Regardless of any fan agitation, these songs are just great examples of what Phish is capable of musically, and deserve more time spotlighted in THE slot of the show.

Examples: ‘Twist,’ ‘Harry Hood,’ ‘Piper,’ ‘The Sloth,’ ‘Bathtub Gin,’ ‘Seven Below,’ ’46 Days,’ ‘Waves,’ ‘A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing,’ ‘Cities,’ ‘Col. Forbin’s Ascent,’ ‘Fee,’ ‘First Tube,’ ‘Gumbo,’ ‘Light,’ ‘Saw It Again,’ ‘ Scents & Subtle Sounds,’ ‘Tweezer Reprise’

A list stacked with songs that any fan would kill to hear at any point in any show, one can’t argue that any show would be immediately bolstered by the simple appearance of one of the above eighteen songs. Check out 07/30/2003, 11/10/1989, 07/19/2004, 08/14/2010, 11/23/1997, 06/20/2004, 01/02/2003, 11/28/2003, 06/19/2004, 08/10/1997, 04/22/1988, 10/12/1989, 09/20/2000, 08/03/1998, 06/11/2010, 12/12/1997, 12/04/2009, and 12/15/1995 to hear the immediate impact each of these songs has on their sets. In an era that has proven to be the band’s most diverse and has taken more risks within their setlists that essentially any other period in their history, one wouldn’t be too far off to expect that perhaps one of the above songs would make a return to the Set II Opening slot sometime in 2013.

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Perhaps the most critical song played in a Phish show, the Set II Opener allows the band a veritable tablet of differing options with where to take a show. They can build off the energy in an excellent Set I, or they can redirect the show after a forgettable set. They can launch the set into the unknown, or they can display a band incapable of exploration. Regardless where the band decides to go with their second set opener, it’s clear that many shows live and die in their second sets, and that the opener directly impacts the set that will unfold. Thus concludes the fourth part in an eight-part series breaking down Phish’s live show. Up next is The Second Set.

Hope everyone enjoyed the post! Feel free to leave your thoughts, comments, suggestions, rants, etc! Thanks for reading!