Review: Fuego

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Depending on your level of intensity as a Phish fan, your take on the band’s 2013 Halloween performance probably fell in one of two camps. The decision to unveil twelve brand new songs – rather than the traditional approach of covering an album from one of their musical influences – was either an inspiring risk in the band’s 30th year, or it was a cringeworthy gimmick that further proved how out-of-touch Phish was from the endless desires of their fanbase.

The divisive nature of conversation within the Phish community is such that grey is rarely a viable color option. Whether or not this is due to its fervent dedication, or its preference for polemics over metered discussions is still up for debate.

(For the sake of clarity and openness, I personally thought Wingsuit was one of the defining moments of 2013. Both for the balls it displayed by the band, and the shift it initiated towards the future of Phish, I unabashedly viewed it as an overwhelming success.)

Regardless the hyper-dichotomy the initial presentation of (what was dubbed at the time) Wingsuit caused within the Phish community, there was one universal takeaway from it. In both presentation and delivery, it’s clear Phish sought to craft an album that captured the energy, equitable playing, and open-ended musical possibilities that have made their live shows so incomparable within the realm of modern rock. That this particular goal is so critical for a band entering their third decade – a band that has both proven their merit within the live realm of the rock universe, while accomplishing nearly every artistic goal they’ve ever strived towards – says everything you need to know about the quality of their studio album’s to date.

To be blunt, Phish’s studio recordings are to their live shows what a burger in SE Asia is to Kuma’s. A tepid imitation that only leaves you craving the real thing that much more.

For as divisive as the initial response t0 Wingsuit was in the Fall of 2013, the leak, and subsequent response to Fuego, has been met with a far more measured shrug and understated grin. New Phish music has arrived, and this is a good thing. Now, much of the community directs their attention to the impending tour where we’ll see just how these ten new songs fit in the ever-expanding Phish catalogue.

Overwhelmingly it seems the Phish community is genuinely pleased with Fuego. The record pops with energy and is sonically weightier than many of the band’s previous efforts. Yet, there’s still a consistent hesitation for many to disarmingly love the record. The reason for this is simple: the task for the band to transfer what makes them special in the live setting into a studio is complicated. It raises questions over what is specifically necessary for Phish to thrive as a band.

Does there need to be an audience present?

Do they need the freedom to play without taking a cut?

How much of an impact does a confined setlist and a time constraint have on their overall level of creativity?

The answers are not simple, and as anyone who’s listened to Fuego can attest, neither are the results.

The record opens with its title-track, a brawny, nine-minute song that has “Set II Opening Jam” written all over it. Recorded live during the 10/30 soundcheck at Boardwalk Hall, “Fuego” is at once the closest representation of live Phish on a studio album, and an absolutely torrid opening statement. Not to mention a veritable showcase for the ongoing resurrection of one Jon Fishman. Throughout, the band sounds confident and adroit. The production is such that the song is left to speak for itself; the levels are simply adjusted here to accentuate the power of each musician’s playing. There’s a franticness to the playing. Listening, it’s as if one can simultaneously latch onto the nerves accompanying the band in the hours before the Halloween show, and, now, as both fans and band anxiously await just how “Fuego” will expand this summer.

The title of the record indicates heat, obviously. By most interpretations, Fuego – in both its phrasing and in the music produced – is a confident assertion from the band as to where they stand in 2014. Whereas 2009 was defined by a communal joy at the simple presence of Phish again, in 2014, nothing short of straight-fire from the band will cut it. By these standards, the album’s opening nine-minutes are as invigorating as they are shocking.

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From there we weave in-and-out of a number of set fillers as the group’s collective songwriting – as well as the individual creations of each member – are put on display. One must point out the overall quality of the songs that make-up the meat of Fuego. Whereas in past Phish records, the ballads and contemplative numbers have tended to be their most disappointing (save for “Fast Enough For You,” “Lifeboy,” and “Thunderhead”) here, these songs shine as individual numbers. Still, there are flaws throughout. Notably, the fact that any concept of flow is essentially tossed to the wayside, and unquestionably each of these songs live and die – in large part – on the production work from Bob Ezrin.

“Devotion To A Dream,” – something of a wizened “Backwards Down The Number Line” – benefits greatly from both the work of Ezrin and a brilliant concluding solo from Trey that hints at his Eat A Peach inspired lead work in the 10/29/2013 “Down With Disease.” Conversely, “The Line” is barely tempered with and is one of the finest overall tracks of the record.

Both “Winterqueen” and “Sing Monica” teeter between overtly cheesy pop and sheer studio dominance. While I’ve never understood Trey’s post-2.0 infatuation with writing as if he were trying to compose Game Of Thrones: The Musical, the spaciousness that hangs within the verses, and the horns that build halfway through, add a completely different dimension to one of the (admittedly) weaker Halloween debuts. Love it or hate it, it’s clear “Sing Monica” is here to stay. If the version from Fuego is any hint though, the reworked solo is going rock live, and could find the most overtly-pop song the band’s written since “The Connection” serving as a reliable Set I closer.

“Halfway To The Moon” – one of the most emotive and mysterious songs the band has debuted in 3.0 – is both sharp and disappointing all at once. Musically, the studio slims it down while equally smoothing out its edges, giving it an even sultrier groove than has been apparent in many live versions. However, the over-production of Page’s vocals eliminates any of the organic quality that has always been key to the song. That it’s always sounded like a haunting mix between Neil Young, The National and Cass McCombs should have been accentuated. Instead, Ezrin drains Page’s voice of any human quality, thus cutting out the personal struggle that is at the core of the song.

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Last week I wrote in depth about both “555” and “Waiting All Night.” While my feelings towards the two as individual songs has yet to change – I fear the production on “555” has swerved into gimmicky terrain, yet am completely blown away by everything about “Waiting All Night” – I find that their placement on the record alters my thoughts towards them ever-so-slightly.

Whereas “555” feels like a proper shift towards the album’s second half following “Sing Monica,” “Waiting All Night” is as awkwardly placed here as it was in it’s two live versions to date. The song is perfectly set up to be an ideal landing spot for a Set II jam, and one can only hope the jarring entrance that’s accompanied it in its infancy doesn’t follow it into 2014.

What’s more is the placement of “Wombat” and “Wingsuit” back-to-back, in the set-up and closing role, only increases the lack of flow that permeates throughout the record. Following the blissful nature of “Waiting All Night,” one has to wonder why we’re dropped into the awkward giddiness of “Wombat” only to then be released in the ethereal and stunning “Wingsuit.”

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A necessary digression:

One of the defining aspects that makes the most memorable Phish shows so transcendent – and so re-listenable – is the presence of flow. Be it due to song selection, or fluid jamming, or an advanced attentiveness to tonal structure and key shifting/uniting within the setlist, Phish’s insistence upon connecting all the separate pieces of their catalogue into linear narratives is something that separates them from most other live acts. One only has to scan the setlists from 2013 to see how setlist structure and flow helped craft some of the best shows of the year, including 07/05/2013, 07/27/2013, 07/30/2013, and 12/29/2013, among others. That so little effort was made to connect the ten pieces of Fuego into something that feels tangible and unified, is one of its biggest disappointments.

The standard of great albums (from Highway 61 Revisited to Dark Side Of The Moon to Sound Of Silver to High Violet to Lost In The Dream) begins and ends with its narrative continuity. Dedicated listeners want to be able to press play and let a record unveil itself to them organically. Repeated listens and interlocking themes, that can only emerge from this kind of listening, tend to materialize from records that flow effortlessly from one song to the next. Most critically, Fuego feels like a collection of songs rather than a linear story.

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A song that was defined by on-stage dancing, an infectious funk-strut, and some of the goofiest, and self-referential jokes that Phish has ever composed, it’s shocking how little fun the band sounds like their having throughout the recorded version of “Wombat.” The vocals are sung without any sense of humor, and the result is an awkward, borderline embarrassing, delivery of a song that clearly requires an all-in mentality. Musically it’s taught and danceable, and the loops that cater the song’s post-explosion will be received with ecstatic praise should they accompany the it this summer.

Whereas Halloween 2013 opened with the blissful airiness of “Wingusit,” Fuego closes with it, and it’s clear this role is far more appropriate for it long-term. (As a side note, for all the issue I have with the overall flow of Fuego, it’s undeniable how perfectly the band nailed their opening/closing selections.)

“Wingsuit” is unquestionably one of the records supreme highlights. The surreal nature and ambient quality that made it one of the immediate keepers on Halloween is ever-present here. And the final break and subsequent solo from Trey is so clearly lifted from David Gilmour it feels like the proper musical nod in its delivery. A song that feels simultaneously like a rebirth and a conclusion, the symbolic nature of it opening 10/31 II and closing Fuego are not lost on this listener. In the same sense, the idea of the song expanding outwards as a Set II Opening Jam, while also working as a landing pad for an extended “Down With Disease” is equally imaginable.

That we have so many structural options with the majority of these songs is a testament to the band’s diverse songwriting capabilities so deep in their career.

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For a band that has always struggled to capture the magic of their live performances within the confines of the studio, Fuego is as close a representation of the true nature of Phish as has ever been put to tape. In it’s best moments – “Fuego,” the powerful solos in “The Line,” “Devotion To A Dream,” “Halfway To The Moon,” and “Sing Monica,” and the ambient bliss of “Waiting All Night” and “Wingsuit” – Fuego feels like a major accomplishment for Phish. And it is.

Never before have they truly come close to honing in on the unbridled energy, and atmospheric spaciousness that drives so many of their fans to travel to see them repeatedly.

And yet, at the same time, what Fuego proves as well is that there’s simply no way Phish can (or will) ever truly recreate the magic that is so ever-present at their shows within the confines of the studio. The issues with flow, the overproduction of certain songs, and the abject tepidness of “Wombat” leave a bad taste in your mouth long after the record finishes. This is not to say the record is a failure in any way. No matter what criticisms you lay on it, it’s unquestionably the band’s strongest record since either Billy Breathes or The Story Of The Ghost.

In the end, it seems clear that even after the applaudable efforts from Phish to craft a studio record that reverberates with the power and energy of their live shows, it may be something of an unattainable goal. So much of what makes Phish’s live shows so unique is polar opposite to what makes a classic album so lasting.

Whereas Phish shows capitalize on the unknown, albums are carefully crafted artifacts. Spontaneity plays such a huge role in every Phish jam, while each moment of transcendence on an album has been labored over for weeks, and sometimes months. The two mediums are neither compatible, nor do they cater to every artist. While Phish ultimately comes up short on Fuego in terms of recreating their live show within the confines of an album, the sheer fact that they took the risk some three decades into their career is reason enough to believe in this band going forward.

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12/30/1993 & The Significance Of The-Night-Before-The-Night

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By most accounts 12/30/1993 should never have happened.

With a torrential blizzard encompassing the Northeastern United States, most fans traveling from New Haven, CT to Portland, ME were either caught in virtual whiteouts or forced to wait until the very last minute to travel.

For those who were in Portland in the hours preceding the show most had to brave sub-zero temperatures outside while waiting for the venue to shuffle everyone in. As had become a staple of Phish fandom over the past 10 years however, Phish fans would prove more than willing, & more than capable of overcoming seemingly any/all odds, any distance & any weather in the unyielding hunt towards the next Phish show. Be it Dec 1995’s NE Run; Fall 1997’s Denver –> Central Illinois –> Hampton Quest; the long march across Alligator Alley to Big Cypress; the rain-soaked hell-slog to Coventry; or the overnight cross-country hauls throughout 3.0, Phish fans were always ready to hit the road – no matter the conditions – in search of the musical highs Phish provided.

More often than not, Phish would repay their efforts in full.

On such nights when it took an extra effort just to get to a show, there’d often be a palpable energy in the air – tension one could reach out and clutch onto – where band & audience engaged in a back & forth exchange of riotous celebration & shared camaraderie brought upon by years of shared musical unity. With each Phish show being a wholly new & unique experience, with each crowd being compiled of dedicated fans who’d seen the band countless times & discussed them as one would their favorite baseball team, with each venue & city providing its own historical backdrop to the band’s performance, & with the potential always there for a historical, boundary-pushing jam, &/or unexpected bustout, &/or tongue-in-cheek inside joke from their Burlington days, it’s no wonder nights like 30 December 1993 resulted in some of the most significant shows the band ever played.

And yet, for all of the immediate table-setting that logistics played in making 12/30/1993 one of the best shows of that crucial year – not to mention one of the most enduring performances of Phish’s overall career – perhaps what most sets it apart from other shows is its significance as one of the ever-special “Night-Before-The-Night” shows.

The concept of the Night-Before-The-Night is as uniquely Phish as any.

In the same vein as their ever-changing, unpredictable setlists, their surprise Halloween covers of Full Albums, their litany of bustous & special guests & gimmicks that dot their live catalogue, the Night-Before-The-Night is a singular way for the band to catch their crowd on their heels and deliver a memorable – if not wholly unexpected – concert experience. Like the sheer childish thrill of a surprise gift on Christmas Eve, or the rehearsal dinner for your best friend’s wedding that parties deep into the night, the Night-Before-The-Night is a celebratory result of pent-up energy, anticipation, & a shared history that bursts uncontrollably ahead of schedule.

It’s a sensuous feeling rooted deep in youthful excitement and unbridled anticipation.

It’s the party the night before finals. It’s the unrivaled sense of freedom that comes with clocking out the night before your flight to someplace warm & very far away. It’s walking into your apartment the night before your birthday to find 20 of your best friends cloaked in darkness, exalting their love and friendship for you.

It’s all of these moments of unexpected celebration and tensional release; only here it’s shared with 20,000 people, hosted by your favorite band, whose entire career has been built on capitalizing on these very moments.

If there’s any Phish show you ever need to be at, it’s The-Night-Before-The-Night.

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For a show like The-Night-Before-The-Night to even occur there has to be “The Night” for there to properly be a “Night Before.”

This often comes in the form of holiday shows – 4th of July, Halloween, NYE – festivals, tour finales, & any otherwise overly-hyped show due to venue locale, date, et al. Such shows are often the ones wherein which the band feels such an overwhelming amount of pressure to deliver that often times their nerves are released one show prior as a means of lessening the expectations for the highly anticipated performance. In some cases this unexpected and unexplainable release tends to water down the originally hyped show as a result.

In the same vein as the Wild Card rounds of the MLB & NFL playoffs, and the first round of the NBA Playoffs tend to be more electric and bombastic than the more prodding later rounds, there’s something about the anticipation of a BIG night that lends itself to the shows preceding it.

Some of the most revered Phish shows in history are a direct result of this alchemic composition. Beyond 12/30/1993, many fans look to 10/29/1995, 08/14/1996, 12/30/1997, 08/12/1998, 07/25/1999, 02/28/2003, 07/29/2003, 12/01/2003, 12/30/2009, 10/30/2010, 08/28/2012 & 10/29/2013, among others, as further examples of legendary nbTn’s.

In person these are some of the most exciting and unforgettable shows one could catch. They cultivate the sense of Phish being your own personal secret while also making one feel as if they’re in on some spectacular joke few others will ever quite understand.

On tape these shows reverberate with electricity & a pop that separates them from all others. It’s not so much that they’re “better,” per se, than other shows, more so that they contain within them the same cognizance of dangerously tampering with larger forces that comes with sneaking out of your parents house at 3am, or skipping class to smoke pot with your best friends.

Senses elevated, each song tends to carry more weight, each jam more significance, each ovation more reverberation.

From the tension in Trey’s voice as he delivers the Forbin’s Narration on 12/30, or the maniacal outburst that results from the nearly-900 show bustout of Sneakin’ Sally four years later, to the unparalleled appearance of Jeff Holdsworth on 01 December 2003, to the Tweezeppelin madness that overtook the second set on 10/30/2010, there’s often no match for the energy output that comes from the pure shock value that occurs on the nbTn.

It’s unsurprising that on these nights the band tends to pull out all the stops. For a band that’s built its entire career on a devoted partnership with their crowd, the awareness of, and emotional reaction to such a show could never be lost on the performers.

These are the nights where storytelling is most likely to occur. Jams are typically extended to surreal & ethereal heights. And a selection of choice rarities & bustouts are dropped seemingly at will. These are the nights when you review a setlist in the hours following the show’s conclusion & find you have to pick your jaw up off the floor. These are the nights when it feels like Phish won the NCAA Title as an 8th Seed.

They are as shocking as they are monumental & as rewarding as they are unexpected.

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With a New Year’s Eve show planned for the following night at the Worcester Centrum – a venue the band had been working towards playing at for five years – 12/30/1993 was in many ways the first every Night-Before-The-Night show in Phish’s history. And while the NYE show would more than satisfy diehard fans with its Greatest Hits-esque setlist, unified “we’re all in this together” vibe that permeated throughout, and the all-time version of Harry Hood that capped off the 3rd Set, many overlooked 12/30 as little more than an appetizer for 12/31 in the days and weeks leading up to it.

Just four years earlier Phish had packed The Paradise in Boston through word of mouth – and the help of Greyhound Buses – as their very first headlining gig in Beantown. A city that feels in many ways like the capitol of the Northeastern Kingdom, it’s always been like a second home for Phish. Its summer shed, Great Woods, hosted the final Gamehendge performance in 1994, the Fleet Center hosted their 20th Anniversary show in 2003, it was the site of two emotional sendoff shows in 2004, in 2009 the band chose Fenway Park to usher in their first proper tour in five years, and in 2013 the revamped Centrum (now the DCU Center) hosted two shows in October that felt as close to a 30th Anniversary Celebration as any.

To close out a year as monumental as 1993 in The Centrum would be yet another step forward for a band that had yet to relinquish their foot from the gas in nearly ten years of growth and development.

As Phish would show on 30 December 1993 however, there’s rarely a time when you can assume they’ll simply mail a performance in. Regardless how amped they & their fanbase was for the NYE show in Worcester, there was simply no way 1993 Phish was going to allow the gig in Portland to be forgotten.

As this show would prove for years to come, the shows where Phish is least expected to deliver are often times the most memorable ones of them all.

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By the end of 1993 Phish was a serious musical and artistic force to be reckoned with. A national touring act that had continuously pushed themselves both creatively and artistically, they’d spent the past two years touring without restraint in effort to evolve beyond the tight-shipped machine they’d spent the better part of 1989 – 1991 becoming.

The Spring of 1992 had seen them expand their setlist and their improvisational abilities, while their time spent opening for Santana that summer had given them the chance to witness first hand the immense possibilities of band/audience connection through live improvisation. No longer the lackadaisical, wide-eyed college students jamming at house parties and in dorm cafeterias, they were ready to push their music deep into the unknown in a professional, and an artistic manner.

In early 1993 Phish spent five months on the road. In a tour that saw them cross the nation twice in just over 3 months, the band consistently tinkered and experimented towards further improvisational expansion. They carried themselves with a swagger that could only result from having played nearly 400 shows in the previous four years. Their sound fuller, their shows more fluid, their crew stable, they now began a process of outward expansion that would eventually lead them to the abstract explorations of November 1994 and June 1995.

David Bowie became a prominent opener, while Tweezer continued its evolutionary expansionism towards its eventual status as the ultimate Phish jam. The Big Ball Jam, one of a number of examples of band/audience interplay – introduced in late 1992 – was played nightly, allowing the band the opportunity to shed their artistic self-consciousness while the audience directed their music. For whatever shortcomings it had in terms of listenable music, it was yet another example in a line of band-initiated exercises that would help to bridge the gap between them and their audience, while also broadening their perspective on what was possible with live music.

Shows such as 02/23, 03/16, 03/30, 04/14, 04/18, 04/30, 05/03, & 05/08, among others, displayed a Phish far more relaxed in terms of setlist construction than they’d been in years past. During many of the aforementioned second sets, songs like Tweezer, Stash, David Bowie, Weekapaug Groove and Mike’s Song could expand far beyond the previously understood frames of musical construction. Direct, fully-flowing, organic segues became a far more typical aspect of second sets. And while their jamming was still rooted in a frenetic dissonance that bordered on shock value at times, it was clear by tour’s end – as heard in the 05/03 Tweezer -> Manteca -> Tweezer, and the 05/08 David Bowie -> Jessica -> David Bowie -> Have Mercy -> David Bowie – that the band’s expansionist efforts were beginning to blossom in melodic terrains of improvisational music.

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Early on in the year they played a show in Atlanta, GA that would stand as one of the most important of their entire career. To this day 20 February 1993 is still revered as one of the critical moments in Phish history.

Taking a leap forward within the confines of a single show in a way they hadn’t since the mid-80’s, Phish fused the tight and explosive sound they’d crafted over the previous four years with the exploratory origins they’d been founded in. Wielding a set of segues, teases and jams in and out of Tweezer and Mike’s Groove, a porthole opened.

Phish would never be the same.

No longer would gimmicks & stories & Fishman joke-songs & secret languages & pure energy be enough to make a show. To move forward as artists in pursuit of their goal of producing linear, equal, & completely unified music through live, improvisational jamming, the band would begin a process of shedding their own egos and exploring the various musical avenues their songs could take them.

Later that year, during the fateful month of August 1993, the band continued to tinker with the formula they’d established throughout the previous four years, here using the “Hey Hole” jamming exercise to cultivate new lines of communication and new avenues for improvisation and linear musical communication. While the month of August is revered as one of the most impressive of their entire career – along with June/November 1994, December 1995 and November/December 1997 – the entire Summer Tour proved to be a massive breakthrough for the band. Shows like 07/16, 07/17, 07/24, 08/02, 08/07, 08/09, 08/11, 08/13, 08/14, 08/20, & 08/28 stretched the confines of what a concert could be in theory, and provided Phish with further proof that their energy & precision wasn’t at risk with a refined emphasis on experimentation. To the contrary, Phish discovered that by emphasizing improv, the energy of their concerts, and their trust within each other as artists, only solidified their original product. Oftentimes they’d find themselves writing new songs and themes within jams as can be heard in the 08/11 Mikes, 08/13 Gin, & 08/14 Antelope, among others.

The sets and shows that produced these groundbreaking musical experiments were thusly enhanced by their existence.

That Fall Phish would take a break from touring to record their most accessible and taught record to date: Hoist. An album recorded with a keen eye on an altogether different type of musical expansion – here popular exposure – was a reflection of the halcyon year 1993 was for Phish. Still young enough to devote all their waking hours to their craft, devoid of the responsibilities to family, crew and a burgeoning fanbase, fixated on an abstract goal to produce completely egoless music in a live setting, they had seemingly all the time in the world to push their own artistic goals forward while still spreading their name.

It was the kind of period of artistic fruition and popular expansion that any musician would kill for some ten years into their career. It’d been a long road to this point, but now here, Phish intended to make the most of the opportunities before them.

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The Cumberland County Civic Center is a 9500 multi-purpose arena in downtown Portland, ME. Home to the AHL Portland Pirates it’s like many of the 60’s & 70’s era concrete sheds that have witnessed some of the best shows throughout Phish’s career. Encased in cement, graced by neon-lit corporate sponsorship, ripe with stale beer and the lingering scent of processed foods, acoustically unreliable, employed by the least abled-bodied workers in the American workforce; these are the venues that marked the arrival of Phish as a national touring act, and that they have called home on Fall Tours, Winter Tours & New Years Eve Runs ever since.

A venue that was ushered into live-music-existence with a ZZ Top performance in 1977 – and is ultimately famous for the fact that it was to have been the site of an Elvis concert were he to not have died the morning of 16 August 1977 at his home in Memphis – it’s one of the industrial and pop-cultural pinpoints that’s put Portland on the map. Located in the heart of downtown Portland, a town known for outdoor enthusiasts, green energy, and the fact that it’s home to the most restaurants per capita in America, the venue and the city are the kind of Northeastern haunts that have always felt like home for Phish.

The original capitol of Maine, the Portland of the East, is the state’s most populous city; it’s a city that’s known its own fair share of hardship, resiliency, & ultimately, recovery.

Hit hard by the British trade embargo of 1807, the city grew in both size and stature following the War of 1812. It was the site of the Portland Rum Riots in response to Maine being the first state prohibiting the sale of Alcohol, and in 1863 its harbor was the site of one of the northernmost battles of the Civil War. Nearly destroyed in 1866 due to a fire that resulted from Fourth of July celebrations gone awry. It’s a town that’s played as distinctive a part in its region’s history as it has in reveling in the fruits of Americanization.

An early 20th-Century rail hub, it faced marked economic decline during the mid-century due to the invention of icebreaker ships which allowed freight ships to reach Montreal without having to transport goods through Portland. In the mid-70’s the construction of the Maine Mall severely impacted downtown Portland’s economy, a trend that would only finally be reversed in the 1990’s as businesses began opening and revitalizing the Old Port.

Like many midsized American cities it’s experienced a cultural and economic revitalization over the past two decades as more and more Americans have realized the aesthetic importance of local production & authentic business centers.

Home now to a bustling service industry, the main financial services of Maine, and some of the most dedicated urban farmers in the US, it’s a city that resembles in many ways the remarkable career Phish has cultivated these last 30 years. Resilient in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, adaptable to changing tides and bursts of inspiration, amicable to keep people coming back for more, Portland was the fitting town to play host to one of the most memorable shows in Phish history.

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phish_aquarium_setStepping to the stage in front of an eager and packed house, Phish opened with one of their storied, compositional masterpieces: David Bowie. A song known for its eerie kinetic energy as much as it is its open-ended spaciousness, it’s the kind of song that announces a BIG show simply in its presence alone. Containing only two lyrics: “David Bowie” & “UB40” – both shouted with youthful irreverence and a satirical nod towards their arena rock forbearers – the song is built upon the duality of its maddeningly spinning harmonic interplay, and ultimate release into the musical unknown.

Complete with repeated references to Aerosmith’s “Dream On,” this performance struck the crowd at once. As Trey directed the song back to its musical home through a torrential cacophony of blistering leads, the crowd responded with the kind of electricity that can only be a result of abject surprise and bewilderment over the course the show had taken right out the gates.

A night when many would expect the band to proceed with measured caution and ease – essentially reserving the best for NYE – here they were, immediately in full attack mode, assaulting the crowd right out the gates.

The entire first set is a clinic in structural flow and energy.

From Bowie we’re brought to Weigh’s comedic shrill and musical balefulness. The Curtain retains Bowies composed complexity, reminding those in attendance – and listening years later – that, ultimately, Phish is an artistic project to “please me,” sans all regrets.

Sample In A Jar, Paul & Silas, & Rift are the kind of playful, energized, reductive songs that mark time and flow within a first set. Presented here with an added dose of electricity, the solo from Sample engulfs the arena in the way fans would come to expect from it for years to come.

In Col Forbin’s Trey launches into a sprawling tale that originates within the CCCC wherein which the Pirates ice rink – upon which the crowd is watching the show from – melts away, setting the entire crowd at sea until they drift away into the mythical land of Gamehendge. A song that had become something of a rarity even at that point in their career (It’s only been played 25 times in the 21 years since) it’s – along with its musical partner, The Famous Mockingbird – the kind of song that immediately marks whatever show it appears at as singular and special. One needs only to think of 11/17/1994, 12/01/1995, 08/14/2009, and 07/03/2011 to realize its significance within a setlist. In the same sense as Harpua did on 12/30/1997, Destiny Unbound on 02/28/2003, and Crosseyed on 07/29/2003, the Forbin’s -> Mockingbird on 30 December 1993 immediately gave the show an added dose of mythical lore and historical relevance.

Played only seven times throughout 1993, Bathtub Gin had yet to fully assume the role of a complete rotational song. However, its performance just four-and-a-half months earlier in Indianapolis had been crucial in bursting open the musical confines that Phish was increasingly desperate to move beyond. A jam that moved from vocal-jam-gimmickry to dissonant guitar swells to arena rock grooves to a frenetic peak to a joyous, funky breakdown in the matter of 15 minutes, it was one of many improvisation journeys throughout August 1993 that worked to release Phish from their own self-consciousness and equip them with the confidence needed to run assuredly off the veritable musical cliff. While the version on 12/30 didn’t traverse quite as far from home as the 08/13 Murat Gin did, it still relied on the bottled-up energy and experimental fervency that defined so much of their improvisation throughout 1993.

Closing with an absolutely revolting acapella cover of Skynnard’s Freebrid was the kind of tongue-in-cheek Phish-nonsense needed to close out a set such as this. Energy sustained, they exited for their “15 minute break” having equally stunned and warmed the packed house.

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Perhaps one of the telltale signs of a nbTn show is the explosiveness that often overtakes a crowd during setbreak. A setbreak like this was filled with exclamations in the beer lines, high fives amongst complete strangers, and the unified sense that this was the only place on Earth one would want to be.

In Set II Phish compiled nothing short of a masterpiece in terms of set construction, improvisational experimentation, and overall energy released. Fluid from one song to the next, containing within it one of the critical jams of the era, not to mention an all-too-rare oldie full of Phish lore, and a massive bustout for their East Coast faithful. In short it’s one of those sets any respectable Phish fan has heard at least once, and any diehard knows by heart.

A precursor to the jam-heavy, seguefests that would mark their peak-periods in 1995 and 1997, 12/30/1993 II is the kind of set one presses play on, and never skips a track, nor stops listening until its conclusion.

Opening with their cover of Deodato’s Also Sprach Zarathrustra, otherwise known as 2001 – a song which opened no less than 19 second sets in 1993 – was equal parts anticipated punch and a missionary pronouncement of the set to come. In the same way that its anthemic jam ushered in memorable sets on 08/07, 08/14 and 08/20, here it worked as a precursor to a set that would be as transformational as it would be celebratory.

It was, however, when they dropped into Mike’s Song that everything changed.

One of the most revered and oldest songs in Phish’s catalogue, Mike’s Song moves from the poppy nonsensical lyrics written by an 18-yr-old Mike Gordon into a dark and prodding jam that, at its best, opens to unending musical possibilities. Just that year, during its performances at The Roxy, and in August on 08/11 and 08/13, the song had expanded considerably as the band sought to carve out the underbelly of the F#/B jam. Yet, where those three versions focused firstly on the varied segues that could emerge from the jam, and later on the wacky staccato dissonance the jam catered to, the version on 12/30 was far more melodious than any Mike’s had been before. Swimming through the minor-keyed jam the song produced, Trey built the band towards an anthemic peak that fit both the show’s setting, and the place they found themselves in at this point in their career.

Perhaps though, the most remarkable thing about this jam is its dexterity. As the band quieted down, they brought in a sense of darkness ultimately directing the jam into The Horse by way of a deft segueway.

The jam, rooted in harmonic bliss, capable of evolving with an effortlessness that would define their best jams in the years to come, was a critical turning point for the band in their evolution from prankster aficionados to true artists.

Compiling the middle part of Mike’s Groove with such rarities (for its time) as Punch You In The Eye and McGrupp was the kind of understood nod from the band that colors all great nbTn setlists. From 10/29/1995’s It’s Ice -> Kung -> It’s Ice -> Shaggy Dog and 12/30/1997’s Carini -> Black-Eyed Katy -> Sneakin’ Sally (Reprise)> Frankenstein encore, to 02/28/03’s Soul Shakedown Party and 12/30/2009’s Tela, one of the sure signs that you’re at a nbTn show is the appearance of the rare songs most fans spend years chasing down.

After a spirited jaunt through Weekapaug Groove – a jam that mirrored the Mike’s in both its melodic burst and its foreshadowing of Phish maximalist playing of 1995 – closed out the near 45-minute Mike’s Groove, Fishman’s take on Purple Rain brought the laughs before the last surprise of the night was delivered.

Only seen twice since 1991 – and unseen on the East Coast since 11/15/1990 – Phish closed out the second set with a triumphant version of one of their most beloved songs: Slave To The Traffic Light. Responding to the show-long pleads from their audience; it was one final gift from the band in an evening full of them.

Cementing the show as an all-timer, and a must-hear tape, the appearance of Slave made it essential that nearly every Night-Before-The-Night show include a similarly big bustout. As 10/29/1995’s Shaggy Dog, 12/30/1997’s Sneakin’ Sally, 02/28/2003’s Destiny, 07/29/2003’s entire first set, 12/01/2003’s Long Cool Women In A Black Dress, and 12/30/2009’s first set, would later display, the bustout would play a vital role in raising the bar of a show, especially one as rare as a nbTn.

Closing things out with a frenzied Rocky Top & Good Times Bad Times encore, the band left their giant Aquarium stage and headed south towards Worcester, MA. The New Year’s Eve show would deliver on a level only seen twice more – 1995’s three-set masterpiece & 1999’s millennial all-nighter – and would rightly be regarded as one of the best shows the band’s ever played.

Yet it was 12/30 that created an endless debate amongst Phish fans about which show was supreme – the answer which, spoke volumes towards what kind of music you preferred from Phish – and opened the door into yet another possibility for the band in terms of the live concert experience.

For as the concept of The-Night-Before-The-Night proves, Phish is far more than simply a Rock & Roll Band in the traditional sense.

For them, the live concert is a living-breathing organism, in many ways like a Broadway Play. The idea that there shouldn’t be an element of surprise, nor a reward for those fans who make the extra effort to see even their lesser-hyped shows is something that Phish has always worked to transcend.

As the band would continue to grow in both stature and artistic accomplishment – as more and more shows became hyped in terms of promotion and fanfare – the concept & possibilities & opportunity to unleash unexpected doses of energy always lingered and was always available for the band through the shows that had remained off the radar of many of their fans. Yet another reminder as to why to never miss an upcoming Phish show. More often than not, if the band has a heavily hyped gig on the horizon, the best show to catch is the one most are overlooking.

The Best Of Phish – 2013 – Part I

1376985_10151642180686290_587081184_nOn 31 December 2012 Phish opened their final show of the year with a cover of Ricky Nelson’s 1972 hit “Garden Party.” A song Nelson had originally written after being booed off that same Madison Square Garden stage during the 1971 Rock ‘n Roll Revival Show, it was a fitting nod to the place Phish found themselves in both musically, artistically, and personally at the onset of their 30th year. Highlighted by the line, “You can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself,” the song would not only serve as a tongue-in-cheek jab at some of the more impatient members of Phish’s sprawling fan base, but would become something of a rallying cry for the band as they embarked upon their 30th year together as a collective unit.

Throughout 2013, the message of “Garden Party” felt ever-present, as the band sought to craft a six-month-long celebration of everything that had come to define Phish since 1983. In the summer, they emerged from hibernation with an overtly old school, foundational-setting run of shows from 07/03 – 07/21. Beaming with confidence, they went on to poke fun at their more obsessive fans in Chicago’s, ‘Poster Nutbag, the right way’“Harpua,” before crafting one of their seminal pieces of extended improve in the “Tahoe Tweezer” just ten days later. Friday night at Dick’s was once again devoted to gimmickry, this time as the band informed us that Most Shows Spell Something (Backwards). The Fall Tour that followed was a non-stop dance party with a signature throwback feel. And on Halloween the band debuted their new album – tentatively titled Wingsuit – in a move that has had the entire Phish community buzzing with thoughts and analysis ever since. Closing out the year with one more celebratory gag, Phish played an entirely coverless NYE Run, honoring the songs that had brought them so much acclaim throughout the years. Without question, 2013 was defined in large part by Phish’s desire to “please themselves” – without any regrets – in commemoration of everything they’d built (and rebuilt) since their college days.

What’s more though, was how “Garden Party” worked as a premonition for a band seeking to do more than simply garnish their 30th year with a nostalgic hue. Rather, 2013 saw Phish acutely pivot towards the next phase of their career. For, as much as 2013 was indeed about celebrating the essence of Phish – and their legacy – it was in many ways, more so about what’s next for a band that has systematically rebuilt itself from near-death, and now, at the onset of their 31st year, is in the midst of their most substantial peak period since the halcyon days of 1993-1998.

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Let’s pause for a moment, and take a step back to July 2010. At that point Phish had been back together for 17 months. Throughout they’d compiled four 10-15 show tours, alongside three, smaller, holiday-based/reunion runs. There’d been nights where they’d felt like Phish again. Nights where everything clicked: where they told jokes, where they pulled oft-forgotten songs out of nowhere, where their setlists flowed with precision, determination, and ease, and where they hooked up for extended pieces of forward-thinking, emotive, and ultimately revealing improv. But for all of the positivity that surrounded the 70 shows that had thus far made up Phish 3.0, there was a prevailing fear throughout much of their fan base that, perhaps, the band simply didn’t have it anymore. Too often they’d follow a breakthrough show with a run of unfocused and disconnected duds. Too many jams either followed a strict formula of assaulting rock -> rhythmic breakdown -> ambient fade, or would be cut off prematurely by Trey’s insistence on keeping the show moving. Too many shows featured a band that, simply put, appeared a shell of its former self. During the month-long break in Summer 2010, many openly wondered what would become of Phish 3.0?

Would they follow the same trajectory of their haunting and ultimately unsustainable 2.0 era; fading unfulfilled, full of regret, bemused with far more questions than answers?

Had Phish become (gasp) a nostalgia act?

Could they reestablish the unspoken communication that had led them to so many musical and artistic heights throughout their heyday?

Would they ever again evolve with the kind of abstract precision and focused experimentation that saw them transform from a psychedelically-infused speed-jazz quartet in 1993 to a spacious, patient, rhythmic juggernaut just five years later?

Could they do it again?

From the vantage point of January 2014 we know what happened. Barring a few setbacks along the way – parts of June 2011 and NYE 2011, most notably – when Phish reemerged for the second leg of their 2010 Summer Tour, they were a fundamentally different band. Since then they’ve been on a consistent upward trajectory, evolving with patient determination, overcoming many of the challenges set in front of them in 2009, and undoubtably blowing away even the headiest expectations any of us could have had for them when they announced their reunion back on 1 October 2008.

Beginning in earnest with the infusion of Trey’s Ocedoc – a move that systematically rounded-out his tone, resulting in him taking a more deliberate approach to building simple melodic lines, while also focusing more on rhythm – Phish has evolved with stunning speed over these past four years. Stylistically morphing – from the melodic jams of late-2010 to August 2011’s dive into the storage shed, to the cubist approach of 2012 – and further deepening their communication, they have consistently driven forward from the moment the Greek “Cities” dropped into its infectious whole-band groove-jam. A reflection of their own musical maturity and craftsmanship – and also the experience they’d gained from 25-years of friendship and collaboration – from August 2010 onwards, each tour has provided crucial reference points to Phish’s current peak. Be it the improvisational boon of August 2010; the self-referential gimmickry and humor of Fall 2010; June 2011’s experimentation & embrace of potential failure over conservatism; “The Storage Jam” and the darkness that engulfed many of their subsequent jams throughout August and September 2011; the 200-song challenge of June 2012; the fully-realized, multi-layered jams of August 2012; or the masterful run of creativity and exploration that was Dick’s and MSG 2012; there’s no denying the fact that following their initial – and necessary – 18-month rebuilding project, the Phish of late-2010-2013 in many ways mirrors the same band that rose from irrelevancy in the early-1990’s to become one of the largest, and most influential, creative forces in the country.

The only difference now: they are clearly wizened by their years. Trials & errors, fights, audits, drugs, failures, fuck-ups, youthful bliss, et al, behind them, the Phish of today is both healthy, happy, and inspired. Whereas in 2009 many wondered if such a “family-friendly” version Phish could muster up the kind of psychedelic expansionism and unadulterated experimentation that had drawn so many to them in the first place, it’s clear now that this version of Phish may not only match the creative ingenuity of their initial peak, but could in fact surpass their former selves in both musical discovery, and artistic sustainability.

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All of which brings us to 2013.

Beginning the year with a three-week foundational setting period, Phish toured the East Coast, fairing off torrential rains, all the while focusing on a tight rotation of songs which emphasized the original artistic statements of their career. Determined to perfect the whole-show-craftsmanship that had reemerged in Fall 2010, Phish used their first night at SPAC to send a message that 2013 would be more about patiently crafting complete shows rather than simply expanding upon big jams. Resulting in thematic concert experiences, the tour required noticeably more patience, reflection, and insight from their fans than the overtly jam-heavy August 2011, or bustout-driven June 2012 tours had. From 07/10’s “Maria” set, to 07/12’s “practicing safe music,” to Merriweather Post’s old-school affair, to 07/16’s “Heartbreaker” set to the existential masterpiece of 07/21’s second set, this first leg of the tour saw the band further advance their artistic intentions, while still infusing more than enough highlights to satisfy everyone in their fan base.

Following a five-day break, they reemerged at the Gorge intent on celebrating every aspect of their musical past, while systematically using each previous peak as a building block towards their next era. The rain behind them, comfortable enough to expand upond the strict rotation that had marked their entire East Coast run, rarities returned, jams popped, and the band played with an ease that could only result from the kind of foundational setting they’d initiated. From 07/26’s explosion of howlin’ energy, to 07/27’s album-like fluidity, to 07/30’s dance-party, to the methodical brilliance of the Tahoe “Tweezer,” to 08/02 and 08/04’s schizophrenic mind-fuck, by summer’s end Phish left no doubt in anyone’s mind that they’d not only coursed out their 30th year exactly as they’d intended to, but that they knew the “right way” forward for their creative evolution.

At Dick’s they keyed us in once more to their goals for the year by noting on 08/30 that “Most Shows Spell Something.” That they unveiled the gag backwards only lent itself more to their playful spirit and the multitude of angles with which one could approach understanding their music.

And then, as with 2010, Phish scheduled a two-week Fall Tour through some of the most historic – and smallest – venues within their home base of the Northeast. Needing no time to reacquire their bearings, it was clear from the jubilant jam that emerged from “Carini” on the tour’s opening night, that Phish had, once again, reached yet another level of unspoken communication and refined musicianship. Be it jams – “Carini,” “Ghost,” “Tweezer,” “Golden Age,” “Down With Disease,” “Twenty Years Later,” “Drowned,” “Light,” “Twist,” each built into fully-formed, innovative, and memorable excursions – or shows – 10/20, 10/23, 10/25, 10/26, 10/27, and 11/01 are some of the strongest complete shows the band has played since the 90’s – the band was completely locked-in throughout the Fall, and consistently able to tap into an vast wealth of creativity. At times one wished the band would simply have an off night to give fans re-listening, and avidly discussing, a chance to catch-up and breathe.

On Halloween the band once again repelled against expectations. Whereas traditionally they’d used the holiday to don a musical costume of one of their forbearers, here, in their 30th year, they instead used the moment to debut 12 new originals. Loosely dubbed Wingsuit, the second set of 10/31 represented yet another leap forward for this 3.0 incarnation of Phish. Like the Greek Run in 2010, the Storage Jam, and FUCK YOUR FACE before it, Wingsuit is a clear break between one era and another. Cultivated from various jams over the past two years, and containing some of the most advanced and deeply personal lyrics of the band’s career, the songs – and the symbolic nature behind their unveiling – provide the band with the necessary material and inspiration to enter the next phase of their remarkable career.

Closing out the year, once again, with four shows at Madison Square Garden in New York City the band honored their 30th Anniversary by focusing on the singular element that birthed their existence: their songs. Opting to only play originals, the four shows took on much of the same vibe that had marked the entire year. Nostalgically rich, yet full of forward-thinking jams in “Steam,” “Down With Disease -> Carini,” “Chalk Dust Torture,” and “Light,” the 2013 NYE Run both celebrated everything that has made Phish such a unique force in modern pop culture, and pointed the way towards their next thirty years.

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As with 2009 (Part I & Part II), 2010, 2011, & 2012 I’ve assembled a list of ten shows and jams that standout as the best of the year. Along with these selections, there are three honorable mentions to each. These are not simply shows/jams 11-13, but rather foundational jams and shows with which the band grew, yet didn’t crack my top ten. The lists are assembled chronologically, thus reserving the title “Best Ever” as a subjective accolade. Hope everyone had a wonderful holiday season! Happy New Year! Can’t wait to see what 2014 brings to the world of Phish!

The Best Of Phish 2013

Honorable Jams

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“Down With Disease -> 2001” – Toronto, ON – 07/22/2013

After kicking off the summer with three fairly contained versions of one of their most cherished Set II Openers, Phish finally broke through in Toronto with a jam that built off of their pivotal second set on 07/21,  thus pointing the way westward. Featuring patiently built melodic and rhythmic riffs from Trey throughout, the jam ultimately settled on a remarkably pleasant platitude, which felt entirely composed. A direct prelude to jams like the 10/23 “Twist,” 10/26 “Drowned,” 10/27 “Tweezer,” and 11/01 “Twist,” this “DWD” is not only one of the key, foundational jams of 2013, but it is also the kind of jam one could listen to on repeat without ever growing tired.

In short, this is simply one of the most enjoyable, and pleasing jams of the entire year. A section of wholly deliberate, rising melodic playing followed the Trey/Page melodic peak, ultimately giving way to a full-on tease of “Sea Of Love” from The National. Further proof of how much musical insight Trey has gained from his time spent listening to – and playing with – those in the indie rock world. Building towards a truly patient segue into “2001” rounded off one of the most subtly diverse jams of the year, one that clearly helped to initiate the band’s massive peak over the next four months. While this jam has become significantly overshadowed in the past four months, its influence on the stylistic evolution of 2013 cannot go unnoticed.

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“Harry Hood” – Hollywood, CA – 08/05/2013

There’s that moment in every single jam where everyone – band and audience alike – collectively realizes we’re suddenly in wide open, untapped, and unknown terrain. It may come via a reliable Set II opening vehicle, or in a totally unexpected song/slot in the show. Wherever and whenever it comes, the moment is ultimately defined by an immediate percolating of the senses, and a rush of euphoria, as the stakes of a show suddenly take upon unknown – in many ways, indefinable – potential. This moment is, for many, the entire reason why we see Phish. When that moment happens to come in a song steeped in as much historical lore as “Harry Hood” is, however, it raises a show to an entirely different level of excitement, sentiment, and lasting resonance.

While it’s clear here that Trey’s dedicating much of his energy to painting a backdrop of sound throughout the initial post-“Thank you, Mr. Hood…” section, we’re essentially still in typical “Hood-ville” until 9:37. From that point on, however, the jam enters completely unknown territory like it hadn’t since 07/31/03. A rock-based jam ensues, sounding in many ways like a leftover from the previous night’s “Runaway Jim,” before building into a full-on call-and-respond woo segment. Then, when it seems as though the band could momentarily snake back into “Hood,” they instead move into a more rhythmically-oriented realm, crafting a mosaic, where one member’s leads are effortlessly supplanted by another’s. Ambient-based jamming enters the fray, and suddenly the jam has become blissful. Abstract-cubism is the order, and, for a while, between 15ish and 17ish minutes, it feels as though we’re back in Dick’s 2012. Connecting on a dreamlike, plinko-esque jam that sounds like the denouement of a soon-to-be-unfinished jam, Trey plucks the “Hood” theme out of thin air, and the band rebuilds back to a subdued peak.

A creative palette of themes and varying musical passages, this jam harkened back to the band’s most prolific exploration within “Hood” from 07/25/03. A clear statement to the band’s M.O. moving forward in 2013, this “Harry Hood” opened the doors even further to what was possible in the coming Fall, here, coming on the last night of Summer Tour proper.

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“Carini” – Hampton, VA – 10/18/2013

On the opening night of Fall Tour, in the midst of a risky & self-conscious show, in their first performance back in the mothership since their reunion weekend in March 2009, “Carini” emerged mid-way through the second set and ultimately set the course of the entire tour. Rooted in the kind of bluesy, melodic, and celebratory rhythmic jams that had defined the best parts of the summer, what separated this “Carini” from the jams that had preceded it, was how simple and how overtly groove-oriented it was.

A bulbous and infectious dive into a rock-based, dance foray, this was the kind of jamming that would ultimately define Phish’s two-week Fall Tour. A fusion between the sparse, rhythmic jams of their 1997 peak with the rootsy, rock-oriented jamming that emerged in 2009 and 2010, further shaped by the cubist approach of 2012, and finished with the celebratory rhythmic style of the summer, this “Carini” felt like an ode to the nostalgically-rich, yet forward-thinking engine that was Phish 2013. Fading into their 3.0 hymnal, “Backwards Down The Number Line” was an entirely appropriate move for a band that had just shouted from the mountaintop their intentions for the proceeding Fall Tour.

The Top Ten Jams Of 2013

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“Split Open & Melt” – Saratoga Springs, NY – 07/06/2013

Wow. What a statement. What a glorified mess. A conscious experimental push into the unknown as anything heard from Phish 3.0. This jam covers so much terrain in its 18-minutes, it’s really quite exhausting.

Abstract, gorgeous, uneven, risqué, unpolished, raw, emotive, completely human; an absolute pure example of a band seeking out the elusive hook-up. It’s also perhaps the loosest, and unfocused Phish has allowed itself to be throughout the past five years.

For every jam that has either foreshadowed or reflected the various thematic terrains of 2013, there’s really no other jam produced this year that sounds anything like this “Split Open & Melt.” This might be the most important pre-Tahoe “Tweezer” jam played in the entire summer. One just has to hear the vocal inflection and laugh from Page at the end when he says, “We’ll be right back…” following their sloppy re-entry to “Melt” to understand how unexpectedly deep the band went, and how gloriously lost they became. If any jam in 2013 could symbolize a much-needed trust-fall for Phish, it’s this. Just, wow.

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“Carini -> Architect” – Saratoga Springs, NY – 07/06/2013

The first of four versions for Señor Lumpy Head on this list, this one pops immediately with an incredibly focused, highly expansive, delicate, interwoven and intricate piece of music that has continually resided in the upper echelons of Phish’s 2013 output since the moment it concluded. Reminiscent of the 08/31/12 “Undermind” and “Chalk Dust,” this is one of those democratic/full-band conversations we’ve now come to expect in 2012-2013 Phish.

In many ways though, this jam is all about Trey, as he plays with a determined and deliberate precision that would go on to define many of Phish’s best moments in 2013. An example of foundational setting leading to deliberate playing from Trey, this jam sounds like a direct prelude to Fall Tour more than most of the jams played throughout the summer.

Oh, and this jam also segues flawlessly into a debut. So much so, that, for a moment, “Architect” felt like it was simply just another part of the “Carini” jam.

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“Crosseyed & Painless> Harry Hood” – Holmdel, NJ – 07/10/2013

Two crucial things happen from 9:20 – 15:01 in this “Crosseyed,” which sets the foundation for literally every moment of fully-connected Phish in 2013.

1.) First, Mike creates an exorbitant amount of space through his melodic and atmospheric playing – something he’d been incorporating into Phish’s improv since mid-2011 – thus slowing down the jam’s typically galloping pace, and allowing more textural space for each member to communicate with each other.

2.) As a result of this, Trey recedes into the shadows and further incorporates his rhythmic playing that had been so evident during the Bangor “Golden Age,” building the jam to a unified peak based in large part around the familiar theme from the 02/16/2003 “Piper.”

Whether or not they were conscious of it, that they were jamming on a specific theme from one of their peak moments in the early stages of 2.0 was yet another of those unexplainable moments of pure musical magic that seem to find their way into the best Phish shows and jams. Fading some two minutes later into “Harry Hood,” which built upon the beauty of Bangor’s encore, was a clear nod to the brilliance of this “Crosseyed.”

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“Tweezer” – Stateline, NV – 07/31/2013

A moment of profound unity between both band and audience, as each rediscovered once again what was truly possible in the medium of a Phish show.

Listening back, there are just so many raw moments that harken back to the halcyon days of 1993 – 1998 when the band and audience engaged in the kinds of extended, abstract, absurdist, and inside-joke experiments that were both only possible at a Phish show, and made this whole cultural experiment feel that much smaller, and that much more unified and connected, even as it simultaneously widened as the word of the circus spread throughout upper-middle-class, white America.

A Few Examples:

10:20 – 13:30 — when Trey and Mike are both clearly so desperate to extend what, at this point, is just a standard 3.0, “Tweezer-themed-Tweezer-jam”, that they push atmospheric melodies outwards, building towards Trey’s rhythmic in-and-out fades, which – once Page catches on – leads to the hard-rock segment that defines the 13:42 – 16:06 section of the entire jam.

22:29 – 26:18 — Trey latches onto a deliberate riff which builds towards a gorgeous hose segment that would have single-handedly made this one of the elite jams of the year had it ended right then and there. No woo’s. No 30-minute barrier broken. No matter. This section of Trey-led riffing is among his most impressive playing of the entire year – in fact it’s a direct predecessor of that gorgeous, Allmans-esque jam that concludes the 10/29 “Down With Disease” – and would have been the single reason why – had the jam ended immediately after, as so many have throughout 3.0 – the “Tahoe Tweezer” would have still, at that point, been the longest jam of 3.0.

26:18 – 26:23 — This is, for all intents and purposes, the moment when the “Tahoe Tweezer” becomes THE Tahoe Tweezer. It’s all thanks to Page McConnell. He’s been following Trey’s lead for the past four minutes, and sensing – correctly – that the current theme is about to wind down, inserts the celebratory melody which, once Trey latches on at 26:24, becomes THE Tahoe Tweezer.

27:29 — The first WOO!

27:53 – 28:19 — Trey plays a riff that’s so driven, so celebratory, so deliberate, yet so thoughtless at the same time, so rooted in his purest feelings and emotions – from so deep in his heart – you can literally feel the shit-eating-grin spilling out across his face through your headphones. You can hear him realize right then and there just how big a deal this jam is. It’s not just the fact that it’s a great “Tweezer” to open a set. It’s not just the fact that this is the new longest jam of 3.0. It’s not just the fact that the band has allowed all their fears of playing deep into the unknown wash away. It’s not just the fact that the band is proving both to themselves and all their fans that they’re so locked in once again that they can play with an unending, limitless abandon, and still produce totally focused, driven, and unquestionably listenable, compositionally-sound music. It’s the fact that all these things were happening at once AND they’d latched onto a melody so contagious, so infectious, so rooted in the essential nature that has made music a communal and spiritual force for the entirety of human existence, that they’d spurred a wholly original conversation with their fans in the process. It’s the fact that if the entire goal of Phish’s entire existence – spontaneous moments of shared energy and musical brilliance resulting from carefully crafted compositions allowed to run wild – were boiled down to one moment in time, this moment would be it. That they discovered this through the peak in a “Tweezer” jam is all the more fitting.

32:46 – 35:07 — The Victory Lap. As if they even needed to keep playing following the woo’s. This is all Rock-Star-Trey here. Based loosely off the jam from “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” the band built towards one more massive peak – complete with Woo’s, because, why the fuck not at this point (???) – before coyly snaking back into “Tweezer.”

35:48 – 35:50 — Woo’s within the “Tweezer-riff” comedown. Fuck. This section is a lot like that loose and sloppy “Psycho Killer” that emerged from “AC/DC Bag: on 12/07/1997 as the denouement commenced upon Fall 1997. It’s so unserious, so ridiculous, so clear that whatever the band’s intentions were as they stepped on the stage for that night’s second set, they weren’t prepared for this. As Wax Banks said, “bag>psycho killer to open, seriously? they’re just dorking around at that point…”

36:09 – 36:47 — The final note. The final Woo. The fade. The band holds out this last note, systematically dementing it and burying it in the ground. It’s as if they don’t want to let it go. And why would they? If they only knew at that moment what this would ultimately build to…

Is it the best jam they’ve ever played? No. But it is the most important piece of music the band has played since the 07/29/1997 “Gumbo” or the 11/17/1997 “Ghost.”

It’s that revolutionary moment where the band is clearly searching for some ambiguous sound, some indefinable goal, and unquestionably uncovers something totally new about themselves in the process. Say what you will about the after-effects of the ‘woo’s,’ what’s clear to everyone involved is that without the “Tahoe Tweezer, “none of the brilliance that emerged with such stunning ease and consistency throughout the Fall would have been possible.

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“Chalk Dust Torture” – Commerce City, Co – 08/31/2013

Just listen to the segment from 10:02 – 12:36 and try – seriously try – to resist boogieing your ass off wherever you may be. Of all the moments of musical connectivity the band found themselves in throughout the entire 2013 Summer Tour, perhaps none felt as effortless, as mechanical, as choreographed, or as pre-planned as the immediate peak jam segment out of the Set II Opening “Chalk Dust Torture” from 08/31. A year to the date after their revolutionary FUCK YOUR FACE show, a night after informing their fans that MOST SHOWS SPELL SOMETHING, Phish connected on an aggressive, set opening jam, that systematically pointed the way towards the Fall.

Listen to the aforementioned segment again. Within it you can hear the first hints of what will become known as “Fuego.” What’s more is how deftly the band is able to hook up through rhythmically induced passages of deliberate playing, the very kind that would come to define all the highs of the looming Fall Tour.

Perhaps we couldn’t fully understand it at the time. Perhaps we weren’t aware that the band really just wanted to use Dick’s 2013 as a weekend-long celebration. But it’s clear now that this “Chalk Dust” was an essential moment that separated summer from fall in the same way the Toronto “Down With Disease” separated the East Coast Run from the West. A supremely confident statement from a band at the height of their powers once again, this “Chalk Dust” proved that all the foundational setting of early Summer were more than worth the patience required. And, just like in 2012, it was “Chalk Dust” that left perhaps the most lasting legacy on another memorable weekend at Dick’s.

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“Tweezer -> Golden Age” – Hampton, VA – 10/20/2013

In 2003 and 2004, Phish regularly dove wildly into the deepest and darkest holes of the musical underworld, drumming up some of the most baroque and macabre jams of their entire career. A result of the personal crises faced by Trey and Page at the time, these jams are, in many ways, singular to perhaps the most harrowing era in the band’s history. Rarely has Phish allowed themselves to even glimpse these seedy and hopeless terrains throughout their overtly-joyful period of rebirth since 2009.

On the final night of their Fall Tour-opening Hampton Run, Phish – and especially Trey – granted themselves a dip back into their darkside, resulting in their most inspired, and passionate improvisational excursion of 2013.

Channeling the guitar-wizardry of Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan, Trey incorporates his effects with caustic shreds of his guitar, cultivating a demented soundscape. There’s a stark nakedness to his playing throughout this jam, a peeling back the layers to his soul, a revealing insight into the darkness that still resides within.

This is the Yin to the “Tahoe Tweezer’s” Yang.

Yet, perhaps what makes this jam so rewarding, and ultimately so influential, is the segment of music that emerges at 19:57. Distantly related to the ethos of “Wingsuit” – a song that would debut some eleven days later, this denouement to the preceding jam segment offered a window into exactly what was possible when the band gave a seemingly fading jam one more look. Reminiscent of comments Page made in the IT DVD regarding the type of music that’s only possible after 18…19…32-minutes of jamming, this final segment would help push the band further, to the moments found in the latter parts of the 10/26 “Drowned,” 10/29 “Down With Disease,” 11/01 “Twist,” and 12/29 “Down With Disease -> Carini.”

In “Golden Age” Phish finally capitalized on the most profound excursions they’d thus far embarked on with the song – 07/02/2011, 07/03/2012, 07/03/2013, 07/30/2013 – pushing it further than it’d ever been before. A fully-realized, groove-based conversation between all four members, this version – along with its accompanying 10/27 version – finally unlocked the code on a song that had evolved in fits and spurts for the band.

A forty-minute segment of music that ultimately transcended everything else the band was capable of accomplishing throughout their brilliant 30th year, one can only imagine how much deeper Phish will now be willing to push their music in 2014.

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“Tweezer” – Hartford, CT – 10/27/2013

If the “Tahoe Tweezer” represented a moment of critical mass in Phish’s grand experiment, and the “Hampton Tweezer” was a marked dive back into the netherworld of their musical souls, then the “Hartford Tweezer” was a pronouncement of the celebratory rhythmic/melodic jamming the band had been busily perfecting all year on an extremely meta level.

We’ve long known that the ultimate key to Phish’s improvisational success is simplicity. A concept that’s often far easier said than done – especially when you factor in each member’s exceptional skill level, and the pressures associated with playing live, improvisational music – this version of “Tweezer” immediately gets to the point of itself, and then patiently rides itself out to its proper conclusion. Proof that less is more. Touching distinctly on the theme from “Weekapaug Groove,” this jam feels deeply rooted in the historical lexicon of Phish. It’s the kind of jam that fundamentally fit the conceptual goals of 2013.

Throughout 2013 Phish’s best moment came when they seemed to stop trying. Akin to 1997’s peak based around minimalist funk grooves, the diversity of their stylistic peaks in 2013 are only matched by the effortlessness it took the band to reach them. A moment when each member latched onto a singular idea and ran with it, the “Hartford Tweezer” is equally one of the most pleasurable, and important pieces of music played all year.

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“Down With Disease -> Taste” – Reading, PA – 10/29/2013

If one were to try and summarize the reasons for Phish’s two-week-long peak tour during October 2013, one could hypothesize over the bulbous and rhythmic interplay of Mike and Fish. Perhaps one would reference the archaic and personally historic venues the band toured through within their home turf. One might look to the impending performance of Wingsuit as inspiration. In their fifth year back following a five-year break-up, the overall health and friendship within the band has certainly led to a lot of possibilities as to why now, in their 30th year of existence, Phish has reached one of the highest peaks they’ve ever been on artistically. Yet, to me, one aspect of Phish’s playing sticks out as the most profound reason why this past Fall Tour was one of the greatest Phish has ever had: Trey’s deliberate approach to playing his guitar.

Nowhere is this approach more fruitful, nor more rewarding, than in the stunning jam that flowed out of “Down With Disease” on 10/29.

What was initially a funk-laced stroll through familiar “DWD” jam-terrain changed at 13:10 when Page began infusing melodic themes into the mix. Immediately latching onto his ideas, and toying with them before copying them, Trey built this initial foundation into an Allman-laced jam that harkened back to his heavily-lauded Hose-era-playing. Akin to the 12/30/1995 “Hood,” the “Went Gin,” the “IT Ghost,” and the “Tahoe Tweezer,” the melodic and spiritually uplifting notes that emanated from Trey’s guitar with such ease, passion, and deliberateness felt like a step back into an earlier time.

Beyond it’s musical brilliance, the “Reading DWD” provided one final twist for the thousands of fans trying to decipher any and all clues from the band about their upcoming Halloween performance. Immediately following this show, and continuing until the Playbills were dispersed two night’s later, the entire community was convinced we were getting Eat A Peach on Halloween. A fusion of Phish gimmickry, with musical ingenuity, along with the emotive thrill that’s associated with their best improvisational moments, the “Reading DWD” is one of those rare jams that repeatedly delivers on the hype.

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“Ghost> Carini” – Atlantic City, NJ – 10/31/2013

On 08/15/2004, following the whole-band collapse in “Glide,” and the emotional breakdown in “Wading In The Velvet Sea,” Trey told the crowd that the band needed to just “blow off some fucking steam…” They then proceeded to dive into a 50-minute firestorm of noise-ladened abstract improv within the limitless confines of “Split Open & Melt” and “Ghost.”

Just over nine years later, following a Halloween set where they debuted twelve completely new originals, Phish responded with this 35-minute segment of blissfully exuberant, and wholly-connected music within the limitless confines of “Ghost” and “Carini.” Without notifying their fans, the symbolic gesture was in many ways related to the necessary move to blow off some emotional steam at Coventry. The difference being the fact that in August 2004 they were a band grasping for their last breaths, whereas in October 2013, they were on the verge of rebirth once more.

The 10/31 “Ghost> Carini” is the sound of a massive weight being lifted off of Phish. For much of 2013 – no one knows exactly how long – the band carried around a secret waiting to be unveiled, live, in front of their fan base: Wingsuit. A burden that must have caused an incredible amount of artistic stress on the band, this jam segment was all the band needed to display how grateful they were for the open-mindedness of their fans to allow them such artistic freedom. Throughout the “Ghost” a sultry and sinister groove builds. The kind of deliberate and simple musical concept that had tracked their best improv of the year, this jam is the confident strut than can only follow a nailed risk. This is DiCaprio dropping the mic after one of his megalomaniacal speeches in “Wolf Of Wall Street.” This is Jordan shrugging after his 6th 3-pointer in the first half of Game 1 of the ’92 Finals. This is Trey’s prowling stomp around the stage during the surprise “Tweezer Reprise” encore on 04/03/1998.

It is, however, the “Carini” that gets all the glory in this segment. A 19-minute excursion that touches on literally all the moments of profound communication throughout the past two years, this jam is up there with the best improv the band has offered throughout the entirety of their career. Led by Trey’s celebratory rhythmic playing, this “Carini” reaches a full-band peak that would be further explored in the following night’s “Twist.” Stylistically reminiscent of the 08/31/2012 “Undermind” and “Chalk Dust,” the 09/01/2012 “Light,” 09/02/2012 “Sand,” 12/28/2012 “Tweezer,” 07/06/2013 “Carini,” and 07/31/2013 “Tweezer,” this is one of those Phish jams that moves effortlessly from one musical passage to another without giving the listener time to lament the conclusion of one before rewarding them with a fully-realized segment of music in the next.

Two songs that just scream All Hallow’s Eve in their musical origins and lyrics, “Ghost> Carini” was a fitting centerpiece for the band to blow-off some steam on a night when they confidently catapulted themselves into their next era.

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“Down With Disease -> Carini” – New York City, NY – 12/29/2013

“Thank you, we wrote that…”

By the end of 2013 Phish was on such an artistic peak, and on such a creative roll, that it became second-nature for them to hook-up and explore passages of musical brilliance. Fully-formed ideas seemed to simply emit from their instruments, and questions over if they’d produce another transcendent jam disappeared. Because of this, there are numerous jams from their recent Fall Tour and NYE Run that were painstakingly left off this list: 10/23 “Twist,” 10/25 “Waves -> Carini,” 10/27 “Drowned> Light,” 10/27 “Golden Age,” 10/29 “Twenty Years Later -> Piper,” 11/01 “Twist,” 12/30 “Chalk Dust Torture,” most notably.

When they stepped to the stage on 12/29, following their most fluid first set of the NYE Run, they unveiled yet another masterpiece of improvisation through two of their most reliable vehicles for musical discovery: “Down With Disease” and “Carini.” Two songs that have been featured extensively on this list, for whatever reason, both of these songs consistently allow the band an ideal passage into the unknown. In “DWD” Phish explored the melodic underbelly of the song’s origins – highlighted by Mike & Trey’s interplay as much as the soundscape crafted by Page – before rebuilding itself into a full-on “DWD Reprise.” A moment of euphoric magic for both band and audience alike, the blissful conclusion that rose naturally from the depths of improv was the kind of unexplainable point of connection that has so often marked the best moments of Phish’s 30-year career. Many claim you could feel the walls of the Garden shaking as the band reached a peak of a musical theme that is the composed sound of euphoric joy within the confines of Phishdom.

A yin to the “AC Carini’s” yang, the 16-minute “MSG Carini” was a demonic beast of minimalist groove. Deliberate, haunting, demented, abstract, insane, unified… the “MSG Carini” built from the Yo La Tengo-esque jam in the “Hampton Tweezer” into a hulking beast all its own. A sure sign that the seedy, under-worldly jams, which defined Phish 2.0, are at least back in part here in 3.0, this “Carini” felt like the unification of two eras. The fact that Phish can so willingly dive deep into the darkness again – during an era of such renowned health and personal well-being, no less – is as clear a sign as any of the artistic peak Phish is on right now.

Just as “Down With Disease” and “Carini” provided both the musical peak of the 2012 NYE Run, while simultaneously pointing the way towards the band’s improvisational future, the two songs once again served this symbolic purpose here in 2013. Who knows exactly what direction(s) the band will take their improv in 2014? One thing however, is certain: if they can in anyway build upon, and expand within the musical accomplishments of their 30th year, we’re all in for an absolutely mind-blowing 31st year of Phish.

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Part II coming this week!

Photo Cred: 1 – 10/20 Hampton, VA – Dave Vann; 2 – 07/17 Alpharetta, GA – Dave Vann; 3 – 08/05 Hollywood, CA – Brantley Gutierrez; 4 – 10/18 Hampton, VA – Dave Vann; 5 & 6 – 07/06 Saratoga Springs, NY – Dave Vann; 7 – 07/10 Holmdel, NJ – Dave Vann; 8 – 07/31 Stateline, NV – Dave Vann; 9 – 08/30 Commerce City, CO – Dave Vann; 10 – 10/20 Hampton, VA – Dave Vann; 11 & 12 – 10/29 Reading, PA – Dave Vann; 13 – 11/01 Atlantic City, NJ – Brantley Gutierrez; 14 – 12/29 New York City, NY – Rene Huemer

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!!!