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.

——–

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

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Phish 2013 – Through The Jams / Part II: The Gorge – Dick’s

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Click Here For Part I

The Best Jams Of 2013 – Part II

07/27

Down With Disease -> Undermind> Light -> Sneakin’ Sally Thru The Alley -> 2001

A meaty segment of fully-flowing Phish, this 50-minute opening sequence is undoubtedly one of the most connected musical moments of the entire year. And like Jones Beach’s hour-long groove session, this chunk of improv is clearly more about Phish’s connection to itself. Save for the underworldly dip within Undermind, much of what’s played here is fluid and energetic. Exemplified in the bulbous jam that builds from Sneakin’ Sally, this is the sound of a Phish celebrating the trials won, foundations set, and conflicts overcome in the first three weeks of tour, rather than pushing forth overtly challenging music. Pure joy continuously emits from the stage here as the band celebrates their most accomplished run of the year, to that point. From here on out, there would be no more uncertainty. This is the division between the pre-Tahoe-Tweezer-Phish, and the latter.

07/31

Tweezer

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[1]. 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[2]. 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.

08/03

Rock & Roll -> Steam

Celebratory melodic jamming as a singular jam. On the second night of a three-night run in the intimate halls of San Francisco’s Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, after an opening show in which the band essentially took a – much-deserved – full-show victory lap following the Tahoe breakthrough, Phish unleashed a jam that displayed their evolved cubism, along with their innate communicative abilities, all under the umbrella of a reverent melodic passage that spoke volumes to the musical peak they found themselves on. Mike and Trey trade licks and leads throughout, and seemingly every trill Trey offers, Mike responds back with a perfectly placed meatball-riff that envelops and fits the immediate moment of the jam brilliantly. For all the hyperbole that’s been invoked to describe the recent Fall Tour, perhaps the most incredible thing about it is the fact that its best jams are unquestionably the simplest ones. A direct effect of the peak the band discovered via the Tahoe Tweezer, deliberateness, faith in simple, melodic music, and a trust in the communicative direction of each member, all helped to shape the band’s October peak. Each of these qualities is heard in their purest form throughout this Rock & Roll. If we only knew then what we know now…

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08/04

Energy> Runaway Jim

As a rule: In 3.0, you never miss a Sunday show[3]. On the final Sunday of the Summer Tour, Phish crafted a complete show that is as much a self-referential statement as it is an evolutionary step forward. Capped off by a 30-minute segment of music that ushered in its second set, the Energy> Runaway Jim is Phish’s 2013 Summer Tour in its essential form. Fusing a 2013 debut – which emerged as The Song Of Summer – with one of their oldest classics, the band simultaneously reflected on a tour that had set the foundation for future musical successes – while also forcing the band to overcome numerous external struggles[4] – and looked ahead to the (at the time) unknown heights of Fall. Building outwards from the structure of Energy via a rising theme, the entire jam changed on a dime at 6:39 when Trey imposed his wha into the mix. What followed was a rhythmically induced wall of sound that flowed into a piece of seedy urbaneness defined by Page’s Lydian riff from 9:49 – 10:11. Trey would systematically – and brilliantly – mimic, and then distort this riff to the jam’s fading conclusion.

In Runaway Jim, Trey did his best Hendrix impression since 09/01/12’s Prince Caspian, as the band proved the limitless potential for Jim – whenever the band is keen on letting it off its leash, that is. Rooted in sinister, bluesy psychedelia, this jam felt like a peek back into Fall ’97, when Trey would regularly indulge in his rock star fantasies. Yet in the context of 2013 the jam takes on a much more interesting – and necessary – accord, considering just how far Trey has come as a guitarist since 2008, and how he commanded many of the best jams throughout the Fall Tour. Rather than imposing his will because of a lack of support from his bandmates – or, in effort to simply kill time – it’s clear Trey needed to prove to himself, to the band, and, to his fans, that he was capable of shredding in an improvisational setting again like in the days of old. In a tour in which so many of the band’s classics were given new life, it was quite fitting the tour would conclude with yet another pushing the band to such heights.

08/05

Harry Hood

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[5], or in a totally unexpected song/slot in the show[6]. 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 07/26/03. 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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08/31

Chalk Dust Torture

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 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.


[1] 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…

[2] Obviously a point of immense contention. Certainly a subject for another essay, and another time. However, if you allow yourself the perspective that Fall 1997 was the last period – until now – when the band was both – A. Fully Committed to the idea of Phish, so much so that they spent a majority of their time exploring within their music to push it forward along a specific set of goals, and B. Neither succumbing to the overwhelming pressures of fame and the bloated organization they’d created by turning to drugs which led to a 11-13 year period of uncertainty, collapse, rebirth, and rebuilding, nor immersed in the necessary process of rebuilding everything that was lost in said period – then the notion that the band hasn’t played a piece of music that’s equally inspired, influenced, reassured, and pushed them further than the Tahoe Tweezer clearly has since some time in 1997, is both plausible, and completely accurate. None of this is said to dismiss the music of 1998 – 2012, of course.

[3] 03/06/09, 06/07/09, 06/21/09, 11/01/09, 11/29/09, 06/27/10, 07/03/11, 09/04/11, 08/19/12, 09/02/12, 12/30/12, 07/14/13, 07/21/13, 08/04/13, 10/20/13, 10/27/13 are each both Sunday shows, and some of the best whole-shows the band has played since reuniting five years ago.

[4] It really can’t be emphasized enough how big an impact the rain that followed Phish throughout the Eastern half of the United States had on their playing, and presumably, their psyche. Out of the fourteen shows the band played from Bangor – Toronto, six were played up against torrential rainstorms, (07/07, 07/12, 07/14, 07/17, 07/19, 07/21) one had to be rescheduled completely, (Toronto) one had to be aborted some 13 minutes into the second set, (07/19) and another was nearly cancelled, only allowed to continue when the rains that poured relentlessly from the skies over Chicago, suddenly cleared (07/21). Throughout this stretch, you can hear the band’s increasing frustration in their inability to fully concentrate on their music in the face of such insolvent, yet unremarkable interferences. Be it Trey claiming the band was “practicing making safe music,” on 07/12, or Page and Trey’s clear frustration with being forced to evacuate the stage on 07/19 and 07/21, or the abrupt and constricted three-set show on 07/20, or Page’s endless gratitude towards their fans for their support on 07/22, one got the sense throughout those three weeks that many of the barriers between artist and fans were brought down as a result of extraneous issues.

[5] There’s that sensation that always accompanies a Set II opening Down With Disease, Tweezer, Crosseyed & Painless, or Rock & Roll (among others, but these in particular, especially in 3.0) where it feels like the band is giving us a knowing wink and a nod, as if to say, “here we go…”

[6] Think: 12/14/95 NICU, 07/10/99 Chalk Dust, 08/06/10 Cities, 07/01/12 Fee, or the 08/31/12 Undermind, for just a few examples.

Phish 2013 – Through The Jams / Part I: Bangor – Toronto

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With just four shows remaining in 2013, weeks removed from a peak-level Fall Tour, and just three months since the conclusion of a Summer Tour that is increasingly becoming an underrated gem, it’s high time we take stock of where we are musically with Phish in their 30th year.

Since the onset of 3.0, I’ve compiled year-end ‘Best Of’[1] lists for each successive year. Check them out here: 2009 Part I and Part II20102011, and 2012. In each of those essays I narrowed my selections to the bare essentials: Ten Jams, Ten Shows, and Three Honorable Mentions for each section. Detailing the evolutionary steps forward in each of the past five years of Phish’s history, these lists have focused on the overall diversity of Phish’s improv, rather than any singular style. Song length is never an issue taken seriously. Popular opinion or communal preference is never taken into account. Many of my own personal favorite jams have even been omitted from each of these lists. Essentially, these lists are to be viewed as historical guides, or, musical stepping stones, which tell the story of how Phish got from Hampton ’09 to Atlantic City ’13.

2013 however, presents a new challenge altogether, particularly on the jamming front.

Following their creative renaissance at Dick’s 2012, Phish entered 2013 on a mission to once again break through their own artistic mold by infusing the musical and communicative skills of their past with a more democratic model that would shape their future. After reestablishing their communication and connectivity throughout 2009 – 2012, their 30th year was poised to be one of both self-referential celebration, and the symbolic onset of a new era. Furthermore, after informing their fanbase on 12/31/2012 that “You can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself,” it was clear that 2013 would be a whole-band peak on Phish’s terms – and at their own pace – not based on the desires of any sector of their fanbase. As a result, Phish took their time, setting the foundation within the early part of their summer tour, which lead to skepticism, impatience, and uncertainty from many corners of their fanbase. While it was clear by the time Fall Tour rolled around that Phish had known exactly what they were doing all along, the debates over what “The Right Way” was for Phish still raged ever onwards.

In hindsight it’s clear there are three distinct periods of 2013:

1.) Bangor – Toronto, when Phish laid the foundation for the musical peaks to come, and the eventual unveiling of Wingsuit, through a series of shows focused heavily on their own musical history. Celebrating their thirty-year legacy, the band centered much of their attention on the most revered songs in their catalogue, while constructing setlists that felt plucked from their past. Controlling many of their shows with a noticeably tight rotation, and keeping a short leash on each of their jams, this early period of 2013 displayed the unyielding potential of Phish at this stage in their career, while emphasizing a focused insistence on building tension and inter-band-communication.

2.) The Gorge – Dicks, when Phish – fully removed from the torrential weather of the East Coast and completely confident in their abilities and direction – moved beyond foundational setting, and began to consistently play high quality shows with ease. After informing their fanbase that only Phish knew “The Right Way” for Phish during the Chicago Harpua, they now unveiled their longest piece of improv since 2003, and connected for three of the most diverse jams of the entire year in the Tahoe Tweezer, Hollywood Hood and Dick’s Chalk Dust. Further, at Dick’s, the band continued to zag against the expectations (and desires) of many of their fanbase by declaring MOST SHOWS SPELL SOMETHING (Backwards). Subtly pointing out the many variables that determine the content and goals of any singular Phish show, the band clarified for those who had been reading between the lines, just what their intentions throughout 2013 had been. Finally, they continued to set the stage for the peak month of October, and the ultimate unveiling of their new album Wingsuit on Halloween night, through a series of self-conscious shows and jams that only further displayed their advanced level of play in their 30th year.

3.) Hampton – Atlantic City, when everything Phish has been working towards since 03/06/2009 came together in one hyperbole-filled two week tour. Full of top-level shows, standout jams, unyielding energy, effortless musical connectivity, and a Halloween show that will undoubtedly alter the entire direction of the band over the coming years, this was the tour we had all (band included) been waiting for over the past five – even fifteen – years.

As a result, there is so much creativity packed into each show in 2013, that it becomes incredibly challenging to trim the fat down to a list of 13 standout jams[2]. With this in mind, and keenly aware of the fact that the New Year’s Run is sure to produce at least 2 – 3 MORE top-level jams (it always does…) I’m using this space in time as a way to hash over the entirety of what I believe to be the very best of Phish in 2013. With a heavy focus on the diversity and sheer quantity of excellent improvisational interplay within Phish in 2013, think of this list as both one giant rough draft and a potential playlist for anyone seeking to absorb the best of Phish in 2013 in one sitting[3].

This list will appear in three parts so as to focus on the three aforementioned periods in 2013:

I. Bangor – Toronto

II. The Gorge – Dicks

III. Hampton – Atlantic City.

Please feel free to send me your comments on which essential jams I may have overlooked, which I’m giving (far) too much credit to, and, if you agree or disagree in any way with how I’ve interpreted this really diverse, and really incredible, year in Phish’s history. Without further adieu, the list[4]:

The Best Jams Of 2013 – Part I

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07/05

Light -> The Mango Song

Following the focused and game-changing Dick’s Light of 2012, it’s only appropriate than any ‘Best Of’ 2013 list begins with the most reliable jam vehicle of 3.0. A song that, lyrically, speaks so directly to Trey’s rehabilitation and awakening following his 2006 arrest, and musically caters itself to the kind of open-ended exploration that had become something of a rarity throughout much of 2009-2011[5], everyone knew the first Light of 2013 was going be a seminal moment. Expanding outwards on an ambient plane much like the 12/02/09 and 08/07/10 versions, before evolving into a rhythmic jaunt, the jam turns on a dime at 11:11 with a sinister, groove-ladened riff from Trey. Foreshadowing the clarity and deliberateness he’d continue to iron out in his playing over the course of the summer – ultimately peaking in Fall – the band fuses this segment into an blissful melodic jam that finally resolves itself in The Mango Song. The SPAC Light is, while certainly not the rawest, nor the most accomplished jam of 2013, if nothing else, the moment when we all collectively realized the revolutionary steps forward of late-2012 were not all for naught.

07/06

Tube

For everyone lamenting the death of the extended Tube, please direct your ears to this version[6]. For whatever may be missing from an 8 – 12-minute Tube jam of 97-04 lore, the band more than makes up for the lack of quantity with focused, groove-heavy, linear, funk-based-jamming these days. Perhaps the best modern example of what’s always possible with Tube, this version pops immediately from a somewhat awkward first set, crafting an absolutely infectious dance number. What’s more is this is one of the first moments of 2013 where it’s clear to anyone listening that song length has ultimately become moot. As anyone at SPAC – or even those web-casting – could attest, this jam felt like 10+ minutes, regardless its 6:48 length. Check out the crowd’s reaction when it’s clear Trey’s pushing the song past the unofficial coda to be reminded once again of the beauty of the intercommunication between band and audience in this whole Live Phish thing.

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Split Open & Melt

Wow. What a statement. What a glorified mess[7]. A conscious experimental push into the unknown as anything I’ve 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.

Carini -> Architect

The first of four versions for Señor Lumpy Head on this overall 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 2013. 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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07/10

Crosseyed & Painless> Harry Hood

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[8].

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 there 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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07/12

Rock & Roll -> 2001> Tweezer -> Cities -> The Wedge

Like a snapshot right out of Summer ‘98, this fully-flowing chunk of the second set – in one of the more polarizing shows of summer[9] – is both the least-challenging and least groundbreaking piece of exploratory music from the entire tour[10]. And yet, it’s unquestionably some of the most infectiously pleasurable, which is exactly why it finds itself on this list. Rock & Roll moves into a modulated jam based on its origins and theme, ultimately reminding one of the great 08/08/2009 jam from The Gorge. Tweezer is the crown jewel of this sequence as Trey, who just sounds so playful throughout, jumps on a bouncy groove, drives it skywards and then patiently segues it right into Cities. Forget about listening critically here. Just fucking throw this on and boogie.

07/13

Harry Hood

A banner year for Hood. A. Banner. Fucking. Year. Right smack in the middle of one of the most overtly old-school shows of 2013[11] comes this overtly old-school Hood that does literally everything anyone could ever want from Harry Hood. Trey’s in command throughout in the purest, peakiest Hood in a year full of standout versions. Just soak this one in and be grateful the band has spent so much time rededicating themselves to this classic.

Mike’s Song> Simple> Weekapaug Groove

Early on this summer it appeared as though the band was coaxing a big jam out of Mike’s Song. While they ultimately never did, this version from the first night at Merriweather Post is the closest they came, and the best version of the entire year thus far. For me, however, this Groove is all about the Simple. Only one of two versions played all year, this Simple loosely locks onto the theme from Down With Disease, building a subtle, warm, full-bodied, wholly-united jam out of the band that’s among my favorite musical moments of the entire year. Proof of the musical progressions made by Trey’s insistence on focusing on his rhythmic playing, this jam just goes to show how little Phish actually has to play within a jam to craft brilliance.

07/14

Stash

They took their time prior to starting up perhaps their most innocuous first set composition[12]. They knew where they wanted to go. This version was to be different. They wanted to see how far they could push Stash while still remaining within Stash. It was – or at least, it sounds as though it was – an experiment in controlled democratic fusion. It showed Phish what they could do within even the most structured of their songs. It ultimately helped to loosen them up as they pushed their most time-honored classics far beyond the limits they’d set for them back in 2009. Trey’s wha funk spills into major-keyed bliss on a dime. This is effortless Phish. This is 2013 in a jam.

Light -> Boogie On Reggae Woman

Following that masterful first set Stash: the payoff. In perhaps the best show of the tour to that point, Phish let loose on their modern classic, fusing start/stop jams with rapid key changes, creating a disoriented dance-fest that shook Merriweather Post to its core. A prelude to the “woo’s” comes as the band peaks the jam in hysterically controlled chaos; this jam is the sound of a band fully realizing their interconnectivity, and yet still unwilling to let it all hang out at once. This is like one of those great Summer ’97 jams, when the band knew they were onto something, but weren’t quite ready to simply walk out on stage and totally strut their stuff like they’d do throughout the Fall. Few times has Boogie On sounded this anticipated, nor this perfect all at once.

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07/16

Rock & Roll -> Heartbreaker -> Makisupa Policeman> Chalk Dust Torture> Wilson> Tweezer -> Silent In The Morning

Within the confines of 2013, there were seven fully-flowing sets of music[13]. Of them, the segment from the first night of a two-night stand in Alpharetta, GA is neither the most accomplished[14], the most diverse[15], nor even the most jam-happy[16]. What it is however is a quasi-throw-back to the early days of 3.0 when humor and song selection were of the utmost importance in a Phish show, and jams rarely veered too far off into the unknown. Fusing this approach (as heard in the endless Heartbreaker teases, and the first of two Makisupa Policeman of 2013) with two jams that thematically sound plucked right out of Dick’s 2012[17], Phish crafted an indelible segment of music on a Tuesday in the Atlanta ‘burbs. For another example of how little time Phish needs to reach plains of musical bliss, look no further than the sublime Chalk Dust, a jam that feels like it covers 15-20 min of music in just under 10.

07/17

Piper -> Fast Enough For You

In a year in which the band spent so much time reviving their classics[18], while also pushing many of their newer songs into the unknown[19], less time was devoted to many of their turn-of-the-century vehicles than at any point in the past 15 years. Nowhere is this clearer than with Piper. A song that drove many of the best jams of 2003-2012, Piper appears to have adopted the role once held by Twist, as the mid-set recharge. Rather than explore the vociferous terrain Piper so seamlessly caters to, Phish instead employed it as a bridge between jams, and between the two halves of a second set, allowing its driving groove to maintain energy, rather than explore the unknown. Of these versions, perhaps none is as diverse as this one from Georgia. Touching on the baroque, haunted, underworldliness of many of its 2.0 peak versions, this Piper goes deep in a flash. Teasing the refrain from Energy, Trey immediately begins to impose darkness through the use of his tremelo effect, thus harkening back to the sprawling 07/19/2003 version. Emerging to a more blissful and melodic zone of music before fading softly into the ever-rare Fast Enough For You, perhaps it was all a subtle wink from Trey towards all those clamoring for a return of the slow-build intro?

07/21

Energy -> Ghost -> The Lizards

“Thank you for sticking around….” With those five words, the band systematically lifted the imposing weight of three weeks full of torrential weather throughout their east coast run, and thus pivoted from the foundational setting of the first half of their summer tour, before moving earnestly into one of the strongest peaks of their entire career[20]. Energy, the song of summer, builds upon its 07/17 version, with Trey invoking funk rhythms that bleed into a gorgeous melodic space – ala the 11/22/1997 Halley’s Comet. Ghost is employed once again as something of a bridge, but it’s worth hearing all the same, as it quickly finds its way into a lilting jam – by way of a distinct Seven Below tease – that fades idyllically into The Lizards. A brilliant segment of music, which makes up the meat of one of the strongest sets of summer – and perhaps the most critical moment of the entire year[21] – these uninterrupted 35 minutes have held up long since the band moved westwards from the sodden and abandoned airport on the shores of Lake Michigan.

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07/22

Down With Disease -> 2001

After kicking off the summer with three fairly contained versions[22] of one of their most cherished Set II Openers, Phish finally broke through with a jam that built off of their pivotal second set on 07/21, and pointed the way westward. Featuring melodic and rhythmic riffs from Trey throughout, the jam ultimately settled on a remarkably pleasant platitude, which felt entirely composed, and is 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 summer. A section of wholly deliberate, rising melodic playing followed, ultimately giving way to a full-on tease of Sea Of Love from The National. Further proof of how much Trey has gained from his time spent listening to – and playing with – those in the indie rock world. Following this all up with a truly patient build towards 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.

David Bowie

Perhaps no Phish classic has struggled to regain its unknown potential since the onset of 3.0 as one David Bowie[23]. With only a few glimmers of hope stuck in there, things changed with drastic earnestness on 12/28/12 when the band began exploring within the frame of Bowie like they hadn’t since 2003. Powerful versions on 07/05 and 07/20 paved the way for a revivalist rendition to end the second set in Toronto. A jam I highlighted in August as one of the underrated gems of the whole tour, this version leans more towards the demented explorations from 12/28/12, while further emphasizing Trey’s rhythmic explorations. Fusing the playful old-school nature of Phish with their modern and more subtle communicativeness, this Bowie is a reference point for anyone searching for the moments when Phish was fully capable of abandoning the foundational setting of the first half of summer tour, and got down to the business of properly (and consistently) breaking through their own artistic mold.

*A huge THANK YOU to Mike Hamad of @phishmaps and @MikeHamad for allowing me to use his jam maps for a few of the jams of this list. His work is phenomenal, and it really helps those listening understand better what’s happening in Phish’s music. Please give him a follow on Twitter if you don’t already. And check out his site: Setlist Schematics for even more jam maps.


[1] ‘Best’ is obviously a tricky term when it comes to a subjective essay such as this. Seeing as so many different people love Phish for so many different reasons, it’s impossible to capture an entire community’s preferences, and moments of unified elation, within a singular list. Believe me, I’m aware.

And yet, these lists are more than simply a reflection of my own subjectivities and favorite jams/shows. These lists are a result of an extensive amount of time spent listening, reading, writing and thinking – all the while parsing through the historical layers of Phish – in search of moments that stand out, and seem to both unify and exemplify the sound of an entire year. Be certain, many of my “favorite” jams and shows from the past five years have been omitted from each of my lists. Be certain that some of my favorite jams from this past year were omitted in the initial whittling process.

[2] NB, this list originally began with more than 130 individual songs, and something like 75 single jam entities. It’s now at 76/39 respectively. Progress.

[3] Anyone in need of any of these jams, or of the full playlist, feel free to hit me up @sufferingjuke and I’ll happily send em your way.

[4] This list will be delivered chronologically as all my ‘Best Of’ Lists are. Some may be fond of ranking, but I find that to be both an insolent and irrelevant endeavor when discussing and documenting Phish. This is art, not sports for Christ sake’s.

[5] A topic for another essay and another time, when you actually go back and chart the actual occurrences of improv from 03/06/09 – 12/31/11, it’s clear the band jammed with far more regularity than many wanted (or were willing (in many ways, still are willing)) to give Phish credit for. Like I said, another essay, another time.

[6] For that matter, don’t skip on the 06/15/12, 07/06/12 (w/Psycho Killer jam!!!), 07/26/13, or 11/01/13 versions.

[7] In much the same spirit of the 12/30/09 Back On The Train, 06/25/10 Chalk Dust, 10/20/10 SOAM, 08/15/11 Undermind, and 08/31/12 Runaway Jim, this SOAM feels like a leftover of the unguarded, throw-the-paint-at-the-wall-&-see-what-happens, unfiltered, macabre-style jamming that so defined the band’s 2003-2004 period, otherwise known as 2.0.

[8] There are loads of examples of groundwork being laid throughout the first three weeks of tour, a period wherein which many in the fan base were melting on Twitter, PT, Phish.net & in Mr. Miner’s comments section about how Phish wasn’t living up to the lofty heights established in 2012, or weren’t busting-out enough songs, or jamming with enough frequency, etc. Among them: Bangor’s Golden Age – specifically Trey’s insistent use of his wha-wha pedal – 2001, Antelope, and Hood; SPAC’s Cities -> Bowie, 46 Days -> Steam and Slave; the defiantly old school setlist and playing on 07/07, 07/13 and 07/14; and the funk escapade of It’s Ice that gave the band an insane amount of confidence to let their hair down and just groove.

[9] In all seriousness I loved this entire show. Set I is one of the most unique of the entire summer, featuring excellent versions of CTB and 46 Days, a loping stride through Ocelot, and an old-school pairing of Reba and David Bowie to close things out. Then again, I didn’t have to brave the cold, steely rain that reportedly blew sideways through the open-air venue that night. From my cozy apartment though, things sounded quite lovely, tbh.

[10] Yeah, I just know there’s some dude on PT right now spewing his coffee over this statement. It’s not exploratory at all. Get over it. This 60-min segment of uninterrupted music has far more in common with the late-1.0 era than anything else really played at all throughout 2013. It’s all groove. Groove for the sake of groove. It’s essentially all extended Type I jams, (with the great exception of the melodic jam that emerges from Tweezer prior to its segue into Cities) it’s essentially one big excuse for the band to simply hook-up. None of this, btw, is said to insinuate that it’s not a huge evolutionary step forward for the band within the confines of 2013, nor worth your time, or your ears.

[11] It’s right in line with 07/07, 07/10, 07/14, 10/23, and 10/25 as shows the band played throughout 2013 that felt plucked right out of 1992-1995.

[12] You could make the same argument for Bowie and Reba, but there’s something about Stash that – particularly in 3.0 – just screams “live soundcheck.”

[13] 07/05, 07/12, 07/16, 07/27, 07/30, 10/20, 10/25

[14] 10/20

[15] 07/05

[16] 07/12, 07/30

[17] The Set Opening Rock & Roll and the mid set Chalk Dust Torture are also two of the best examples of what Mr. Miner calls “Musical Density” that we have in 3.0

[18] Harry Hood, Tweezer, David Bowie, Stash

[19] Energy, Light, Golden Age, Steam, Twenty Years Later

[20] You can make a strong case that from 07/21 – 11/02 the band played 15 instant classic shows – an incredible 60% of the shows during that period – something they haven’t accomplished with such ease – nor such consistency – since probably 1997.

[21] There’s no denying how profoundly well the band was playing throughout much of the first three weeks of tour, but it was clear they were in need of something of a moment of truth to push them beyond the spurts (and the horrendous weather that dogged them) that had somewhat defined their east coast run. From the final set of their weekend in Chicago onwards, 2013 has been nothing short of a masterpiece. Without the interconnectivity and phearlessness displayed here, who knows what would have become of the band’s 30th year…

[22] This isn’t to say in any way that the other versions were bad, per se. Both the 07/07 and 07/13 versions contained some phenomenal interplay from Trey and Page in particular. Just that, well this is Down With Disease. It’s kind of one of those ‘when in doubt songs’ for Phish. The kind they can always rely on to jump-start a set/show, or immediately build upon the energy of a hooked-up Set I.

[23] Seriously, take out the 06/19/10, 10/20/10, 06/03/11, 07/03/11, and 12/28/12 versions and what you’re left with are essentially a massive amount of skeletal imitations of what Bowie once was. Of all the Phish classics that have suffered – necessarily and unnecessarily – at the hands of Phish’s full-on rebuilding project of the last five years, none have been as tragic as that of Bowie.

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

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

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

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

More on this later.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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So, How’d We Get Here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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There Are No More “Standard” Songs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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About That “Tweezer”…

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

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

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

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

I sat at a public computer laughing hysterically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I feel the feeling I forgot…..

I feel freeeeeee………

Freeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

And then that guitar riff…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, where are we going?

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

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

I cannot see this ending any time soon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, where are we going?

Gamehendge, duh…

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When Is The Last Time Phish Peaked Like This?

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

It’s time to go a bit further….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Favorite Shows/Jams Thus Far

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

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

Favorite Shows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Favorite Jams

– 07/06/2013: “Split Open & Melt”

– 07/06/2013: “Carini -> Architect”

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

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

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

– 07/22/2013: “Down With Disease”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Is “Mike’s Song” About To Blow Up?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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About The Celebratory Rhythmic Jamming…

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

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

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

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

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

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The 2013 Setlist Model

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Impact Of Trey’s Rhythmic Playing

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

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

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

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

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

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Is This The Best Summer Tour Since 1.0?

Jumping the gun a bit here? Perhaps.

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

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

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

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

Is this the best summer tour since 1.0?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sure, they got their resounding cheers from the crowd.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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So, Where Is This All Going?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Favorite Shows/Jams Thus Far

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

Favorite Shows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Favorite Jams (Listed Chronologically)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Bangor, Me – 07/03/2013

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

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

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

Encore: Harry Hood#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By showtime two things were clear:

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

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

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

As for the music…

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

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

Neither shocked nor awed, though neither one had to.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to Phish 2013.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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