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!!!

Summer Awards: A Road Map To Navigating Phish’s 2013 Tour

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Regardless what happens throughout the rest of 2013, Phish’s recently completed Summer Tour is certain to go down as their best overall tour since Summer 1998. Full of thematic, boundary pushing shows, odes to their historical roots, along with clear paths pointing towards their future, 2013 is the most complete Phish tour in over a decade, and a sure sign of the summit reached in Phish’s 3.0 experiment.

With so many highlights contained throughout the tour this is the first in recent memory that simply cannot be divided into best/worst, or worth your listen/not worth your listen categories. There’s nothing cut-and-dry about 3.0 Phish tours anymore.

EVERYTHING played this summer is worth your time and your attention.

As a result, James and I figured we’d compile something of a road map for fans in search of some guidance of where to begin their Summer 2013 (re)listen. As we’re both well aware of, after all, with so much good music just produced, one can become easily overwhelmed by the prospect of re-listening. While this is an “awards” compilation, yes, it’s also meant to be read as an overall guide to the most noteworthy moments of the tour.

Moreover, we wanted to use this platform as an opportunity to extend our thanks to the band and to the overall Phish community for what has to be regarded as the most positive Phish tour in ages. By all accounts, those of you at the shows had nothing but glowing reviews on a nightly basis. I know for myself, hunkered down in a closet apartment in Osan, South Korea, this tour could not have sounded any better.

I’m absolutely honored that James asked me to be a part of this project, and I can’t wait to work with him in the future!

Hope everyone enjoys the piece! Please feel free to share your thoughts, comments, criticisms, and rants in either the comment section or @sufferingjuke and @jameskam17.

*Note: For each section our favorite show/set/jam/song is in bold

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Opener Of The Year

Llama: Holmdel, NJ – 07/10/2013

First Tube: Columbia, MD – 07/13/2013

Prince Caspian: Chicago, IL – 07/20/2013

Dinner and a Movie: Chicago, IL – 07/21/2013

Architect: George, WA – 07/27/2013

Honorable Mention: Free, San Francisco, CA – 08/02/2013

In 2012 Phish entered their summer tour with the stated goal of playing 200 unique songs. Impacting their setlists with unexpected diversity on a consistent level like no time previously in their history, the 200-song-challenge affected all aspects of their shows, most notably the opener slot. From 06/07’s Buried Alive, 06/15’s My Sweet One, 07/03’s Skin It Back, 09/01’s Antelope, and 12/31’s Garden Party, the opener became an entity all to its own throughout 2012. Here in 2013 however, the focus moved away from the number of songs the band would play (their rotation was perhaps their tightest since 1997) to, now the quality of play, and the overall craftsmanship of setlists. As a result, the openers were less a separate moment removed from the overall show, and rather an immediate insight into the night’s flow, and the band’s mood.

Each of the above songs we felt best introduced their shows – from the frenetic rage of Llama and First Tube, to the gimmicky charm of Caspian and Dinner & A Movie, to SF’s Free that summed up the entire communities sentiments following the Tahoe Tweezer, while at the same time setting an overall thematic tone for the BGCA run that fits perfectly on re-listen.

And yet, while each of the above songs certainly sent a jolt of energy and adrenaline into their respective shows, no song better captured the setting, mood, nor indescribable bigness of Phish, than Architect did on 07/27/2013.  Ushering in the show under a hushed tone, the song – with lyrics like: “it turned out better/so much better/than we ever did expect,” and “there might be more to this than we all know” – allowed everyone a pause to remember just how special and unique this whole Phish thing is.

Regardless of jam lengths, regardless of song selections, at the end of the day, the fact that Phish has created this living, breathing, evolving, fully healthy, totally redeemed entity, which has a positive impact on literally anyone who touches it, is enough in and of itself, right? Raise a glass to the architect…

Top New Song

Yarmouth Road

Energy

Say Something

Architect

Frost

In the Phish offseason, the most commonly heard request from fans for 2013 was not Gamehendge, but new material. Everyone, including me have been craving for some new Phish jams. Trey said a new album was in the works and when news broke the community went crazy. We heard the band was working collectively on the album. I mention this because this year, we did get some new tunes, but none were written collectively from the band.

After a tour opener in Bangor with no new songs, the band changed gears the next show with a Phish debut in the first set and the second set. We got Yarmouth Road, a real funky reggae song from Mike and Energy, an instant classic Phish cover from The Apples in Stereo. Yarmouth brought some great vibes to the first set and settled in comfortably for the tour. Energy kicked off the second set in thrilling fashion and just improved each and every time, getting more and more exploratory, tighter and unique with each play. Say Something and Frost were each played once, the former another Mike song that I absolutely love from the Gorge and Frost, a Trey tune played in Alpharetta.

While each song was unique and special in its own way, Energy was the clear highlight of all the new songs. It kick started one of the best sets of the tour at SPAC and was just a consistent thrill to hear. Only played four times, Energy started with a ton of potential that SPAC night, shifted to a nice meaty exploratory groove in Alpharetta after Water in the Sky, opened up another classic set in Chicago with Ghost->Lizards, Harpua > Antelope and opened the final set at Bill Graham, a peak and symbol of the true development of Energy. Energy is here to stay and is a perfect Phish song with nice lyrics, good harmonies and rocking chords. There’s room for everything and anything with this song and anything is possible. It’s just the beginning for this tune, and the other classics from the summer.

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Top First Set Jam

Tube: Saratoga, NY – 07/06/2013

Split Open and Melt: Saratoga, NY – 07/06/2013

Stash: Columbia, MD – 07/14/2013

It’s Ice: Columbia, MD – 07/14/2013

Reba: San Francisco, CA – 08/02/2013

Honorable Mention: Cities->David Bowie: Saratoga, NY 07/05/2013

The fact that there’s even a category for first set jams in this collection of thoughts says more about the state of Phish in 2013 than perhaps anything else. Proof that the band felt a comfort with their songs, and a willingness to expand upon them from the onset of the tour, these six jams display the peak period we currently find ourselves in here in Phish’s 30th year.

Centered around two first set’s in particular – 07/06 and 07/14 – throughout the summer, even when the band wasn’t expanding upon their first set selections with exploratory zeal, they were still attacking them with a newfound creativity and energy than we’d seen in over a decade. Just check out the 07/07 Maze, 07/12 Cars Trucks Buses, 07/14 Scent Of A Mule, 07/26 AC/DC Bag, Timber, Funky Bitch, and Tube, 07/27 Ocelot, and the 08/02 Vultures, Sand, and Roggae, for some noteworthy moments.

In the above jams – each of which displayed a willingness to expand with ease within the rather strict confines of the 2013 first set – the band alternated between funk clinics in Tube and It’s Ice, ambient soundscapes in SOAM, Stash and Cities -> Bowie, and the idealized conception of Reba on the first night of the San Francisco run. In the end, the ethereal – and grossly surprising – jam that emerged from Split Open & Melt to close out the first set of 07/06 reigns supreme here in 2013. A moment where the band simply stopped trying to push their oft-tormented classic, and instead, yielded to the larger forces at play, the result was nothing short of sublime.

A representative jam for the year, the 07/06 Split Open & Melt displays the unyielding opportunities available to the band as they continue to explore untapped musical territory in Set I.

Top Sequence

Columbia, MD: 07/14/2013 Light->Boogie On

Saratoga, NY: 07/05/2013 46 Days->Steam

Alpharetta, GA: 07/16/2013 Rock & Roll->Heartbreaker->Makisupa->Chalk Dust Torture

Jones Beach, NY: 07/12/2013 Tweezer->Cities->The Wedge

George, WA: 07/27/2013 Down with Disease->Undermind

Honorable Mention: Chicago, IL: 07/20/2013 Theme from the Bottom->Weekapaug Groove

Unlike any year in recent memory, 2013 was symbolic for many things, one the return of epic and slick segues on a nightly basis! In Saratoga all of set two segued flawlessly between songs, specifically 46 Days-> Steam and Light->The Mango Song and the segues never stopped. Think about Cities->David Bowie from that show in addition to so many more from the run. Merriweather had a fantastic segue from the rocking Light to the funk fest in Boogie On and continued down south with the now famous Heartbreaker set. One of my personal favorite segues all summer happened from Theme from the Bottom to Weekapaug in a classic set two of three sets on Saturday in Chicago. On Saturday night at the Gorge set two was dripping with seamless segues, specifically the gorgeous Down with Disease->Undermind that so many people rave about constantly. But there was one segue that was a personal favorite for it’s tenacity and ultimate rock and roll peak — the Jones Beach Tweezer->Cities->The Wedge.

One of the most brutal shows to endure for any fan, Jones Beach was met with heavy winds and insane rain. The second set started with 20 minute Rock & Roll->2001, another shining highlight of the tour before the band headed right into Tweezer. Around 11:15 into Tweezer Trey starts repeating these light chords, shifting the direction of the jam. Page picks up on this and plays right along with him. Trey changes to a three chord progression that is the stuff of holy gods on top of Page’s now classic melody. Fishman totally locks in on the most intense Wedge groove as Trey continues to rocks these classic chords that EVERYONE should have branded into their brains. Trey keeps it going as he moves the band right into Cities. The jam continues in Cities is the stuff of bass, bliss and bad ass plinko-jazz infused funk. Trey plays these descending chords before fast play of something that sounds like a mind left body jam while Fishman builds faster. Trey then starts playing the Wedge main riff as the band seamlessly segues right into the beat Fish started a song earlier.

This stuff is perfect Phish. This stuff is what we come night after night after night to see. Thank you Phish.

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Resurrection Jam

David Bowie (Note: 07/05, 07/12, 07/20, 07/26)

Scent of a Mule (Note: 07/14, 07/19, 08/05)

Split Open and Melt (Note: 07/06, 07/26)

Harry Hood (Note: 07/03, 07/10, 07/13, 07/26, 08/05)

Tahoe Tweezer

Honorable Mention: Mike’s Song (Note: 07/03, 07/13)

One of the enduring themes of 2013 has been the veritable resurrection of many of Phish’s most time-honored classics. Songs like David Bowie, Harry Hood, Run Like An Antelope, Slave To The Traffic Light, and even Mike’s Song – songs which had grown stale, even predictable in recent years – were suddenly presented with a new-found energy. Think of the melodic and chromatic territory the 07/05 David Bowie and the 07/03 Run Like An Antelope reached in the earliest nights of tour. Listen to the commitment to exploration in the 07/06 Split Open & Melt. Feel the fervent fire being birthed in the 07/03 and 07/13 Mike’s Song. Check out how Scent Of A Mule re-emerged as a beacon of creativity in each of its performances.

Each of the above songs – which for so long, had been played seemingly just because they had to be, simply because they were the band’s classics – here in 2013 have been resurrected as show-stopping, and tour-enforcing highlights.

Perhaps this approach is heard best in two songs: the Tahoe Tweezer, and in each Harry Hood played throughout the tour. Played as the lone encore on Bangor’s opening night, Harry Hood was re-approached with creativity, delicate exploration, and refined passion, peaking in two separate performances on 07/13 – when it sounded plucked right out of the mid-90’s – and on the tour finale in Hollywood, when it engaged on a 22min voyage that still has the community shaken.

The former, a 37min free-form jam – the longest jam since the 08/03/2003 46 Days, and the 8th longest jam of the band’s career – represented a peak in the band’s new-found approach to jamming. Focusing on harmonic freedom, which has defined their best jamming of 3.0 – ultimately peaking at Dick’s last year, and then all throughout this summer – the band wove numerous musical passages, culminating in a full-on band & audience impromptu segment of emotional jamming, surrounding a series of start/stop’s and woo’s.

A clear sign of the peak experience the band has had throughout 2013 thus far, these resurrected performances display a band once again at the top of their game.

Top Encore

Bangor 07/03: Harry Hood

The Gorge 07/26: Harry Hood, Fire

Lake Tahoe 07/30: Weekapaug Groove, Character Zero

San Francisco 08/02: Walls of the Cave

San Francisco 08/02: Sanity, Bold as Love

Honorable Mention: Alpharetta 07/17: Quinn the Eskimo

This year the encore was a little different than in past years. While there wasn’t much of a variety, each encore provided a little something to each show. Bangor’s Harry Hood was a perfect encore for the first show of the tour. A classic Phish song, not to mention that it was played perfectly (and was a foreshadower for it’s dominant summer), Bangor’s Hood was the right way to end night 1 and move us from the jitters of a tour opener into the actual tour.

Lake Tahoe’s Weekapaug and Zero were both great for a few reasons. First, Weekapaug continuing the groove from end of the show to encore is BEYOND BAD ASS. Second, Zero was pretty much the symbol for a stellar show all summer. This encore continued high energy and led us into night two of Tahoe with a lot of momentum and energy. San Francisco’s encore on night one and night three were both great. Night one had Walls of the Cave, a nice 2.0 surprise after the Seven Below highlight in set two. A one song encore allowed for a nice meaty jam and some explosive energy. The Sanity and Bold as Love allowed for two tour debuts in one encore, with Sanity being one of the highlights of the whole run. Boom! Pow! Talk about an encore! An amazing Sanity after one of the finer sets of the entire tour then some Hendrix! Man do I love this band.

The best encore happened on night one at the Gorge. After a stunning Character Zero with the band howling at the moon, the boys came out for another round of Harry Hood, another fantastic version, and Hendrix! This encore was the most fitting especially after the masterpiece set two that the boys played right beforehand. Harry Hood, whether set two or encore, was a monster in 2013, something we’ll touch upon later on.

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Surprise Gem

It’s Ice

Scent of a Mule

Steam

Split Open and Melt

Walls of the Cave

Honorable Mention: The Mango Song

Along with the resurrected jams that dotted the band’s 2013 Summer Tour are the surprise gems that kept everyone’s ears perked, and made essentially every single show a must hear. From the aforementioned Scent Of A Mule and Split Open & Melt, to the fully-realized Steam jam, the choicely placed – and expansively attacked – Mango Song, and the 2.0 survivalist Walls Of The Cave, each of the above songs helped to shape the summer through their consistent dedication to creativity.

And yet, for as engaging, and even as surprising as each of the above songs performances throughout summer were, nothing could compare to the shock that reverberated throughout the fanbase when Phish dropped into a thick funk-jam right in the middle of Merriweather Post’s It’s Ice. A defining moment in the second week of tour, It’s Ice was one of many songs that helped to shape the early tour peak that stretched from Holmdel, NJ to Columbia, MD.

A group of song’s that felt uncertain of their direction, if not wholly lost altogether, this summer each was featured in a way that far exceeded anything the band had tried to do with them for at least the past ten years.

Top First Set

Saratoga, NY: 07/07/2013

Columbia, MD: 07/14/2013

George, WA: 07/26/2013

George, WA: 07/27/2013

San Francisco, CA: 08/02/2013

Honorable Mention: Saratoga, NY: 07/06/2013

Last year in the quest for 200 songs, first sets were a chance for Phish to play old favorites, one-timers and classic bust outs. Think of Riverbend, Noblesville, and Jones Beach. But in 2013, first sets were different. With a much tighter rotation there was more room to focus on tighter sounding jams and sets crafted with impeccable flow. Sunday night at SPAC just felt like there was a greater force building this beautifully crafted set. Starting with AC/DC Bag, heading into a monster Back on the Train, the lightning Divided Sky then classics in Free, It’s Ice, Mound, Maze and Limb By Limb, ending with a rocking set closing Walls of the Cave. This set just felt right. It flowed perfectly and each song was fantastic. There is nothing better than good music and good flow. And the next Sunday the consistency continued. Never miss a Sunday show.

The second Sunday show of tour went down at the Merriweather Post Pavilion. Opening with an amazing First Tube, right into the funk of the Moma Dance before a fun trio of NICU, Roses are Free and Chalk Dust Torture, Merriweather had high moments from the start and never once had a downer. True highlights in a dark and dangerous Stash proceeded an exploratory Scent of a Mule before my personal favorite, a Phish Destroys America funk fest in It’s Ice! Talk about a first set. Then a nod to the ‘97 funk with Tube before a closing Antelope. Another amazing first set!

Both nights at the Gorge had stunners in the first set, with Friday starting off in classic fashion with AC/DC Bag, the tour debut of Timber and a fantastic Wolfman’s Brother before Funky Bitch, Happy Birthday, the “Russell Wilson” Wilson, Possum and Tube. Secret Smile made a huge return before another tour debut, the elusive McGrupp! Another tour debut Curtis Lowe came for some blues before another set closing Melt! The next night started off in another amazing fashion – Architect, Golgi, Curtain With. The set was upbeat and fun with the Phish debut of Say Something, one of my favorite songs of the summer, and an After Midnight set closer in remembrance of J.J. Cale.

Everyone knows what happened after The Gorge. Tahoe. The Tweezer. 40 minutes of glory. The question on everyone’s mind in line waiting to get in at Bill Graham was how could Phish “top” it? What’s next? There was only one thing Phish could do. They changed the conversation. They played the most fantastic first set of all tour. The Tahoe Tweezer will live forever, and this set proves it. Starting with Free, an ode to the “feeling we all forgot” that exists in the magic of 30+ min jams, before never having a single down moment. The tour debuts of Meat and Oh Kee Pa Ceremony came next before a perfect AC/DC Bag to really get the show on the road. Talk about a four song intro! Next came the tour debut of Vultures which truly resurrected the energy of Tahoe’s Tweezer with the first of MANY batches of woos!! throughout the run.

The tour debut of Roggae was next and it was absolutely magnificent. The fun continued with a funk fest in Sand and a nicely placed When the Circus Comes to Town, a great song symbolizing tour. Another tour debut with Babylon Baby came before Reba!!! A song that has huge jam potential came after a gorgeous Reba, Page’s Halfway to the Moon before a classic Phish set closer – Golgi.

This first set of the San Francisco run was constructed with magic. The set was perfect to move on from the greatness and holiness that is the Tahoe Tweezer. This set was truly so damn good, with perfect debuts, perfect flow and amazing play in each and every song. It’s no exaggeration, and that’s why this set gets the award for top first set of tour.

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Derek Jeter Award

Back on the Train: Saratoga, NY – 07/07/2013

Timber: George, WA – 07/26/2013

Golgi Apparatus: George, WA – 07/27/2013

Meat: San Francisco, CA – 08/02/2013

Divided Sky: San Francisco, CA – 08/04/2013

Honorable Mention: Wolfman’s Brother: Holmdel, NJ – 07/10/2013

Ahhh, the second song of the show. One of those slots that’s often overlooked in its distinct ability to affect the overall flow, energy, and direction of the show, here in 2013, it constantly seemed as though the band fully understood the power and importance of the Jeter slot.

On 07/07, the band followed up a sharp AC/DC Bag with a dense and intricate take on Back On The Train. Three weeks later they again followed and AC/DC Bag opener at the start of their weekend at The Gorge, though this time with a torrid Timber. In Holmdel, following a cancelled show in Toronto the night before, Phish kicked off one of the best shows of the entire tour with a blistering Llama followed by a loose, funky, yet still raging Wolfman’s Brother. During the tour’s final weekend, the band treated their fans to two classics on 08/02 and 08/04, using the second song of each show – Meat & Divided Sky – to key fans into the overall energy the band was messing with by tour’s end.

And yet, it was on the second night of The Gorge, when, after opening the show with their most contemplative, emotive, and sublime opener of the summer, that the band worked to sculpt one of their best shows of the tour, by infusing their age-old classic Golgi Apparatus into the show’s second slot. A song that has always seemingly fit best as a set closer, the placement reminded many of the NICU>Golgi>Crossroads trifecta that opened the hallowed 12/29/1997 show. Perfectly placed, expertly played, that they followed it up with the lone Curtain With of the summer just showed what kind of magic the band was wielding here in the summer of 2013.

Best Poster

BGCA

Hollywood

Alpharetta

The Gorge

Lake Tahoe

Honorable Mention: Jones Beach

Posters were a hot commodity as always this summer, and the posters were absolutely spectacular at each run. It’s hard to say which one is the best, because in all honesty, each and every one of them is special and unique to the venue while looking incredibly bad ass. I narrowed down my 6 favorites: San Francisco, Alpharetta, The Gorge, Jones Beach, Lake Tahoe and Hollywood. Jones Beach is the poster with an astronaut in the middle, surrounded by eyes blossoming from the slime below. Alpharetta’s dual set is perfect for representing the south. A beautiful landscape of friends swimming in a lake, playing on a rope swing. The silhouette of the children and grass with the bright colors of the sky reflect hot summer days in the south.

Heading out west, Phish had beautiful poster after beautiful poster. The Gorge, like Alpharetta, is a duel set with a wolf and goat looking at the lochness monster, swimming in the sea, another perfect poster for the venue. The posters kept getting better and better, with Tahoe’s an image of Tahoe Tessie rising on a full moon from the Lake and San Francisco’s three posters represent the psychedelia that is San Francisco. Night one is a pelican, night two is a butterfly with guitars and a keyboard and the third is a fox with drums. The colors are magnificent, blue and red and each are uniquely special.

However, Hollywood’s poster is clearly the best. Not only is it huge (20×30), but it’s a split perspective of the same image, one from the sky, one from below the waters. On the left there is a boy and a girl sitting high above the water in a patch of flowers, watching sailboats below and fireworks in the distance. On the right side is the image from below the water, with sharks swimming towards a light, deep below the sailboats, next to scuba divers. It’s really a fantastic poster and I’m thankful to have got a copy. Point is, all the posters are beautiful! Wonderful job from all the artists! Thank you!

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Most Unexpected Part Of Tour

The Rain

Harpua

The Tight Rotation of Songs

The end of mkdevo

3 Set Show at Chicago

Honorable Mention: Hollywood Harry Hood a.k.a. HollyHOOD

Summer 2013 was a unique tour for Phish for a plethora of reasons. There were a lot of unexpected surprises, some good, some bad, but all having an effect on the tour in one way or another. The biggest may be what happened to @mkdevo and all of his videos. For all of 3.0, if there was a song you wanted to check out and watch, everyone knew look no further than mkdevo. If you missed a show, no problem, you could watch it practically through his videos. The videos were arguably Phish’s greatest marketing tool as they were free and they exposed Phish to a generation of fans who never knew of the band before 2009. It’s definitely been a different tour with little to none visual footage as there has been in years past.

Another big surprise was the Harry Hood from Hollywood, otherwise known as HollyHood. The last show of a 4 night stand between San Fran->Los Angeles, Hollywood was characterized by no new songs and lots of great, but typical, Phish excellence. All of the sudden, out of nowhere in the second set though comes this beauty. This magnificent mother of god Harry Hood that is instantly an all-timer. The song that started it all off in Bangor and never let down throughout the tour peaked in full capacity that Monday night, and that was a huge unexpected gift.

It’s been said a bunch already, but 2012 and 2013 were very different. The chase for 200 songs changed the dynamic of the tour in 2012 and therefore 2013 not only had a much tighter rotation, but it truly felt like a tighter rotation. It made for interesting sets. There was plenty of variety among each jam and development and improvement with each play. The juxtaposition between the two summer tours was evident and unexpected.

But by far, the most unexpected part of the tour was the rain. Without the rain you don’t get the Chicago run – Friday’s cancellation, Saturday’s three set speciality, and Sunday’s Harpua. The rain was EASILY the biggest factor throughout the east coast, all the way through Chicago, with everyone jokingly calling it Phish Pours America and Phish Summer Pour 2013. Every night there seemed to be a storm or threats of storms, starting with SPAC having delays and thunderstorms. Jones Beach’s show was caught in the middle of the worst storm of the summer on Long Island, with the wind whipping people in the face and the rain pounding on all of us from above.

The rain didn’t stop though, it just continued, down to Merriweather and Atlanta, before finally “peaking” in Chicago. When the show on Friday was cut short, the band was truly devastated, and rewarded us with three sets on Saturday. But when Sunday came and the first set was cut during Antelope, you could really tell how frustrated and annoyed the band was, especially Trey and Page. The rain was just a constant deterrent, but both the band and the fans NEVER let it get in the way. I’ll always remember this tour for the rain as will many, as the rain truly gave life to each and every show in a different, unique way.

Show Of The Tour

Holmdel, NJ – 07/10/2013

Columbia, MD – 07/14/2013

Chicago, IL – 07/21/2013

George, WA – 07/26/2013

George, WA – 07/27/2013

San Francisco, CA – 08/02/2013

San Francisco, CA – 08/04/2013

Honorable Mention: Saratoga, NY – 07/07/2013

The thing about this 2013 Summer Tour is that there really wasn’t a single bad show played. Seriously, you could throw any of these shows on and find numerous moments of full-band-connectivity. Even on their safest nights – 07/03 and 07/05 – even on the cancelled mess of 07/19, even when they came out with a song-based/energy affair on the second night of BGCA, each of these shows are still worth your time and your ears. Each display a Phish at the top of their game, attacking their shows no matter the style.

And yet, for however strong as the tour is as a complete entity, their peak shows are simply based on an even higher level of musical connectivity, advanced experimentation, and evolutionary progression. From 07/10 and 07/14’s dedication to the band’s classics, representing an early peak for the tour, while displaying Phish’s desire to jam as a unified force, to 07/21’s show that – like the above jam segment – absolutely HAD to happen, to the string of shows at the Gorge on 07/26 and 07/27 that display the most consistent peak for the band in 2013, to the first and third night of SF that combined rarities and segues on 08/02, and a second set for the ages on 08/04, there’s just simply SO MUCH music we have to listen to from Phish moving forward. And, one cannot forget to mention the initial high-point of the tour – a show rightly praised when it happened, yet overshadowed now as the tour has unfolded – 07/07.

We’ve truly been blessed throughout the entirety of this 2013 Summer Tour. The thought of the band continuing to build upon this at Dick’s and in the Fall is simply mind-boggling.

Thankful is simply not enough.

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Top Run

Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Springs, New York: 3 Nights

Merriweather Post Pavilion, Columbia, Maryland: 2 Nights

The Gorge, George, Washington: 2 Nights

Lake Tahoe, Stateline, Nevada: 2 Nights

Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, San Francisco, California: 3 Nights

Top run? How can one even decide…Between the magnificence and glory at Phish’s real life Gamehendge, Saratoga Springs, through the tri state area in New Jersey and Jones Beach, and the weekend run at Merriweather, almost every run was unique and special, loaded with stunning moments and overflowing with highlights.

Lake Tahoe had great shows and the most special moment, Tweezer, and Bill Graham was the RIGHT way to end the tour, in the place where the birth of the counter culture happened. But one run stands above the rest — The Gorge. Like Phish’s last trip to the legendary venue, this weekend stand boasted complete shows filled with sick segues, exploratory jams and fantastic first and second sets. Night one at the Gorge had a AC/DC Bag, Timber, Wolfman’s Opener with a closing trio of McGrupp, Curtis Lowe and Melt. The first set was stunning as was the second set, which had an 18 minute Crosseyed and Painless, followed by Twist, Steam, Waves and a jam that has WAY TOO MUCH POTENTIAL, Twenty Years Later. Mango, Bug and Bowie!!! rounded the end, before a symbolic Rocky Top, signifying the awesome set, and then the moon howling Character Zero.

The next night opened with a gorgeous Architect, the first Golgi of tour and then the first Curtain With of tour! After that came more great songs with Moma, Maze and the new debut, Say Something, a song I love. After Midnight ended the set with a tribute for J.J. Cale and kept the energy at an all-time high. The second set was even better! The famous Down with Disease->Undermind to start things off before another amazing highlight, Light->Sneaking Sally. A spacey and funky 2001 was nicely placed before a perfect ending trio – Walls of the Cave, Fluffhead and Run Like an Antelope. Talk about a two night stand.

There are a few rules of Phish. Never miss a Sunday show. If you have the ability to go to a show, you go. Never miss Dick’s, and of course, Never miss The Gorge.

Top Set

Saratoga Springs: 07/05/13- Set II Energy > Light->The Mango Song > 46 Days->Steam, Drowned > Slave

Jones Beach: 07/12/2013- Set II Rock & Rock -> 2001 > Tweezer->Cities->The Wedge, Wading in the Velvet Sea, Character Zero

Chicago: 07/21/2013- Set II Energy->Ghost->The Lizards, Harpua > Run Like an Antelope

The Gorge: 07/26/2013- Set II Crosseyed & Painless > Twist > Steam > Waves->Twenty Years Later > The Mango Song > Bug > David Bowie, Rocky Top > Character Zero

The Gorge: 07/27/2013- Set II Down with Disease->Undermind > Light->Sneakin Sally Thru the Alley->2001 > Walls of the Cave > Fluffhead > Run Like an Antelope

San Francisco: 08/04/2013- Set II Energy > Runaway Jim > Carini > The Wedge, Light->David Bowie, Silent in the Morning, Meatstick > Quinn the Eskimo, You Enjoy Myself

For much of 2009 – 2012, no matter what musical leaps forward were made, Phish continually struggled with conceiving fully-flowing sets. While yes, there are exceptions – 08/07/2009 II, 06/27/2010 II, 10/16/2010 II, 05/28/2011 II, 07/03/2011 I, 08/15/2011 II, 08/19/2012 II, and 12/30/2012 II immediately come to mind – the start-to-finish thematic flow of a set – particularly a Set II – was one of the missing links that marked any conversation about where exactly Phish was in their climb back up their veritable mountain.

As with much of their music, all this changed in 2013.

On the second show of tour to be exact.

Crafting a fluid, flowing, and thematically unyielding set on the first night of their three-night SPAC run, the band ushered in a tour full of relentless sets that stack up with some of the most complete sets of their entire career. These sets are SO good that the thought of ranking them/choosing a singular one that’s better than the others seems preposterous. Almost like an insult.

07/05 showed us immediately what was possible here in 2013. 07/10 displayed the lengths the band was prepared to go to craft improvisational brilliance, while also letting their hair down and proving that party/rock sets don’t necessarily mean a loss in flow. 07/12 felt plucked right out of 1998. 07/21 HAD to happen right then and there; phearless’d. 07/26 both built upon 07/10’s theme, but used down-tempo rarities, along with a deranged moon-chant in the often-predictable Zero to allow the band an entrance into an alternate dimension. 07/27 is definition of ‘perfection’ in my mind: jams, flow, energy, rock, classics. 08/04 capped off a tour full of highlights with expansive jams, a nod to the bands ever-present gimmickry, and an ode to the theme of Phish 2013: ENERGY.

While we’ve selected 07/27 as the singular set that best defines the peak we’ve all just experienced here in Phish 2013, the reality is any number of those sets could fill that slot. There’s a reason SO many were SO floored after 07/05 after all…

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Jam Of The Tour

Carini -> Architect: Saratoga, NY – 07/06/2013

Crosseyed & Painless> Harry Hood: Holmdel, NY – 07/10/2013

Rock & Roll -> 2001> Tweezer -> Cities -> The Wedge: Wantagh, NY – 07/12/2013

Light -> Boogie On Reggae Woman: Columbia, MD – 07/14/2013

Energy -> Ghost -> The Lizards: Chicago, IL – 07/21/2013

Down With Disease: Toronto, ON – 07/22/2013

Down With Disease -> Undermind> Light -> Sneakin’ Sally Thru The Alley -> 2001: George, WA – 07/27/2013

Tweezer: Stateline, NV – 07/31/2013

Rock & Roll -> Steam: San Francisco, CA – 08/03/2013

Energy> Runaway Jim: San Francisco, CA – 08/04/2013

Harry Hood: Los Angeles, CA – 08/05/2013

There’s simply no other option in this category than the 07/31/2013 Tweezer from Tahoe. A 37-minute masterpiece that saw Phish craft an unending jam, displaying both a willingness to expand upon the subtlest of musical cues, and a desire to push their music out as far as possible, that the song resulted in one of the most stunning peaks of the band’s career is almost icing on the cake. And yet, the peak itself resulted in an impromptu band/audience moment of connection only possible in the purest forms of live music, representing a unified sense of elation between band and audience alike. Just listen to the way Trey absolutely tears into his riff following the first – and most spontaneous – set of woo’s from the crowd. There simply hasn’t been a jam in all of 3.0 that can compare with the exploratory zeal, communicative transcendence, nor unified band/audience moment quite like the Tahoe Tweezer.

As for the rest on this list? Each would unquestionably be a top jam in any other year in 3.0.

07/06’s Carini that changed on a dime numerous times, as the band tore through gorgeous melodic passages before landing in the debut of Architect.

The first Crosseyed of the year which saw Trey reach an early peak through his experimentations with this rhythmic and melodic jamming.

The Jones Beach Rock & Roll -> 2001> Tweezer -> Cities -> The Wedge segment that felt plucked right out of 1998, and more than made up for the torrential weather in Set I.

At Merriweather Post the band dropped a sharp and rhythmic Light, which tore through various segments of start/stop jamming, fused with heavy and distorted rock, before segueing perfectly into Boogie On Reggae Woman.

Reaching a mid-tour peak with the Energy -> Ghost -> The Lizards segment in Chicago, a jam that absolutely HAD to happen, it touched on literally every jamming style the band has ever experimented with throughout their entire career in one 26min jam before moving into one of their most time honored classics.

A night later Trey led the band down a beautifully sublime path in Down With Disease, displaying the wide-open possibilities for the band as they moved westward.

On the second night of The Gorge, the band spent the first 50 minutes of their second set locked in a constantly evolving jam segment that passed through sections of funk, ambient, and bliss before peaking with a torrid Sneakin’ Sally.

Two shows after the Tahoe Tweezer, the band took Rock & Roll again on another spin, this time focusing more on the groove rather than its melody, moving it seamlessly into perhaps the best Steam of the year, in a year already full of top versions.

On one of the best shows of the summer – 08/04 – Phish opened their second set with a 27 minute segment based around their newest jam vehicle, and one of their oldest.

Finally, they took Harry Hood out far beyond the reaches of your typical Hood, crafting an often seedy, if not painstakingly gorgeous version that rivals any of the 2003 experimentations on it, and proved just how high the band was by tour’s end.

Each of these jams displayed a band simply locked in. No two ways about it. Phish was on throughout all of their summer tour. Evolutionary steps forward, momentous goals achieved, surprises galore; further proof of where things currently stand in the world of Phish.

Song MVP

Harry Hood

Energy

David Bowie

Crosseyed and Painless

Tweezer

Honorable Mention: Rock & Roll

Look up any show from the past tour where any of the above songs were played, and you’re guaranteed to hear an innovative and energized performance that served as both a show and tour highlight.

Each year of 3.0 has provided us with transcendent takes on Rock & Roll: 08/08/2009, 10/22/2010, 08/05/2011, 08/15/2012, and now, 07/12/2013 and 08/03/2012. Each wholly unique versions that displayed both the open-ended quality to the song, and the bombastic grooves that are just bursting at its seams, the song proved its lasting value  in 2013 once again as one of the band’s trustiest jam vehicles.

David Bowie returned from years of seeming irrelevance to reclaim its place among the most enthralling live compositions in Phish’s catalogue. Punctuated by engaging, melodic versions on 07/05, 07/12, 07/20, and 07/26, the song proved that for however predictable and tepid it had been throughout the first three years of 3.0, there was no way the band could contain this gem forever.

Crosseyed & Painless, played only twice, was significantly stretched out on each occasion, further displaying the boundaries pushed in last summer’s transcendent 08/19 version. Offering up one of the jams of summer at PNC, it touched upon the 02/16/2003 Piper theme on its way to fully displaying the rhythmic melodic playing from Trey that was pushing the band to new heights. While it didn’t totally hook-up in the same way sixteen days later at the The Gorge, that version did represent a significant step forward in terms of Trey’s willingness and desire to push their jams deep into the unknown, something which would lead to a landmark jam some five nights later…

The lone cover debut of summer, Energy fit Phish’s rotation with stunning ease, expanding over four transcendent versions to become the new go-to jam for the band. With lyrics that speak directly to Phish’s overall message, a melody that just screams White Album-era Beatles, and an open-ended quality that caters directly to expansion, and it’s no wonder the song has stuck. Just listen to how much the song grew from its 07/05 debut, to its 07/17 performance that allowed it its first opportunity to wander, to its two peak performances thus far on 07/21 and 08/04. Anyone who doesn’t think this is opening one of the second sets at Dick’s is crazy.

Even if the four Tweezers that preceded the 07/31 version had been complete duds, the song was still bound to make this list for the sheer impact its 37 minute incarnation had on the entirety of the music made this summer.

Yet, aside from the 07/06 version, each the 07/12, 07/16, and 07/22 versions are unique, thematic, and are featured in choice segues midway through their respective sets. Still, nothing compares to the masterful jam that kicked off the final set in Tahoe. A musical peak for Phish in any era, it cemented 2013 as yet another Tweezer-strong year, and kept up the trend within 3.0, of a sublime take on their much-loved jam vehicle, joining the likes of 12/29/2009, 12/30/2010, 09/03/2011, and 12/28/2012 before it.

And yet, for everything that’s been played in 2013 – much of which that has simply blown away a large percentage of the music the band has made throughout their already illustrious career – it all comes back to one Harry Hood. The lone encore on the tour opener in Bangor, literally every single version played – 07/10, 07/13, 07/20, 07/26, 08/02, and the monumental 08/05 – is a veritable tour highlight. In much the same way that David Bowie completely revitalized itself here in 2013, so did Mr. Hood, and then some. Peaking in the first half of the tour with old-school takes on 07/03 and 07/13 in particular, out west the song opened itself up to a certain degree on 07/26, before completely rewriting the rulebook on Hood some three songs before the tour’s conclusion. One of the jams of summer, the Hollywood Harry Hood displayed the untapped potential of the song as a jam vehicle, exposing yet another layer in Phish’s continuously unveiling musical amalgamation.

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Once again, many thanks to James for asking me to be a part of this piece! So glad to be able to share our thoughts on Phish in such a way! We can’t wait to see what Phish has planned for us at Dick’s!

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

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

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

Right?

Wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Alpharetta: Combining Gimmickry With Dick’s-esque Jamming

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

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

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

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

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

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What’s The Deal With All The Repeats?

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

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

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

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

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

So clear, it actually makes perfect fucking sense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What Do We Make Of 07/20/2013?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have no idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Favorite Shows/Jams Thus Far

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

Favorite Shows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Favorite Jams 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Encore: Show Of Life> Tweezer Reprise

^ “Architect” made its Phish debut

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Phish is so good. (well, duh)

Phish is so good right now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is this a jam?

Is it an extension of “Tube?”

You don’t know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——–

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

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

——–

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

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

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

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

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

Encore: Character Zero###

^ “Yarmouth Road” made its Phish debut

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

& “My Friend, My Friend” was unfinished

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

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

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

——–

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

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

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

——–

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

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

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

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

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

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

——–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I still don’t know.

——–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is there anything more perfectly Phish-like?

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

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

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

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

——–

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

Summer 2003 – Ten Years After

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Piper” – 07/19/2003 – East Troy, WI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Twist” – 07/30/2009 – Camden, NJ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Waves” – 08/02/2003 – Limestone, ME

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Ghost” – 08/03/2003 – Limestone, ME

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Structure Of A Show – Set I Closer

4171325972_5aa4573fb4_zFrom the thrill of the unknown that is the show opener, to the constructed unit that is the first set, we come to the third part in our series on The Structure Of A Show: the Set I Closer. A different beast than the opener, and even more so than any of the songs that precede it. What defines the Set I Closer is both a collective release of energy that can only come from the shared experience of having been at a Phish show for now 90 minutes, and the shared anticipation of the unknown. A full set into a show now, a Set I closer can often give hints to how the band feels about the set just played, how energized a crowd is, and can often be the determining factor between an amped-up setbreak, and a monotonous slog to the bathrooms. While rarely a moment that will make or break a show, the Set I Closer derives it’s power from a source of energy that explodes in the most visceral ways: when both band and crowd are keenly aware of the singularity of the moment.

There’s always that point deep into a first set where one checks their internal setlist, and says to themselves, “I wonder what they’re gonna close with?” Rarely a surprise – though sometimes it certainly is – the Set I Closer is typically an understood moment that combines timing, and a high-energy number. While there are certainly classic closers, akin to classic openers, there are also those that are far less expected and produce a similarly uneasy and bizarre sensation to their rare opener counterparts. Essentially, there are Set I closers that feel like the closer from the moment they begin, while there are others that either a) become a closer by default due to the energy they conduct, or b) take fans into setbreak scratching their heads – for both good, and sometimes, bad reasons.

The essential quality that separates the majority of Set I closers from the rest of the songs in a set is their dedication to an explosion of energy that either raises the bar from a throwdown Set I, or proves to be too little too late after a less-than-stellar affair. From time to time, however, a Set I closer will be a confounding moment whereby, the band exits without conducting a massive explosion, rather, concluding with a whisper, sending everyone off into setbreak in a bit of a hushed tone. Regardless of how the band chooses to move into setbreak, there is typically a sense of finality that comes with either the song selection, or music that emerges, capping off the connected idea of the set.

Beyond this explosion of energy, one other aspect of first set closers that separates it from the entirety of Phish’s song catalogue is that throughout their career, the role of the closer has essentially remained unchanged. With only 171 of their 750 unique songs being used as Set I Closers, only 23% of the catalogue has been given access to this placement. Beyond this, two songs – “Run Like An Antelope,” and “David Bowie” – have combined for a staggering 291 performances in the Set I Closer role. With 1650 shows under their belt, this means that 18% of all Phish shows ever performed have featured either “Bowie” or “Antelope” as the first set closer. An astounding figure, it displays the band’s overt lack of experimentation with the role of the Set I Closer. Thus, as we’ll see as we examine it, the Set I Closer is a far more entrenched, established, and formulated aspect of a Phish show than essentially all other parts. Not without it’s own surprises and thrills, the Set I Closer is quite possibly the most expected aspect of this entire series.

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

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I. The Classics

Akin to the Openers segment, there are certain Phish songs that simply were meant to close a set. In both structure, energy, and sonic quality, the following six songs define the idea of a Set I closer. Indeed, they have combined to close 533 first sets, or 32% of all first sets ever played. Providing little surprise with their placement, these songs are still consistently captivating for their ability to conclude first sets with a combined grace, power, and certainty. Hear any of these songs, either at a show or on your stereo, and they just feel like the conclusion of a set. Like the classic Openers, these are the classics for a reason, what more can you say?

Examples: ‘Run Like An Antelope,’ David Bowie,’ ‘Cavern,’ ‘Golgi Apparatus,’ ‘Good Times Bad Times,’ ‘The Squirming Coil’

We’ve all been at these shows. The band’s been on stage for little over an hour, and out of nowhere, the bouncy trill of “Antelope” kicks off, or the haunting hi-hat for “Bowie” emerges, or the drums slam in a bombastic roar, signaling “Cavern,” and you just know, this is gonna close the set. These six songs are the classic Set I closers for a reason. They each act as a barometer for the impending setbreak, they each have come to be considered a bookend to the concept of an overall set. Outside of their set closing role, they appear a bit out of place. Beyond their overall sound, they’ve appeared in some of the best Phish shows in the closing role. From 12/29/1997, 08/09/1998, and 08/14/1997, to 06/22/1994, 12/13/1997, and 10/30/2010, these songs have capped off dozens of classic sets and shows. What’s more is, regardless the overall power of the show they’re appearing in they always just seem to fit when they appear as the Set I closer.

II. The Raging Cap

Similar in a sense to the classics, these songs have each seen their fair share of the Set I closing role. What separates them from the previous section is their ability to just rock the fuck out of a venue prior to setbreak every single time. Without fail, the following nine songs shake a crowd to it’s core. Best displaying Phish’s ability to coalesce energy in a massive group, these song’s send everyone off to setbreak with a thrilling rock-out. When placed anywhere else in a set these songs surely still raise the energy level to yet-unattained levels, yet it’s when they’re ushered in to close a set that they each seem to have that much more umph. Not surprising bustouts, nor exploratory jams, what these songs do instead is prove the immense power Phish’s song catalogue possesses, particularly when certain songs are placed in the right part of a show.

Examples: ‘Chalk Dust Torture,’ ‘Suzy Greenberg,’ ‘Llama,’ ‘Julius,’ ‘Fire,’ ‘Frankenstein,’ ‘Tweezer Reprise,’ ‘Wilson,’ ’46 Days’

Ask anyone in attendance at 11/11/1995, 09/14/2000, 05/21/1994, 07/19/2003, 11/30/1995, 11/16/1996, 12/28/2003, 09/25/1999, and 10/12/2010, and they’re certain to tell you the same thing: no matter the energy levels prior to their appearance, each of these Set I closers amped up the energy within the venue ten-fold. Like a smack in the face, these songs billow out of nowhere, capture immediate energy, build on it, and continue building to a certain peak that results in a euphoric applause from the crowd. Uniting both band and crowd in an aura of lights, glowsticks, confetti, raised arms, and that tension-filled sense in the air, these songs send everyone off to set break with shit-eating grins plastered across their face. Yours truly’s preferred way to exit a first set, these songs more than raise the bar on set one towards the unknown potential of the second set.

III. The Expected Send-Off’s

With only 23% of their catalogue used thus far to close a first set, it’s understandable there are going to be some predictable songs capping off set’s from time to time. While these are rarely songs that anyone will complain about in this slot. And they’re certainly songs that do their part of closing the set off with a bang. The following songs are the kind no one will rave about all things considered the next day. They’re akin to a serviceable Center in Basketball. You need them to fill a role, and they do their part, albeit without the fanfare, and ecstatic buzz that other more notable songs will. They’re the songs called in when the set has either reached that point where it just needs a closer, or if the band has been playing an assortment of well-known “hits” that night. They deliver the bang, and allow the band to exit the stage to an energized applause heading into setbreak. Nothing more, nothing less.

Examples: ‘Possum,’ ‘Character Zero,’ ‘Sample In A Jar,’ ‘Loving Cup,’ ‘Taste,’ ‘Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan’

Now, just because they’re expected, doesn’t mean they can’t be great, nor accompany excellent shows. For as 08/13/2010, 08/03/1998, 11/09/1995, 10/02/1999, 07/22/1997, and 09/01/2012 all display, these are sometimes the perfect songs to accompany their sets. Never outlandish, never a surprise, sometimes the best shows just need a dose of predictable Phishdom to round themselves out. Offering energy, a massive Trey solo, and that big bang that is Phish’s Rock ‘n Roll meal ticket, they play the role of set closer to a T. The kinds of songs that routinely get lambasted on PT for their regularity in the rotation, they prove time and again when called upon to close a set, just why they kick around so much.

IV. The Composed Conclusion

Rooted in stylistically structured, and classical compositions, it’s no wonder that their most beloved songs have found their way into the Set I Closer role over the years. Concluding a first set in one of the most powerful and sublime ways there is, these following songs both serve as reminders for the band’s origins, while also providing a pretty potent energy kick to the end of their respective sets. While their roles have shifted throughout the years, most of these have closed out at least five first sets, meaning at one point they were all thought of as potential Set I closers. Separate from their appearances in Set II, their appearance here in the first set allows all to take a step back from the initial reality of being at a psychedelic rock show, and instead simply enjoy the musical chops of the boys.

Examples: ‘You Enjoy Myself,’ ‘The Divided Sky,’ ‘The Curtain With,’ ‘Stash,’ ‘Fluffhead,’ ‘Foam,’ ‘Time Turns Elastic’

Aside from the final selection on in this group, these songs are ubiquitous with the concept of Phish, and unanimously loved by literally every Phish fan. Thus their appearance anywhere in a show is welcome, regardless of their placement. However, when any of the above songs are chosen to close out a first set, it’s certainly a celebrated moment by all in attendance. Just think of 12/03/1997, 07/08/1994, 06/10/2011, 06/11/1994, 08/06/2011, and 03/14/1989, for clear examples of the positive impact these compositional classics had in closing out the first sets of said shows. Even “Time Turns Elastic,” a song both misunderstood, and hated equally by Phish fans everywhere, has played a role in closing out the first sets of a few solid shows, 06/21/2009 and 08/12/2010 immediately come to mind. This is a section that, overall, produces, more than anything, wide smiles, emotive peaks, and an overly satisfied crowd thanks to their appearance.

V. The Jams

And then, there are those nights where the band just wants to jam. So much so, that they’re sometimes forced to abandon a typical big bang closer in favor of a jam that naturally built to a climax. Some of the best Phish shows happen when the band throws caution to the wind and just unleashes a series of exploratory jams. Compounding these shows are the times when the band dives deep mid-Set I, and realizes they’ve extended a jam so far out there, they’re forced to simply end the set on that note. An exhilarating, unique, all-inclusive experience, whenever the band removes their instruments after just throwing down a jam, everyone in the venue knows something special just went down. Some of the following songs are simply programmed as jamming closers, while others have been used on occasion, typically when the band stumbles into a jam late into the first set and thus has no option but to conclude with it – be it for time constraints, or in honor of proper flow. Regardless what they are, they’re continual reminders of the unexpected at a Phish show, making each show better for their placement and their unpredictability.

Examples: ‘Split Open & Melt,’ ‘Bathtub Gin,’ ‘Walls Of The Cave,’ ‘Gotta Jibboo,’ ‘Undermind,’ ‘Wolfman’s Brother,’ ‘Drowned,’ ‘Light,’ ‘Tweezer’

Mention to any fan 06/16/1995, 05/28/2011, 02/28/2003, 02/20/2003, 08/31/2012, 12/28/2012, 06/20/2004, 11/27/2009, and 06/18/2004, and without question, one of the first things they’ll talk about is the incredible jam that ended Set I. A wholly unique moment when everything clicks for the band prior to setbreak, a Set I closing jam is a good of proof as one needs that the band is on. Whereas much of their improvisation has historically occurred in the second set, the Set I Closer is often a bridge from Set I to II, allowing the band the looseness to explore after 70+ minutes of typically tight music. When they go off on an extended journey, it’s typically the stuff of legends, and usually signifies big things for set II. In fact, each of the above songs directly led to massive second sets, whereby the band dedicated a large portion of the set to improve. While not the kind of Set I Closer one should be heading to any show expecting, when they emerge, you know you’re witnessing a classic.

VI. The Subdued Pause

We’re entering into a bit of strange territory for these next three sections. The following are the closers one wouldn’t immediately request, nor consider when compiling a setlist in their head. Some of them work, some of them don’t, but they’re all united in the fact that each of the following sections defies the stereotypical idea of what a Set I closer is. For this section, we’ll cover the more subdued, softer songs that are called upon from time to time to close out a first set. Often catching many fans off-guard, these songs end the set with more of a whisper than a roar. While not the type of song that initially comes to ones mind when they think of the emotional release expected to end a set, in many of their instances said songs work. While yes, they often give off a strange vibe heading into setbreak, in many of the cases, their subdued nature creates a more relaxed feeling surrounding a show, and results in a creative, and exploratory Set II. Other times they force one to scratch their heads – an issue we’ll discuss further in two sections. Here, we have seven songs that, for whatever reason, work as set closers, regardless of their subdued nature.

Examples: ‘Prince Caspian,’ ‘Bittersweet Motel,’ ‘If I Could,’ ‘Let It Loose,’ ‘Reba,’ ‘The Wedge,’ ‘Waste’

For whatever reason, on 11/21/1997, 07/21/1999, 06/28/2000, 08/16/2011, 12/30/1998, 06/03/2011, and 09/22/1999 the band felt like closing the first half of their show out with a mellow song. Whether a planned affair, or a spur of the moment idea, in these cases, the choice to conclude Set I with a more subdued number worked. Easing everyone into setbreak, rather than leaving them with a massive roar, these songs allow both band and audience the opportunity to reflect on the set that was, and prepare for Set II. Coincidentally or not, each of the above songs led to massive jams in Set II. More than anything, these songs proved that even in going against the stereotypical concept of a Set I Closer, the band was still capable of crafting a genuine closing statement. A bit mellow, a bit subdued at times, often quite unexpected, in these cases, the choice worked ten-fold.

VII. The A Cappella’s

Throughout their history, one of Phish’s trademark’s has been the diverse styles and genres they’ve continually meddled with. From classical to funk to jazz to dance, the band has spent the majority of their 30 years together tinkering with their own sound, and inviting various aspects of American and World Music into their own individual style. Starting in the early-90’s the band decided to focus attention on Barbershop, in effort to improve their much-ailed vocal chops. Offering a new avenue for their sets, the Barbershop songs quickly became stand-in set closers and encores. Typically following an expected – read: big bang – closer, the band would remove their instruments and meet mid-stage to grace the crowd with an old-timey number, thus concluding the set/show. Just another unique aspect of what you can expect at a Phish show, the Barbershop set closers never failed to rile up the crowd on the band’s attempts at recreating the gay nineties.

Examples: ‘Sweet Adeline,’ ‘Carolina,’ ‘Amazing Grace,’ ‘Free Bird’

Filling out literally every kind of first set, the above numbers are rarely expected, nor requested, though are typically always appreciated. Never too long to bore any fans, and always offering a thrilling moment witnessing the band’s widespread talent, they conclude sets in a way that allows everyone to celebrate the secret of Phish. Whereas most on the outside assume all that happens at a Phish show is senseless drugs, and guitar-noodling, these songs conclude a set like a wink and a smile, reminding all in some way, why we fell in love with Phish in the first place.

VIII. The Head Scratchers

There’s always gotta be at least one of these. Proof that Phish is far from perfect, these sections help illuminate the risks the band takes with each show to produce magic out of the unknown. Rather than being bad songs, the following selections just seem odd when placed in the Set I Closer role. None produce that massive bang that everyone expects with a closer. None are either mellow enough to fit in that section. Some of the choices are better suited as openers, while others have proven to be best fit midway through a set. Either way, the band has thought enough of each of these to use them as a Set I Closer at least three times.

Examples: ‘Runaway Jim,’ ‘Funky Bitch,’ ‘AC/DC Bag,’ ‘My Soul,’ ‘Farmhouse,’ ‘Backwards Down The Number Line,’ ‘Lawn Boy,’ ‘Meatstick’

While they’ve each close out sets in often solid shows – 10/31/1991, 12/31/1994, 07/25/1997, 04/03/1998, 06/15/2000, 11/28/2009, 04/28/1990, and 07/03/1999 – they’ve often made each of their sets feel a tad unfinished. At it’s best, a set closer offers a book-end to the idea of a set, and none of these songs are truly built to do that. Often leaving fans scratching their heads when the lights come on, they’re simply not your first choice, nor really, even your last choice, to concluded a set. Proof that even the band stumbles in crafting a fully flowing set, the above songs just don’t fit the bill of a Set I closer, no matter how many times the band tries to prove otherwise.

IX. The Why Don’t They Close Out More First Sets?

While they’ve only used just over 20% of their song catalogue for Set I Closer’s, there have ostensibly been those songs they have used, that wholly work as closers, yet for whatever reason are only played on increasingly rare occasions. The kinds of songs that send everyone into setbreak on a high, just on their appearance alone. They’re the songs that seem to raise the level of the show just another notch, typically confirming the brilliance of the set their concluding. Catching the entire crowd by surprise, these songs both define the sense of the unknown that permeates every Phish show, and the ultimate surge of energy that everyone in attendance – band and fans alike – is seeking upon arrival. Perhaps a beneficiary of their scarcity, these songs nevertheless, force all fans to wonder aloud why the band doesn’t opt for them on more occasions.

Examples: ‘Slave To The Traffic Light,’ ‘Tweezer Reprise,’ ‘Down With Disease,’ ‘Harry Hood,’ ‘Birds Of A Feather,’ ‘First Tube,’ ‘Rock & Roll,’ ‘A Day In The Life,’ ‘ Maze,’ ‘Axilla,’ ‘Alumni Blues -> Letter To Jimmy Page -> Alumni Blues’

Associated with some of the most highly touted first sets of the band’s career, these songs span the various eras of the band in their appearance as a Set I Closer. Yet they all find commonality in the fact that they both unquestionably work as a closer, and make far too few appearances in said role. Just listen to 08/13/1996, 10/21/1995, 11/17/1994, 08/10/1997, 08/10/2004, 12/04/2009, 06/29/2000, 12/30/1997, 02/26/2003, 07/30/1999, and 08/15/2011, and try to contemplate those masterful first sets ending with any other song. A simple ‘Cavern,’ or ‘Character Zero’ wouldn’t have fit. Neither would even something on the level of ‘Fluffhead,’ or ‘Chalk Dust Torture.’ No, what those sets deserved was the kind of rare gem that riles an audience up on appearance alone, and then delivers on a top-notch performance. Something each of the above songs has done brilliantly when asked to, they nevertheless require the crowd to wonder why they’re not called upon more often to deliver the same punch.

X. The Absurdly Good Surprises

Similar in ways to the above section – even featuring a few crossovers – these Set I Closers are unique for the fact that literally no one could have predicted they’d close out their respective set. Yet when they did, they not only fit like a glove, but proved to be nothing short of brilliant. Full of energy, completely unpredictable, immediately satiating a crowd, these are the kinds of closers one would never think to request, they just have to be experience to completely enjoy. Incredibly rare moments where the band capitalizes on the energy and mood of a set and comes as close as possible to perfection.

Examples: ‘Highway To Hell,’ ‘Big Black Furry Creature From Mars,’ ‘After Midnight,’ ‘2001,’ ‘Drowned,’ ‘Light,’ ‘Undermind,’ ‘Monkey Man,’ ‘Harry Hood,’ ‘Alumni Blues -> Letter To Jimmy Page -> Alumni Blues,’ ‘You Enjoy Myself’

You know when you’re witnessing one of the above selections by the fact that the energy within the venue becomes a tangible thing – effervescent, emanating from the audience, lingering throughout. It’s an example of the moments where a simple rock concert turns into something that feels like it means something. These songs don’t just summon applause and cheering, they literally make people lose their collective shit. Elevating the show from whatever it was to something truly memorable, one would never argue that 12/31/1989, 10/31/1987, 12/31/1999, 12/30/2003, 06/20/2004, 11/27/2009, 08/31/2012, 07/02/2011, 09/28/1999, 08/15/2011, and 06/23/2012 were not immensely blessed and advanced by the inclusion of these songs at the Set I Closer.

XI. The One-Off’s

One of the greatest aspects of listening to, and following Phish, is their penchant for the one-time thrills that essentially serve as snooze-you-lose reminders to those who don’t keep up. Seen in their random openers, covers, and bustouts, another way Phish has found to work the ultimate element of surprise into their shows is through random, one-time performances of songs in the Set I Closer role. Adding another level to the lore of their constantly shifting live shows, these songs have all appeared once as the Set I Closer, never to be seen in that position again. For whatever reason, be it they realized they were running late, the song developed into a particularly impressive jam, or it just fit the mood of the set, these songs were chosen to close, never since being used.

Examples: ‘After Midnight,’ ‘2001,’ ‘Axilla,’ ‘Crossroads,’ ‘Ghost,’ ‘Glide,’ ‘Harpua,’ ‘Light,’ ‘Monkey Man,’ ‘Mound, ‘Reba,’ ‘Sweet Jane,’ ‘The Curtain With,’ ‘Tweezer,’ ‘Ya Mar’

Many of the above worked well as closers when they were played, leading many to wonder why they only saw one appearance in the role. For whatever the reason, 12/31/1999, 12/30/2003, 07/30/1999, 08/09/1997, 06/22/1997, 10/31/1995, 11/27/2009, 07/02/2011, 06/15/2011, 12/30/1998, 08/08/1998, 06/10/2011, and 06/18/2004 were befitted special status with these one-off closers, adding a bit of lore to each of the shows. Perhaps one day they’ll resurface as Set I closers, thus eliminating them from this list. Until then, they’re a part of a unique group with 71 other songs, having been used to close out Set I only once.

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Akin to their Set I Openers, the Set I Closer is an opportunity for the band to use one singular song to generate energy and fully connect with an audience. With a full set behind them, it’s their parting message before the break, often times thematically capping off the set that was. A maze of classics that just fit the part, jams that came out of nowhere, a cappella and composed original songs that allow the band to display their musical dexterity, and one-off rarities that add a bit of lore to their shows, the Set I Closers are further proof of the diversity of Phish on a night to night basis. Thus concludes the third part in an eight-part series breaking down Phish’s live show. Up next is the Second Set Opener.

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

The Structure Of A Show – Set I

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Once the immediate anticipation and surprise of the show’s opener has passed, it’s time for the band to get down to the business of crafting a set’s worth of music. Splitting their shows into two individual sets allows for the band to focus all their energy on 60 – 90 minutes of music (or, generally between 8 – 14 songs) at a time. Whereas most band’s concerts are structured in one elongated performance – ranging anywhere from 70 minutes to 3 hrs – Phish benefits from this two set model – pioneered in the rock world, by, The Grateful Dead. Granting them a pause for reflection, sometimes a shift in direction, and always two structural mediums by which to bounce various musical ideas around in, the two set-show is one of Phish’s most uniquely brilliant aspects. In laymen’s terms: a shitty first set can often lead to a mindblowing Set II, while a raucous first set can inspire the band to take unpracticed risks, or even burn out, when they return from set break. Many times an absolutely devastating, fully flowing, and energized Set I spills right over into the second set, by which the band crafts an absolute classic show. While ultimately, the overall performance is up to the band’s energy, their immediate drive, not to mention a number of intangibles, the essential structure in place works to formulate the results in a number of ways.

Generally speaking, first sets have historically been opportunities for the band to settle into a show, test out any new/rare songs, and play with a bit more discipline than in the second set. Here, the focus is generally on energy, presentation, and the songs; a recital of sorts. While the formula has certainly shifted throughout the years, the view of a first set is that it’s typically devoid of the experimentation that’s seen in Set II. Fans rarely expect a first set jam. Rather, are hankering for evidence of tight playing, solid song selection, and an emphasis on flow that will translate itself to a looser, and engaging Set II. Granted, there are always exceptions to the rule: during the 1997 – 2004 period, the band routinely jammed during first sets, shrinking them to as few as five songs at times; essentially they played two second sets on certain nights. Yet, for the purpose of this introduction, it’s best to consider the first set as a separate and different medium from set two, though we’ll certainly get into those which blur the lines below.

Whereas the Show Opener’s could be numerically and mathematically broken down into a formulaic study, analyzing full sets are a bit trickier. With so many different and unique combinations of songs, segues, one-timers played during an 8 – 12 song set, it’s far more difficult to quantify what makes a classic set, versus a mundane one in the same way you can with an opener. Say the band has played 1300 two set shows. Say the average number of songs played in every first set is 9 songs. That’s 11,700 different song combinations that could have been played throughout those shows. Far from the scientific breakdown of 206 openers out of 750 unique songs, analyzing whole sets is a far more subjective endeavor.

As a result, the following posts on the sets will rely less on numbers, and more on the author’s ear, and overall knowledge of Phish. While still keenly focused on organizing various sets into categories, readers will note not only the increase in examples, but also the overlapping of certain shows in various categories. A major reason for this is the band’s evolution of the First Set since their onset. A meandering, story time hour in the 80’s and early 90’s, it became a tightly wound machine from 1993 – 1996. Reinventing itself as a comparable improv-heavy medium in 1997 and 1998, it became a mix of jams and a recital by 1999. A casualty at times during the sloppy and experimental 2.0 era, in 3.0 the First Set has returned to it’s origins as a recital medium, emphasizing the band’s songs, while fusing together the energy of the mid-1990’s.

I can assure you, I’ve deliberated and weighed over these choices with significant energy, and somewhat torturous patience. This post proved to be far more of a research-heavy endeavor than the Show Opener‘s post could have ever dreamed to be.

What follows is Part II of VIII in tackle & lines series on The Structure Of A Show. Each category contains a write-up, examples, video clips (when available), and full-show streams (thanks phishtracks.com) for better understanding. As with the article on Openers, the goal of this is not to come to some sort of a conclusions about what a specific Phish show is, but rather explore the various directions the band chooses to go with their shows – here in the medium of the first set. This is not a means to rank the best sets versus the weakest – though negative habits will be discussed – instead is trying to find points of connection across various eras – and within each – while also pointing out their differences. Hope you guys enjoy the piece, we’re now a few weeks closer to 03 July!

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I. The Classical Assaults

If you’re like most diehard Phish fans, there are those songs you love hearing at a Phish show, no matter how many times you’ve heard them. ‘Bathtub Gin,’ ‘Wilson,’ ‘The Divided Sky,’ ‘You Enjoy Myself,’ ‘Chalk Dust Torture,’ these songs just never lose their luster, or their power. They’re the classics for a reason. On their own they’re always a welcome occasion. But when combined in set’s worth of music, they help to craft some of the most powerful, and memorable First Set’s. Akin to the Show Opener‘s classic’s segment, these First Set’s are the kind anyone would kill to experience live. Combining energy, musical might, and the essential ingredient of the band’s most cherished classic’s, these sets pack a punch, and have in many cases, stood the test of time. While obviously a more regular affair during the band’s early years when they had a smaller song catalogue to play with, these set’s still make an appearance today, and are sure to garner the tag “show of the tour” based on the sentiments and nostalgia they exhume. Yet as is proven time and again, it matter’s little when these set’s were played, for no matter their era, they’ll hold up no matter what.

Examples: 08/26/1989, 08/03/1991, 11/02/1990, 03/20/1992, 06/18/1994, 07/13/1994, 11/30/1995, 12/15/1995, 08/14/2009, 11/24/2009, 10/30/2010

Spanning 21 years, what the above sets all have in common is the greatest hit’s quality that accompanies the song selections, and the forcible energy that resonates throughout. These are the sets everyone has heard. Just scanning their setlist’s is like a rough guide into the Phish world; a Phish 101, if you will. Rarities, jams, bustouts are not typical of the above sets – though they do certainly occur. What’s a constant theme in the classical assault’s is the powerful onslaught of what the idea of Phish is. Celebratory affairs, these are the set’s we were all introduced to Phish to, and they’re the set’s that bring us back to that which initially drew us to the band, be it at the show, or listening at home.

Philadelphia, PA – 12/15/1995

II. The Show Sealers

There are those nights when by setbreak, the whole room is abuzz, and everyone just knows, this is a killer show. Picking these shows in advance is a fruitless endeavor, for the best nights of Phish are a result of a multitude of factors. It could be the night before an overhyped show, a return to a venue/city the band just loves, the mid-tour energy taking over the band, or just a random night, in a random city where the band is just feeling it. One thing’s certain, whenever the band plays a monumental show, the writing’s on the wall midway through a torrential First Set.

Examples: 12/30/1993, 06/11/1994, 10/21/1995, 12/07/1997, 12/11/1999, 02/28/2003, 07/29/2003, 12/30/2009, 10/20/2010, 07/03/2011, 08/31/2012

While the First Set’s played in any of the above eleven shows range in styles from classical ragers, to bustout-laden celebrations, to the surreal and the jam-heavy, what they all have in common is their connective force that made their show a virtual lock by setbreak. A “David Bowie” opener; a note-for-note-perfect sequence; a “Tweezer Reprise” bookend; jams abound in “AC/DC Bag -> Psycho Killer,” and “Tube”; the first “Hood” opener in years; the return of “Destiny Unbound”; an iPod shuffle set that perfectly matched it’s era; a determined tour de force that summed up everything that makes 30 December so damn special; “Guyutica”; the after-effects of the “Storage Jam”; and a not-so-subtle “FUCK YOU” to their fans; these are the kinds of sets that have led thousands to hit the road, following the band from state to state in anticipation of the next “hadtobethere(!!!)” show. What’s interesting as well about the above, is that out of the eleven, only four featured Second Sets that matched or surpassed the first. While certainly not bad follow-ups – those are featured later in the essay – the stat is more than anything a testament to the power of these set I’s. Much like the section that preceded, whenever you witness a set with the power of the above, you just know it.

III. The Bustout Specials

Nothing quite lights up the eyes of a fellow fan like the prospect of a set full of bustouts. A rare breed, that they are. Yet few shows/sets have the ability to capture both an arena, and the internet community, with such in-the-moment fervor and excitement, as they can. A product of the band’s tightening of their song catalogue between 1992 and 1995, bustouts became a fun way for the band to add a bit of history into their shows. With a further slimming in 1997, and an overall decline in the amount of shows they played in the years to follow, more and more songs were lost in the shuffle. Separations of a couple hundred shows, all the way upwards into the thousands, meant that every so often the band would dig deep into their history and present a rare, forgotten song. Often just a one-off song, there are the even rarer instances where the band has dedicated a whole set – or a portion – to an array of bustouts and rarities. Typically a mix between oft-requested songs, and hidden gems, one’s reaction to a bustout show is what separates the fans from the novices. Usually sealing a show up as a classic by setbreak, just for the nature of the songs played, these shows tend to overlap with the above section at times.

Examples: 02/26/1997, 12/07/1997, 11/21/1998, 09/30/2000, 07/29/2003, 12/30/2003, 12/30/2009, 10/26/2010, 06/22/2010

Now, I know the definition of bustout and bustout shows can get a bit hazy with every PT-noob calling a song not seen in 36 shows a bustout. So, here’s my criteria for a set to be a bustout special: there has to be at least one song in the set exceeding 100 (and potentially 200) shows since it was last seen, and there have to be multiple other songs within the set that haven’t been played in at least 50 shows. Beyond this, the set should carry a feeling of what happens when you hit play on your ipod shuffle. Devoid of these essential characteristics, and it’s just not a bustout set. Full of songs that people have either completely forgotten about, or have been pining for without restraint, the bustout sets are a mix of masterful playing – 02/26/1997, 12/07/1997, 06/22/2012 – or scattered applause and an overt lack of flow – 12/30/2009. Regardless of their delivery, the simple fact that the band is dedicating their First Set to an assortment of rarities is enough to get people psyched.

Dayton, OH – 12/07/1997

IV. The Recitals

In their original format Phish’s First Set’s were essentially recitals where the band would showcase a large percentage of their catalogue. As opposed to today where most of us tend to think of songs in terms of First Set and Second Set material, pretty much their entire catalogue was fair game in set I through 1991. Since then however, the band evolved their First Set’s into a sleek, energy-packed machine, to an anything-goes jam session that tended to resembled set II’s, to an unpredictable mix between jams and soldiering rotation songs, to once again a more recital-based approach here in 3.0. Emerging a changed band in 2009, the band approached their second re-birth in a structural way, seeking to rebuild the foundation of their live shows from the ground-up before engaging in any experimentation. Thus the recital sets returned to both the gripe and adoration of all sorts of fans. Regardless of your sentiments to the recital approach, one thing’s certain: if you’re looking to clean up on a plethora of Phish songs, the recital set’s are the one’s to catch/listen to.

Examples: 07/23/1988, 08/04/1988, 10/01/1989, 03/16/1991, 06/24/1994, 07/08/1994, 12/01/1996, 09/12/1999, 03/06/2009, 03/07/2009, 03/08/2009, 06/21/2009, 06/24/2010, 08/14/2010, 10/15/2010, 10/26/2010, 06/08/2011, 07/02/2011, 06/28/2012, 06/30/2012, 07/03/2012, 07/04/2012, 07/06/2012

From festival sets, to Gamehendge performances, to 3.0 stand-by’s, the recital’s have popped up throughout the band’s career. While many fan’s today lament the over-wrought First Set’s of 3.0, one can’t deny that when the band is on, their recital set’s are fantastic to witness live. Who could seriously complain of a Gamehendge set, or the raucous nature of 08/14/2010, the bustout quality to 10/26/2010, the unending festival-spirit of 07/02/2011, or the old-school throw-down of 07/06/2012, regardless of the number of song’s played? While sure, flow often suffers during the recital sets – paging 12/01/1996, 10/15/2010, 06/08/2011 – and yes, the nature of the sets prevents any authentic experimentation from occurring, but who really has time to think about any of that when witnessing, or listening to the band kill one song after another. In the end, the recital’s will probably always be a contentious debate within the Phish community, as some love their old-school, jukebox feel, and other’s wish they’d remain a product of the past. Your own personal feelings regarding them probably reflects your overall tastes in music, than the band’s performance anyway.

V. The Simmering Gems

There are those sets that, for whatever reason, take some time, perspective, and re-listens to be fully appreciated. There are also those sets that, for whatever reason, the band needs a song or two to ease into. These next two sections are dedicated to a mixture of the two. The first, is more the former than the later. While, sure, there are a few sets within that some would claim to be immediate classics, what each of these sets has in common is both their diversity and their depth. Possibly not appreciated – be it at all, or fully – upon their initial performance, the following sets are like a properly made stock – they’re all the better if given time. These sets may never leap out at a setlist whore, they may not be all the rage the next day – or they just may. In the end, time has graced each of them, offering capsules into some of the best – if not, underrated – performances in the band’s history.

Examples: 04/21/1992, 12/14/1995, 12/29/1995, 08/13/1996, 08/02/1997, 11/23/1997, 02/28/2003, 07/30/2003, 08/07/2009, 06/27/2010, 08/13/2010, 05/28/2011, 08/16/2011, 06/15/2012

One commonality in the above sets, is that many of them are compiled with a collection of songs that most fans would simply shrug off if compiled in a PT rotation thread. Yet, in the context of their performance, and the overall quality of the performance, they remain some of the strongest sets of their respective tours. From the zaniness of 04/21, to the idyllic, easy summer-sentiment of 08/13/1996. From the spectacular jamming in 02/28 and 07/30, to the balanced approach of 05/28, 08/16 and 06/15, each of these sets is a reflection of a band on the ball, regardless of the style of set they’re playing. A prelude to a latter section, the thing that unites these sets is their – mostly – under the radar quality, yet hidden gems that have made them hold up far more than some of their overhyped brethren.

VI. The Slow Builders

Similar to the previous section in that the slow builders are likely to be sets that aged with grace, rather than stunning anyone out the gates, what ultimately separates them is the fact that many of the following sets took a few songs to really get going. These are the nights where the band needed a bit of time easing into the show. These are the sets that more-often-than not, opened with predictable classics, laid-back easers, and even crowd groaners, yet ultimately are remembered because of energy caught later in the set, or a monumental First Set  jam. We’ve all been to a Phish show like this. The nights where the energy just isn’t totally there from the onset, but by setbreak, everyone’s stoked for the possibilities in set II. Yet once hindsight is granted, many of the keener listeners are willing to forgive such moments of uncertainty, knowing that it was all a part of the band figuring themselves out on that particular night. While, yes, sometimes the shows that begin like this prove to be ominous – something that will be addressed in two sections – this particular section is dedicated wholly to those which recovered fully, erasing any sense of jitters when the lights dropped.

Examples: 06/15/1995, 12/30/1995, 07/01/1998, 07/16/1998, 09/12/1999, 12/07/1999, 06/15/2000, 02/20/2003, 07/30/2003, 08/08/2009, 12/29/2009, 06/27/2010, 08/05/2011, 08/09/2011, 06/20/2012, 07/06/2012, 08/19/2012

From the predictability of 06/15/1995’s First Set that ultimately led to the blissful “Stash -> I Didn’t Know,” to the easing of “The Squirming Coil, NICU” on 07/16/1998, that preluded the perfectly timed “Reba> Fast Enough For You> When The Circus Comes.” From 09/12/1999 and 12/07/1999’s early-set jitters that were all but forgotten by their monster mid-set jam’s out of “Bathtub Gin,” and “Halley’s Comet,” to the awkward song selections of 02/20/2003 and 07/30/2003 that masked the jams out of “Simple> Gotta Jibboo,” and “Scents & Subtle Sounds” that their sets would ultimately be remembered for. In each of these cases, any stumbles, or easing out the gate, was later overshadowed, and ultimately overlooked as a result of the greatness achieved later in the set. Proof that the show opener doesn’t make a set, and that some night’s, all the band needs is a few songs to get settled in.

VII. The Sets Where It Doesn’t Matter What They Play Because Whatever They Play They’re Gonna Crush

We’ve all seen these shows. Often times they’re the best shows of all. These are the shows where whatever song(s) you’re chasing takes a backseat to the masterful performance at hand. These are the shows where it doesn’t matter what song the band plays, because they’re so on, cruising on so much energy, reveling in the moment with such assured esteem, that whatever songs they play, they’re inevitably going to crush. Quite possibly the most inexplicable, unexplainable section in this entire essay, these shows are notable for they simply rely on that intangible feeling in the air that finds itself hovering at a Phish show every so often. Akin to the show sealers’s section, these sets can occur just about anywhere, and at any time, so it’s incredibly difficult to predict when they’re about to happen, until they’re happening. You know when you’re at a show like this because every song just seems to flow perfectly from the previous one, regardless if it’s the song you wanted to hear. These sets are, in my opinion, the closest thing Phish has come to to crafting a superb album. They’re tangible evidence of the power Phish has over a crowd and a moment, something that has nothing to do with jamming, drugs, or hippies. Proof of their cultural zeitgeist, these sets display the band’s dexterity, and the sheer brilliance of their approach to each of their completely unique shows.

Examples: 02/20/1993, 12/31/1993, 06/11/1994, 07/13/1994, 06/30/1995, 11/11/1995, 12/17/1995 , 08/14/1996, 11/21/1997, 04/03/1998, 08/03/1998, 08/12/1998, 07/13/1999, 07/25/1999, 06/14/2000, 02/22/2003, 06/07/2009, 08/14/2010, 10/20/2010, 05/28/2011, 07/03/2011, 08/15/2011, 09/04/2011, 07/01/2012, 08/28/2012, 09/01/2012, 12/30/2012

United in their energy, composition, and raw power, these sets define what it’s like to be at a Phish show for so many of us. They contain that spirit of the unknown that graces the best Phish shows. These are the set’s that have people giddy at setbreak. They’re the set’s that unite upwards of 20,000 people in blusterous applause as if their favorite team just won the World Series. They rise above much of the rest of the tour, and are constantly called upon by fan’s looking to dish out a show rec. A mix of essentially ever section we’ve covered thus far, these set’s just might be my absolute favorite to listen to.

VIII. The Flow?

And then, there are those first sets where by set break everyone’s collectively looking around wondering, huh? Something seems off. Not necessarily a bad set – though it certainly sometimes is – more a set where the band seemed to compromise thematic flow, energy, continuity in favor of a random assortment of songs that never really seemed to mesh. We’ve all been to these kinds of shows. The nights where the band has it, and then they don’t. Then they get it back, and then they lose it. An up and down affair, it’s a product of human nature; sometimes, even those with the capabilities to astound regularly, stumble. They’re the sets and shows that fill out the entirety of tours. After all, not every set/show can be epic. (And as seen here, even some regarded as epic feature dreadfully unbalanced flow.) Sometimes you just have to witness an uneven affair to truly appreciate the moments where the band is killing it. What’s more is that typically within even these inconsistent nights, are moments of brilliance that tend to spill over to whole-show masterpieces just a few nights later.

Examples: 11/26/1994, 10/22/1996, 11/09/1996, 11/30/1996, 07/26/1997, 08/16/1997, 07/09/1999, 09/12/1999, 09/22/1999, 12/12/1999, 07/18/2003, 12/02/2003, 08/15/2004, 05/31/2009, 07/31/2009, 11/20/2009, 11/27/2009, 12/04/2009, 12/30/2009, 06/17/2010, 06/19/2011, 08/10/2011, 07/03/2012, 12/29/2012

While prevalent throughout their career, there is certainly a larger amount of 3.0 shows that contain these kinds of First Sets. Though, for the most part it appears the band has started to iron out their First Sets – as evident by a number of monumental ones in 2012 – through much of their first three years back from the grave, the band stubbornly dedicated many of their set I’s to a random assortment of songs, many of which had little purpose being united. Sometimes for the sole purpose of trying out a few new songs, others, just a reflection of a random night on tour where the band’s just trying to get a sense of the evening. Often times similar to the slow builders sets, particularly if they result in mastery later, a set I lacking flow, certainly does not deter the potential of a monumental set II. For as 08/16/1997, 07/31/2009, 11/20/2009, and 07/03/2012 display, an uneven First Set, can often times lead to a barnburner in set II. It’s a crapshoot in the end. Sometimes you’re gonna witness the perfectly crafted masterpiece, and sometimes you’re gonna see a glorified soundcheck. Either way, the fact that the band is willing to present the process – warts and all – to their fans over the course of a tour, is reason alone to continue seeing them.

Charlotte, NC – 07/07/1999

IX. Too-Much-Too-Soon(s)

You know those shows where the band comes out on an absolute tear, just blows the lid off the joint with a fiery, masterful set I, and then reemerges after setbreak with an absolute dud? The nights where they just seem to blow their load in the first 90 minutes, and just can’t quite summon the energy for set II. I’ll never forget 06/19/2010 for this very reason. Coming on the heels of 06/18’s stunning display of flow, energy, and collective zaniness, the band delivered an engaging, and old school First Set at SPAC. Following the catatonic explosion of “Suzy Greenberg,” one could only assume set II was going to raise the bar of the tour once more. Then they came out and played one of the most forgettable sets I’ve ever witnessed. It happens. Sometimes an incredibly strong set I is just too powerful to top. Sometimes they’ve only got energy for one solid set. Sometimes setbreak just kills whatever energy they had going in. Whatever the case is, we’ve all seen/heard these shows. While the overall show may be a forgotten affair, we should still all give their First Set’s their proper due.

Examples: 08/26/1989, 03/20/1992, 06/11/1994, 11/17/1994, 12/15/1995, 08/03/1998, 07/09/2003, 08/10/2004, 06/19/2010, 10/30/2010, 07/03/2011, 08/17/2011, 07/01/2012

Each of the above set I’s are more than worth your time and listening capabilities. For each is a display of a band fully connected, and simply on. While some of them contain solid set II’s – 08/26/1989, 06/11/1994, 08/03/1998, 07/03/2011 – the quality that unites each is that the bar was potentially set too high by a torrid First Set. Perhaps there’s a certain cap of energy that can be released at a Phish show on a given night? Maybe the band purposely follows certain spectacular set I’s with less-than-stellar set II’s in effort to use the energy explosion a means to turn inwards? Whatever the case, while so many shows are made or broken on the quality of play in set II, the above – and certainly many others – will always be remember for the mastery of their First Sets, regardless of their entirety.

Morrison, CO – 06/11/1994

Chicago, IL – 08/17/2011

X. The First Set Jammers

As I stated in the intro, it’s best to typically think of First Set’s as a completely separate entity from set II’s. While both held numerous similarities throughout the band’s first 8 – 10 years, by the time their peak years of 1993 – 1998 came around, the two had been sequestered as individual platforms for artistic expression. Generally speaking, the First Set is for the songs, and the Second Set is for the jams. However, this is not always the case. Part of the beauty of Phish is their unpredictability, and the sheer pleasure they seem to gain out of fucking with their fans. What started in 1993 with a few divergent, Type-II jams tossed into a set I here and there, led to an all-out revolution by 1997, when First Set’s were just as susceptible to exploration and jamming as their counterpart. By 1999, they’d reigned in this experiment, fusing their historically structured set I’s, with a few scattered jams. 2.0 allowed a mix of the two approaches to flourish – to sometimes brilliant, and other times, half-assed results. And while the initial stages of 3.0 saw a complete reversal back towards the recital approach of the band’s earliest years, since August 2010, they’ve shown a keen interest in opening set I back up to jamming. While we’ll cover the full-on, set II-esque First Sets in the next section, the following sets are a few examples of bursts and moments of improv within a First Set, rather than a complete improv approach. Most everyone can agree that a First Set jam can only help to raise the level of energy in the venue. These are the sets that more than benefited from said First Set experimentation.

Examples: 12/30/1993, 06/15/1995, 08/14/1996, 12/06/1996, 07/01/1997, 07/21/1997, 07/27/1997, 08/02/1997, 11/14/1997, 11/21/1997, 11/22/1997, 12/05/1997, 12/07/1997, 12/12/1997, 04/03/1998, 07/01/1998, 07/06/1998, 07/29/1998, 08/03/1998, 11/29/1998, 12/31/1998, 07/10/1999, 07/24/1999, 12/07/1999, 06/28/2000, 07/11/2000, 09/14/2000, 02/20/2003, 02/26/2003, 02/28/2003, 07/30/2003, 08/10/2004, 06/04/2009, 08/07/2009, 08/06/2010, 05/28/2011, 07/03/2011, 07/01/2012, 09/01/2012

As with the recitals and questionable flow segments being heavily represented by 3.0 , it’s no wonder that 1997 and 1998 assumes a large percentage of this section’s sets. However, what’s interesting – and intriguing for any fans of improv – is the fact that their are increasingly more set I’s in 3.0 that contain notable jams within. A sign that the band has fully overcome their initial rust of 2009 and 2010, and have reached that point again where they can communicate with ease on stage, and are able to jam effortlessly at will. Historically that’s what their First Set jams have been evident of – an overt level of comfort and communication – while displaying the various styles of the band’s evolution. From the “Dream On Bowie” of 12/30/1993, to the playful jamming of 12/06/1996. From 07/21/1997’s onslaught of funk, to the ambient weaves of 07/01/1998’s “Down With Disease -> Dog Faced Boy -> Piper.” From the meandering grooves that spilled out of 07/24/1999’s “Fluffhead,” to the dark and seedy “Scent’s And Subtle Sounds” on 07/30/2003. From the “Ghost> Antelope” that surprisingly closed out 06/04/2009, to the blissful “A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing” from 07/03/2011’s masterful set. Each of these jams more than raised the bar of their set’s, while proving that First Set’s can be far more than a simple recital.

Atlanta, GA – 06/15/1995

Bethel, NY – 05/28/2011

XI. The Set II’s?

You know those jams where, either at the show, or listening at home, you have to stop and ask yourself, ‘wait, what song is this again?’ That’s kind of what these sets are like. As the last section displayed, from 1997 – 2004, and again since mid-2010, Phish has had a penchant for fucking with the structure of the First Set, thus muddling the original differences between it and it’s counterpart. Whereas First Set’s have historically been opportunities to showcase songs, rather than improv, these distinctions tend to blur from time to time. Sometimes so much so, that one can forget what set they’re actually witnessing.

An example. Following the “FUCKYOU” set on 08/31/2012, my wife and I headed up to grab a beer. Awash in celebratory sentiments, we were about as happy as two people could be at that point. Married just a week earlier, this was the kick off of a four month honeymoon. Stoked to just see a Phish show, nothing could have prepared us for what the band actually had in store. While waiting in line a girl turned to us, and said, “I can’t believe the beer tent’s are still open.” We laughed this off, but when she turned again saying, “that was the best show I’ve ever seen!” we kindly informed her that there was still another set to be had. “WHAT?!?! YOU MEAN THAT WAS JUST THE FIRST SET!?!?! HOLY CRAP!!!!”

Now, one could certainly argue that this sentiment was chalked up to being a noob, on drugs, or just a dumb girl at a show. However, as the following show’s prove, sometimes the lines are so blurred between set I and set II, that it twists one’s mind. This is the ultimate goal of a Phish show after all: to alter your perspective so, that you step out of your everyday self-conciousness and expectations, wholly accepting the unexpected. We’re all familiar with these shows. When we’re there, they’re somewhat unexplainable for the grasp they have over a crowd. When we listen at home, they continuously display the dexterity and command that Phish can summon.

Examples: 12/06/1996, 07/10/1997, 11/17/1997, 11/22/1997, 04/05/1998, 07/13/1999, 12/15/1999, 07/23/2003, 06/19/2004, 08/12/2004, 10/16/2010, 08/31/2012

Jams abound in the above sets, what unites them is their ability to muddle the historic lines between the First and Second Sets. Be it 07/10/1997’s fully-flowing Euro-funk-fest, or the five-song clinic on 11/17/1997. The sublime, drug-induced jamming from “Halley’s -> Roses -> NO2,” and “Reba> Carini” on 07/13/1999, or the ambient-laced “Walls Of The Cave -> David Bowie” that capped off a jam-heavy 06/19/2004 set. In 3.0, 10/16/2010 set the standard for an innovative set I, before igniting a firestorm in Fall 2010, while 08/31/2012 has only gotten better with age, as heard in the “Carini” and “Undermind” that provided the cornerstones of the “FUCKYOU” set. They are the sets that once more prove why we seek out hundreds of Phish tapes, why we travel across the country to see the band, why we sit through two and three bad Phish shows in a row, why we spend tens of thousands of dollars for a simple three-hour concert. They prove to us, if nothing else, why to always expect the unexpected with Phish, and why that which is unexpected is always worth witnessing.

Marseilles, France – 07/10/1997

Washington DC, USA – 12/15/1999

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An evolving medium of their live shows, the First Set was once simply thought of as a platform for various songs. Later it became an avenue for jamming and experimentation. Throughout it’s been a diverse collection of possibilities for the band to ignite a show. One half of what makes up an entire Phish show, the First Set – while generally thought of as the tamer side of a show – have proven to be unexpected, dexterous, and mind-blowing at various times throughout history. While there are certainly a plethora of other styles of First Sets, the eleven covered above are the most common one is expected to experience at a show. Thus concludes the second part of an eight part series, breaking down Phish’s live show. Up next is the First Set Closer.

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