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!!!

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