Checking in from sunny, hot Los Angeles, at the corner of Peak and Fomo. Let’s see what Phish has up their sleeves tonight, besides the strawberry donut surprise. [But first: three cheers to this concept that the band cooked up with their pals at the estimable Federal Donuts. It’s been the catalyst for a lot of top notch Phish nerdery, conjecture, and fun. Well done!]
The a capella “Strawberry Fields Forever” that kicks off this unusual show is a lovely opening flourish, with each band member taking a verse, and gamely punching through the Saturday crowd’s semi-drunken appreciation. There’s a dramatic beat before the final “... forever” that baits the crowd much like the pause in “Divided Sky,” and then the strawberry theme carries forward into “Halley’s Comet” as the band takes their places.
“Halley’s” may have been a likely candidate for jamming, at least on paper, as the nostalgia for free-ranging versions of this tune is as real as it gets. Instead, the jam was reserved for and liberally applied to the “Moma Dance” > “Breath and Burning” sequence that followed.
I collect a lot of grief for my uncanny tendency to be present for below-average Phish shows. Basically, I'm cursed. At nearly all of the shows in question, there seems to be a “Moma,” to the point where a Pavlovian response has developed, and once “Moma” appears I tamp down my expectations for at least the rest of the set. Tonight, from the 4-minute mark, it’s clear that this version will not adhere to standard form. Baker’s Dozen math dictates that some of these hemmed-in songs will need to come unhemmed, and it’s Mike who loosens the reins here, breaking with his normal slap attack. The whole band comes together around a simple minor groove, and in a moment of delightful sensitivity moves into the major all at once, as if exhaling together.
This is a parlor trick, of course, that Phish employs pretty frequently. But that doesn’t make it any less satisfying. Page adds color to the soundscape now via his new synth, which rides atop Trey’s overdriven chording. It’s probably true that this “Moma” is longer than it is inspired, but in the context of unexpected first set Phish, it’s magnificent.
Re: “Breath and Burning:” there is no better argument for a song than a jam, and there’s an undeniable appreciation that accrues when even a modest song earns its improvisational wings. Once upon a time, even “Down With Disease” was a predictable affair and a harbinger of popular appeal that no true fan would admit to loving. I’ve slagged “Breath and Burning” enough since its debut to invalidate anything I have to say about the song, but tonight’s version is a bracing bitch-slap to my cynical self and I enjoyed it.
The “Funky Bitch” that follows is declarative. Thank Page, will you, for his B3 solo? Dear lord above, or below, or both. The sequence of “Mound” and “Foam” feels like a welcome answer to the airy simplicity of the set’s tent pole jams, even if both are a mite rough around the edges.
The set’s centerpiece, though, is still to come: “Roggae.” Nearly every 3.0 version of this tune is worth a listen, and it’s almost memetic that every “Roggae” is instantly the best ever played, much the same way “Julius” was in 1994-1997. Gun to head, my favorite “Roggae” is Gorge 2011, but tonight’s version is pure inspiration. Trample Amplestample (tip of the cap to Thoughts On The Dead) comes to play, trilling to the heavens, reaching for the gold ring, and Mike drops in behind him with wet bass tones and harmonic ideas of his own. It’s a simply spectacular version that can’t help but overshadow the pleasing “Squirming Coil” that closes this thoroughly enjoyable set.
Halftime is spent devouring crustaceans and mollusks. “Down With Disease” opens the second set unexpectedly (it was played quite well in Dayton four nights ago) and with a bit more rust than you might expect during the composed section. This version is very much akin to some of the 1996 excursions that redefined the song. And if you had the “Disease” clocking in at 19 minutes in your BD bracket, you did a great job, but don’t go awarding yourself extra credit points just yet...
From the feedback and sonic wash of “DWD” we are treated to the Phish debut of the psych-soul classic “Strawberry Letter 23,” which the Internet tells me was written by Shuggie Otis when he was just 17 years old--which is insane. I favor the Brothers Johnson version of this song, but it feels like Phish’s inspiration for their cover was the cut off of Shuggie’s Freedom Flight, and any minor flubs during the verses are completely forgotten and forgiven as Phish earns a fantastic climax reminiscent of “Day In The Life.”
Now Trey charges into “Birds of a Feather,” which feels like it might go way the fuck out. Alas, this “BOAF” holds its form, and ends abruptly without its recently typical “they attack!” quote. “I Always Wanted It This Way” gives Page a chance to show off his new synth, and the band channels its inner Disco Biscuit before dropping into its Marimba Lumina formation for a few minutes. The first “All of These Dreams” since 2010, while not entirely unwelcome, invites questions about the wisdom of thirteen nights with no repeats. Let’s call it tonight’s Jerry ballad, then, and soldier forth into the “Split Open and Melt” surprise.
I don’t see a berth on the jamming chart for this 11-minute “Melt,” but it’s perfectly placed in a set that was threatening to go squishy. With the rock vibe restored, Trey drags the band by the collar back into “Disease,” not just for a perfunctory reprise of the theme, but for a rare and fully-realized set two ending to the song that absolutely ignites the MSG crowd.
With utmost respect to “Shine a Light” partisans, this cover feels unnecessary, and a bit like a glove on a foot. I’m not sure if it’s me, but Phish seems to defang all the Stones material they play, and I might have preferred 3-4 minutes of “Disease” jamming. All that said, the second frame is by this point squarely in the win column.
The triple encore of “Peaches en Regalia,” “Cities,” and “My Sweet One” serves as a dessert cart sure to please every palate. Trey’s second stab at “Peaches” isn’t much cleaner than his first of the tour in Dayton, and you can hear him complain about his own playing during the penultimate section. “Cities” is entirely unexpected as one of the top candidates to jam more freely than normal, but the brilliance of this Baker’s Dozen concept is its tendency to provoke the unexpected.
Time to sign off and get some rest. I’m really looking forward to the Boston Creme “Foreplay” > “Long Time” > “Sunshine Of Your Love” and hope you are as well.
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Mike Gordon: February 23, 2018
21 hours ago
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