Phish commenced their Summer Tour with two incredibly strong performances in their first three shows in the second night of Bend and Shoreline, both of which contained beautifully flowing, jam-filled second sets. But since then, the band has pumped the brakes a bit with a trifecta of spotty performances across the southern part of the country. Los Angeles had plenty of energy but carried little musical substance, while Austin and Dallas contained some high points but also long stretches of cruise control in their second sets that simply didn’t cut the mustard. As we take a look at the first segment of Summer Tour 2015, let’s first explore the positives.
Following a solid warm up gig on the first night of tour, the band came out blazing on the second night of Bend, unveiling several more new songs (jn addition to the three debuted on opening night), along with a seamless second set anchored by an awesome, groovy-turned-evil jam out of “Simple.” Trey played impeccable guitar all night long, perhaps most impressive during the standout “Bathtub Gin” encore. But more to the point, he slayed every single solo he took, including the slower ones on “Wingsuit” and “Farmhouse.” Some of his most inspired playing of the night came in the opening sequence of the second set in “A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing > Waves,” a nautical pairing that absolutely smoked the entire way through. But beyond his personal musical marksmanship, the band played with incredible cohesion as a unit, crafting a non-stop set with undeniable flow. This show was quite the statement on only the second night of tour, only to be significantly topped on night three.
Phish absolutely exploded at Shoreline Amphitheatre, one of the former haunts of the Grateful Dead, with a set that stands up to any of this era and many beyond. Chock full of open-ended improvisation, the band locked into a flow and rode the wave through the entire second frame of the show. Beyond the music—and the music was incredible—there seemed to be a peace and contentment emanating from the guys that built on a similar feel during the previous night in Bend. It felt like they now know, especially after Trey’s starring role in Fare Thee Well, that they no longer have anything to prove—they were just out there doing what they do. The level of relaxation and togetherness was palpable as they navigated an awesome set-long sequence of jamming. Using one of their newest songs, “Blaze On,” to kick off the main event, the band expounded on its percussive, blues-rock theme, taking the jam for a ride before returning to its refrain—and then promptly exiting the through the back door into an abstract foray that wound its way into “Twist.” In the undeniable highlight of the night, Phish wove together a two part epic that touched on the both the dark side and the utter bliss of their craft. The first half showcased a grungy, snarling tone from Trey as the guys slipped into a slow methodical mind meld, transforming the passage into some murky, swamp-like psychedelia. When Trey began to lead the guys back towards the theme of the song, his mates coaxed him onward and the band soon coalesced into some of the most orchestral beauty we’ve heard in ages. Hitting a sacred stride, the band moved as one through a passage of utter musical triumph that continued for an extended period. Time stood still and the audience watched in wonder as Phish sculpted one of their most indelible moments in recent memory. This was fully realized musical improv of the highest degree; a time when one could hardly believe that four mere mortals were creating such a symphony. Emotionally wrenching and staggeringly beautiful, this segment elevated to the highest planes of reverie. Once they picked their jaws up off the floor, the crowd roared their approval as the band finally descended from the heavens and passed into “Light.”
Supporting two extended jams with one their most significant modern launchpads amounted to quite the statement of intent in the middle of this set, and the guys kept on rolling full steam ahead into a multi-thematic exploration of “Light.” Hitting on “Manteca,” “Roadrunner,” and “I Know Your Rider” in a clear homage to the Dead, this “Light” saw the band weave together diverse movements with seamless acumen. Just as great athletes enter a “zone” and everything slows down for them as their excellence emerges, so did Phish on this night as illustrated in the protean nature of this “Light” jam. Their playing felt effortless but simultaneously virtuosic, and that is what greatness is all about. As the band dripped into “Joy,” everything felt right in the world following over 45 minutes of stunning improvisation. The set’s magical energy carried through a particularly cathartic rendition of the 2009 ballad and upon its conclusion, right into “Harry Hood.”
Selecting one more jumping off point to conclude this set’s theatrics, Phish played yet another extended and amazing jam which saw them divert from “Hood’s” traditional major chord build into some earnest and darker exploration that followed the trend of 2014 versions. Though their reentry to the theme wasn’t immaculate and the song’s final peak saw more of a strumming rather than ballistic effort by Trey, the exclamation point on the set had certainly been made. With a fourth jam surpassing 15 minutes, the band had just dropped an utterly poignant frame of music and one of the defining stanzas since their return. Slamming the door with a raucous version of “Cavern” and a blistering “Character Zero” encore, Phish had bequeathed us with one of those timeless nights of music that we will remember forever.
Coming off two consecutive second sets laced with artistry and deep improvisation, one could only imagine what would transpire when Phish stepped indoors at the LA Forum with “Disease,” “Carini” and “Tweezer” hanging in the balance. But when the dust settled on their southern California stop, it was an “energy” show that favored sudden segues and antics rather than any fully realized jamming. While it seems that many fans liked this performance, after the previous two nights it felt to me like a serious letdown. The band kept “No Man in No Man’s Land” (a song that sounds more suited for TAB than Phish) in a linear groove, passed through a truncated “Carini” highlighted by one very brief peak, and aborted “Tweezer” before it really got going, all amounting to a serious case of musical blue balls. Once this “meat” of the set transpired, the guys commenced jukebox mode favoring an innocuous string of songs that couldn’t hold up the set after they had bailed out of their potential heavy hitters. “Roggae” and “Slave” were nice enough but hardly seemed to fit after nothing significant had went down during the first half of the frame. Then Trey all but killed a potentially special “YEM” encore by dry humping Mike while they played each other’s instruments, replacing any chance of musical interplay with its physical counterpart. I can see this set being “fun” on some level, but after two profound musical statements in Bend and Mountain View, this show fell pretty flat for me despite a quality first set. The under-the-radar highlight of the show came in the opening half’s “Limb by Limb” which saw stellar soloing by Trey and a strong collective effort from the entire band.
The last couple shows in Texas took place in very divergent atmospheres—Austin’s in a brutally hot outdoor amphitheatre and Dallas’ in a tiny, air-conditioned theatre. (I will give the disclaimer that I only attended Dallas, but will discuss both shows.) The first sets of these shows differed greatly, as Austin’s was a run of mill, pedestrian affair while Dallas’ featured a very fresh song list and all sorts of energy. The high point of the latter was a version of “Steam” that Trey inexplicably stopped once the band had reached a thick, improvisational groove. It felt as though they were on the brink of a legitimate first set jam for the first time in ages, but it wasn’t to be. Nonetheless, the band seemed excited and engaged despite several noticeable flubs by Trey during composed sections, and felt primed to explode in set two. As the band went into set break in Austin, many fans were hoping that someone had a defibrillator to get things going for the second half.
Each of the Texas second sets had jam-anchored moments, but in neither did the band weave together a coherent frame of music. Austin kicked off with “46 Days -> Dogs -> 46 Days,” with the latter segment of “46” exploring some menacing, bass led textures that felt like it could have kept going having reached a very interesting space. Dallas’ second set kicked off with one of the jams of tour thus far in a fiery and exploratory “Chalk Dust” that saw Phish migrate from an atmospheric start into more full on, energetic jamming before dropping into “Simple.” Austin’s opening segment was supported by an in-the-box “Piper” and an above average “Ghost” whose melodic peak stood out as perhaps the show’s highest moment. Dallas’ set took a veritable nosedive after the opening blowout, as Trey made a string of questionable calls with “Silent in the Morning,” “Birds of a Feather,” “Fuego” and “Julius.” “Birds” did pop with more intense playing than usual, but nothing of serious note took place between the “Chalk Dust” and the set-closing version of “Harry Hood.” The band pulled things together for “Hood’s” jam after Trey botched most of the composed section of the song, salvaging an energetic if not intricately awesome rendition. Austin’s second half of the set also also featured a string of cruise control songs only highlighted by a “Jibboo” that saw Trey rip off several clean runs of notes amidst its groovy canvas.
The Texas shows, in total, were two average nights of Phish that featured a couple highlights each—pretty much to be expected in their modern mid-week, one-off performances in random markets. But after dangling the carrot in Bend and Shoreline, it felt like something bigger might have been on the horizon. But that horizon now falls to Atlanta, where Phish pulls in tonight for a two-night stand at their old stomping grounds of Lakewood Amphitheatre with all their big jam vehicles on the table. I suspect that this weekend we will see more complete efforts from the band with more developed jams and more cohesive sets than we received in LA, Austin and Dallas. The first stretch of tour has concluded and Lakewood now starts the middle segment through the South and Midwest before Alpine commences the home stretch next Saturday. With six shows under their belt on this summer tour, I think it’s fair to say that things are just getting started.