In a complete blowout at the Thompson-Boling Arena, Phish played a blockbuster show to an absolutely raging crowd of well over 20,000 in Knoxville, TN. While there may have been better individual jams at other shows, Knoxville was certainly the most solid two sets of Phish we’ve seen this summer. There was never a point where the show dragged, and with both sets relative marathons, it seemed as though the band didn’t want to leave the stage. In a show whose tickets wound up going for $10 on lot, the first sleeper show of this summer exploded with a dream setlist and precise improvisation throughout the night.
Phish came out to a the loudest ovation of the tour, and the energy in the building oozed onto the stage and never left. Sparking the night with a tight run through “Runaway Jim,” Phish then used a “second-opener” to juice the crowd even more with the scratchy opening and full-on grooves of “Punch You In the Eye.” While many other first sets have featured a long list of relatively jam-less songs, last night’s was quite different. Beginning with the tour’s most extended “Ocelot,” Phish initiated the theme of the night- ridiculously creative “type I” improvisation. Taking song’s structured jams and absolutely obliterating them from start to finish, Phish showcased their increasingly polished chops while crafting a show that included several classic crowd favorites.
Following up “Ocelot” with a tightly wound “Foam,” Trey and Page engaged in some sublime interplay before taking a breather in the summer’s first “Train Song.” With back-to back with tour debuts, Phish unveiled the second-ever incarnation of “Undermind” whose jam built upon Hampton’s premiere with additional twists and solos. As the band conversed amidst a set that was quickly becoming the most significant opening frame of the summer, that status was confirmed as Trey hit the opening riff to “Mike’s Groove,” ostensibly as the set closer. The “Mike’s” jam, much hotter than the Jones Beach version, brought some improvised darkness with searing guitar leads and fierce musical interplay. In a virtually note-perfect “Hydrogen,” the band’s fluidity gelled with their classic composition, leading up to raucous “Weekapaug” jam whose improv took a turn for the spunky and spirited. Phish’s teeth have become sharper and as they carve out jams, there is now a clear intention behind their playing- tentativeness is falling by the wayside. Not done yet, Phish tagged on solid versions of “Coil” and “Zero” to the end of the set
The second set picked up right where set one left off, and before long we were waist deep some in an ominous Phish excursion of “Waves > A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing > David Bowie.” Combing three songs from different eras of the band’s career, they created the “dark meat” of the second set. Hitting on a nautical theme with the initial combination, Phish built an awing composed “Waves” jam into a psychedelic ambient outro. Adding layers of effects and dissonance, the band seemed heading for outer space into “Waves > 2001,” but instead they took a left turn into the heavy drop of the third-ever performance of “A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing.” Although the band briefly stumbled through the composed section, they crushed the second ever jam to sprout from the song. It was a very unique experience to hear them break out this song after listening to the SPAC ’04 version eight million times. With that jam imprinted my brain, it was strange to hear the song move to other places. As the improv commenced the jam turned dirty and tumultuous as Trey dug into some heavy guitar work. Although not super-extended, this was such a welcome return to the band’s repertoire, and it feels good to know that we haven’t heard the last from Undermind’s instant-classic.
Completing the sinister segment of the second set was that massive “Bowie” that had been looming for several nights. Busting it out as a centerpiece of the show, the band executed the delicate jam with a passion and precision that we haven’t heard in a from the song many moons ago. Delivering the full-treatment to the psychedelic staple, and once again proving that quality is far more important than quantity, Phish electrified the audience with a full-on jam that was as tight as superglue- a real aural treat. Using Page’s “Army of One” as a cool-down moment of reflection, Phish took no time stepping back on the gas pedal with the drop of an uncharacteristically late-second set “Reba.” Once again proving that setlist conventions have been tossed out the window, the band patiently crafted a jam whose delicacy matched that of “Bowie, but on the opposite end of the emotional spectrum. Much like the Jones Beach version, the band relaxed into the jam, taking the groove to point of virtual silence without ever losing their sense of cohesive rhythm. Building back into more classic territory, the band created a soothing journey to balance out an overwhelmingly dark set. Bleeding with emotional playing, this late set highlight is one that will certainly get some road time in the car today up to Bonnaroo.
As “Reba” was coming to a peak, I thought back to Camden’s “Tweezer” set-closer, thinking they would again cap the set unconventionally; but this is when things just kept going. Tearing into “Julius,” a song that Trey has owned this tour, it seemed the band would rock out to close the night. Yet, upon the the conclusion of the biographical saga, Trey instructed his bandmates to drop into “Cavern”- a song that would without a doubt close the set. But once again, Phish wasn’t done. As they sustained the last note to “Cavern,” instead of bringing down the crashing final note, the band rolled into the reggae rhythms of “Harry Hood.” Not wanting to leave the stage, Phish built another show highlight out of the fifteen minute closer, reassuring us that we can indeed feel good about “Hood” in Summer ’09, as they played a third consecutive standout rendition as the ultimate resolution to the set.
Ending the show with the return of the “key-tar” for “Frankenstein,” Phish chose a fitting encore to cap a bombastic show. As we wandered off onto the campus of the University of Tennessee’s, it was crazy to think that the next time we’d encounter our band would be in front of nearly 100,000 people at Bonnaroo this weekend. With the southern run heating up, Phish is poised to slaughter the mainstream mega-festival. Confident and happy as ever, it will be more than interesting to see what develops in Manchester. If they continues to build off of the playing of last night, everyone is in for a real treat.
I: Runaway Jim, Punch You in the Eye, Ocelot, Foam, Train Song, Undermind, Mike’s Song > Hydrogen > Weekapaug Groove, The Squirming Coil, Character Zero
II: Back On The Train, Waves > A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing > David Bowie, Army Of One, Reba, Hello My Baby, Julius > Cavern > Harry Hood
E: FrankensteinTags: 2009, Summer '09