In a show strewn with Gamehendge allusions and non-stop awing improv, Phish wove one of their finest tales of the summer, tapping into the band’s age-old mythology throughout the entire evening. The second set was a crystal river of creativity, taking us for a thrilling ride through the annals of Phish history.
Opening the show with a string of songs that could easily have been plucked from a late-‘80s setlist, Phish bursted off the starting block with “Punch,” “AC/DC Bag,” “NICU,” and “Forbin’s > Mockingbird.” With an 8:00 pm ticket time that bled into darkness, we had ourselves a rare two-set outdoor show with no sunlight, providing the feel of two more serious sets. Taking a dramatic tone early, Phish lashed through one of their best openers on the way to a second song “Bag” that popped with energy and stepped in some brief funk before ending in it’s classic guitar shrill. But the most poignant first-set moment came after “NICU” as the band made the long-awaited drop into “Colonel Forbin’s Ascent.” After sound-checking the song at The Gorge, we knew it was a matter of time before the band unveiled the Gamehendge saga for the first time in the modern era. Clearly well-rehearsed, Phish moved through the tale with a methodical precision, as Mike’s bass forged the path up the mountain. Yet, as the time came for the anticipated new-school narration, the band moved cleanly into an impeccable version of the elusive “Famous Mockingbird” allowing their playing to do all the talking necessary.
Concluding the opening segment of the set with the return of the their iconic tale, the entire venue was buzzing as the band dropped into the first “Birds” of tour. Phish attacked the piece with the proper ferocity that often lacks with more standard versions. With machine-gun accuracy, Trey led the band- chugging like pistons- through a nasty excursion that broke structure with some high-octane improv within a darker musical canvas. The second-leg bust of of the Ghost-era song came in shredding fashion, juxtaposing the ’98 vibe with the Gamehendge-laced opening.
Complementing “Birds,” as the other stellar first-set chunk of improv, was a delicate and extensive “Stash.” Bookending an organically grown melodic segment with fluid sections of darkness, this version capped a second leg that featured exclusively standout explorations of the murky jam.
With the New England crowd floating at setbreak amidst an incredibly lax venue, everyone could sense an impending bomb coming in the second set. But what form it would take was anyone’s guess. When the band came out with “Down With Disease,” everyone sensed an impending journey, but little did we know that by the time we caught our breath, one of the greatest Phish sets of the tour would be over and our band’s revered history would be revitalized in a Phishy adventure for the ages.
As we exited the composition of “Disease,” the band dove into another stunning second-set opener, bursting with original ideas strung naturally together, upping the psychedelic ante with each musical shift. Slowly delving into more transcendent territory, Phish continued to bring the music outwards in a stylistic journey that immediately leapt to the forefront of their most emotive and poignant jams of the summer. Knitting a delicate web of psychedelia out of their anthemic vehicle, Phish carefully crafted an introspective tour highlight. As the band wound the jam down, they landed in more Gamehendge culture with a ripping version of “Wilson.” While not always suited for the second-set, it worked perfectly within the context of this show, giving the audience a raging landing point for some out-there improvisation.
A set that flowed flawlessly, both musically and energetically, rolled surprisingly into a mid-set “Slave”- once again illustrating that any set-list conventions are out the window. Placed under the mid-set spotlight, Phish molded an awe-inspiring piece that carried over the aura they had left in “Disease.” Fishman’s accented and gentle drumming meticulously framed the jam, while Page, Mike, and Trey wove their congruent offerings into a path of wonder. This “Slave” was another second-leg version of a song that fully realized its essence; a majestic centerpiece of a set that wasn’t about to slow down.
Maintaining the upbeat and magical feel that had defined the set thus far, the band opened up another tour-highlight in a courageous “Piper.” The most thematically developed version thus far in 3.0, this “Piper” saw the band undertake a full-on engagement, connected by a string of percussive segments that seamlessly built into one of the most exploratory jams of the night. Landing in a section led by Trey’s quirky note-bending- a la Alpine’s version- the band’s musical reaction time was negligible as they continued to stretch out their excursion with uptempo rhythms. The band was simply feeling it all night long, seamlessly segueing into “Water In the Sky” out of the wild escapade. Its odd placement was supplanted by the fact that the band naturally ended up in the song, and it flowed seamlessly out of their virtuoso playing.
Ending the segment, the band soaked up enthusiastic appreciation for the non-stop joy-ride we were amidst, but before we got a chance to revel in any grandeur, the band brought everyone’s focus sternly back to the stage with the opening chords of “Ghost.” Finally revisiting the song that blew up at Red Rocks- it did so again- but in a wholly different fashion. While Morrison’s highlight was defined by a looser, wide open rhythmic canvas, last night’s “Ghost” went for the jugular in a more guitar-rock rendition that brought fiery, rather than laid-back energy to the set. Taking the rugged version to a ripping, yet linear, peak, at the top of the jam Trey slammed into some hard rhythm chops that within seconds transformed into Talking Head’s “Psycho Killer.”
Oddly enough, the song had played over the PA shortly before the show, and many fans had sung along with the house music. Without knowing for sure, everyone had a hunch the band either heard or found out about the goings on and wove the nugget of the evening into their show. Carrying an increase in adrenaline for everyone in the venue, the band crushed the cover, but just as it seemed they would sit into the song’s grooves, they dwindled their music into an amalgam of digital effects, creating a bizarre, and interesting musical texture. Sticking with the odd soundscape, Trey took his guitar off and joked about dancing to this weird music, poking fun at someone’s continual front-row gyrations. At this point, Trey’s joke got carried away as both he and Fishman took turns dancing to the layers of effects, while Mike and Page laughingly looked on. After spending a few minutes bantering and dancing, Trey leaned to the mic and opened Phish’s lyric-poem, “Catapult.” Always saved for innovative musical passages, Trey deemed this the right time to bring out yet another quirky piece of Phish culture, but the most epic bust out was yet to come.
Using the sustained musical pattern to connect pieces the of music, Trey turned his banter to the days of his youth- days before cell phones and DVDs. Mocking our overly digital age, Trey continued, saying that he didn’t have video games as a kid- and he was around for the invention of Pong. Continuing his assessment of present-day culture, Trey noted that no one any longer reads books. With perfect timing, the band made the chord change into “Icculus.” As they vamped over the chord progression, Trey continued his diatribe, telling people to break from technology, commanding people put down their “fucking iPhones and “DVDs” and to “Read…the…book!” In a stirring rendition of the band’s legendary “non-song,” they announced that the spirit of Phish is alive and well, visiting their great and knowledgeable prophet for the time in ten years-since Oswego’s memorable final set. Cementing the show’s special significance in the band’s increasingly memorable late-summer run of ‘09, this night had turned readicculus!
Sliding back into the digitally-looped theme from earlier, the band counted off the beginning to the only song that could have ended such a Phishy affair- “You Enjoy Myself.” The band played an immaculate composed section and into the funk, but as Mike and Trey hopped off the trampolines to start the jam, Trey took off his guitar and decided to put his dancing shoes instead of playing, quasi-popping to a Mike-led groove. In a small travesty, the guitar never came back into play and the likely-last “YEM” of summer fizzled without ever really happening. It was for sure going to be a blowout to end all blowouts- capping a massively triumphant set- it had to be. But it wasn’t. Perhaps there was curfew issues, but I had heard they had none. We will never know, but the expected groove-clinic was left for another day- and in all probability- another tour.
But with a show that carried such power and improvisational peaks, there were copious memories to go around. This was one of those nights where things just clicked from note one, leaving us with a show that certainly stands among the best of tour. Bring on Merriweather for the last Saturday night of summer.
I: Punch You in the Eye, AC/DC Bag, NICU, Colonel Forbin’s Ascent > Fly Famous Mockingbird, Birds Of A Feather, Lawn Boy, Stash, I Didn’t Know, Middle Of The Road, Character Zero
II: Down With Disease > Wilson > Slave To The Traffic Light, Piper > Water In The Sky, Ghost > Psycho Killer > Catapult > Icculus > You Enjoy Myself
E: While My Guitar Gently WeepsTags: 2009, Summer '09