I am never one to rank Phish shows- or even compare them much for that matter- but sometimes one night just shines brighter than the others, leaving you with an unmatched feeling of awe . While there is clearly subjectivity in preferences of musical style, sometimes virtuoso improvisation cuts through subjectivity, creating a virtual consensus about particular shows. In discussion with many people who saw all the shows this summer, the central talking point always comes back to first night of The Gorge. While there are plenty of other shows that standout, there was a certain ethereal quality to the band’s improv throughout this show that was unmatched for the rest of the summer. Trey wasn’t playing guitar-god, and became but a piece of a complex musical puzzle, fitting within the whole, and rarely on top, of the music. The entire second leg is littered with highlights, but no show featured the consistently patient and organic jamming that defined August 7th at The Gorge.
Three of the top jams of the summer came from this show, and it could be argued that the three top jams stemmed from Phish’s powerful return to The Gorge. But as mentioned earlier, there is no need to rank music. The band tapped into an energy on this night- influenced by the mind-expanding natural surroundings, and what resulted was- in my opinion- the finest night of Phish this year.
Right from the start, the band’s music had a palpable energy, crushing an opening “Disease” that set a high-spirited tone for the evening. Merging the wide-open landscape with the wide-open, bluesy-funk of “Ocelot” the band stretched out a relaxing, yet engaging, version of the constantly-evolving song. Even from these first two pieces of the show, you could feel Phish’s enthusiasm; their music popped with a certain energy and creativity, even within this more contained opening context.
But the magnitude of this show lied in the enchanting and exploratory improvisation that gelled perfectly all night long. Each jam was seen to fruition, with no abrupt endings or transitions, and we often found those frozen moment deep into pieces of improv. The creativity of each single jam was paramount on this evening, resulting in some of the most sublime music of the entire summer.
The first hint of what was to transpire came with the first set “Stash.” Following up Red Rocks’ opening-set highlight with another psychedelic success, this jam hinted at the outward planes we would soon visit. The “Sneakin’ Sally” that came next is a top contender for the jam of the tour. Crafting a piece of improv so original and diverse in scope, Phish masterfully moved through several distinct stages of music, creating one of the enduring memories of 2009. As the song morphed into a mid-song, “YEM”-like vocal jam, Phish was letting their mojo flow in whatever way they felt. But when the vocal jam ended, and the band slammed back into the song, the transcendence began.
Progressing out of the funk and into a more abstract rhythmic canvas, they began building the jam out of the song’s structure and into some increasingly nasty territory. With each member using their instrument as a rhythmic tool, the band was knee deep in completely original music. The improv grew darker and more ambient, where Trey began painting gorgeous melodies over the drone backdrop. Combining a dark spacescape with uplifting melodies played in Trey’s spiritual register, this part of the jam is incredibly moving. Fishman decided to lend a quiet backing beat to the music, and soon the band climbed out of the murky ambiance into a triumphant passage that oozed nobility. The band was totally together on this insane trip, crafting a jaw-dropping Phish excursion that included all band members equally, crafting an opus that was greater than the sum of its parts. Concluding the set by stepping into “Cavern,” the band left the crowd in awe at setbreak.
A chunky “Moma” sparked the second set, which slid into the third-ever version of “Light.” A song whose exploratory nature was hinted at during Bonnaroo, fully blossomed on this night. Locked and loaded, this piece saw the band gradually coax the high-paced improv beyond its confines into a more percussive groove. What was so cool about this jam was that the band continued pushing themselves, even amidst a great jam, and eventually they hit the jackpot. Organically building from the rhythmic canvas, the band found themselves in a stunning calypso groove that sounded composed. As they often do when they hit a sacred musical place, the band added a layer of vocal accompaniment, clinching the magic of this inspiring piece. Seamlessly segueing into “Taste,” the soaring landing point fit thematically with the standout improv that just ended.
The only non-improvisational segment of the second set was a passionate, centerpiece “Fluffhead”- and who can argue with that- and a perfectly placed “Joy.” Selecting a cohesive and connected setlist, while harnessing the undeniable energy abounding from the geography and isolation, Phish was slowly forming one of the great shows in Gorge history.
Once the opening licks of “Bathtub Gin” hit, the next fifty minutes of the set plus encore would be chock full of top-level jamming, creating tour highlights in “Bathtub Gin”- battling “Sally” for jam of 2009, a magnificently emotive “Harry Hood” that stands out among other leg-two versions, and a “Slave” encore that was like a cherry on top of this Phish sundae.
As the the “Gin” jam began, the band playfully quoted “Praise You,” the Fatboy Slim song that found its way into the peak of the Red Rocks’ “Ghost.” As the band slid through some locked-in, feel-good patterns, Trey was absolutely killing it. But he soon changed his tune into some dirtier and more aggressive guitar work, urging the band into a creative segment of original groove. This is when the jam really began going places. Fishman and Mike formed a driving rhythmic pocket as Trey added fluttery melodic themes above Page’s clav effects. But as naturally as the band found themselves there, they moved into some slower, behemoth rock textures. Getting downright nasty, they entered a segment of incredibly spacious grooves that matched the over-sized surroundings. At this point, Trey played a space-like descending melody over the band’s pattern that would carry the jam all the way to its rest. Getting more abstract and sparse through its final segment, the band built the jam down just as they had built it up, ending in an ambient, atonal place that suggested an extra-terrestrial encounter. As the band sustained the wall of sound, Fishman hit the intro drum roll of “Harry Hood.”
As the band dropped into “Hood” you had the feeling the version would be colossal given its placement in this insane set and its consistently top-notch performances all summer long. And as expected, the delicate piece merged with the warm summer night in a glowing ball of bliss. Taking their time and space to explore the cathartic jam, the interplay of Trey, Mike, and Page during this will give you goosebumps, and it is some of Trey’s most genuinely soulful playing of the tour. An emotive and extended version of the classic closed a truly epic set of Phish. And when they came out with a “Slave” encore to close the eve, the musical aftermath seemed fated. A song that matched the vibe of the set congruently created a final peak of the night; a warm, empathetic piece that provided an introspective mirror of the self.
There were many nights of this past tour that standout in my mind- specifically Red Rocks 7.31 and Hartford as the creme de la creme- but after listening through to each, there is something different taking place during the Gorge’s first escapade. With magnificent, selfless pieces of flowing improv Phish consistently reached that other-worldy plane we quest for. The jams of the night often sounded completely effortless, channeling that larger universal energy- bigger than any individual or band- the energy that defines the very fabric of the Phish experience.
Sneakin’ Sally 8.7.09 I
Light > Taste 8.7.09 II
Bathtub Gin > Harry Hood 8.7.09 II
DOWNLOAD OF THE DAY
8.7.2009 The Gorge < Torrent
8.7.2009 The Gorge < Megaupload
I: Down With Disease, Ocelot, Pebbles And Marbles, Possum, Sleep, Destiny Unbound, Stash, Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley > Cavern
II: The Moma Dance, Light > Taste, Fluffhead, Joy, Bathtub Gin > Harry Hood
E: Slave To The Traffic Light
Source: DPA 4023 (ORTF) > Lunatec ACM V3 + DPA 4028(NOS) > AETA PSP-3 > Sound Devices 744t (FOB)
The Gorge – 8.7.09 (Photo: Graham Lucas)