After spinning through the first two shows of tour a number of times over the weekend, and I have to say, I hear the emergence of a new Phish. Not only are their jams multiplying in number, but they are also diversifying in scope and laced with new ideas. The band seemed incredibly fresh over the weekend and ready to try new things once again. And one of the biggest reasons for the Bethel shows’ many successes was—go figure—Trey Anastasio. Over the weekend, Trey stepped up and led the band in the commanding fashion of lore, but directed jams with a refined style that didn’t always necessitate melting faces. With delicate, yet directional licks of leadership—creative and intricate leads—Trey came to the forefront of the stage in a way that didn’t diminish his mates’ contributions. I keep thinking of the word “mature” to define this type of playing; a style that could only have been acquired through decades of improvisation and experimentation with the same players. Some key jams from Bethel where this refined yet powerful style is quite prevalent are “Halley’s,” “Bathtub Gin” and “Number Line.” And not consequently, these were three of the more impressive excursions of the weekend.
But only one day earlier, Phish engaged in a completely different type of jamming in an awing rendition of “Waves.” This unforgettable segment came via deep and collaborative exploration—and incredible patience. Unafraid to let things breathe and allow ideas to develop, the band didn’t scurry from improvisational abstraction over the first two shows, but embraced it—exercising patience to discover sublime moments. In this vein, creative soundscapes emerged as a style of Phish jamming again, and no piece exemplified this better than “Waves.” Dripping into the ether directly as the lyrics ended, the band illustrated a new-found proclivity for cosmic exploration. As no one member pushed or dominated the jam, the band traveled together through one of Bethel’s utterly surreal portions of improv. Open-ended jamming at its finest, the band took a collective swan dive into the void during “Waves” and just let the music flow through them. Ending this journey with a ambient sound sculpture, this standout sequence (and its eerie “Crosseyed” counterpart) couldn’t be more different than the stellar jamming of night two.
And yet another divergent sound was showcased in one of the absolute gems of the weekend that got buried in the opening set—”Kill Devil Falls.” This jam was captained by the combination of Trey and Fishman—the backbone of Phish. Pushing the band with speedy and intricate breakbeats, Fishman directed this jaunt at a vicious pace. Fish’s quickened beat science pushed Trey out of some of his only “Whaling” of the weekend and into mind-bending guitar playing, while coaxing the entire band to engage at a pace at which they play.. But the jam wasn’t straight ahead rock; it was far more creative yet still moving a mile a minute. This seemed like an extension of the “urgent ambient” jamming that began to emerge last year during summer’s second leg (illustrated in the Greek’s “Rock and Roll” and Jones Beach’s “Number Line”)—but on steroids! This was some breakneck jamming and tight as anything we heard all weekend.
Phish had that invincible feeling again over the Bethel run; that sense that bullets would bounce off their musical armor like Lilliputians’ attacking Gulliver. And even though the third night’s affair strayed a bit towards the seemingly-fading song-based trend of this era, the show was still strewn with impressive musical conversations. Throw in a bit of staccato, plinko-funk jamming, and from every angle possible, Bethel was an overwhelming triumph for the band and their dedicated fan base. By anyone’s account, this is shaping up to be one crazy summer, and when we finally wind down amidst the Rockies in Colorado come Labor Day, we’ll think back to the green rolling pastures of Bethel Woods and smile.Tags: Summer 2011