Following up a barn-burning weekend in the Midwest, Phish came back to New England and, in their return to Great Woods, dropped one of tour’s defining jams in “Rock and Roll.” A coherent, multi-faceted and exploratory odyssey anchored the show all by itself—it was that good. But aside for a standout first-set “Bowie,” Great Woods didn’t offer much else in the way of musical adventure, though sometimes that’s the way it goes. Throughout the history of Phish, Great Woods has been the site of so many classic shows, but in the 3.0 era, the venue seems to be a catalyst for mediocrity. This time around, Phish played a phenomenal piece of improvisation in “Rock and Roll,” but provided little support for their monster excursion. Yet in the interest of focusing on the sublime part of the show, lets get right to it.
After an energetic and extended “Back on the Train” opener, Phish put “Rock and Roll” under the second set spotlight for the first time this tour, and boy did it shine—and fly right into the stratosphere. Exiting the song’s rock textures, the band began the journey in a four-part experiment that fused ambient jamming with abstract groove. The jam jumped outside the box quickly, as Phish morphed the piece into a beautiful and uplifting segment of creative music. Trey fluttered patterns into the heavens as the band collectively sculpted one of the most surreal passages of tour. But the piece didn’t stay pretty for long. As the band organically migrated through a melodic ambient realm into a much harder-edged jam, Trey left the heavens for Lucifer’s pit, switching into seething guitar-work amidst a subconsciously-connected jam. Phish continued to push themselves into new ground as “Rock and Roll” completely changed course—in very natural fashion—into an evil, psychedelic monstrosity. Whole-band annihilation underlined this exploratory jaunt, a piece that continued moving into more experimental—and darker—realms by the second, until we were were neck deep in musical dementia. When the band finally settled out of this sinister sound sculpture, they jammed down into a summer-appropriate “Mango Song.”
Page shone on piano throughout a very clean version of “Mango Song,” and upon its ending, the band hit a crossroads of the second set. They had dropped one of tour’s defining jams in “Rock and Roll” and had resolved it perfectly with “Mango.” It seemed like an ideal slot to drop another jam vehicle, but, instead, the band chose to follow up the highlight combination with an innocuous string of songs that took the set to its end. “Pebbles and Marbles” was the one rarity contained within and the band played it well, though they still have yet to infuse any creativity into its rock-based jam (less Vegas ’04). The set-closing “Antelope” was better than many of this era and featured playful “Meatstick” teases, but it did little to salvage the set as a total experience.
The band had one other crossroads within this final portion of the show—“Halley’s Comet.” After Bethel’s breakout version—one of the highlights of tour’s opening weekend—when the band dropped into the song in the middle of the second set, one could only imagine what they were about to do to the jam. But in a move that left the audience with an 8th grade case of blue-balls, the band chopped off any possibilities as they took a turn into “Meatstick,” deflating the show beyond resuscitation.
The first set amounted to legitimate opening half, kicking off with “Llama” and peaking with a surprise, mid-set “David Bowie” that was played with a whole-band tenacity. An intricate and collaborative version provided the other true highlight of the show in addition to “Rock and Roll.” The band’s second-ever performance of John Lennon’s “Instant Karma” was particularly sloppy, though “Divided Sky” popped with extra zest later in the frame. The debut of the Al Green’s cover “Rhymes”—a loafing blues-rock-type groove—hit me as a “take-it-or-leave-it” type of song with some potential; we’ll see if anything develops out of it.
Phish’s Tuesday night stop in Massachusetts, despite “Rock and Roll’s” outlandish adventure, felt like a bit of an exhale after a mind-numbing weekend run. But even within an exhale in Summer 2011, the band dropped one of the most sublime passages of music we’ve heard this tour; it all depends on the way you look at it. Let’s put “Rock and Roll > Mango” in a powerful slot on our ever-growing Summer 2011 mix-tape and move on to Darien! See you under the white tents tonight…
I: Llama, The Moma Dance, Possum, Cities, Instant Karma!, David Bowie, Rhymes*, The Divided Sky, Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan
II: Back on the Train, Rock and Roll > The Mango Song, Bug, Pebbles and Marbles, Halley’s Comet > Meatstick, Run Like an Antelope
E Suzy Greenberg
*debut, Al Green
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