Golden Gate Park—a locale like none other, and in many ways, the birthplace of the psychedelic revolution. But when Phish took the stage on Saturday night in San Francisco, there was little music of the mind to be heard as they showcased a long list of anthems for the Outside Lands audience. Powering through a veritable double-disc of greatest hits amidst a chilly fog from the bay, the band put on a glossy performance in the Golden City’s hipster haven, leaving a three-night blowout in UIC looming large.
As the band favored “album-versions” of most songs, the improvisational highlights of the show were few and far between. Anchored by a thick “Tweezer” that swam amidst whole-band groove and saw the band peer into the storage shed momentarily, the first set also featured a set-closing “Mike’s Groove.” Call me a dreamer, but it feels like big things are to come from tour’s final “Tweezer” at UIC. The other segment of high-quality Phish-by-the-Bay came in the opening triumvirate of the second set in “Rock and Roll -> Steam > Piper.” A succinct jam in “Rock and Roll” set up a smooth segue into the long-awaited return of “Steam.” Bringing back their sole debut of summer for the first time since, Phish wove through the infectious groove led by a massive guitar solo by Trey. Before the jam had much of a chance to get anywhere, however, the band moved onto “Piper.” During “Piper” the festival audience got their only taste of open Phish jamming— something they weren’t afraid to let of the bag, in spurts, back at Bonnaroo.
When Phish moved abruptly from “Piper” into “Roses are Free,” they took the musical momentum of the set with them, taking the show home with ordinary song after ordinary song. Far more than a Phish show, this night felt like just an ordinary concert, but I’m not sure what crowd they were looking to please with this type of performance. I often think the band would be better served by showing up at these festivals and do what they do best—melt minds and faces. I can’t imagine there are too many converted Phish fans after last night’s show, and with a big pay day and nobody to impress, this festival slot seemed a bit phoned in. Sure, there were moments, and in the end, who expected much more? But more fundamentally, it is Phish’s approach to multi-band festival appearances that I am calling into question.
The last couple mainstream festivals—Austin City Limits and Outside Lands—provided little musical substance for the masses to digest and take home with them. Back in ’09, however, the band dropped an experimental “Rock and Roll -> Light > 46 Days” on the Bonnaroo crowd, not to mention the most creative performance ever of “Kill Devil Falls.” When they filled in around these jams with anthems, their Bonnaroo performances felt very balanced. But last night, the balance was just not there. Song-heavy to the core, the Outside Lands show misrepresented the band to a slew of unfamiliar people ready to judge them and write them off. Well, one thing that indie journalists can’t accuse Phish of after last night is over-indulgent or unsuccessful jamming. The band just sidestepped that all together.
Perhaps for some, but not for me, the festival show had points of engagement, but not nearly enough to constitute an entire show—or even a single set. “Tweezer” will certainly get some spins over here, but I doubt I’ll be throwing this show into my listening rotation anytime soon. With straightforward song after straightforward song, the band didn’t truly offer the audience a glimpse into their genius, instead choosing a series of selections that resembled one long first set.
Following two shows that didn’t provide much lasting music, Phish is now primed for three big nights at UIC. The tour has gradually lost steam over the past week, having peaked with the Gorge’s first show. But something tells me that when the band steps inside in Chicago for the only indoor shows of 2011, that will all change. Hopefully, Phish will rev their motors back up to give the Gorge stand a legitimate bookend to the second leg of summer.
I: Kill Devil Falls, Wilson, Funky Bitch, The Moma Dance, Peaches en Regalia, Sample in a Jar, Possum, Tweezer > Mound, Suzy Greenberg, Axilla, Mike’s Song > I Am Hydrogen > Weekapaug Groove
II: Rock and Roll -> Steam > Piper > Roses Are Free, Julius, Life on Mars?, Birds of a Feather, Fluffhead, Backwards Down the Number Line, Also Sprach Zarathustra > Chalk Dust Torture
E: Cavern > Tweezer RepriseTags: 2011, Festivals, Summer 2011