When Phish dropped their second leg dates yesterday, I was immediately struck with mixed emotions. On one hand, the announcement of any Phish dates is a cause for immediate celebration, but something about these dates—and the fine print that followed—screamed “stagnancy” to me. If you didn’t catch the afterword, “No additional Phish dates will be announced for Summer or Fall of 2012,” leaving the band with exactly six weeks of the year to play together. One might say that Phish semi-formally announced that 2012 would be “light year” of touring, but in fact, the schedule is exactly same as last year minus a festival. And I would bet that 2013’s touring docket will look eerily similar— a month long tour in June, two weeks in August, and a Holiday Run at MSG. One might also say, look at all the new venues that they booked—it will be an exciting tour. My response to would be, “ I don’t care where Phish shows happen, I only care what they sound like.” And when the band takes such massive chunks of time off from playing together, they don’t always come back together so gracefully (see MSG 2011). While I still hold high hopes for what the guys will do this summer, that hope is tempered by a bit of wonderment about the current intent behind the Phish from Vermont.
With no fall tour planned, this summer will be another standalone tour in which any real chance of musical progression feels inherently limited. Let’s look at 2011. The band built towards a new style of abstract / soundscape / “storage” jamming in the first half of the summer, infused it into some shows during leg two with mastery, and then all but dropped it come the holidays—the run where Phish traditionally showcases their accomplishments of the year. With no Fall 2011, the guys weren’t able to capitalize on their musical momentum and innovation they realized over the summer, resulting in a significant step backwards over the New Year’s Run. But let’s just give the band a pass for MSG. My concern is with such sporadic scheduling—six weeks of dates in a year covering the nation once—that this is pattern bound to repeat itself.
Three years into this era, Phish has played plenty of great shows and thrown down many jams that stand up to any era, but where are they “going” musically? Are they “going” anywhere? Can you remember the last time Phish played for three straight years without establishing a signature sound or improvisational focus of the era? Probably not, because it has never happened. Just as it felt like the band was finally on the brink of something with the Gorge’s “Rock and Roll,” Tahoe’s “Light,” and UIC’s Elements Set, they played three great shows in Denver—none, specifically, delving into this style—and took the rest of the year off. Something tells me that when the band gets back on stage in Worcester come June, they won’t exactly pick up where they left off nearly ten months ago in Denver. Perhaps I’m wrong—and I certainly hope so—but if I’m right, the band may spend another summer unearthing a compelling musical direction only to split come fall for Trey tour, Mike tour, and whatever else the band wants to do these days. It just doesn’t feel like Phish is of the utmost importance to the band members anymore, rather, the band seems more like a summer camp where they can get their jollies out before returning to more focused endeavors—orchestral, familial or otherwise. And while there is nothing intrinsically wrong with that, Phish has never been a casual affair.
Another glaring absence as we move towards another summer of shows is the lack of new material. The band’s newest jam vehicles are still “Light” and “Number Line” from 2009’s Joy, and Trey is currently working on a new solo album. While I realize new material isn’t essential to the touring year, there is a certain creative process that goes into making an album that brings the band together in a way that a few weeks on the road cannot. And it enhances the group dynamic and overall flow of the band. The last time Phish did this was before they stepped on stage at Hampton. Where’s the dedication to pushing Phish forward that has been a hallmark of the band since their inception, and that we heard them speak of upon their return? You get my drift? It seems to me that we, the fans, care far more about Phish music than the band does these days. It never used to be that way. It simply feels odd. With leg two hitting a series of spread out small markets and small venues, tickets will sell out and regional fans will be excited regardless of how coherent the jams sound. Will these conditions breed the potential for complacency? One can only wonder.
The band has been back in action for three full years now, and the feeling of “we’re lucky to have them back” has worn off. While I am eternally grateful that the Phish is playing again, at this point in 2012, I feel like huddling them up like an overzealous football coach, urging them onto the same page, and chanting—as a team—“1…2…3…Let’s do this!”
A unified musical intent would be invaluable in Phish’s current landscape, but with Trey so often on his own musical trip, the single-mindedness that defined the band’s greatest eras has often been missing, and I’m not sure this sporadic scheduling will help the cause. As rock bands get older, so many tend to mellow out and play the hits for one tour a year to keep the wheels spinning. I never thought this is what Phish would become, and I am still holding out that they won’t, but this summer seems to be a critical time in determining the future of the band. What will happen? Well, that is the fun of it all. Come this summer, we shall see.
8/15 – Long Beach Auditorium, Long Beach, CA
8/17-19 Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, San Francisco, CA
8/22 – Starlight Theatre, Kansas City, MO
8/24 – Oak Mountain Amphitheatre, Birmingham, AL
8/25 – Aaron’s Amphitheathre at Lakewood, Atlanta, GA
8/26 – Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre, Charlotte, NC
8/28 – Chaifetz Arena, St Louis, MO
8/29 – Zoo Amphitheatre, Oklahoma City, OK
8/31 – 9/02 – Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, Denver, COTags: 2012, Summer 2012