Phish opened up their Atlantic City run with a scorching second set jam-packed with free-form improvisation, pushing the envelope even further on what is clearly a limitless summer of possibility. Another show—and another outstanding set that stands up to any of this era— later, the band has hit a plane of egoless interplay that we have dreamed they’d recapture since they stepped on the stage in 2009. And now with each passing show, this new found improvisational fluidity is blossoming in time-lapse in front of our eyes. Morphing elements of every style they have ever touched on—the guys are in the process of creating a vintage year of Phish—2012 —that just may wind up being the best yet.
Crafting a set with a distinctly Phish2k vibe in both song selection and stylistic lineage, the band attacked the music in the second frame like a synchronized flock of vultures with no doubt as to their mission. The way in which Trey laid back throughout the set—allowing Mike and Page to lead every jam—and then seeped into the fabric of the music with utmost subtlety was the stuff of Jedi mastery. Before you knew it, that little lick that Trey had eased into the background of a jam had grown to prominence and was the peaking the segment, tying entire episodes together with utmost coherence. When many had least expected it, the band has come out this summer at the absolute top of their game, on a seemingly star-crossed destiny.
Such was the case with “Birds of a Feather,” the centerpiece of the entire show, and easily the most astounding music we’ve heard from the band in some time. Completely comfortable with the most wide-open jamming, the band crafted an incredibly dense tale of sorcery out of a song they hadn’t touched in eons. Launching far from song structure and into a pure, Phish-wonderland, the band carved out completely original, and incredibly dense music for what seemed like an eternity. At ease where he once winced, Trey laid notably back at the onset of this jam, allowing Mike to lead the way into unknown territory with an assault of sublime bass lines. As Page and Fish were totally enmeshed with the group, at this juncture Phish transformed into modern day shamans, invoking spiritual revelations to anyone who had an open ear. This is the stuff of legends, when the guys come together to create music that one could never imagine. Again, this is why we come. It seems that anyone who has put any time into this band in past couple years will be getting their payoff in droves this summer, as the guys are on a totally enhanced level of communication—only four shows into tour—than we have seen anytime recently. The music is flowing effortlessly again, and when the band is moving as one, like they were last night, nothing in the universe can stop them.
Somehow, “Bird’s” extended trip into paradise twisted its way into a seamless segue—completely out of left field—into “Back on the Train.” Much like Worcester’s “Sand -> Nellie Kane” transition, upon listen back, Trey began introducing elements of the song in the final stages of the jam, setting up Fishman to—on a dime—bring them into “Train.” After some stellar Trey soloing in “Heavy Things,” the next dive into deep water came in the classic song pairing of “Twist -> Piper.” Taking a fresh, and laid back tempo into the jam, the band really got creative with this version of “Twist” like they haven’t in some time. While never fully leaving the song, they created a spacy, soundscape in which all four members contributed equally and awesomely. But when they turned the corner and “wooed” their way into “Piper,” things took a turn for the outlandish again. Packing so many themes into a patient jam, not like so many breakneck versions of lore that just jumped down your throat, the band found themselves back in “Birds” jam territory as they dug into things. It certainly seems that Trey’s 2012 approach is a minimalist one. Weaving the most tasteful licks into this jam, Red continued to defer to Mike’s (and Page’s) leadership, picking and choosing his spots like a hawk. But the way in which his themes crept to the forefront of this jam is something to behold. Getting into some elevated and forceful, yet utterly graceful, playing, the band left countless jaws on Bader Field as they wound their way into a hypnotic ending before bleeding out into “Billy Breathes.”
Having sound checked the song earlier in the day, the band brought out their delicate ballad in a very appropriate spot, serving as a soft landing point for the free-form madness that had just concluded. Following the ballad, and after an extended silence, Phish pierced the summer air with a drop into “Sneakin’ Sally.” Entering infectious funk territory without falling back on any clichés, this jam entered original planes of gnar. With booming bass lines blanketing the field, the band broke into a late-set dance session that lit the crowd afire. This first outright groove release after a tenacious set of psychedelia felt as cool as the Nestea plunge on a 100 degree day. Juxtaposing styles at just the right moment, the band absolutely hit the spot with “Sally,” tuning the party out with a filthy episode. And as the band built the funk a bit further out, Fishman jumped on the opportunity to initiate the first “Bowie” of summer.
Splashing into the jam with an array of self-referential teases that rehashed many of the evening’s songs, the band’s playful side was on display within this serious set of musicianship. Taking a generally liner contour, the band carved an intense closer that fit the set’s vibe perfectly. And as the band crashed the final chord into the cool Jersey evening, I looked at my friends—it had been one of those nights again. One of those nights we’ll look back on in many years and remember fondly for the eternal music and memories within. And that “Birds” jam…whoa…that “Birds” jam!
The band eased into their three-night run with a relaxed afternoon set that featured choice song selection and a couple notable high points. A loose and rhythmic “Tube,” far more developed than recent versions, got things moving in the daylight, and sparked a slinky triumvirate of “Tube,” “Cites,” and “It’s Ice.” But the standout jam of the set was, unquestionably, “Stash.” Laced with unusually intricate interplay, this version ran the sonic gamut, crafting a must-hear highlight. And the final piece of note in the opening frame was the set’s closing “Faulty Plan.” Finally opening the song up a bit, the band entered some raunchy, uncompressed “Zero-esque” jamming that served as an obvious harbinger of things to come form a song that has lied dormant too long.
Although it’s still the early goings, everything seems to be falling into place exactly like we’d all hoped it would. In fact, it’s almost as if the band has been eavesdropping on every complaint their fan base has had about them in recent years and addressed every single point. How did they do it? Well, that’s for them to know and us to marvel about. And from my seat, I like the view.
I: The Sloth, My Sweet One, 46 Days, Camel Walk, Tube > Cities > It’s Ice, Ginseng Sullivan, Stash, Simple > The Wedge, Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan, The Squirming Coil
II: My Soul, Birds of a Feather -> Back on the Train > Heavy Things, Twist > Piper > Billy Breathes, Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley -> David Bowie*
E: First Tube
* w/ “Stash,” “It’s Ice,” “Birds of a Feather,” “Simple,” and “Ginseng Sullivan” teasesTags: 2012, Summer 2012