“That was a perfect set.” So I said to my buddy upon the finish of “Character Zero” last night. Phish had just thrown down a second half that flowed impeccably from start to finish, with every jam played to conclusion and leading naturally into the next. The non-stop stanza contained thrilling improvisation throughout as the band wove together one highlight after another. Forming a whole far greater than the sum of its standout parts, the second set carried us on true musical journey. Packing a punch—with both sets—Phish greeted Alpine Valley to one of the finest start-to-finish performances of the Summer 2012.
When Phish jumped from a standard “Number Line” opener into “Carini,” the first thematic sequence of the second set began. Beginning here, and for the entire first half of the frame, the band focused squarely on dance grooves—and it was glorious. Instead of launching into abstract or a major-key territory in “Carini,” the guys remained anchored to hard-edged groove morphing into a snarling, yet smooth texture that one might expect to hear from a “Tweezer.” Seeing this seething segment to fruition, the band had dissolved into the ether when Trey came in with the opening to “Wilson,” pairing the two dark tales. And it was but an instant upon “Wilson’s” ending that the band kicked it into overdrive for “Golden Age.”
For the second time this tour, the guys centered “Golden Age” in the second set, a song that has taken on even more meaning in the midst of this summer’s modern-era musical renaissance. And this time comin’ round, Phish just destroyed the dance floor. Adopting his minimalist summer playing to the funk realm, Trey eased back and painted this beat-driven collage with rhythms licks that could make a grown man drool. Page stepped to his clav, and Mike stepped to the forefront of the jam with precise and eclectic bass lines. All the while Fish remained in lockstep with his bassist. It seemed that everyone took a more prominent leadership role in this jam than Trey, who slunk back like an alley cat, offering delectable comps that spiced up an already thickening groove. “Golden Age” got the pavilion pulsating as the band switched feels into an ultra-textured modern-era feel—an offshoot of the “plinko” sound. Page and Trey speckled the top layer of the groove as Mike and Fish remained in an intricate pocket. Blossoming like a time-lapse film, this jam just continued to get gnarlier by the second, and the guy’s rhythmic interplay got more nuanced and insane. Producing, by far, the most post-show buzz, this jam got real on a Saturday night.
Hitting a change the sounded like the onset of “2001” the band made a quick and ultra-fluid transition into their dance anthem. Exploding Alpine Valley with this laser-like maneuver, the band continued their theatrics by lacing the compact version with the rhythmic complexities of “Golden Age.” And at the climax of this to-die-for, groovalicious centerpiece, Phish blasted right into “Rock and Roll”—a move that kept the show’s energy dial—and level of musical engagement—cranked at 11. If the opening half of the set was dance-centric, the more exploratory second half kicked off with “Rock and Roll.” Transforming from a torrid rock jam to an ethereal masterpiece within a time frame one might think required the flux capacitor, the band dropped another profound jam. If one thing has truly stood out in the many jams of 2012 is the copious ground the band covers in a short period of time with stunning fluidity. Dare I say, there are not many bands out there that can play with such a dense musical spectrum. “Rock and Roll” first moved into percussive textures before Trey swooped in with a gripping guitar lead that directed the rest of the jam. Meeting their guitarist on the astral plane, the band quickly transformed the piece into a cathartic and melody-driven, four-piece collaboration. Tearing off descending licks, Trey continued to bring the band further and further into fantasy land, and, eventually, into an ambient denouement.
And the relentless set just kept hitting as Trey subtly seeped into the long-awaited 2012 debut of “Steam.” Taking the concept of a “landing pad” to a whole new level, the band blanketed the over-sized amphitheatre with the song’s liquid groove. Laying down an infectious and bluesy solo, Trey led the guys through a brief extension of the theme, and bringing the slow groove to a head with a wash of sound and effect, one could feel “Piper” arise from within the music, signifying another choice song selection in a gift-wrapped set that kept on giving. Phish’s ever-protean, improvisational rocket ship took a high-octane journey on this night, forging some fast-paced psychedelia. Trey hit a powerful lead phrase early in the jam that became the theme of the piece, woven throughout the powerful excursion. Chugging as one, the band hit a stride in this jam in which the music seemed to roll effortlessly through them. Even when the band switched feels into a spacier milieu, the coalesced nicely as they peeled back the sonic layers, exposing a vulnerable, melodic core. As the jam trickled into nothing, Trey threw out a musical lasso to reign in the crowd in the form of “Quinn the Eskimo.” As the band concluded the rousing cover, they rolled into the increasingly rare “Harry Hood.”
Putting an effervescent stamp on the night, the band sculpted a standout version that some lost coherence at the very top, though it hardly tarnished the splendid ride to glory. Bursting out of the feel-good climax of the song, the guys dropped into “Character Zero.” Avoiding all distortion and effects, Trey just wailed out-school on this version, even adding a series of classic, late-90’s “Jean-Pierre” (Miles Davis) licks into his solo. And as the final note came crashing down, I was awed by the set’s seamless quality, not to mention top-notch jamming. There was never a single awkward moment in Saturday night’s main event, as the guys unveiled one of summer’s most outstanding efforts. Without space for breath, this airtight set will always underline Alpine’s Saturday night performance, but this whole shindig got started far earlier in the evening.
Coming on stage into a humid Wisconsin evening, Phish crafted quite an engaging first set. Dropping an early rarity in “Daniel Saw the Stone,” the show got going in earnest with the third-song “AC/DC Bag.” The guys peppered this version with extra mustard, as they did with the subsequent versions of “Moma Dance” and “Runaway Jim.” But the most sublime couplet of the opening half followed with “Let It Loose” and “Reba.” Dripping the emotional Stones ballad into the mid-summer’s, the band immediately pulled in the attention of the Alpine’s monstrous audience, and then kept it locked right there with a lush and extended “Reba.”
The meaty opening set continued with “Sloth,” and another spin-worthy “Ocelot.” Two more summer debuts—“Poor Heart” and “Circus”—provided a buffer before the true, late-set gem, “Timber.” Moving into some out-of-character, melody-driven harmonies for a part of this rendition, “Timber” immediately became a set break talking point upon its conclusion. A vigorous “Suzy Greenberg” drew a thunderous ovation from the crowd as the exclamation point of the opening half. And as we sat during setbreak and gazed into the purple sky of southern Wisconsin with a bright white waxing moon hung low in the sky, things couldn’t have been any better.
The first night of Alpine immediately jumps to the forefront of contenders for show of the summer. Not that a winner should be chosen, but last night was just that good. It is truly a blessing to bear witness to what is going down nightly on Phish tour these days. Playing with clear inspiration, the guys are—indisputably—throwing down their most creative run since their return. And the first night of Alpine stands tall in the forest of amazing summer shows. After all, it’s not every night the band plays a perfect set.
I: My Soul, Daniel Saw the Stone, AC/DC Bag, The Moma Dance, Runaway Jim, Let It Loose, Reba, Kill Devil Falls, The Sloth, Ocelot, Poor Heart, When the Circus Comes, Timber (Jerry) > The Oh Kee Pa Ceremony >Suzy Greenberg
II: Backwards Down the Number Line, Carini > Wilson > Golden Age -> Also Sprach Zarathustra > Rock and Roll > Steam -> Piper > Quinn the Eskimo, Harry Hood > Character Zero
E: Good Times Bad TimesTags: 2012, Summer 2012