To conclude their Midwestern visit, Phish balanced Saturday night’s explosive throwdown with a Sunday performance whose highlights focused on cerebral, nouveau improvisation. Despite an inability to close the second set with authority, the band had already flexed their improvisational muscle considerably during a 25 minute segment of “Light -> Ghost” and a first set “Fee” that stands up to any ever played. Although a spottier show overall, Phish still showcased the type of fresh ideas and experimental playing that has flooded this summer’s tour. Using these three vehicles, the guys scripted a triumvirate of indelible jams that will hang in the 2012’s Hall of Fame.
During a first set consisting of all but two summer debuts, things got serious in an instant as the band slid through a wormhole out of “Fee.” Stepping through a door into the ether, the guys ascended into a spectral daydream. Elevating through patient cooperation, Page tickled the piece with “plinkofied” clav textures while Trey sprouted soul-tugging leads over a rolling pocket. Using a beatless interlude in the jam, the guys turned a corner with a series of with fresh ideas, this time snaking into even more heavenly places. A jam that only a mature Phish could pull off, the band pushed and pulled the music as a single-cell organism, discovering an exalting plain of ambient groove. Creating an alternate reality midway through the first set, Phish smashed down the walls of their bust-out jukebox with majestic and mysterious music. Supported by a slew of rarities in the first set, it sure seems that the band is taking their self-imposed, 200-song challenge to heart. Covers of “Soul Shakedown Party,” “Lonesome Cowboy Bill” and “Frankenstein” saw the stage for the first time this year, as well as Phish originals, “Vultures,” “A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing” and “Meat.” The difference with bust outs this year as opposed to the past couple, is that all songs have all been clearly practiced and performed cleanly, a facet that makes all the difference in the world when playing one-off pieces. A fun first half—with a profound swan dive into ambient adventure—set the table for some serious music come the second.
Alpine’s two-night onslaught of covers continued at the top of the main event as a fiery version of “Crosseyed and Painless” dissolved into the oft-teased Zeppelin epic, “No Quarter.” Played with particular poignancy last night, this version dripped popped with the psychedelic energy with it was birthed on “Houses of the Holy.” But when the band concluded playing the music of others and focused on two of their central launch pads of 2012, the show reached its most magnificent heights.
Crashing into “Light” out of “No Quarter’s” dissonant residue, the band strapped on their jamming shoes and put the pedal to the medal. Following two completely original versions of their modern era epic in AC and Star Lake, the band came right back with a third. In this incarnation of the jam, the band shied from groove and took off into long-form improvisation. Favoring a rolling and melodic ambient texture, all four guys played as one unit as dramatically as any time this summer. A meticulous exercise in multi-part harmonies and symbiotic, melodic interplay, “Light” blasted into totally new places last night with free-form improv. Mike teased the bass line of “Frankie Sez” midway in the jam, and—momentarily—it seemed as thought that is where we were headed—but not even close. Continuing to push the envelope with one-minded bliss, Phish allowed the jam to blossom into a lush garden of Rhodes-laced, avant-garde tapestry. Playing with such attentive ears, each member’s musical ego dissolved into a stunningly gorgeous conversation. As Fishman dropped his beat, the band drifted further outward, melding naturally into a synth-based final segment that artistically transformed into “Ghost.”
Now we have spoken of the fresh ideas bubbling from Phish this summer, but this “Ghost” has taken that concept to new heights. Moving so far from conventions, the guys engaged in a jam that—at times—hardly sounds like Phish at all. Taking “Ghost” for its third joyride of summer, this one would, again, sound distinctly different. After the guys settled into the piece, they promptly popped out convention as Trey hit a faster lick. Fishman immediately caught on and made a change to a house beat that one might expect to hear from a “jamtronica” outfit. The entire band hopped on this out-of-character shift, and Phish took a brief foray into the type of music that legions of their one-time followers have made famous. As Fishman switched up the rhythm again, the music took another turn, this time for the abstract. Morphing smoothly into another original segment, this jam seemed to be guided by a greater force as the music spilled out as if scripted. Migrating from beauty into a menacing groove, this “Ghost” gave musical density a new meaning. Layering a slow vocal reprise of “Still Waiting” over this murky groove, the guys gradually built out of the jam with a seamless segue into “Back on the Train.” Serving as a groovy landing pad for an extended sequence of unique and transcendent jamming, “Train” centered the crowd for what was certainly shaping up to be one of the sets of the summer.
A minimalist take on “Farmhouse” shone as a mid-set breather, as the band’s the meticulous improvisation spilled into the millennial-era ballad. But once “Farmhouse” ended, the band, however, crushed their own musical momentum with a series of questionable song choices. Sputtering to the end of the show with a first-set-esque sequence of “46 Days,” “Heavy Things,” “Joy,” and “Julius,” a set that had flowed as well as any through “Farmhouse” took a nosedive and never recovered. I, honestly, think that the band shot their proverbial load on the otherworldly sequence of “Ghost -> Light,” and if they felt like they had to play songs for the rest of the set, then so be it. Sometimes when you have such strong centerpieces to a show—and “Fee,” “Light” and “Ghost” are all “type II” reveries—whatever falls around them is just gravy—too salty, or not.
When looking back on 2012’s return to Alpine Valley, many fans will rightfully recall the airtight, powerhouse second set of Saturday night. But when crafting any summer highlight reel, it will be a moral imperative to include Sunday night’s top-shelf trifecta. As the band moves beyond the Midwest and into the stretch run of Leg One, things are strong as ever in the world of Phish. Playing with a focused creativity unseen since the late-‘90s, the guys are mining musical gold on a nightly basis. Whether a set, an entire show, or—in the case of last night—a few timeless jams, one can be sure to leave any current Phish show with some form of improvisational treasure.
I: Soul Shakedown Party, Lonesome Cowboy Bill, Vultures, Gotta Jibboo, Dirt, A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing,Access Me, Meat, Frankenstein, Fee, Maze, The Squirming Coil
II: Crosseyed and Painless > No Quarter > Light -> Ghost -> Back on the Train, Farmhouse, 46 Days, Heavy Things, Joy, Julius
E: MeatstickTags: 2012, Summer 2012