Traditionally a band who steps up to big occasions and knocks it out of the park, Phish, instead, plowed through 33 songs, most in painfully standard fashion, in what amounted to one long first set for the 4th of July. A centerpiece sequence of “Tweezer -> Twist” provided the single chunk of undeniably timeless music for the night, but other than a scorching jam out of “Susskind Hotel” in the first set and a few notable bust outs, there was little meat to a show that looked primed to blow up on a holiday known for explosives. When I saw signs on the highway that declared “No fireworks display at Jones Beach” driving in, I didn’t realize they were referring to the concert too. Though everything was played with energy and all that, in comparison to the many shows of summer, Phish’s holiday installment couldn’t hold a candle.
A marathon opening set contained yet another Velvet Undergound cut off Loaded—the fifth in six shows—this time “Head Held High.” Unplayed since Vegas ’98, the references to the band’s illustrious Halloween legacy continued with an enthusiastic take on the upbeat tune. Then, a real treat came in a clean version of the incredibly rare “Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday -> Avenu Malkenu -> TMWSIY.” A quality “Bowie” felt like the set closer, but the band still had a while to go, including the jam of the first half in Mike’s “Susskind Hotel.” Bursting into a chugging groove, the band redefined the possibilities for the piece with a torrid conversation that popped from the stage. The band brought out The Greasy Troll for an early-show slot, taking “Purple Rain” off the shelf complete with “tucking” antics to the delight of most fans. Closing the 18-song opening half with the “Star Spangled Banner” the band has set the stage for a more improvisationaly based second set—but it never happened.
To Phish’s credit, they really had something going through “Taste,” but the set really just fell to shambles after that. To say it fizzled would be a gargantuan understatement. But first, let’s get to the centerpiece of the show—“Tweezer > Twist.” Upon splashdown in “Tweezer’s” jam, Trey stepped right into a guitar solo, leading the band through a fairly generic build, and it looked like we might get hit with a straight rocker. After peaking the build, however, the band settled into a darkening, minimalist soundscape. Trey unleashed growls behind Page’s laser synths and a delicate, ethereal pocket. Trey then began to drop the sounds of the universe behind this experiment, as Page comped this witches brew with juxtaposed keyboard melodies of beauty. Transforming into a storage-esque sequence, the band seemed primed to go deeper when Trey turned into “Twist.” And here would unfold the true gem of the show.
If the demonic “Twist” from Riverbend had an angelic, twin brother, this jam would most definitely be his other half. Diametrically different than Cincinnati;s descent into Hades, this jam would liken an ascent into heaven. Blending into a four-headed melodic mind-meld, the band spun a stunning tale of majesty. Defining an “amoeba” jam, where nobody is necessarily leading but all are collectively pushing the music, this “Twist” reached hugely cathartic realms of sound and harmony, spinning the audience—gently—into far off galaxies. This music felt like it could have continued with its own motion for an eternity, but at some point Trey decided to move on to “Taste.” Using the polyrhythmic composition as a landing pad for the “Tweezer > Twist,” “Taste” was a fine rendition in its own right, and I was right there with them at this juncture of the set. But when Trey decided to next play “Quinn the Eskimo” in the middle of frame, it wasn’t a good sign.
The following hour plus of music would contain only several interesting minutes in “Harry Hood,” where a delicate and thrilling take on the song passed through the calypso chord progression of the famous Gorge “Light” of ’09. But sandwiched in the midst a bunch of standard—not to mention unthinkably mellow—songs, the effect of a gorgeous “Hood” was somewhat lost in the fray. After straightforward takes on “Julius” and “Rock and Roll,” the band seemed to be recording a Phish lullaby album. As the band strung together “Horse -> Silent,” “Hood,” Shine a Light,” “Show of Life,” and “Slave,” watching the three teenage kids next to me try to stay awake through the show was just as entertaining as any of its music. Honestly, I’m not sure what the band was thinking by combining four mellow set closers in a row, because each of them became less and less powerful as they unfolded to the point where it felt like a bad Phish-based SNL skit.
The encore of “Sleeping Monkey > Reprise” is the quintessential encore to follow a mind-expanding set of music, but when the band rolled into their classic pairing, it seemed wholly out of place last night. Interestingly, most of my friends really liked this show, and after listening back, I’m still trying to figure out what, exactly, I missed. “Tweezer -> Twist” and “Susskind” were certainly on the level, but everything else, less “Hood,” was completely standard in every way, and in a three plus hour show, that’s a lot of dead time. Diff’rent strokes for diff’rent folks, I guess.
In the context of a spectacular tour, these past two Jones Beach shows felt a bit underwhelming. Coming off seven Midwest shows of magic, of which only two trailed off significantly, these spotty shows on Long Island didn’t feel up to snuff. When playing 30 songs, there is only so much room to jam, and while Phish definitely took advantage of a couple opportunities, the show felt incredibly thin, especially considering the occasion. As we head up to SPAC for the final three shows of Leg One, I’d expect a bit more to go down in the woods of Saratoga than we saw on the beach of Long Island.
I: Alumni Blues* > Letter to Jimmy Page > Alumni Blues, Head Held High, The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday > Avenu Malkenu > The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday, Kill Devil Falls, Bittersweet Motel, The Moma Dance, Gumbo, David Bowie, Alaska, Susskind Hotel, Hold Your Head Up > Purple Rain > Hold Your Head Up, The Star Spangled Banner
II: Boogie On Reggae Woman, Tweezer > Twist > Taste, Quinn the Eskimo, Julius, Rock and Roll > The Horse > Silent in the Morning, Harry Hood, Shine a Light, Show of Life, Slave to the Traffic Light
E: Sleeping Monkey > Tweezer Reprise