A night after piecing together a patchwork setlist, Phish rebounded in every facet of their game on Sunday night at SPAC, scripting the most complete overall show of the tour thus far with a second set filled with adventurous improv. By scripting a second seamless main event in three nights with no filler whatsoever, the band has proven an intent to answer all modern fan base gripes while fully returning to form on their 30th Anniversary summer tour. Playing a show that invoked the spirit and contour of so many classics of lore, Phish penned a signature performance to cap an outstanding three nights in Saratoga Springs.
One of the things I have missed most in the modern era of Phish has been their hallowed set-crafting ability. In their glory days, the band sculpted sets with defined contours that took the listener on a flowing aural journey from beginning to end. Most often this era, the highlights of shows have come in jams or sequences, but seldom—if ever—has the band put together the type of musical narrative that has a distinct beginning, middle and an end with everything perfectly in place. Well last night, they did exactly that, weaving a stunning tapestry of music that cut to the core of the band’s artistry. Over their tour-opening run at SPAC, Phish (read: Trey) has rediscovered the lost art of set-crafting in one of the most welcome shifts in the Phish universe since the band started jamming again. Like MJ honed his fadeaway and LeBron polished his jumper, Phish, like in a wily veteran, has transformed their glaring weakness into one of their strengths. With this final step, the crafty quartet from Vermont has fully recaptured their magic of old while carving new sonic pathways at every turn.
The improvisational meat of the second set came in the inseparable sequence of “Disease > Ghost > Piper.” Beyond weaving these songs together with impeccable flow, Phish unified the three jams in musical concept, each picking up exactly where the last left off, while forming one, continuous musical whole. The set kicked off with the summer’s first “Down With Disease,” a jam that began in a mellow, melodic milieu before migrating into eerie groove with Trey playing seductive rhythm licks over a darkening soundscape. Before the band progressed beyond this section of sound, however, they transitioned into “Ghost.” Now here is where things get really cool. As the band launched into the “Ghost” jam, they picked it up in the same improvisational space that they had just left “Disease.” Re-launching into a sultry groove, the guys sounded like they could have still been in the same jam of which they had just segued out. The third stage of jamming in the three-song sequence came as the Page hopped to his clav and the band transformed the amphitheatre into a digital-plinko wonderland. Embarking on an intricate rhythmic exchange, the band flexed their creative muscle while progressing the overall narrative into another musical feel.
Phish fluidly transformed “Ghost’s” innovative conversation into a beautiful, melody anchored section that flowed perfectly into “Piper.” The third song of the set provided the fourth and final stage to this improvisational tale—the triumphant arrival. The band had passed us through darkness during the first 36 minutes of the set, and would now deliver us into the light via a stunning “Piper.” Spouting heart-tugging, joyous lead melodies, Trey brought the audience to a state of exultation in a conjoined celebration of the spirit of Phish. Passion leaped from all four band members in a staggering, near ten-minute peak to one of the more cohesive treks Phish has guided us on in quite some time.
The band even took the time to craft an emotional comedown out of the “Piper’s” jam that moved into “Velvet Sea” without missing a beat. Placed flawlessly, the ballad felt right at home in it’s late-set slot, bringing us into the end-of-set-classic-song-pairing part of the show. “Velvet Sea” has traditionally precluded “Antelope” in setlists, while “Meatstick” has also been paired with “Antelope throughout the band’s career. Substituting the word “Meatstick” for “Antelope” in the song’s final chorus, Trey added a touch of Phishy humor to this signature night while simultaneously revealing the next song. Additionally, “Meatstick” has often been placed right before a set-closing “You Enjoy Myself,” an occurrence that any fan could see coming a mile away. And there is no better way to close a massive Phish set—or a weekend stand—than with “You Enjoy Myself.”
Usually, this is where I’d write a conclusion and note the few songs in the first set that stood out. But the reason that last night’s performance was so damn special in this day and age was that the band’s contained, or type I, jamming was absolutely off the charts. Firing as one and never getting complacent for a moment, the guys were laser focused and hooked up from note one and it made all the difference. Just listen to the incredibly active takes on “Back on the Train,” “Maze,” and “Limb By Limb” in the first set and the absolute scorcher of an “Antelope” in the second. One version after opening up their classic set closer, the band absolutely destroyed a contained “Antelope” jam and it felt like a revelation. Restoring meaning to the song its second, consecutive superb version, Phish kept the action coursing. Following “Meatstick,” the band closed with an spunky “YEM” that saw Trey play high-pitched, staccato leads throughout the jam, a welcome diversion from his cliché guitar solo and providing the jam with a fresh sound of its own.
When on a roll and at their best, Phish seems to one up themselves one show after another, and thus far on this tour, but for a slight misstep, that is exactly what is happening. Building upon each previous night, the band has reached a level of proficiency in their live show that we haven’t seen in this era. First, they tore off a airtight second set on Friday, now they have notched a complete, quintessential two-setter. What’s next? Come to Toronto and find out.
I: AC/DC Bag, Back on the Train, Divided Sky, Free, It’s Ice, Mound, Maze, Limb By Limb, Walls of the Cave
II: Down with Disease > Ghost > Piper > Wading in the Velvet Sea > Run Like an Antelope, Meatstick, You Enjoy Myself
E: Loving CupTags: 2013, Summer '13, The Moment