The 30th Anniversary Summer Tour—the run that Phish came out bursting with new ideas again. Starting at Bangor and SPAC, and carrying right through Denver’s three night stand, Phish played with an intent to bring their music to new places. No longer did the band adhere to template jam structures, rather they developed sonic tangents that brought their jams onto fresh ground. The band also reinvigorated their contained improv, resurrecting classics like “Split Open and Melt,” “David Bowie,” “Run Like an Antelope” and “Mike’s Groove.” But above all else, the band’s open jamming was incredibly efficient, reaching sublime planes with little searching or indecision. In this their 30th year, Phish has come as close to mastering the art of improvisational music any as group that has ever stepped on a stage. And now—as they prepare to take this monstrosity indoors to Hampton Coliseum and beyond—Phish is primed to launch into one of their most anticipated tours of the modern era—Fall 2013.
Early-Summer jams such as Bangor’s “Antelope,” SPAC’s “Light,” “Drowned,” and “Piper,” and PNC’s “Crosseyed” sent the community an early message that things would be different this year. In each of these passages, the band took things in new directions—“Antelope” opened up into a blissful, out-of-character interlude; “Light” fused the textures and control of ’95 with the rolling, thematic style of today; “Drowned” shied from rock for a delicate, groove session, while “Crosseyed” opened the floodgates of creativity in one of the most original and impeccable jams of the summer. We were only a week into tour, and things felt like the heyday again. Every night held an incredible sense of adventure. There was no longer a question if Phish would go huge after setbreak, the only mystery was how they would melt our minds each night. Every show ended with excitement and adrenaline for the musical happenings—Phish tour truly felt like Phish tour again; 2013 was the new 1997. The styles were different, but the push for original territory each and every night was the stuff of reverie. And once again, we were living the dream.
The tour rolled on to Jones Beach where the band performed a flawless second set—one of their best of the summer—with slithery segues dotting the setlist at every turn. Merriweather provided the summation of the east coast portion of the tour with two rock solid performances, weighted towards the second night. The band’s outstanding run of “Lights” came to a head with Columbia’s avant-garde excursion, the unquestionable highlight of a non-stop evening. Alpharetta seem to be the forgotten shows of summer, though each was quite good. The first night’s second set, in my opinion, in the dark horse stanza of tour. Stocked with surreal jamming, this set never relented featuring stellar versions of “Rock and Roll” and “Chalk Dust,” not to mention a quality “Tweezer.”
Following a rain-soaked weekend in Chicago in which things never truly got going until night three, the band hit Toronto, site of the most sublime versions of “Disease” and “David Bowie” of the year, then took a couple days off before landing at the Gorge for the stand of the summer. Phish dropped two phenomenal shows—including strong first sets—at the venue of legend. The first featured a twenty-minute “Crosseyed” that sits among the jams of the season, and the second set of the second night gets my vote for the set of tour. There was not a single misstep as the guys navigated a diverse musical statement that spanned “Disease -> Undermind,” “Sally -> 2001” and compositions such as “Walls of the Cave” and “Fluffhead.” Though nobody commands perfection from the band, sometimes they deliver, and on this night they could do no wrong.
When people bounced down to Tahoe, few believed they’d leave the mountain town in a greater state of bliss than they left the Gorge, but after Tahoe’s monumental “Tweezer”—one of Phish’s finest moments—that is exactly what happened. Obviously confident in their playing and the new musical ideas that had began to bubble up on the west coast, Phish put their best foot forward in fulfilling a personal fantasy—one I’m sure is shared by many others—and dropped a colossal long form “Tweezer” of the likes that hadn’t seen the light of day since the mid-90s. This was heaven. On a warm summer night in the Nevada, Phish delivered a dream—a dream that would come to define Summer 2013 as a whole and recalibrate what is actually possible in live music. It was just that good.
Finishing their west coast run of legend, the band annihilated Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco for three nights, dropping several top jams of tour including “Down with Disease,” “Seven Below,” “Rock and Roll” and “Energy > Runaway Jim.” The third and final show was an instant classic and capped the run with a memorable performance. A fairly tame show at the Hollywood Bowl turned interesting in an instant when the band opened up a late-set “Harry Hood,” blossoming one of the most creative improvisations of tour and ending their month-long jaunt with a discernible bang.
And then came Dick’s. A year after redefining themselves in the Rocky mountain paradise, Phish headed back to the soccer stadium in Commerce City to complete another summer docket. Filled with anticipation, the community descended on the well-loved venue for another unforgettable Labor Day weekend. The first night—highlighted by “Ocelot,” “Stash” and “Sand”—felt a bit musically tight due to the constraints of spelling out “Most shows spell something.” Nonetheless, the show translated quite well and carried a definite flow. The next night, however, was a totally different story.
On Saturday, the band played one of their strongest two-set outings of the year, jam packed with top-notch improvisation. The opening frame carried a medium tempo dance groove the whole way through, as Trey shrewdly selected a delectable setlist. The musical theatrics bulged during “Wolfman’s” “Bathtub” and “Antelope,” though the band’s playing was particularly sharp from the jump. In each of the last two years, the jam of the weekend came on the Saturday night at Dick’s. In 2011 it was “Tweezer,” in 2012 it was “Light,” and this year it was “Chalk Dust Torture.” Taking their rock anthem on, perhaps, the ride of its life, the band stretched this version over 23 minutes, weaving at least four separate themes and/or jams together in fluid, 3.0 fashion. Trey and Fishman were locked up throughout this “Chalk Dust,” and Trey often mimicked Fish’s beats, using his guitar as a rhythmic vehicle rather than a lead instrument for much of this piece. This maneuver added a textured and dancy quality to this breakbeat driven episode, and things were able to progress along an unconventional trajectory. This jam underlines the fresh, stylistic directions that emerged in the band’s late summer improvisations, while also highlighting Trey’s willingness, all summer long, to allow his band mates to lead jams. Innovative Phish at its finest, one could tell—as it was happening—that “Chalk Dust” would be the defining jam of this year’s stand.
The final night of the Colorado weekend started off quite well, though hit some bumps after setbreak. The band wasn’t flowing as easily as they were on the previous two nights, and it was pretty evident in the calculated risks they took during the fairly contained set. The opening “Carini,” however, remains a standout of the run with its melody-anchored, atmospheric excursion. And “Caspian > Piper” emerged as the other piece of highlight reel Phish on their final night of summer. As I walked away from the stage for a final time this season, a flood of memories washed over me, reminding me of the stellar moments, people, and music that comprised this summer. And I was just so grateful for the life we live.
When this thing started back up in 2009, opinions varied on how far Phish would progress in this era. Would they remain a vestige of the past steeped in nostalgia? Would they build back their proficiency to the point where they were churning original jams again? Or somewhere in between? Everyone seemed to have an answer when this circus got rolling again, but I think its safe to say we can now agree that Phish is playing some of the best music of their career. We have reached that elusive Golden Age that had been foreshadowed for years, and we tasted at the end of 2012. In their 30th anniversary—a celebration usually reserved for box set rereleases of band’s classic albums—Phish is at it full force, peaking once again in a career renaissance. And as we look forward a mere six weeks to Fall Tour, nothing in the universe could be finer.Tags: 2013, Summer '13