Well that escalated quickly! Amidst one of the best tours of their career, Phish absolutely annihilated Randall’s Island in New York City this last weekend. Weighted heavily towards the second two shows, the three-night stand shattered even the loftiest musical expectations and set the bar inconceivably high for the rest of Summer Tour. The band is improvising with a level of patience an audacity unseen in this era, and the results have been staggering. Not only is Phish weaving individual excursions into the infinite, but they are finally crafting flowing, contoured second sets on a consistent basis. Their willingness to take long form risks and to push through sections where, in recent years they would have moved on, has paid off in droves. Jams are reaching depths we haven’t seen in this era and covering ludicrous amounts of musical ground. Though enjoyable as it was to watch Phish recreate themselves over their first five years back, there always seemed to be a sense of nostalgia involved. To many, this era seemed to be a way to relive the glory days. But now more than ever, any thoughts of the past have been wiped away by a Summer onslaught on original and innovative music. It’s 2014 and Phish is peaking again.
But let’s cut through the chase—Sunday’s show was something special. The weekend built upon itself, one night after another, and peaked with the best two-set Phish show in quite some time. Each frame featured shrewd song selections, impeccable flow, and absolute lock-step jamming from “Sand” to “Slave.” And in between we heard some of the most complex improvisation the band has churned out in a hot minute, and most often the catalyst was Jon Fishman. With a stripped down kit this summer, Fish has been an absolute maestro on the skins, and there is no better illustration that Sunday’s second set. Listen to the morphing feels of “Chalk Dust” as he guides the band through a far out excursion in astral jazz. Playing with a cymbal-heavy feel, and a sense of light, airy syncopation, Fish pushed the music into a jazz-like abstraction. Though his work shone throughout the jam (and set), things get really interesting in the piece’s final section which moves into a festival, middle-of-the-night type ambiance. The journey to get to this place, however, is nothing short of mind numbing. After a glorious, early peak to this jam, the band just continued moving outwards, section by section, but contrary to the Mann’s version, the ideas in Randall’s “Chalk Dust” jams were fully explored and themes were developed rather than touched upon. This was a magnificent Phish jam of the most virtuoso degree—almost a half-hour of dense, original improvisation. This was the absolute business. And when Phish is feeling IT like this, you knew there was more magic just around the corner.
Taking this momentum and diving into “Light,” the band was clearly enjoying the wide-open musical space and chose another springboard from which to get there. And once again, the guys spun a wove an original tale that landed in an intricate Mind Left Body jam. The astounding thing about Phish right now is just how diverse their jamming is. In eras past, they have been stylistically focused by tour, but in right now their jams differ so much from one to another that its incredible the same band is playing them. But they are, and Phish concerts are now reaching places we’ve dreamt they’d get to since the band’s return.
When Phish is locked in a zone like Sunday, they can do no wrong, so following a unique peak to “Light,” Trey swung for the fences with a mid-set “Tweezer” and the band hit it straight out of sight. Once again favoring variation, the band deviated from the norm in this jam and came up with a profound take on their classic that follows the song’s improvisational boon of 2013. Trey progressed the jam out of the dance realm and brought it, the set and the show to a monumentally cathartic peak, completing the most powerful trifecta we’ve heard from the band in years—“Chalk Light Tweeze.”
The guys capped the night with a patient version of “Slave to the Traffic Light,” but the story of this show was hardly limited to the second set. Phish came out firing on Sunday night, riding undeniable momentum from a stellar Saturday performance. How ‘bout “Sand,” “Winterqueen,” and a “Reba” with extra mustard to start the show, a grinding “Runaway Jim” and a totally bent “Split” all before setbreak? It all happened and was surrounded by tight, punchy renditions of other Phish classics. This was an exquisite two-set performance that never relented for a moment and reminded us that, in fact, the best is yet to come.
I: Sand, Winterqueen, Reba, Birds of a Feather, Water in the Sky, Possum, Runaway Jim, Bouncing Around the Room, Maze, Split Open and Melt
II: Chalk Dust Torture > Light > Tweezer, Wading in the Velvet Sea, Sing Monica, Slave to the Traffic Light
E: Backwards Down the Number Line > Tweezer RepriseTags: 2014, Summer '14, The Moment