Phish’s three-night stand at Northerly Island in Chicago was a mixed bag. Although the shows featured a handful of standout jams and shined in short stints, they simultaneously suffered from choppiness, a lack of flow and missed opportunities. “Wombat,” “Light,” “Harry Hood,” and “Ghost” stood up to any jams played this tour, and “The Wedge,” “Piper,” “Golden Age” were not far behind, but only the run’s final frame could make any true case for cohesion. Trey’s jumpiness that was largely absent during tour’s opening two weeks returned over the third, and his inability to commit to jams contributed to some lost potential throughout the three nights. The Chicago shows were certainly not bad, but they were most definitely several steps behind the fluid performances of early-tour to which we quickly got acclimated.
Some Good Points
Friday—Amidst a bumpy second set on Friday, Phish managed to squeeze out one incredible jam in “Wombat,” and two highlight stretches in “Golden Age” and “Piper.” The set kicked off with “Golden Age,” a jam that has consistently attained “B” level outings in its career, but has never sprung into that upper echelon. The Chicago version would follow this pattern, as the guys engaged in a lively conversation in groove, but never pushed the jam to the next level before entering a denouement of ambient noise and seeping into “Mango Song.” The “Pipers” of 2014 have stuck to the high-paced, frenetic jam palette that characterizes most versions, though the Chicago version had a twist. After a hard-edged sequence that got into some engaging textures, the band reached a juncture in which they could have easily dissolved into another song, but they pushed through the quasi-awkward moment and came out the other side with an infectious mid-tempo groove. Just as the piece was elevating, Trey layered the lyrics of “Halley’s Comet” over the groove and the place went nuts over the all-but-seamless segue.
The jam of the night, however, came in “Wombat.” Placing the quirky Fuego piece in the second set, Phish completely blew out its jam into a profound improvisational excursion. Trey provided a signpost lick amidst the funk, and the band dutifully followed, taking the exercise far beyond groove and into a wide-open space. Morphing into a piece of free-form improv, the band crafted a moving soundscape that Trey navigated with a blissful sensibility. Though they had played some solid jams in this set, everything clicked during “Wombat” and the band set sail on a more timeless journey into the unknown.
Saturday—Phish salvaged Saturday night’s performance with two jaw-dropping jams in the fourth quarter of the show—“Light” and “Harry Hood.” An uneventful first half of the set gave way to a table-setter version of “Twist” that saw the band engage in the tightest improvisation to that point in the night. Using this momentum, they launched into “Light” with enthusiasm, and the night’s first open jam was upon us. And what a jam it was! Standing up to any piece of tour, the band coalesced into an avant-garde experiment in astral jazz that brought echoes of Randall’s Island “Chalk Dust Torture.” Fishman’s fluttery, cymbal-heavy beats provided the backbone for the band’s course from groove into abstraction. This intricate and ever-darkening exchange was characterized by the advanced, cerebral jamming on display in Summer Tour’s most impressive pieces, and now we can add Chicago’s “Light to this growing list.
The second stunning takeaway from Saturday night came in the set-closing “Harry Hood.” Phish had pushed every single “Hood” this summer out of structure and into an open jam, and Chicago’s would be the fifth such consecutive version. Each 2014 “Hood” has also been incredibly diverse, and while this one started in traditional territory, it wasn’t long before the guys had seamless morphed into a rootsier, bluesy feel reminiscent of the Grateful Dead. For a few moments, in fact the rhythmic shuffle of the jam resembled the structure of “Not Fade Away.” The beauty of this piece was just how far away the band got from the traditional sounds of “Harry Hood,” and how effortlessly they left and returned to the song’s theme. And the peak they hit before making the turn for home is something to behold! Notch another huge victory for Summer ’14 “Harry Hoods,” as the classic song is the leading candidate for MVP of tour as we hit the midway point.
Sunday—Much like Saturday’s performance, Phish succeeded in saving the show in the 11th hour with two very creative late-set jams out “The Wedge” and “Ghost.” Midway through the second set, it seemed that Troy had turned on cruise control with the run of “Winterqueen,” “Theme,” “Mike’s Song” and “The Wedge.” But just as the “Wedge” was set to end, the band modulated into a surprise jam! Phish took a couple minutes to find its way in this jam, as they hadn’t truly hooked up all night. But after some searching, things fell into place as Trey happened upon the chord progression shared by Guns N Roses’ “Paradise City” and REO Speedwagon’s “Keep It Rolling,” and the jam absolutely took off! (Seeing that Trey was in his 23 when “Paradise City” dropped in 1987, I have little doubt as to which song he was playing, but nobody can truly know without confirmation as the songs are nearly identical.) The band must have gained some confidence through this soaring sequence, because when “The Wedge” ended, they dropped into “Ghost.”
One of the notable things about 2014’s standout jams has been their utter originality in sound and direction, and Chicago’s “Ghost” fell in line with this pattern. Within a moment of entering the jam, Mike and Fish charted a coarse with a drone, repetitive pocket that pulled the jam into a completely fresh, psych-based sound. Trey never played lead in this jam—another trend of the Chicago shows—and as a result its vibe leans towards an art rock sound sculpture rather than a traditional Phish jam. As Trey focused on tonal color and sound effects during this “Ghost,” Page stepped up and offered lead piano lines over the dissonant canvas. This jam stood out immediately for its diversion from the norm and its eclectic sound, and it certainly represents one of the top few pieces from Northerly Island. A fiery, tease-ridden “Weekapaug” closed out another show-salvaging sequence.
Some Bad Points
Second Set Openers—Over the first weeks of tour, Phish front-loaded the second set with centerpiece jams and jam pairings that made for powerful and extended chunks of improvisation. In Chicago, however, the band threw down three fairly standard second set openers that hurt the flow to the second sets right off the bat. Friday’s “Golden Age” was the most impressive second set opener of the run, but even so, it never progressed into something more than a funk jam and the band deflated their own momentum with a “Mango Song” in the second slot. Saturday’s “Carini” seemed primed to explode, but the band couldn’t hook up once they reached open waters and Trey pulled the string for “Waves” before anything truly developed. The band went on to play standard versions of “Waves” and “Fuego,” leaving us half way through the second set before they took an upward turn with “Twist.” Phish gave it a solid effort with Sunday night’s “Disease,” hitting some cool groove textures within the jam, but they were never able to find that one idea to develop and give the jam a direction. Although it featured some cool interplay in the erstwhile, this “Disease,” though serviceable, was largely unsuccessful and easily the fourth out of the four version played this summer. Trey determined that they weren’t finding anything worthwhile and moved on “Winterqueen” in a place where something heavier-hitting would have been more appropriate.
Choppiness and TreyDD—One of the glaring lacks of the Chicago show was natural, set-long flow. Part of this had to do with the aforementioned lack of beefy improv at the front of the second sets, but another part of it seemed to do with Trey’s jumpiness and lack of focus. Both “Carini” and “Disease” could have pushed beyond their transitional junctures, but Trey’s patience and willingness to maintain through adversity just wasn’t there. Perhaps he didn’t feel anything would develop, and that call is resepectable, but there is no arguing that the moves into “Waves” and “Winterqueen” were moments of deflation.
On each night, Trey made the call to follow up set-opening jams with compositions instead of assembling strong and more customary 1-2 combos. This created an up and down contour to sets and the solid 30 to 40 minute improvisational sequences that kicked off most east coast sets were sorely missed. On Friday night, Trey pulled a harsh ripcord in the middle of “Sand” that brought the band into “Piper,” but certainly jarred the crowd and the set’s flow. “Piper” then segued smoothly into “Halley’s Comet.” At this point, Phish had the crowd in the palm of their hands as the audience anticipated the first “Halley’s” jam in three years. This slowed down version was primed for a second-set explosion, but as the piece reached the beginning of the jam, the band all but stopped playing and Trey bailed out with an awkward transition into “Wombat.” Ouch—that was like a punch in the nuts.
Saturday’s second set simply had nothing going on until a mid-set “Twist,” a dynamic not dissimilar to Sunday’s show that struggled until “The Wedge.” In each of these sets, the band just kept the songs rolling until they felt comfortable to take one out. (In all fairness, they tried with “Disease,” but it just didn’t get there.) And with the type of first sets that the band has been playing these days—tasteful but largely uneventful—these voids left us with almost two and a half hours until something truly popped off on either of the last two nights. And that’s just too long. Perhaps it took the band that long to connect in both these shows, but the flow and contour of each had been irreparably damaged in each case. Though two stellar late set jams can save a performance, it’s tough to pull that off two days in a row.
All in all,
Phish’s run at Northerly Island contained several highlight jams, but the shows never transcended and became more than the sum of their individual parts. If these Chicago shows happened the weekend before the east coast shows, they would have made a lot more sense, but after Phish set the bar incredibly high during the first two weeks of tour, they have struggled to play an entire show, and more specifically, an entire second set with the focus and artistry they displayed early on. Now, as the band looks to the second half of tour, they have eight shows in which to correct their course and to ultimately determine the legacy of Summer Tour 2014.
I: 555, Kill Devil Falls, Bouncing Around the Room, Reba, Waiting All Night, Birds of a Feather, Halfway to the Moon, Sparkle, Sample in a Jar, A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing, Stash, The Squirming Coil
II: Golden Age > The Mango Song, Sand > Piper -> Halley’s Comet > Wombat > Chalk Dust Torture, Slave to the Traffic Light
I: The Moma Dance, Wolfman’s Brother, Devotion To a Dream, 46 Days, Yarmouth Road, Brian and Robert, Wingsuit, Tube, Free, Roggae, Heavy Things, Run Like an Antelope
II: Carini > Waves > Fuego, Twist > Light > Twenty Years Later, Harry Hood, Cavern
E: Grind, Bug, Suzy Greenberg
I: Gumbo, Runaway Jim, Tela, The Line, Scent of a Mule, Bathtub Gin, Silent in the Morning, Maze, Ocelot, Walls of the Cave
II: Down with Disease > Winterqueen, Theme From the Bottom, Mike’s Song > The Wedge, Ghost -> Weekapaug Groove, First Tube
E: Character ZeroTags: 2014, Summer 2014