It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of interstellar jamming, it was the age of mundane music, it was the epoch of sound, it was the epoch of songs, it was the season of bliss, it was the season of woe, it was the spring of blossomed fantasy, it was the winter of harsh reality, we had everything before us, we had next to nothing before us, we were bursting to see what each night had in store, we were hoping each night Phish would actually go for it—in short, the periods were so dissimilar that it felt as though we were watching different bands. When looking at the past two summer tours, two very divergent pictures emerge, one of a band at its peak, creative juices flowing like the Nile, churning out all-time jams with joy and ease, and one of an uninspired quartet, playing shows devoid of improvisational adventure that rarely produced music worth listening to several times over. The juxtaposition of Summer Tour 2015 and Summer Tour 2016 presents a peculiar challenge in attempting to decode the reasons for such different paths. Though one can never truly understand the motivations, choices or results behind Phish’s ever-changing performances, the process of analysis always renders an engaging discussion.
In 2015, Trey was a different animal. In preparation for his prestigious gig sitting in for Jerry Garcia with the remaining members of the Grateful Dead, he drilled himself in guitar methodology like no time in recent years. He spent the first six months of the 2015—much of the time alone—learning Garcia’s style and subsequently picking up all sorts of new techniques, sounds, phrasing and expression. He was pushed out of his comfort zone and was forced to embrace a monumental challenge that paid off in droves once Phish hit the road. In a telling interview with Guitar Magazine at the end of last year, Trey answered a question about how the Dead shows energized his playing—“I had to learn 100 songs. What could be better for your playing than learning a large collection of great material?” He dove into this foreign territory and made discoveries about how Garcia executed his craft. “I wrote charts for every single song and had a bulging three-ring binder. Every song had at least two surprises: ‘Oh, that’s supposed to be a C9!’ He followed up these answers concluding—”I played so much better on Phish summer tour because I played so much getting ready for the Dead shows.”
It didn’t take long to see how his diligent work translated to Phish music, as he led the band in a colossal performance at the Bay Area’s Shoreline Amphitheatre in only the third show of summer tour. His playing boasted a lyricism and a confidence that had been absent for much of 2014. His tone control was dialed in and his ability to play unique leads had transformed from a weakness in the previous year to an overwhelming strength. Though Phish is certainly an equitable endeavor between four members, as Trey goes so does the band. And with Anasatsio soaring high in the sky, playing as lofty and commanding as ever, the band seemed destined for an amazing tour.
As the summer progressed, specifically from Atlanta and beyond, the band caught absolute fire. The uber-connected, top-shelf open jams that fans crave so deeply leapt off the stage nightly in a never-ending highlight reel. Atlanta’s “Kill Devil Falls” and “Tweezer,” Tuscaloosa’s “Down With Disease,” Nashville’s “Mike’s Song” and “Weekapaug,” Kansas City’s Down With Disease,” Blossom’s “Chalk Dust,” Alpine Valley’s “Tweezer,” Philly’s “Twist” and “Scents and Subtle Sounds”—the list goes on and on. A sense of adventure and the unknown were paramount every time the band took the stage, and the way they brought the goods night after night harkened back to the days of lore. Phish tour adopted a different sense of majesty last summer with a band and their leader at the top of their game.
But it wasn’t just the full band, open jams that elevated as a result of Trey’s preparedness, but the more structured supporting material as well. Their type-one improv popped with a clarity, excitement and vigor that breathed life into first sets and kept shows flowing throughout. Notable examples of such playing include Bend’s “Waves,” LA’s “Limb by Limb” and “Roggae,” many selections from Atlanta including “Ocelot,” “Reba,” “Bathtub Gin,” and “Carini,” Tuscaloosa’s “46 Days,” both Alpine and Raleigh’s “Reba,” Merriweather’s “Antelope” and “David Bowie”—the list goes on and on. There were no gaps in the band’s fiery offerings, an element of their performances that leads into the third crucial aspect that made Summer 2015 so special—show structure.
For much of the 3.0 era, Phish had struggled with playing complete second sets that contained a natural arc. So many of their sets featured notable highlights but not a beginning-to-end flow, often dropping off in the second half. But last summer, the band rolled out artistically sculpted frames of music. The guys most often took multiple jams into open waters, experimenting and exploring cohesively and almost always finding success. With strategically connected songs and improvisation, most all second sets provided a holistic journey that sent the listener off and brought him home. The strongest examples of this enhanced structure were Shoreline, Atlanta night one, Nashville, Blossom, Mann night two, Raleigh, Merriweather night one, and all four of Magnaball’s main sets. Thought went into the progression and movement of these sets—and many others—and their intrinsic level of craftsmanship went a long way to form cohesive performances, regardless of if every jam ascended to elite level. During this tour, Phish waxed poetic in complete musical statements as they did in their heyday, erasing recent memories of sub-standard set construction.
In summation, all aspects of Phish were firing during the Summer of 2015, resulting in a tour that holds up among the band’s most prolific months of music and certainly stands out as the most accomplished stint in the modern era. The band capped their summer docket in old-school fashion with a blow out festival—Magnaball—that served as the month’s grand finale. And, boy, was it an event. Phish threw down the gauntlet for three days and eight sets of music, each of which elevated in full and contained copious improvisational highlights. Listing standouts seems fruitless because just about everything they played that weekend in Watkins Glen turned to gold. The second day, however, stood out as the peak of the weekend, boasting A+ outings of “46 Days,” “Tweezer” (with “Caspian” sandwiched in an outlandish two-pronged jam), “Blaze On,” and “Light,” not to mention several other strong supporting highlights. Phish also graced the festival grounds with one of their prized “secret” sets, a near hour-long, multi-thematic free-form improvisation as they stood behind a colossal movie screen on which mind-melting projections were cast. It was a feast for the senses and one of those magical moments that only take place at Phish festivals. The transcendence of Magnaball was a throwback to the band’s earliest festivals that routinely ended the summer with some of their most massive musical exploits of the season amidst a free-for-all atmosphere. Summer 2015 ended with a true sense of awe among a Phish fan base that was infused with enchanted vibrations, a feeling that would stick with everyone through Dick’s and the off season before the band capped their incredible year with four nights back at the Garden.
In the same interview for January’s Guitar Magazine, Trey also noted, “The best players play all the time because it all goes away so fast,” an observation that might have something to do with the path Phish’s 2016 summer tour followed. After the band’s three-night beach party in Mexico, Trey didn’t perform for five months as he and the guys focused on recording an album of very mellow, heartfelt songs. The length of this break wasn’t an anomaly in Phish’s modern schedule, but to say that he and the band lost momentum would be an understatement. Though Phish’s new material might be suited to a thematic album, its style didn’t exactly translate well to the stage. If these songs are where Trey’s focus had been for months previous to tour as opposed to the intricacies of Garcia’s improvisational guitar playing, perhaps he just came out unprepared to play exploratory, psychedelic music. Whatever the reasons may have been, something had shifted.
Aside from a few interludes here and there, Trey seemed completely unwilling to lift off this summer, reverting to his former ways of aborting jams and abrupt set shifts that prevailed so heavily in the early years of 3.0. It certainly felt like an issue of comfort and confidence once their improvisation opened up. The band and their guitar player seemed very on point amidst structured jams when there was a known path to follow, but when they splashed into open waters, Trey most often got cold feet and swam for the shore. This timidity was quite uncharacteristic of his recent playing in which his willingness to explore the unknown had pushed the band to greatness throughout 2015. One kept thinking that things would loosen up as tour progressed and as the rust wore off, but it only happened sporadically as the band churned out a minuscule amount of top shelf jamming over a month of shows.
Many times in their past when shows didn’t take off, the reason lied in the band’s inability to fully hook up amidst their jams, but this summerPhish just didn’t attempt many full band jams, often to the tune of one time per night and in a couple cases, zero. Granted that open jams aren’t the only things that define a Phish show, but without them, shows simply don’t reach that magical plane—it’s impossible. Most fans don’t chase the band to see them play singles and compositions, but rather to witness their unparalleled, improvisational prowess, something that was in short supply over Summer ’16. So many times during the month second sets reverted to jukebox style playlists that held no cohesion, rhyme or reason. Following up their best summer tour in memory, this hardly made a lick of sense. What was causing their lack of creativity? Or more particularly, why was Trey just not willing to allow the band to give it a college try? There seemed to be a complete lack of intent on his behalf as much, if not more, than anything else. Who was this band? Much head scratching ensued. Just what happened over the past month?
Tour sparked with two strong though unspectacular shows at Wrigley Field highlighted by notable versions of “Disease” “Twist” and “Carini.” Phish then built on Wrigley at the Mann with two more high quality shows. None of Philly’s jams blew the roof off the pavilion, however, the guys put their best foot forward in significant versions of “Fuego,” “Breath and Burning,” Crosseyed,” and “Disease.” Although these jams lacked a complete arc, most often moving into the next selection when one more section of improv would have completed their narratives, it certainly seemed as though the band’s jamming was steadily improving.
On the first night at SPAC, Phish finally broke through with a spectacular sequence of “Carini -> Chalk Dust” that would hold up at tour’s end as the most accomplished improvisation of the summer. But following this show—which tailed off considerably after these jams—the band’s improvisational efforts nosedived. In five of their next six shows, the band only attempted a single open jam per night and, suddenly, their set craftsmanship went the way of the wind, often playing what amounted to two first sets with countless standalone songs.
In these five shows, only one jam—SPAC’s “The Moma Dance”—was executed masterfully, and four of the five second sets—SPAC’s two final nights, Portland, and Syracuse—fell absolutely flat. The band simply wasn’t going for it. Shows became a never-ending playlist of songs, a format that systematically drained the excitement and energy from the room, leaving many fans questioning what had happened to the band that had started tour only weeks earlier.
Trey abruptly abandoned ship in a couple of these one-jam affairs, harshly aborting Portland’s “Tweezer” and Syracuse’s “Drowned” as each seemed to be gaining momentum. These two shows wound up with zero complete jams with nary an effort to even get there. In SPAC’s third performance, the band slayed a tour highlight in “The Moma Dance” only to follow it up with nothing for the rest of the set, and in Hartford, they played a competent “Disease” but only backed it up with a concise version of “Sand.” (Though to their relative credit, Hartford’s set boasted a legitimate contour and shied from the jukebox nature that characterized the others.) These two shows wound up with one realized jam each over three hours of music. In SPAC’s second show, the fifth of these five peculiar nights, all the band could muster was a meager “Light” jam over two sets leaving very little to write home about in another uneventful night of Phish.
The only uptick along this east coast stretch came in the first half of Mansfield’s second set in the sequence of “Ghost > Light,” the latter piece transforming into the only other truly elite jam of tour (with “Carini -> Chalk” and “Moma”). But following PA issues that disrupted the show, the band reverted to their playlist style to fill out the rest of the set.
As tour hit its break before the west coast, the band had unfurled only four top-shelf jams over thirteen shows along with copious B-level highlights. If one thing was for sure, 2015 felt like a distant memory as Phish was fumbling through a thoroughly mediocre run. The ideas just weren’t flowing in a complete antithesis of the previous summer. The band didn’t possess that subconscious connection one can hear when they are truly flowing. Trey favored heavily effected playing rather than the clean, melodic and impassioned lead guitar that defined 2015. Things just felt off in the improvisational realm and the band seemed ok with glossing over jamming on most nights in a thoroughly puzzling development. But with the Gorge—the Mecca of Phish jams—on the horizon, things had to turn around. They had to. Right?
Well…not exactly. Though Phish played a fun and zany show filled with teases, hijinks and generally all-over-the-place theatrics on the first night in Washington, they refused to settle into a single jam. Once “Crosseyed” moved into a promising space, they jumped ship for “What’s the Use?,” while similarly abandoning “Ghost” after a couple of minutes of gnarly music for a full-band drum jam. Rushing through “Chalk Dust” and “Stash,” the band seemed totally unwilling to dive deep, favoring more surface level tactics to create an entertaining though shallow set. A small jamlet out of “Meatstick” became the only patient full-band improvisation of the night. Despite the set’s amusing nature, there was no meat at all while a lot of the ins and outs and movements between songs seemed forced and used as a substitute for creative ideas. This was unheard of for a Gorge show. History had proved that The Gorge was where things slowed down and the music opened up. That’s what transpired in all of the band’s previous visits to the exalted venue. This show seemed more appropriate for Merriweather Post than the expansive environs of George, Washington, where jams had, traditionally, grown larger than life.
The second night at the Gorge held a promising feel after a smoking opening set in which the band sounded confident and up to the task. But they completely tanked the show’s second half. Just as “Blaze On” was a couple minutes into some truly engaging territory, on the brink of transforming into a massive, Gorge-esque excursion, Trey kicked the audience in the nuts with an inexplicable ripcord into “Number Line.” It was not kind. It was very harsh. And with this move, so passed the set into jukebox oblivion that had no place in the mystical amphitheatre. With one song after another, the band sucked all of the energy out of the audience, something that had never happened in this venue’s history. Come the encore, the crowd was deflated. It was palpable. With nary a complete jam over the two-night stand these, shows were a disgrace to the band’s legacy at the Gorge, and at this point there were only five shows left in tour. The head scratching continued.
Somehow, Phish managed to flip the switch and squeeze out two impressive performances at Bill Graham Auditorium. They completely changed their approach to the second set on each of these nights, favoring improv and set crafting in what felt like a breath of incredibly fresh air after the previous couple weeks of sub-par concerts. The most notable highlights came in “Down With Disease” and the one-two punch of “Ghost” > “Scents and Subtle Sounds,” both amidst a non-stop, flowing set of jams on the second night of the run. Night one featured notable excursions in “Golden Age” and “Simple” > “Sneaking Sally,” while both second sets were well constructed, and anchored by stellar playing all the way through. Though far from all-timers, these two performances at Bill Graham were excellent nights of Phish, especially for a tour that had been stuck in the mud for so long. The second night’s second set felt like it had dropped from the heavens, providing true adventure and creativity through lockstep jamming. But, alas, these shows would be anomalies in the open jam department among tour’s last five nights, as the other three combined for a quality first set “Ghost” and a partial “Piper” jam that Trey cut for “Twist” shortly after it left the song’s central vibe, both coming in Chula Vista. Bill Graham’s third night and Chula Vista both featured standout first sets with old school rarities and extended dance grooves, respectively, but in terms of second set jamming, the scene over the final three shows of tour was as bleak as ever. In fact the second sets of Bill Graham’s third night and Los Angeles combined for zero jam attempts!
Let’s cut to the chase here, Summer 2016 was a completely underwhelming Phish tour, the least adventurous since 2009. Perhaps Trey’s focus on the band’s new album brought him away from his bread and butter, perhaps the massive new lighting set up provided some level of distraction to the band—two theories posited by fans over the summer. But neither of these ideas can fully explain Trey’s lack of assertiveness and diminished improvisational confidence. More often than not, he was simply unwilling to jam. We all know that Trey calls the shots on stage and what he thinks and says is what happens. It seemed quite evident that his geyser of original ideas that had spouted so consistently throughout last summer had dried up as he led the band in a completely different direction for most of the month, only showing flashes of the brilliance that has floored us year after year. One can usually look at recent tours and pick out the jams that will stand the test of time, the ones that could hold up in almost any era, and this summer there were four of these in twenty shows. The band’s creative output hit a serious low point this summer and it remains a mystery as to why.
With Dick’s three-night stand and a two-plus week fall tour on the horizon, Phish can obviously bounce back at any time, and one hopes that they will. But for an entire month during the summer of ’16, the band mired through a slump that lasted longer than any other in memory. Though they could navigate songs and pre-structured improv quite well, the band had serious trouble elevating their open jamming to anywhere near the level we had seen the year before. All it takes is a revisit to the extraordinary music of last summer to hear the monstrous difference in output. Phish always goes through ups and down, but few have ever been so drastic as the difference between the last two summers. But they’ll be back and we’ll be back, and things are bound to come around again, though until they do, we will live with memories of one not so crazy summer.