When presented with care, Phish sets are more than a collection of songs. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and carry the listener on a journey with strategically placed jams and songs. Though such artistically created statements were few and far between this summer, here are five that stood out from the pack.
5) 7.15 II The Gorge, George, Washington
Every time you thought Phish was going one way, they threw a head fake and veered another in a set anchored by misdirection, teases and all-around zany Phishiness. Though it didn’t always flow so well, the band certainly went for something on this night, never settling into any one jam and keeping the audience on their toes with segues, hijinks and musical theatrics. Though the set didn’t contain a whole lot of meat, the band came closest to a central jam in the opening sequence of “Crosseyed” > “What’s the Use?,” building the former into a sublime space, before quickly jumping ship into the latter. “What’s the Use?” took on a larger-than-life, feel amidst the majestic surroundings of The Gorge. Phish used “No Man’s Land as a recurring theme throughout this frame, continually referencing the song both musically and lyrically, while featuring a mash up with “Crosseyed” in its jam segment. “Meatstick” > “2001” contained the most fluid improv of the night, as the band locked into a hypnotic outro groove that flowed seamlessly into the Deodato cover. In a set that never stopped bobbing and weaving, Phish delivered a dynamic listening adventure on the first night of their west coast swing.
Crosseyed and Painless > What’s the Use?, No Men In No Man’s Land > Stash, Ghost > Chalk Dust Torture, Meatstick -> Also Sprach Zarathustra, Cavern
4) 7.18 II Bill Graham Civc Auditorum, San Francisco, CA
The second set of Bill Graham’s first night possessed four distinct segments that pieced together to form a pretty fluid frame of music. The first segment came in the pairing of “Golden Age” and “Twist,” the former featuring a fiery groove excursion that carried a hybrid feel of “2001” and “Tube.” It seemed as though the band would revert to playlist form with mid-set versions of “My Sweet One” and “The Line,” but they rebounded nicely with the combo of “Simple -> Sneaking Sally.” “Simple” briefly moved into ethereal territory before giving way to the jam of the night in “Sneakin’ Sally.” A relentless peak highlighted this centerpiece before the set concluded with standout versions of “Limb by Limb” and “Slave.” Phish engaged in some patient jamming on this night which came as a welcome shift from their previous several shows.
Golden Age > Twist, My Sweet One, The Line, Simple -> Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley, Limb By Limb, Slave to the Traffic Light
3) 7.1 II SPAC, Saratoga Springs, NY
Sometimes a massive jam sequence can hold down a set all on its own, and this is what took place on the band’s first night in Saratoga Springs. After a solid set-opening “Sand” the band took flight in their most outstanding improvisation of the summer in “Carini -> Chalk Dust.” Masterful interplay rolled off the stage with the sense of effortlessness that characterizes Phish’s best playing as the band connected multiple themes in a cohesive, thirty-five minute explosion. This sequence felt like a breakthrough after a week plus of building improvisational momentum and it seemed as though the band would take off from here for the rest of tour. As it turned out, however, “Carini -> Chalk” proved to be an anomaly in a low-key summer, but this portion of jamming certainly stands up to the band’s most proficient work of the last several years. Although it did contain some rarities, the rest of the set devolved into a series of songs, but after the peak that Phish had already reached, everything else felt like gravy.
Sand, Carini -> Chalk Dust Torture > Prince Caspian, Bug, Shine a Light, My Sweet One, Sleeping Monkey, Also Sprach Zarathustra > Fire
2) 6.28 II The Mann, Philadelphia, PA
The three elements of a great Phish set are flow, jamming and song selection, and the band hit on the trifecta on the first night of the Mann. Phish navigated this second set with nary a hiccup, offering two tour highlights and connecting everything quite smoothly. High quality excursions stemmed from “Fuego” and “Breath and Burning,” as both jams navigated the darker side of things. “Fuego” likened a revamped soundtrack to Super Mario’s dungeon lair and “Breath” took a bass-heavy path towards a similar vibe. These jams were complimented by a searing version of “Jibboo,” an intense Page-and-Trey-led “Timber,” and a peakier-than-thou version of “Slave,” creating an airtight set that possessed non-stop action throughout.
Fuego > Runaway Jim, Gotta Jibboo, Breath and Burning -> Timber, Slave to the Traffic Light, You Enjoy Myself
1) 7.19 II Bill Graham Civic Audirorium, San Francisco, CA
The second night of Bill Graham contained the best set of summer and, frankly, it wasn’t even close. Amidst a tour in which second sets often lacked jams and flow, Phish swam fluidly through series of jams in this one and closed with authority. This musical statement featured one of tour’s upper echelon improvisations in a high-octane and cathartic “Ghost,” a long-form, angelic-turned-demonic “Down With Disease,” and a wide-open couplet of “Scents and Subtle Sounds” and “Light.” The band assumed a different demeanor than they had shown for the majority of the summer, favoring artistry and improv over songs and simplicity, and they came up with a winner. Capping their jam-laced escapade with the high energy combo“No Quarter” and “Fluffhead,” Phish left everyone with a smile on this Tuesday night.
Down with Disease > Fuego > Ghost > Scents and Subtle Sounds > Light -> Manteca > No Quarter, Fluffhead
6.25 II Wrigley Field, Chicago, IL: Though nothing crazy happened on this night, flow alone pushes this set into contender status—a comment on the quality of this summer more than anything else. A compact, blissed out “Carini” provided the lone highlight of the night.
Carini > Tweezer > Fluffhead, Piper -> Steam, Wading in the Velvet Sea, Harry Hood, Tweezer Reprise