The Tale of Two Summers

Posted in Commentary, Uncategorized with the on August 1st, 2016 by Mr.Miner
Merriweather 2015 (Andrea Zimmerman Nusinov)

Merriweather 2015 (Andrea Zimmerman-Nusinov)

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.

Fare Thee Well (Jay Blakesberg)

Fare Thee Well (Jay Blakesberg)

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.

Merriweather '15  (A. Zimmerman-Nusinov)

Merriweather ’15 (A. Zimmerman-Nusinov)

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.

Magnaball A. Nusinov

Magnaball (A. Zimmerman-Nusinov)

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.

Magnaball (Andrea Zimmerman-Nusinov)

Magnaball (Andrea Zimmerman-Nusinov)

*****

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.

Mann A. Zimmerman-Nusinov)

Mann ’16 (A. Zimmerman-Nusinov)

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?

SPAC A. Zimmerman-Nusinov

SPAC 2016 (Andrea Zimmerman-Nusinov)

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.

Gorge (Michael Stein)

The Gorge (Michael Stein)

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.

The Gorge (Michael Stein)

The Gorge (Michael Stein)

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 Gorge (Michael Stein)

The Gorge 2016 (Michael Stein)

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!

Mann (A. Zimmerman-Nusinov)

Mann (A. Zimmerman-Nusinov)

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.

Mann Center (Andrea Zimmerman-Nusinov)

Mann Center 2016  (Andrea Zimmerman-Nusinov)

Paradise Waits

Posted in Commentary with the tags on July 18th, 2015 by Mr.Miner

Miami 2014-15 (Andrea Nusinov)

Following Trey’s outstanding performance at the Grateful Dead’s Fare Thee Well shows, there has been an anticipatory buzz around Phish’s forthcoming summer tour. With many questions on the horizon and a full slate of shows in which they will be answered, it’s once again an exciting time in the world of Phish. With Bend just around the corner, here’s what’s been on my mind about Summer 2015.

Trey @ FTW (Jay Blakesberg)

Trey @ FTW (Jay Blakesberg)

It wouldn’t be a stretch to posit that Trey’s preparation for Fare Thee Well represents the most focused guitar practice that he has undertaken since returning to the Phish stage in ’09. He has mentioned in interviews that he isolated himself for up to over five hours per day to study Garcia’s playing, to learn Grateful Dead songs, and to practice. When asked in a Rolling Stone what he’s taken away from his work, he said “One is just guitar stuff. I’ve made a conscious effort to learn everything I could about Jerry’s incredible style. I’m playing in different positions on the neck. It’s opened up a whole world of people I’d never listened to before.” While I wouldn’t bet on any stylistic crossover into his own band, there is no doubt that this preparation will affect his sharpness and readiness to tear things apart on the with Phish. During much of 2014, Trey lacked the powerful leads that traditionally have directed Phish jams. He often laid back with quasi-aimless rhythm playing while his band mates stepped up to varying degrees of success. During the Fare Thee Well shows, especially come Chicago, Trey’s lead playing was the undeniable force driving the band and holding jams on course. He took magnificently passionate solos all over the place, often flooring the stadium-sized audience with his six string prowess. If there is one thing that I feel that will certainly carry over from his Grateful Dead project, it will be his assertiveness. I surmise that Trey, the lead guitar player we know and love, will be back in full force this summer, and that alone is enough to make the any fan giddy with excitement. Phish is the best when Trey takes the lead, not necessarily dominating jams, but directing them. And with his chops as polished as they have been in years, things bode well for his musical leadership this summer. It remains to be seen if the overhauling of his tone for Fare Thee Well will spill over into his Phish articulation. While I doubt he’ll bring his full-fledged “Jerry sound” into the mix, he could integrate some new phrasings and effects that he picked up in such a diligent case study of Garcia.

10/31/14 II. Las Vegas, NV (Eric Battuello)

10/31/14 II Las Vegas, NV (Eric Battuello)

While many people in the community have been hypothesizing about Phish covering Dead songs this summer, I think the more pertinent question is what will come of the Halloween material? In Miami, we saw a slight integration of some of the band’s universally loved Halloween set, but will they commit to the material in full this tour? Will we see some of these jams reworked into actual songs? Inquiring minds want to know. Using “Martian Monster” as a set closer over the Holiday Run seemed to imply that it would become a legitimate part of the band’s rotation. I would imagine we see this infectious funk number fully integrated into the live show this tour. But what about everything else? The band used the “The Birds” as a jam motif during the New Year’s “Theme From the Bottom,” and it is more in this fashion that I think we could see these Halloween passages come to life. Most all of the vignettes from the Haunted House set weren’t fully fleshed out pieces of music, and if they stay that way, it would be really innovative for the band to use them as instrumental themes to jam in and out of within larger improvisations in the vein of “”Tweezer -> Shipwreck -> Tweezer,” “Bathtub Gin -> The Very Long Fuse -> Bathtub Gin,” or “Tube -> Your Pet Cat -> Tube.” They could also use them as bridges between pieces like “Tweezer -> Shipwreck -> Carini” or “Chalk Dust -> The Dogs -> Light.” In fact, we already saw this latter use on 11.1.14 in “Light -> Dogs -> Lengthwise.” While there is a possibility that we see a couple of them reworked into legitimate songs, I almost feel that it would be cooler to see them kept as improvisational devices. If any, I think “The Birds” has the best possibility of becoming a formal song. In terms of any real integration of Grateful Dead material? I seriously doubt it.

Summer '15

Summer ’15

Summer tour’s routing sees the band play nine one-off shows, with five of them coming in rarely visited markets. While small market, out-of-the-way shows were not to be missed in the Phish’s earlier eras, they have more or less become greatest hit sampler platters that lack truly adventurous jamming in 3.0. The overnight travel segueing into soundcheck and a one-night performance hasn’t always treated the guys well over recent tours, and from experience, I would be wary before chasing them through their stretch of the Southern and Midwestern single night shows. They represent a serious grind with potentially small payoffs. Or perhaps I’m just getting old. The band’s wheelhouse in this era has clearly been multi-night stands, and if I had to predict where the strongest shows of summer will materialize, it would be within the two and three night affairs—Bend, Lakewood, Alpine, Philly, Merriweather, Magnaball and Dick’s.

Magnaball

Magnaball

Finally, for the first time since IT in 2003 (excluding Coventry), Phish’s summer tour will culminate in a festival. This format of their earlier years always provided a larger than life showcase for the band’s musical achievements of their current tour. They traditionally used their festivals to show what they had learned through their month-long journey, and put their improvisational foci and successes on full display at their August fiestas. This was arguably the best aspect of placing festivals at the end of their tours. Instead of having to gear up for a massive event in isolation, the band was fully in the flow of playing and jamming as they will be this year, and I think Magnaball is primed to explode far more significantly than Festival 8 or Superball, both which were played in detachment. And at Magnaball, we will—in all likelihood—get to experience one more of the band’s hallowed “secret sets.” I find it fruitless to speculate on what will transpire in this year’s installment, because Phish is always one step ahead of their fans and come up with something that we could never have guessed. That said, following their avant-garde Storage Jam, folks will be anticipating this set as much as any other of the three-night festival.

Only a few days separate us from the beginning of another summer tour. When Phish came back in ’09, nobody knew exactly what to expect from them, how long they’d stick around or to what level they’d perform. Now, six years later, the band is going strong, surpassed most expectations for this era and the guys seem committed for the long haul. They have struck a balance in their personal lives and have no signs of slowing down. Having fully righted their ship and restored their legacy, it’s full steam ahead into 2015.

Tags:

A Set of Sorcery

Posted in Commentary, Shows with the tags , , on November 10th, 2014 by Mr.Miner
10/31/14 II. Las Vegas, NV (Eric Battuello)

10/31/14 II, Las Vegas, NV (Eric Battuello)

Well, they did IT again. Using Halloween as a platform for one of their most profound on stage achievements yet, Phish reinvented their own holiday tradition while playing a set of music pulled from our wildest dreams. Choosing to “cover” a Walt Disney album comprised only of sound effects and narration, the band wrote ten instrumental jams to accompany the record’s eerie vignettes in a complete blowout of the imagination. Morphing fantasy and psychedelia on a night scripted for such a mash-up, Phish played an absolutely masterful Halloween set, while pleasing every fan in attendance for—quite possibly—the first time in their 31-year career.

PBcoverNobody knew what to expect when handed a Phishbill that read “Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House.” A quick Wiki search informed that the album was a collection of sound effects from the vaults of Walt Disney. It had narration on one side but it contained no music?! It quickly became apparent that Phish would follow their own lead of 2013, and use Old Hallow’s Eve to debut a set of original music! But what form this music would take was anyone’s guess. And few could have imagined what would soon transpire.

As the lights came after the Halloween set, the most common thought heard muttered was, “What just happened?” Phish had dropped ten top-notch instrumental jams on the that were used to musically describe scenes set up by the Disney narration, and everyone was desperately trying to wrap their head around the pinnacle Phish experience that just went down. Via live sampling, Page incorporated the album’s sound effects and much of its narration into the set’s increasingly dancy jams, creating a hour-long mindfuck for the audience. Though most fans were mesmerized in a state that fused disorientation and disbelief, there was one thing that everyone knew in real time—“This was most definitely the shit!” The dark instrumentals grew funkier throughout the set, concluding in the non-stop dance party of “Chinese Water Torture,” “The Birds” and “Martian Monster.” Complete with dancing zombies for the first and last track and set in a faux graveyard, this was the band’s quintessential Halloween performance. Though their cover albums showcased a different kind of mastery, this year, Phish distilled the mystic and macabre nature of Halloween into a set of music like never before.

10/31/II (Eric Battuello)

10/31 II (Eric Battuello)

And it didn’t take long after the show was over to realize what was possible with these composed jams. These “songs” were the polar opposite of Fuego’s largely jamless material—they were already jams—composed themes for the band to expound on in the live setting! Now, if the guys wanted to keep the music moving with no stops, instead of necessarily jamming towards another song they could now simply jam into another jam—and keep jamming! Phish proved on be on board with such thinking, for the next night they seamlessly moved from “Light” into “Dogs” from the Halloween set, and then improvised upon its theme for a stretch before dripping into “Lengthwise.” As illustrated by this immediate example, these Halloween jams represent motifs that the band can weave into their improvisational storytelling. They may have just changed the game—once again—right in front of our eyes.

Phish in Las Vegas has always brought something memorable, but “Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House” was on a whole ‘nother level. Combining their career-long penchant for spectacle with their unparalleled musicianship and sense of the moment, Phish executed one of their finest sets of music in a career loaded with staggering performances. Furthermore, this set typified the artistic ethos of the entire Phish project over the course of 31 years.  Never content with their laurels of yesteryear, the band has continuously infused innovative styles of music and performance into their live show throughout their career, leaving a legendary wake in the history of rock and roll.

10/31/14II (Eric Battuello)

10/31 II (Eric Battuello)

 

10/31 II (Eric Battuello)

10/31 II (Eric Battuello)

 

10/31/14 II (Eric Battuello)

10/31 II (Eric Battuello)

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Thinking Back to Coventry

Posted in Commentary, History with the tags , , on August 14th, 2014 by Mr.Miner
Coventry (Boston Globe)

Coventry (Boston Globe)

Coventry. The mere mention of the word makes any Phish fan cringe. But here we are, ten years later, on the heels of Phish’s sixth summer tour since their return and on the brink of their fourth fall tour in six years. One can say we’ve come a long way from the mud ridden disaster that was Coventry in 2004. Sometimes the universe just provides the exact combination of elements to match a particular mood, and between the traffic debocle, the mud-soaked concert field, and fans being turned away from the site in cars while others hiked in, everything about this weekend was an absolute fucking trainwreck. And then we had the band. In what was supposed to be their swan song, the came out in arguably the worst form of their career—in every way. Despite a few highlights over two days, the music, overall, matched the vibe of the festival as well—an utter fucking mess. Calling Coventry a travesty would be the understatement of the century. It was really that bad. If you need any memory of just how bad it got, watch some footage of the final night. Viewer discretion is advised. There wasn’t much takeaway from that weekend in Vermont, other than Phish was gone, and this time it was for good.

And somehow, I was ok with it all. I was devastated when Trey announced that they were done, but at Coventry, everything was already a foregone conclusion for me and I wasn’t all that traumatized by the events. I just knew things couldn’t be right with the band, because they just played their farewell festival without dropping “Tweezer.” And that’s not a joke, but a funny truth. There was no stepping into anything that weekend except mud, and lots of it. I remember walking back to our RV after the final show and just seeing abandoned shoes stuck in the mud, and somehow it felt like an apt analogy for the entire weekend. You had to just let go to enjoy yourself at all, even if it meant leaving your shoes behind. Phish was done and this was one last hurrah. But the irony was that there was very little joy at Coventry, and it was hardly a hurrah.

Coventry (sensiblereason.com)

Coventry (sensiblereason.com)

When they say the crowd went the way of the band in this era, its no joke. I didn’t have to look further than my own RV and my closest tour friends to see the effect that oxycontin and other hard drugs had taken on our scene. I was always someone who kept it lighthearted, I got spun and smoked weed all night, but I never saw the point in the “post-show” drugs. At some point, things shifted for some of my friends, as I’m sure they did for the band, and the entire tour experience became intertwined with hard drug use that went far beyond any recreational habit. Band members, my friends and way to many people in our community were in the grips of the same drug that had its grips on the nation, the semi-synthetic opiate named oxycontin that had become easily attainable in America during this time. It is a drug that chips away at one’s character and zest for life as quickly as it does their health, and in retrospect, it’s amazing Phish cranked out the music they did that summer. Leg one was solid the whole way through, and they had even played a fairly strong two-night stand at Great Woods just before Coventry. Through all the substances and internal issues, the band could still jam. Their composed playing had gone the way of the wind, but those guys could jam up until the end. Just about.

Many people say that they knew Phish would be back. I wasn’t one of those people. I took it at face value. Phish was done. I had to in order to put it all behind me and move on. After a little bit, it almost became easier to live a normal life without Phish, because I didn’t want to leave town every couple months for weeks on end. I didn’t have to make excuses to families, employers, schools and beyond in order to sneak off onto the astral plane with Phish. But throughout the band’s five year absence, I never found something that spoke to me as personally as Phish had, thus when I heard they were coming back, this entire blog began as a place to simply process my thoughts. I guess those people were right, because Phish came back, and they came back in a big way. Though it took a couple years to shake off the rust, Phish had climbed back to prominence, adding chapters upon chapters to their legacy that few dreamed possible. Thinking back to Coventry now is like remembering a bad dream from long ago. I can still relate to the emotions of the weekend, but they don’t sting any more because we are six years into a new era. Now we can all legitimately say, imagine what our lives would be if Phish hadn’t come back? And that, my friends, is pretty damn sweet.

Coventry (fredshead.org)

Coventry (fredshead.org)

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Fitting In Fuego

Posted in Commentary with the tags , , , on August 10th, 2014 by Mr.Miner
'Fuego'

‘Fuego’

This summer tour felt very much about integrating the band’s new material into their live show. Having debuted all but one of the songs in a single set lasst Halloween, Phish played seven of their new pieces over the New Year’s Run, but their roles were totally unknown going into this summer. And after twenty-two shows, the guys have sorted most things out, with only a couple selections whose placement remain elusive. Let’s look at a track-by-track analysis of how Phish has worked their newest batch of songs into their summer performances.

“Fuego”—After much speculation, “Fuego” was the only true jam vehicle that developed from Phish’s newest album. Though the song spawned three of tour’s most significant highlights with its SPAC, Mann and Portsmouth outings, “Fuego,” was still hard to pin down, as it was played far more times without a jam than with one. Perhaps this was due to the band’s “Everyone Gets a ‘Fuego’ (Except Pelham)” policy,  and they decided that it would be overkill to improvise from the song at every tour stop. Perhaps they didn’t even think this deeply about the issue at all. But when the promotional dust settles on Fall Tour and “Fuego” slides back into regular rotation, I bet we see it extend into a jam more regularly. The band has already proven how prolific a springboard it can be, as they crafted three twenty-minute excursions from the title track, all plunging different musical depths. One commonality between all three jams, however, was the group-wide patience that allowed the guys to collectively explore and discover some awesome spaces. Between SPAC’s unforgettable peak, the Mann’s bliss-turned-funk theatrics and Portsmouth’s clav-laced groove workout, “Fuego” has certainly proved its value quickly this summer. And we have only begun to see what this piece has in store. (Check out Philly’s version here.)

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Chicago (G.Lucas)

Chicago (Graham Lucas)

“The Line”—Despite placing “The Line” just about everywhere in their show this summer, Phish still hasn’t found a routine use for this song. The two most common placements have been in the middle of the second set as an interlude between lager improvisations, and as a standard first set song. I can’t say it has totally failed in its second set role, but its natural place in a show seems to lean towards the first. “The Line” appeared nine times this summer, trailing only “555” and “Fuego.”

“Devotion to a Dream”—This upbeat tune was used solely as a first set song this summer and that seems just right. Phish paired “Devotion” with “Wolfman’s Brother” on three of its last four outings of summer, using the two songs as a stylistic juxtaposition within the opening half of shows. I foresee more of the same for “Devotion,” as its structure and vibe don’t lend themselves to the second set.

“Halfway to the Moon”—Unfortunately, I have nothing of interest to report on “Halfway to the Moon.” The band has kept the song harnessed to the first set and has showed no interest in opening up what could be a promising jam vehicle. As previously noted before tour, Mike’s and Page’s songs don’t usually get jams in this era, and the trend continues with this number.

“Winterqueen”—Phish seamlessly integrated “Winterqueen” into their repertoire during SPAC’s opening show as a second set landing pad for the sequence of “Bathtub Gin > Limb by Limb.” “Winterqueen” was also used in this vein following Chicago’s “Down with Disease,” as it appeared in set two on three of five occasions this summer. Its most improvised version, however, came in Charlotte’s first set when Phish pushed the piece beyond its traditional contour for the only time of tour. This song translated incredibly well this summer and brought us “Fuego’s” most pleasant surprise. (Check out Charlotte’s version here.)

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7.16/14 (J.Herzog)

7.16/14 (J.Herzog)

“Sing Monica”—Another one of summer’s surprise developments was the emergence of “Monica” as a late-second set rock breather in smoking stanzas of music. Trey called for the song in both Randall’s iconic final set and Merriweather’s opening, jam-heavy performance. “Monica” also appeared in a SPAC encore before “Tweeprise” in much the same vein. But after Merriweather the song disappeared—perhaps because Trey didn’t feel another set of tour was hot enough to warrant the kickdown? Maybe that’s where this song has settled, and who’d have thunk it?

“555”—When Mike’s newest song opened up Charlotte’s second set, the potential of a jam loomed momentarily in the air. But it wasn’t to be, as the song simply kicked off the set before a long-form “Chalk Dust.” Every other appearance of “555” came in the opening set of shows, and that certainly seems to be where Trey likes the song the most. This one could get dirty if they opened it up, but as predicted before tour, it doesn’t seem like that will happen. “555” was performed 11 times in 22 shows, trailing only “Fuego” (12).

“Waiting All Night”—This was another song that slid into rotation with ease, as the band used it effectively as both a second set cool down and a first set single. Interestingly, the band paired “Waiting All Night” with “Reba” on three occasions this Summer, twice being placed poignantly after the revitalized classic. Mike’s bass lines give this one a smooth and groove-based feel in the live setting, and Trey seems to like playing the song quite a bit, as he called for it eight times this summer.

7.16.14 (J.Herzog)

7.16.14 (J.Herzog)

“Wombat”—“Wombat” was just getting loose when Phish shelved it for the tour. In Canandaigua’s first set, the band stretched out the funk number into its most significant incarnation to that point in tour. And then days later they blew it wide open on the first night of Chicago, taking the jam out of the groove realm and into the spiritual and wide open. Phish fully broke through with Chicago’s “Wombat” jam, and then we never heard from the song again. As we left it, however, the jam was just growing legs—and that is an excellent sign for the future. (Check out Chicago’s version here.)

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“Wingsuit”—“Wingsuit” found a couple effective slots in shows this summer, most significantly used as a landing pad for improvised, second set passages. Beginning in Randall’s middle performance, the band opened up the end of the song into a “Curtain With”-esque jam, and it became all the more worthy of its second set employment. “Wingsuit” truly came into its own this summer, featuring massive, emotionally-laced crescendos and serving as a powerful infusion of psych rock into the live show. Phish also used “Wingsuit” as a first set closer a couple times this summer, a slot that also felt fitting for the dramatic piece. One place it didn’t work so great, however, was as a mid-first set song, as it seemed a bit too slow as shows were building momentum. (Check out Randall’s version here.)

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Alpharetta (Chris LaJaunie)

Alpharetta (Chris LaJaunie)

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