Phish’s three-night stand at Randall’s Island was a perfect litmus test of where they are as a band right now in their 31st year of existence. While most bands their age are playing greatest hits on reunion tours, Phish is neck deep in one of their most creative phases of their career. Through Randall’s Island, Phish had nailed seven of its past second sets in full—and when is the last time that could be said of the aging superheroes of the 3.0 era? Playing tour’s two most impressive second sets on consecutive nights in front of a New York metro audience, Phish plunged depths in their improvisations that were informed by both patience and persistence. Phish has owned these qualities thus far this summer, allowing jams to develop far beyond a single theme, and often stretching into several. Very often it has been the later sections of jams that have gotten the most outlandish—see New York’s “Bathtub Gin,” “Disease” “Carini,” “Ghost,” “Chalk Dust,” and “Tweezer” as prime examples. The band has been patient in an individual sense, allowed all members to offer up ideas and guide improvisations, but they have also been very patient with the group as a whole, providing space for whole-band searching where necessary, and usually not giving up until something is found. And therein lied the biggest juxtaposition between Friday’s Randall’s show and the next two—how easily they bailed on jams.
On Friday night, Phish had several second-set selections teed up and ready for liftoff, only to turn the other way and keep the setlist moving. This is usually a tactic employed when the band isn’t feeling the flow, but on Friday night, they most certainly felt it in spots as they dropped elite versions of “Bathtub Gin” and “Down with Disease” and a smoking “Stash.” But when “Steam” opened the second set, primed to get the full treatment for the first time in its life, the band got a tad discombobulated as the jam was seeming to open up, and Trey reeled everything awkwardly back. Then in “Golden Age,” the guys seemed to be moving in an ambient direction when they decided to skirt a college try once again. The make or break moment for the show, however, came in a late set “Fuego.” On the heels of Philly’s epic, fans were salivating upon the opening piano chords. But instead of following up the song’s two seminal versions with a third, they decided that they would head into “David Bowie” instead. This show felt like one from years ago with two standout jams and a bunch of aborted attempts. But damn if those two jams weren’t astounding and a foreshadowing of what was to come.
The next two nights told a very different story, the type of story of that unfolds when Phish is focused and artistically concerned. Scripting two flawless second sets on Saturday and Sunday night, the band worked over every piece they touched with jams that were so unique. The music within the pairing of “Carini” and“Ghost” spanned the spectrum from psychedelic abstraction to wide open bliss, and covered all sorts of ground in between. So far this summer, “Carini” has been a vehicle to reach ethereal textures and soundscapes rather than the thematic, multi-staged epics that we heard last year. “Ghost” provided the central highlight of night two, as the band pushed beyond a quasi-conventional bliss peak into several more creative sections of interplay.
Two other macrocosmic takeaways from Saturday night’s affair were “Wingsuit” and “Harry Hood.” The former seemed to be settling into the repertoire as a cool down song, and that is the placement they gave it at Randall’s. But everything changed in the final section, as Fishman altered his backing rhythms and transformed the end jam into a whole-band, “Curtain With”-esque piece of improvisation. I didn’t love the first, guitar-solo based versions of the song, as they felt very static. But when “Wingsuit” drops from now on, it may in fact be still represent an exhale from a monstrous jam, but it now has improvisational intrigue all its own. Secondly, I’ve been waiting my whole life for “Harry Hood” to become an open jam, and this summer Phish has played three, deeply improvised versions in a row. This transformation of “Hood” into a cosmic springboard is the most profound development from the opening weeks of Summer Tour. And what an exclamation point the impeccable Randall’s version put on an airtight set of Phish. Composed too perfection, the frame had six songs, all in place and all performed with maximum gusto.
And then came Sunday. Played with a vigor through and through, we will be talking about Sunday at Randall’s for years to come. It was just that good—dense, top shelf jamming laced with nuance and innovative currents around every turn. Page and Fish stood out the most to me over the three-day weekend. Each altered the courses of several jams, while Trey’s biggest attribute this summer is his willingness to be one of four and take his place amidst a band that now has all but four musical leaders. The way they have fed off of each other’s ideas and made them into their own—a sort of quadruple helix—was the hallmark of the Randall’s jams and the thus far, the summer at large.