Phish greeted the Midwest with a musical monsoon, dropping their strongest top to bottom effort of 2012 in Cincinnati Friday night, featuring a centerpiece jam that has immediately leapt to the forefront of summer offerings. One could tell the band had their jamming shoes laced tightly from note one as they dug into a “Wolfman’s” opener with far more vigor than usual. And when the band encored with a soaring “Fluffhead” for the first time since 1990, it likened a collective signature on a memorable night of music in the old shed by the river.
In stark contrast to most nights this summer, Friday’s show opened with pageantry. Trey laid down a fierce, bluesy solo over the opening groove of “Wolfman’s” before Page took over on clav and everything got far gooier as Trey, simultaneously, wove a palm-muted, “plinko” lead into the fray. Minutes into the show we were knee deep in whole-band funk and the guys sounded locked for a huge night. The band’s rediscovered patience of 2012 allowed this jam to grow into something significant right off the bat—and far more engaging that any version of the year. And on the heels of this show-opening throwdown came a bustout and a straight up rarity. Zappa’s “Peaches En Regalia” immediately juiced the audience, but when the band started “Shaggy Dog” for the first time since October 29, 1995, the third time since 1992, and only the fourth time since November ’88, the bust-out meter went off the charts! And the first set action just kept rolling with a more current canine tale—“Runaway Jim.”
“Jim” saw the band stretch out the 2011-enhanced “plinko” section into a full-blown jam, giving the song two legitimate sections of improv. The tightness and cleanliness of the Phish’s current playing was on full display throughout this piece as Trey led the jam with dynamic and emotional playing. But, perhaps, the standout improvisational display of the first half came next, as the band dropped into the ever-elusive Traffic cover, “Light Up Or Leave Me Alone.” As soon as the lyrics ended, the whole band sailor dove into a laid-back groove that quickly built all sorts of momentum. Trey played ultra tasteful leads and infectious rhythm chords within a driving dance pattern that had the pavilion popping off. In fact, the pavilion hadn’t stopped popping off since the band hit the stage, and as they segued smoothly into “Wilson” another highlight was noted for many yet-to-be-made summer mix tapes. And the first set action wasn’t close to over.
Following a second straight standout and classically contoured “Stash,” humor dictated the setlist for the rest of the frame. As the band revved up “Poor Heart,” they quickly aborted it before and Fishman immediately stood up and took a bow, comically basking in his mishap. Then, as Trey began “Moma Dance” the band was but two measures into the song when it was also aborted due to a Fishman flub. Trey then suggested that it might work better if Fish started a song on the drums. Thinking for but a moment, Fishman led the band into a furious “Llama” which exploded the venue for the bust out, musical, and comic value. Trey suggested that the band play his favorite song that starts with a drum intro, “Buffalo Bill.” And the bust outs kept rolling—but with jams balancing out the set. The stanza concluded with two final drum-started songs, “Saw It Again > David Bowie,” and when all was said and done, Phish had dropped—easily—their best first set of 2012, setting up a second that was sure to please.
Just as the first Midwest show in Detroit last year, Cincy’s second set opened up with a “Disease” that was bound for glory. As the band entered the jam, Trey immediately hit a thematic opening sequence that set the jam ablaze. His non-stop guitar creativity continued throughout the composed jam and right out of song structure, when he handed the baton to Mike. Without a moment of hesitation from any band member throughout, this “Disease” continued climbing into fluid Talking Heads-esque, percussive groove that had overtones of “Psycho Killer.” But as the Page began bringing the jam out into never, never land with a fluttery piano line, Trey—all of a sudden—got jumpy and chopped off what could have been something far greater with the opening of an out-of place “Guelah Papyrus.”
A notably inspired guitar performance throughout “Kill Devil Falls” pushed what could have been a questionable call into a genuine highlight. Without exiting stage left, the band attacked the upbeat song, but at the end of the piece—amidst an ambient interlude—the band went through a metamorphosis. Hanging up their rock attire and donning their sorcerer’s cloaks, the guys slowly oozed into the intro to “Twist.” And when it was over, everyone there would be slightly altered from the bands sonic spells.
“Twist” has been an improvisational enigma this era, with few versions bending the song’s structure very far, let alone breaking it. Well, this was the “Twist” we’d been waiting for! Anchored to the theme throughout the initial segment, while Mike dropped bulbous bass grooves, it felt like this might be another standard”ish” version. It wasn’t. At all. Following this initial portion, Trey led the band through a wormhole with a high octave, descending melody that brought the band deeper into ambient drama. With wizard-like musicianship, the band immediately set the controls for the outer realms and they locked into sinister madness. Wholly patient and completely fucking evil, Phish delved into music that I dream about. Within this primordial mixture—where one can barely tell which psychedelic layers and loops are coming from who—Mike emerged with a sinfully sinister bass line. Trey soon picked up on Gordon’s nugget of wizardry and began to shred the same four-note pattern, as if a metal guitarist, over a dark mélange of effected layers and mind-numbing loop. This pattern became the drone theme to a large segment of the jam. Trey, eventually, loosened up with hard-edged licks over a rolling bass led groove, and when Fishman adopted the cadence of “Twist” behind all of this, it—momentarily—sounded like sounds like the band was building back towards the song. But, instead, they dove back into psych rock fantasy land. Trey, finally, signaled the end of the jam with a repetitive lick, and the guys wound up the greatest tale of dark magic we’ve heard in ages.
“Halley’s Comet” followed up this timeless jam, but before anyone could tell if they might jam it, the band stopped on a dime with a forceful change into “Sand.” The second late-set “Sand” in a row—another 8+ minutes of densely-packed paradise—morphed out of the typical groove into a melodic and smooth, full-band funk escapade with stylistic similarities to Worcester’s outing. Transforming into another criminal dose of pharmaceutical grade Phish crack, the band let things hang out, bursting with danceable rhythms. When Trey decided to move on, he calmly layered the intro to “Roggae” over the pulsating groove, setting up a seamless segue. “Roggae” transformed into a cerebral late-set dip into the sea of tranquility, as Mike rolling bass leads pointed towards home. Trey’s cathartic playing over this canvas provided an introspective sequence in which he seemed to be finding himself as much as any of us were.
But when Trey cranked up a late set “Carini,” nobody was sure what to think! Shying from his traditional guitar solo, much like Worcester’s standout version, Trey immediately joined the band in a darkening soundscape. As he added millennial sheets of sound and distorted growls over a driving texture, the band felt like they were taking us deep once again on a marathon night of jamming. But as “Carini” was entering another stage, on the verge of fully blossoming into another masterpiece, Trey—inexplicably bailed out with the grating chords of “Chalk Dust.” Even Page looked in disbelief over the obvious ripcord. Instead of choosing one additional songs to end the set and allowing “Carini” to breathe, Trey choose two, and we were graced with a “Golgi” set closer. But sometimes, that’s how it goes.
The first “Fluffhead” since November 3, 1990, sealed the deal on a very special night of Phish, and such a maneuver suggests that they knew it too. Midwestern Phish very rarely disappoints, and with last night being the first of only six shows in the region all year, it sure as hell seems like tour is beginning its second peak. Without a show in Star Lake since early 2009, this will be the first time a revitalized band will sink their teeth into a venue of legend. My prediction…a great time for all!
I: Wolfman’s Brother, Peaches en Regalia, Shaggy Dog, Runaway Jim, Light Up Or Leave Me Alone > Wilson, Alaska, Stash, Llama, Buffalo Bill, Saw It Again > David Bowie
II: Down with Disease > Guelah Papyrus, Kill Devil Falls > Twist, Halley’s Comet > Sand -> Roggae, Carini > Chalk Dust Torture, Golgi Apparatus