Stepping from the summer’s biggest stage to its smallest, Phish entered St. Louis’ Fabulous Fox Theatre Tuesday night, in a show that was circled since the tour’s announcement as the night of the summer. Ironically, for the performance that people flew across the country for and paid upwards of $400 get into, Phish played an underwhelming show that stood out as the least engaging of the Southern Run. While nothing was played poorly, the band played a straight-ahead rocker that featured little improvisation in a show that couldn’t possibly live up to its hype. The theatre was beautiful, it sounded great, and the lights looked spectacular with the full-rig contained in such at tiny space. The stage was set for Phish to blow up- but they didn’t. Nonetheless, the experience was of Phish at the Fox was certainly unique and we were left with a few musical highlights from a mid-week stop in the “Gateway to the West.”
In a first set that many contained many classic songs, the two improvisational highlights lied in the second-song “Ocelot” and the set-closing “Slave.” The playful “Ocelot” stretched into its most interesting rendition yet, as Trey’s solo led the band in what might be considered the songs first “jam.” Phish’s songs sounded pristine, crisp, and loud in The Fox, bringing a special appreciation for songs like “Brian & Robert,” “Rift,” and “Horn,” and a short, but very sweet “Reba.” My group of friends all laughed in jest as the band busted into yet another “Possum” to end the first set. But instead of stopping there, the band dropped the tour’s second “Slave,” and it was stunning. A jam that built with utmost delicacy resonated through the theatre, seeming like the song was made for the environment. A piece of Phish beauty, this was a throwback to the theatre days of ’93 and ’94 as Phish crafted a tightly woven tale of pure magic. Though as the band was in the middle of peaking the jam, someone (Fishman, from memory), abruptly moved into the closing segment, causing a more-than-awkward ending to an otherwise gorgeous version.
As the lights dropped for set two, it certainly felt like the band was going to throw down the gauntlet, and with a “Halley’s”opener, the course was set. Entering some rock grooves right out of the gate, it was evident we were finally seeing the band improvise on the rarity once again, and that mere fact was great. In the clear highlight of the show, the band creatively drove the jam within the lines for quite a while before eventually segueing into an ambient segment that seemed to point towards something huge. Emerging out of the murkiness came a surprise second-set “Runaway Jim” that received more intense treatment than its first-set summer counterparts, creating a searing cap to the set-highlight amidst the regal surroundings.
What came next was the slowest portion of any second-set in recent memory. Beginning interestingly with the tour’s first “Frankie Says” (aka “Relax”), the band included some brief improv to the song, adding a bit of intrigue to the second-set bust out whose music seemed appropriately placed in The Fox. However, after relaxing, the band again centered the slow, fifteen-minute composed “Time Turns Elastic” squarely in the second set. Even the ornate surroundings couldn’t justify the song’s placement in a set which never truly recovered. Following, “Time Turns Elastic,” the band inexplicably selected “Sleep” to complete the nearly jam-less half-hour. “Relax > Elastic > Sleep.” Hmmm.
The band obviously had to drop something significant at this point in the set, and they went with “Mike’s Groove.” The “Mike’s” bounced off the walls, creating a larger-than-life feel in the tiny theatre- a certain experiential highlight- though the song’s improv remained standard. A brief run through “Weekapaug’s” composed jam capped any sort of full-band improv of the night, as Phish closed the set with “Booogie On” and “Charater Zero.” Many will say “Boogie On” was a highlight, but in reality, all they did was spotlight Page’s outstanding clav solo amidst some pedestrian funk- great for some, boring for others.
Experientially, the show at The Fox was no doubt something special, but musically- it honestly wasn’t. The “Slave” and the “Halley’s > Jim” will find their way onto end-of-tour compilations, but everything else was pretty much straight ahead playing. The band never got the improvisational itch during a show that follwed Bonnaroo’s blowout with some of the best jamming of the tour. Maybe that wasn’t the point of last night, but the show sure felt far lighter than any show since Great Woods. Looking towards the last four nights of leg one- the return to the Phishy haunts of Star Lake, Deer Creek, and Alpine- all seem to be no-brainers. Three venues, highlights on the map of any summer tour, mean even more on this first run through in 2009. As we leave the mid-week hype behind us, we are about to enter the land of plentiful under-face tickets, and enough room for everyone, as Phish will conclude their early-summer tour with a four-night run that is sure to produce plenty of Midwestern music for our listening and dancing pleasure.
I: Kill Devil Falls, Ocelot, Brian & Robert, Sample in a Jar, Rift, Ya Mar, Reba, Train Song, Horn, Possum, Slave to the Traffic Light
II: Halley’s Comet > Runaway Jim, Frankie Says, Time Turns Elastic, Sleep, Mike’s Song > I Am Hydrogen > Weekapaug Groove, Boogie On Reggae Woman, Character Zero
E: Star Spangled Banner, McGrupp and the Watchful Hosemasters, While My Guitar Gently Weaps