In a song chaser’s dream, Phish opened up their southern run with an underwhelming show that featured little flow and only one legitimate jam. After blowing out Camden and Merriweather with nights that foreshadowed a limitless future, Phish has now played two shows that have stagnated the improvisational progression of their summer tour. Showcasing several “big-time” bust-outs in “Time Loves a Hero,” “Have Mercy,” and “Light Up or Leave Me Alone,” Phish allowed many fans can check these songs off their lists; but in the context of a choppy show that contained little jamming excitement, the specialness of these songs became lost in the shuffle. Taking only “Light” into the realm of full-band creativity, Phish had a surprisingly quiet return to Walnut Creek last night.
Opening the show with the first “Llama” of 2010, the band seemed to come out of the gates with a statement, but after another bust-out in “Roses Are Free,” the set took a nosedive. “Time Loves a Hero” provided the only point of interest in an incredibly pedestrian opening frame. Even classics like “Runaway Jim” and “Divided Sky” didn’t posses their usual zest, and the band ended the set without playing anything of musical significance.
After lackluster opening frames, Phish – almost routinely – crushes the second set. But for some reason, with only four shows left in their sight, the band came out with a second half that carried little cohesion and only one improvisational risk. Opening with “Number Line” it wasn’t crazy to think Phish would springboard off the song into a significant jam. But as they tore through the tightly-wound piece, it became increasingly clear that open improv wouldn’t be the theme of the evening. The subsequent drop into “Halley’s” that once caused severe rushes of adrenaline, now represents merely four minutes of pondering what they will play after chopping the song. This time, Phish chose the summer anthem, “Light.”
Using their popular summer vehicle, Phish sculpted a standalone highlight of new-age psychedelia. Surfing the song’s peak into an searing section of music, the real deal got started when the band switched vibes into a darker milieu. Immediately a entering primordial soup, the band converged on a mission to the deep. Passing through sections of connected abstract playing, and glued tightly by a dynamic rhythm section, this jam grew soon became a stealth excursion to outer realms. Getting into a rolling, tribal beat, the piece seemed as though it might morph into”Timber Ho,” but the the band kept delving deeper. Building a bulging soundscape that never lost momentum or intent, “Light” became another in the quickly-growing list of standout versions. As the band reached spacier textures, Trey brought the theme back around, concluding the show’s one shining moment.
As “Light” concluded, Phish held the momentum and destiny of this set in the palm of their hand, but instead of dropping into a jam vehicle, the band dropped the ball, choosing “Fluffhead” and deflating the set’s steam with a botched version of the over-played 3.0 composition. At this point, mid-second set “Fluffheads” seem like a past-trend of ’09, and last nights didn’t hold a candle to many of them. Always ending on a high note, however, “Fluffhead” left Phish with another chance to salvage the set. But again, they chose the bust-out route – this tine in the middle of the second set. Playing one of their most precious covers, “Have Mercy,” with no improvisational context whatsoever, the band continued the random flow of the entire evening. And even when they threw down a smoking, guitar-led version of “Light Up of Leave Me Alone,” the set had already jumped the the express train to nowhere.
The only other second-set highlight, however, stemmed from the Traffic cover, unseen since Coventry’s soundcheck. In a more hard-edged version than the popular rendition from Big Cypress’s afternoon set of 12.30.99, Trey crushed his guitar leads while the band accelerated a powerful groove beneath him. Highlighting Big Ern’s chops, this piece provided a dancy dose of second set rock and roll that briefly picked up the show. Peaking the engaging piece, the band slipped into the now painfully, one-dimensional “Free,” lopping any momentum they had rebuilt. Phish proceeded to inserted the late-second set breather “Velvet Sea” into a slot when no one needed to catch their breath. With a time for one meaningful set closer, the band continued the event-less evening with an ending of “Coil,” “Suzy.” Some sets become instant classics the moment they end, but when last night’s concluded, it immediately fell to the lower echelon of Summer 2010. As the band sat amidst a “Boogie On” encore, it seemed like Trey realized the show had lacked creativity, suddenly laying a transcendent guitar solo over the groove. Latching onto Trey’s spark of imagination, the band hopped aboard, punctuating the show with one of its more endearing moments.
Phish entered the South to kick off the final four nights of summer with flags flying high, but in a relatively shocking return to Walnut Creek, the band played a show that never gained lift-off. While the Southern Run has been circled since the beginning of tour, as the shows where things would be dirtier than ever, now the question lingers, “Will we look back at Camden and Merriweather as the peak of this tour?” With three more shows to go, Phish has six sets to answer that question one way or another. But sitting on the brink of holiday weekend, something tells me we still have a gem or three left to go.
I. Llama, Roses Are Free, Kill Devil Falls, Time Loves a Hero, Alaska, Water in the Sky, Runaway Jim, The Moma Dance, The Divided Sky, Cavern
II. Backwards Down the Number Line, Halley’s Comet > Light, Fluffhead, Have Mercy, Light Up Or Leave Me Alone > Free, Wading in the Velvet Sea, The Squirming Coil, Suzy Greenberg
E: Boogie On Reggae Woman