In a show that shot us back in time both in setting and musical content, Phish played two unparalleled sets of music firmly rooted in history while stretching into the future, showing us that things are just beginning to hit stride for this era. Building off of their recent fall exploits, the band threw down a show that resembled none of this era in any way, shape, or form – an entire evening that felt plucked from the mid-’90s. With each passing night of tour it feels like we are witnessing a rebirth of Phish – the real Phish – the band that puts on mind-numbing shows like it’s their job. The one-brained, four-headed monster took the attack from moment one last night, creating two thematic frames of music that redefined what is possible in modern era Phish.
I’ve yet to tackle a show like this in words, and I feel like it may best be done without re-listening and simply giving my initial impression, because this one was an absolute shocker. Phish stepped in Utica Memorial Auditorium – the room MSG was modeled after – and took us on a journey that likened a night from ’94 or ’95 but with a completely modern musical vibe. With an eternally twisting path and white hot jamming throughout, Utica provided the two-set psychedelic adventure of everyone’s ideal Phish show. Navigating completely original improvisation with a retro feel, Phish took a huge step forward in this era last night, evoking their past mastery along the way. The present and the future came smashing together at Utica Memorial last night in what can only be considered a massive win for anyone with even a tangential care about the future of Phish music. So here we go…
The night opened innocently enough with “My Soul” and “Stealing Time” before things turned crazy for the duration. Beginning with “Vultures” and ending with “Antelope,” Phish threw down a retro-style set full of jamming, teases and transitions. Following a smoking rendition of “Vultures,” Phish cranked their creativity to eleven for the rest of the night, dropping into a “Wolfman’s” that transcended any version they’ve played this era. They didn’t just toy with loafing funk grooves, the systematically deconstructed the song in a series if mini-jams that brought the focus of the show squarely upon the band’s improvisation, a focus that would never waver in a game-changing night of music. Blending into “Cities,” the Talking Heads cover provided a splash landing of groove for their prior rhythmic acrobatics.
Once “Cities” ended, the thematic part of the set began with the shredding fall debut of “Guyute.” And from then on, the first set transformed into “Guyuitca,” as the anthem found its way seamlessly into each song for the rest of the frame. But more significantly, the music from here on out was on another level than we have seen this era. A mid-first set “Bowie,” (yes, you read that right) provided a ridiculous early peak to the show, and contained vicious improv. Morphing into segments of “Wilson-inspired” jamming, Phish blended the two songs in sinister fashion. During one of the sections, Trey repeated “Guyute’s line,”Bouncing Like A Newborn Elf” in an eerie tone over the groove. Phish was letting loose and we were only in the middle of the first set! Moving as one through criminally smooth soundscapes, Phish began the aural festivities early Tuesday night, but who knew where we were heading. Following the smashing rendition of “David Bowie” Phish dropped into the “Wilson” that had been teased throughout. And when the band got to the heavy metal part, Trey layered one of the peak lines of “Guyute” right into the mix. As this musical roller coaster moved on, we found ourselves in another rarity – “McGrupp.” A technically sound version captivated the intimate crown amidst this amazing first frame, and soon the band finished “McGrupp,” they started “I Saw It Again!” At this point the opening half was growing into an absurd spectacle – a trend that continued as Phish improvised out of “Saw It Again” into and ambient, “Guyute-laced” bridge into “Antelope.”
I don’t know a how long its been since the band dropped an “Antelope” like they did last night. A song that had become predictable, always staying within its constraints, broke all boundaries in Utica as Phish took the jam into wide open, uncharted psychedelia. It sounded like we were safe and sound back in good ol’ 1995…but this was 2010! Phish is currently moving forwards and backwards simultaneously in some sort of time-space paradox, but it is happening right into front of our eyes – right now. Tearing apart “Antelope” like they haven’t in well over a decade, we were privileged to the set closer reestablish itself in full. When setbreak came people were fully freaking on the masterful nature of the opening frame, and there was nobody that disagreed. But if the audience was buzzing then, the second set caused a full on skull implosions for all in attendance.
“Drowned” ignited a fire in the second set as the palpable energy of the first half spilled right into the second set opener. The band engaged the audience with the uptempo piece as they set the table for quite the set of Phish. Pushing the thematic rock jam into a snarling percussive playground, the band carried a certain momentum through this jam, but as they were in full stride, Trey decided, coyly but abruptly, to change courses. But when that course leads into “Sand,” you’ll hear few gripes from me. Obviously liking what he heard in Charleston’s first set versions as much as we did, the band immediately inserted the song in the second set only two shows later. And boy did they give the groove vehicle the joyride last night, annihilating the rhythmic juggernaut in dynamic and diverse fashion. Boasting a subconscious communication throughout this jam, Phish brought a sweltering dance session to the already humid arena. Leading with confident and playful lead melodies, Red fully immersed himself in the the Mike and Fish’s thick pocket, creating a intense and jazzy feel to the driving piece.
A top notch “Theme” and a surprise “Axilla” set the table for an increasingly elusive “Birds of A Feather” that sparked the second half of the set. Each jam Phish dropped last night featured subliminally intricate interplay and was filled to the brim with dense ideas and high-speed collective improvisation. And “Birds” fit this description perfectly. After a short breath in “Tela,” Phish set up the sequence that sealed the deal in upstate New York. In a show defined by its unpredictability, when the band hit up another second set “Split,” they gave new meaning to the word.
Taking “Split” on a soul-searching odyssey, the band took the piece on a blissful escapade for the second straight time, but this one wound up quite differently than Broomfield’s highlight. Launched into the stratosphere with an ethereal jam that felt like floating through a fantasy, the music played the band as they took the piece on a spectacular ride landed quietly and unfinished in “Have Mercy.” (An extremely tactful use of The Mighty Diamonds cover as opposed to the last few times it has appeared.) The band surprised everyone as they moved out of roots vibe into another gorgeous piece of open jamming, begging the question if they would work their way back into “Split.” But with yet another curve ball, they gradually moved into the intro to another sonic jaunt, “Piper.”
Darting and dashing with lightening quickness the band progressed through several planes of torrid psychedelia as “Piper” provided an angular sprint through multiverses of sonic texture. Blowing out another wide open jam, the band found themselves organically landing in a “Birds Reprise” which they promptly out of back into the peak of “Split.” Combining mindfucking improv with setlist trickery, Phish found themselves in the show of life last night, living the moment and creating an musical adventure unseen this era. Capping the show in idyllic fashion with a slowly building “Slave,” Trey worked a melodic theme early in the jam which he toys with all the way to the top. After a particularly ripping “Good Times, Bad Times” encore, the show couldn’t have felt any more refreshing. Most stood soaking with sweat after the retro-futuristic Phish set, and nary has an entire crowd felt like that in ages. It really felt like it used to on the most intense nights, and it was a magic that had yet to be felt this era. Utica was, by any accounts of the overused descriptor, an epic Phish show.
Perhaps these signature nights are best defined by the looks on fans’ faces after the show. As people spilled into the miniature town of Utica, eyes glowing and smiles gleaming, people mingled around the venue genuinely lost in vortex of what had just gone down. Every single person I spoke to after the show was on the same page; this shit brought this whole 3.0 era to the next level. It was hard to believe, but that show had really just happened. This fall, Phish is starting to revisit the contours of shows from decades ago, but with an increased collective skill level with which they are simply making their best music in eons. And each night it’s only getting better. As we hit the halfway point of tour, Fall 2010 is certainly living up to any expectations and moving right beyond them. Catch ’em while you still can!
I: My Soul, Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan, Vultures, Wolfman’s Brother > Cities, Guyute, David Bowie*^, Wilson*, McGrupp and the Watchful Hosemasters, Saw It Again* > Run Like an Antelope*
II: Drowned > Sand > Theme From the Bottom, Axilla > Birds of a Feather, Tela, Split Open and Melt > Have Mercy > Piper > Birds Reprise > Split Open and Melt, Slave to the Traffic Light
E: Good Times Bad Times
* w/ “Guyute” quotes / teases, ^ with “Wilson” interludes