So let’s be serious here…what the fuck is going on? Where are we? What year is this? Because last night was as good as Phish has sounded in memory. Taking risks throughout both sets like a band we once knew—and have become staggeringly intimate with over the past two nights—Phish let us in on a secret: they are as good, if not better, than at any point in their career. Having their way with improvisation like they have in their best of days, the band has all of a sudden completely changed the game. And as a result of the first two shows in Bethel—two nights that have been nothing short of revelations—fans all over the country are now changing their summer plans, perhaps putting a little extra on their credit card than anticipated, in order to catch more of the greatest show on earth—Phish 2011.
Completely reinventing themselves in front of our eyes, from the moment they stepped on stage, the band commanded last night’s show with a passion, enthusiasm, and most of all—jams of all shapes and sizes—in a complete package of the likes we haven’t come close to seeing during this era. The Gorge? Miami? The Greek? Alpine? Utica? MSG? Psshaw….improvisational child’s play compared to the unbridled jamming of Saturday night’s spectacle. Since Hampton, Phish hadn’t come close to playing a show as chock-full of virtuoso, full-throttled and wide-open jamming as they did last night—and it was only the second night of summer tour! So do your reassessing, change your plans, and get to the amphitheatre nearest you! But enough about how we have a new phenomenon on our hands…what the hell happened last night?
It all started with a third-song “Cities.” As the band dripped into the funk, Trey layered a menacing guitar lead over the band’s textures, upping the entire jam to another level. Growing in size and scope while maintaining a thick groove, it was the most powerful version of “Cities” we’ve heard in this era. Then, when Phish dropped into “Halley’s,” the one percent chance that they would actually jam on the song came through in droves! Things were falling into place. Soaring into a quickened groove and anchored by Trey’s lightening-quick guitar work—a defining facet of the Bethel shows thus far—Phish crushed a “Halley’s” like they haven’t since a previous epoch. Speeding into “Anetlope-esque” interplay, the band was off and running in the best show anyone had seen since a previous lifetime. As they switched gears into a bass-led and more demented path, more than a few times I wondered what song we were amidst as I was blissfully unaware of anything but the transcendent moment. And this feeling would be replicated all night long in one improvisational escapade after the next. Flowing through “Halley’s” into “Runaway Jim,” the band’s relentless creativity continued. Within the mellow section of the song between verses, Phish infused a mind-melting “plinko funk” jam in the exact essence of the Worcester “Hood.” Feeding the song’s melodic patterns into a staccato-shredder, the band furthered one of their emerging jamming styles. And when they tore through the song’s “regular” jam, it was the second standout segment within”Runaway Jim!”
After playing through “Gumbo” and a smoking “Quinn the Eskimo,” the band unveiled a pristine “Limb by Limb” And with their newly-found super-abilities, this “Limb” took on an immaculate, life-affirming majesty that others simply don’t. But just when we had no idea how this extended set would come to a close, the opening notes of “Bathtub Gin” took everyone by surprise. And the only thing that could have been more of a surprise than the song’s placement was the jam that came out of it. Getting into torrid uptempo grooves, Trey took command of the music with his precise guitar assassination, and the band careened into yet another stellar piece of improvisation—this time—one of the no-brainer highlights of the night. Phish gained momentum by the second—pushed forward by the quickening beats of Fishman—and sounded as if they might segue into “Golden Age” when, in fact, they were actually speeding into a double-timed “Manteca!” Where were we at this point? When we last left Madison Square Garden, the band had dropped a series of great jams over the New Year’s Run, but they didn’t have the exploratory fire like this! Playing as if a band possessed, upon seamlessly re-merging with “Bathtub’s” theme and punctuating an absolute joke of a first set, the band received an extended standing ovation as if it was the end of the show. But it was only setbreak.
Nobody had any idea what had hit them come setbreak and the only thing many could consider is what might happen when the lights dropped again. And when they did, another musical labyrinth ensued. Sculpting the entirety of the set with mind-melting improvisation from start to finish, Phish came out and simply slayed the second half. To continue describing the superlative nature of their playing would feel redundant at this point, but simply stated, the band spat fire throughout, from the first note to the last. Sometimes, after a stunning set, you are just left with feelings and memories, and last night these emotions couldn’t have been more glowing. Memories of a full-throttled dance session that slowly morphed into a sky-scraping, ambient soundscape in “Disease.” A memory of a natural arrival in “Free” that served as a landing point of deeply cosmic exploration. Feelings evoked by a show-defining, centerpiece jam in “Backwards Down the Number Line”—an organically building adventure into the stratosphere of psychedelia. Memories of visiting band member’s “houses” within in a classic bit of Phishiness and comic relief in an extended “Makisupa.” (I think we all want to live at Page’s house!) Feelings of an exploratory and overwhelmingly blissful “Hood” that brought the song back into play as an vehicle for creative, out-of-the-box, interplay. Memories of needing water after the obvious set-closer in “Cavern” only to be backhanded by a scintillating “Bowie” that punctuated the frame with yet another improvisational odyssey.
We weren’t in Kansas anymore. Nope. We were in Bethel, New York—the site of Phish modern-era reinvention, and it might as well have felt like heaven. The band we watched re-birth themselves over the course 2009 and 2010 had left the building, and Phish 2011 moved in. A whole new monster with razor sharp fangs and a refined improvisational acumen, the band of summer clearly has something to prove. These last two nights have been incredibly powerful events for anyone who has loved this band for any part of their life. To be witnessing all this again is nothing short of awe-inducing. To use a cliche but incredibly appropriate sign off, “It’s all happening…”
I: Theme From the Bottom, NICU, Cities, Halley’s Comet > Runaway Jim, Gumbo, Quinn the Eskimo, Limb By Limb, Horn, Bathtub Gin
II: Down with Disease > Free, Backwards Down the Number Line, Makisupa Policeman -> Harry Hood > Cavern, David Bowie
E: A Day in the Life