Right from the “Rocky Top” opener, strange things were afoot at Camden’s Susquehanna Bank Center on Friday night. A show that never quite got off the ground featured plenty of quality playing throughout, but was held back by odd setlist choices and a quicksand-like flow that burdened the second set, particularly. When the band’s solid interplay did pop out, it was impressive, but it didn’t amount to enough to create a full-on show experience.
First let’s talk about the good. The show got off to a promising, if not off-kilter, beginning with “Mike’s Groove” following “Rocky Top” as the second selection of the show. Highlighted by a strong “Weekapaug” (though not on the level of Darien only one set before), an extended jaunt in “Stash” and a gorgeous “Curtain With” to close, the first set had its fair share of musical meat. Despite its awkward placement at the end of the set, “With” provided, arguably, the highest-level and the most passionate playing of an opening half that also featured rarities “Scent of a Mule” and “Sloth” (though its beginning was butchered).
And when the second set launched with an exploratory, multi-faceted and wildly successful jam out of “Down With Disease,” the night seemed destined for greatness. But from there, the show simply floundered in its flow despite high-quality playing by the band. Using another token “Free”—a song that has stayed inexplicably inside-the-box during this breakout summer—to resolve “Disease,” the stage was set for…another “Possum.” Call me a hater, but a “Possum” towards the beginning of any second set is a straight vibe-crusher. You know where its going and its jam will only veer so far off its preset path: a played-out and formulaic Phish climax no matter how well its jammed—and last night the band slayed the most creative version of summer. Taking the piece away from its generic build, they built multiple stages of the jam taking it down to a minimalist texture and engaging in legitimate four-part improvisation—but Phish was still playing “Possum” in the meat of the second set. And that’s just a huge speed bump in the flow of things, especially when its followed up with “Big Black Furry Creatures From Mars?!” Umm…sure. The band’s old-school prank-metal can work if coming out of a slick and dark piece of improvisation, but as a standalone song in the middle of the second set, it just didn’t.
The band continued their head-scratching setlist decisions by bringing out “Swept Away > Steep” as another standalone piece with no musical context whatsoever. By this point, the entire set felt haphazardly created, but when the band improvised out of the composed jam in “Steep” with an eerie passage that dripped into “Bowie,” they crafted a mini-segment of musical coherence. The “Bowie” featured aggressive interplay, but without moving outside its song structure for a nanosecond, the mid-second set version didn’t carry the weight that it might have.
And from there on out it was “Singles City,” as the band closed the show with four disjointed tunes in “Julius,” “Golgi,” “Fluffhead,” and “Joy” (and “Golgi” and “Fluff” were hardly clean versions.) Phish had it going in spurts during the second half , but they hardly comprised a legitimate frame of slamming Phish—something that we have come to expect out of a show in Camden, New Jersey. For the first time in their career, the band left Camden without tearing the venue to absolute shreds. An amphitheatre that has always hosted one of the band’s most explosive nights of summer, last night, hosted one of their least exciting shows of Summer 2011. Follow the lines going South, because Merriweather looks to be a blowout!
I: Rocky Top, Mike’s Song > I Am Hydrogen > Weekapaug Groove, Stash, Tube, Guyute, Guelah Papyrus, Scent of a Mule, Cavern, The Sloth, The Curtain With
II: Down with Disease > Free, Possum, Big Black Furry Creatures From Mars, Swept Away > Steep > David Bowie, Julius, Golgi Apparatus, Fluffhead, Joy
E: Bold As Love