Phish quickly erased Friday’s hiccup in Camden, firing from the get go last night in a powerhouse two-setter to open the weekend at Merriweather Post Pavilion. Playing a first set that flowed that flowed as well, if not better, than the second, the band got back on track dipping into all aspects of their repertoire with a choice song selection, shredding contained jamming, experimental second set improv and big-time dance grooves. Rolling all of these aspects and more into a complete night of music, the band provided a breadth of live experiences within a single show that touched on, virtually, all aspects of their playing.
The start of the show got an immediate boost by the rarities “Access Me” and “Vultures,” not to mention “Daniel Saw the Stone” which with Trey opened the show in response to a fan’s sign. But the golden part of the set got jump-started by an aggressive mid-set “Wilson” which set the table for sinful stretch of Phish that read: “Sand,” “Roses > Reba,” “On Your Way Down,” “Antelope.” And throughout this portion of the set—in my opinion, the highlight of the show—the band fired like pistons, intuitively connecting like pieces of a puzzle. The whole-band interplay throughout “Sand,” “Reba,” and “Antelope,” in addition to the individual mastery on display by each band member in all of these these pieces, was staggering. “Sand,” like PNC, featured a very jazzy feel at the get-go as Trey and Mike cooperated like Siamese twins while Page and Fish provided the backdrop for the two guitarists to step into the spotlight. Taking “Sand” on phenomenal ride, the band crafted a massive mid-set peak and wasn’t about to slow down.
There were several measures of “Roses are Free” that signified what might have been the third improvised version of all-time. But just as we had finally cast away our doubts, Trey quickly pulled the plug to drop into “Reba” in a weird anticlimax. “Reba” is one of my unquestionable favorite Phish songs, and even though they come rare these days, the sudden transition—and what might have been—stung. But as we entered only the second “Reba” of summer tour, that sting didn’t last but for a second. As the band precisely played the first half of the song, they were on the same page as they took the dive for blissful waters. Featuring to-die-for phrasing and soloing by Trey, while the entire band wove a bed of silk beneath him, Phish crafted a stunning take on their classic song; one of the top versions played since they’ve been back this era. And as they slammed into the jam’s ending, they dripped out the other side with Little Feat’s “On Your Way Down.” The exclamation point on this wide-eyed opening set came is a far-more-dynamic-than-usual “Antelope.” Lacing the intro with intricate exchanges and “On Your Way Down Teases,” the band seemed primed to tear the piece to shreds. Coming out of the gate with his refined leads of summer, Trey began slaughtering the jam early as Mike responded with booming bass licks. Fishman’s laid-back, driving, and ever-changing beats anchored this version as Page cranked out piano comps in what I consider to be the most impressive “Antelope since Utica’s next-level escapade. And when the band stepped off the stage for setbreak, they had just finished a spectacular set of music filled with mind-numbing interplay—and darkness hadn’t even fallen on Columbia, Maryland.
Using “Birds” to ignite the second set (just like its placement last Saturday in Cleveland) this time, instead of bursting into “Possum” upon its conclusion, the band made the much more exciting move into ‘Tweezer.” Stepping into a pimped-out ride, Trey laid back with minimalist leads while Mike and Page stepped out front with prominent ideas. Moving slowly through gooey textures and organically turning to the a soaring, guitar-led peak, though the jam certainly hit the spot, one might have imagined it getting a bit more creative in such a central position in the show (and half-way through tour). But nonetheless, the band tastefully toyed within the song’s boundaries and segued nicely into “Horse > Silent.” Their experimental jams were yet to come.
When the band dropped the second “Waves” of tour, anyone who’s been following along had to think back to Bethel’s opening night odyssey. The band, once again, seemed set for takeoff into one of their most intricate and open-ended jams, but when the time came to launch—instead—they switched into an awkwardly-placed “Chalk Dust;” a decision that seemed a bit dubious. But letting the Saturday night rock vibe flow, the band combined “Chalk Dust” with “Rock and Roll” in an adrenalized, central portion of the set. When the time came to leave the Velvet Underground’s rock textures behind, however, the first experiment of the night commenced. Drifting though a brief segment of melodic and uplifting music, the band soon began sculpting an avant-garde and abstract piece of psychedelia. Pushing the envelope to the extreme through this segment, at the show, I wondered if the band was on the same page throughout the jam. And after listening back, I’m still wondering. Worthy for its extreme risk taking, Phish got into some bizarre—truly out-there—music, and some parts certainly sound more coherent than others.
Passing through the mellow interlude of “Albuquerque,” the band got right back to their risk-taking in the highlight of the set—”Piper.” Again taking their playing into uncharted waters, this time everything flowed a hell of a lot better. After crushing the song’s breakneck stylings with notably connected playing, when the band veered from their linear path, things got nutty. Page and Trey exchanged ideas over a tight and chaotic pocket, with Mike throwing down huge bass patterns beneath Red’s venomous lines. As Trey stepped back, offering effects and rhythm chops, Mike powerfully took over the lead as Page accompanied him out front with heavily tweaked—then smoothed out—textures. Stepping into the abstract realm for the second time in three songs, this time there was no doubt of the band’s connectedness and intent, and out of this centerpiece exploration, Phish wound seamlessly into “Velvet Sea.” Though the heavy psychedelia of the set had passed, the guys still had some love left to give. Merging a short but sweet “2001” with a crunchy “Faulty Plan,” the band threw down some slamming late-set music before punctuating the frame with a Page-centric “Suzy Greenberg.”
Phish carried a head of steam throughout the second set, dipping into grooves, abstract jams, ballads and rock songs to comprise a complete frame of Phish music. And when tacking on the smoking opening frame (which might outdo the second), the first night of Merriweather shaped up to be quite the show. Keep your seatbelts strapped through tommorrow night—same bat time, same bat channel!
I: Daniel Saw the Stone, AC/DC Bag, Ocelot, Access Me, Vultures, Wilson, Sand, Roses Are Free > Reba, On Your Way Down, Run Like an Antelope
II: Birds of a Feather, Tweezer > The Horse > Silent in the Morning, Waves > Chalk Dust Torture, Rock and Roll > Albuquerque, Piper > Wading in the Velvet Sea, Also Sprach Zarathustra > Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan, Suzy Greenberg
E: Show of Life, Tweezer Reprise