Torrential weather has historically been a catalyst for spectacular Phish shows. As recently as Deer Creek ’09, the band has responded to nature’s fury with that of their own, crafting epic sets within stormy contexts. One can look through Phish history for many examples of this confluence of aggressive weather and monumental music, so when a storm of biblical proportions interrupted a relatively mellow opening set on Wednesday night in Alpharetta, everyone in the venue could only imagine what the band would throw down when they returned. One could feel the collective energy brewing in the pavilion as water flooded the venue—a massive set lurked just around the corner. When the lights suddenly went dark after a rain delay of almost an hour, everyone assumed their places in the overcrowded pavilion.
But when all was said and done, amidst furious thunder and lightening, Phish tore through a high-energy set that was comprised of tame versions of many crowd favorites. The choice setlist (albeit reliant on the band’s small summer rotation) provided a high-powered dance party, but it felt like the band’s goal was to power through a number of anthems rather than explore any improvisational realms. Although last night was a phenomenal experience and a thrill to be a part of, upon listening back to its musical contents, there really isn’t much substance. Maybe Phish has run out of energy for this run? Maybe they were trying to showcase several songs for their Internet audience? Regardless of the reason, Phish came up a quite a bit short on transcendent music last night.
Energy-based shows were a thing of 2009, a crutch for a band whose creativity had yet to return in full. But what place energy-based shows have in Summer 2011 is beyond me. The band totally shredded each and every piece they played, and if high-quality and tight, song-based playing is what you’re looking for, this show definitely delivered in droves. But if it’s a step into the unknown that you quest after, you might as well leave this one alone, because the band played it incredibly safe, taking absolutely zero risks. Let’s take a quick glance at the second set.
Phish returned to stage as lightning bolts still surrounded the venue, picking up “Mound” exactly where they were forced to cut it off due to the weather. And when they completed “Mound” and dropped into the thunderous opening of “Tweezer,” the crowd erupted for the impending trek. Building a fierce guitar-led jam from the get-go, Trey steered the initial course of this voyage—in full. When the guitar peak settled, it seemed that it was time for the band to get serious—and three of four band members agreed. But the only one that matters yanked the carpet out from under the jam, as Trey—inexplicably and like a scared little boy running from oncoming psychedelia—began to play “Julius.” In a move that felt like a clear grasp for safety, Trey— in the past week—has re-developed an aversion to pushing the envelope. Part and parcel of the first segment of summer was daring risk-taking and wide-open jamming. But as we wind down to the final three shows of June, our improvisational heroes have fizzled into quasi-nostalgic rock stars, content on playing straightforward, ripping shows. What the hell happened?
To be fair, “Julius” shied from shredding guitar leads in favor of a more laid-back conversation between all band members. But Phish’s song rotation has shrunk to such a minute number of selections this tour, it was hard to get all that excited about to hear “Julius” again, let alone in such a prominent slot and cutting off “Tweezer.” Strong mid-set versions of “Slave” and “Bowie” brought the peak of a smoking second half that would find some additional points of interest in “Jibboo” and “Harry Hood.” But when comparing the bravado of this band to the creative maestros of Bethel and the Midwest, it’s like apples and oranges.
Though I had a blast at the rain-soaked dance party last night, the second set could have been so much more significant. And in the face of such an absurd scenario—one where we lost about 30-45 minutes of Phish time—the band should have been looking to pack as much of a musical punch into their final frame as possible. But they settled for a great setlist played with adrenaline and purpose, as their pioneering intent so prevalent only weeks ago has faded considerably. One would hope to see some musical fireworks over the next three shows, as the past week of tour has represented a legitimate downturn from its promising inception. With the first set versions of “Runaway Jim” and “Timber Ho” providing, perhaps, the two most accomplished jams of the night, hopefully Phish can craft a couple second sets of memory to bring home with us before Superball.
Pretty please?… With sugar on top?
I: Paul and Silas, Back on the Train, Foam, Water in the Sky, Runaway Jim, Army of One, Roses Are Free, Timber, Mound*
II: Mound**, Tweezer > Julius, Slave to the Traffic Light, David Bowie, Suzy Greenberg, Gotta Jibboo, Harry Hood, Character Zero, The Birdwatcher^ > Kung^
E: Funky Bitch, Tweezer Reprise
*beginning, **end, ^a capella