Phish punctuated their opening leg of summer with a tour-closing show at nTelos Pavilion that displayed musical dominance from beginning to end. Everything the band touched turned to gold last night, as they greeted the intimate audience with a plethora of four-part conversations in a show whose improvisational creativity and quality song selection never stopped. Finishing tour with a stellar three-night finale, the band left everyone in Portsmouth, Virginia, with a night of top-level playing and outstanding exchanges in a show that flowed beautifully from start to finish.
As the band took the stage for the final time in June, they dropped a bomb, opening with “Harpua” for the first time since the 10.20.89! It turned out that the elusive bustout was a vehicle to bring the band’s four fathers on stage for Father’s Day in the most comedic fashion. When the song reached its classic narrative between Jimmy and his father about the fate of his cat, Posternutbag, one by one, each of the band member’s fathers came onstage to narrate part of the conversation. Dr. Jack McConnell delivered the line of the night altering the climactic lyric to the deadpan “Your, goddamn cat died.” A quality start to a special evening, the familial opening continued with the third consecutive Father’s Day version of “Brother,” each time featuring the band member’s kids jumping in a tub with each other while the band played—and laughed—behind them.
But when the family fun concluded, the band got musically serious very quickly with a shredding exploration of “Down With Disease.” Taking the jam for its only first-set ride of tour, the band pushed the song into an adrenalized jam that included creative tangents within. Setting the tone of full-band interplay early on in the night with “Disease, the next no-brainer highlight of the set came a couple songs later in “Timber Ho.” A song that has popped off the stage each time the band has played it this summer, did so once again in one of its most creative outings of tour. Trey laid back allowing Mike and Page direct the onset of the jam, joining in later with refined and meticulous phrasing. Transforming the piece into a completely equitable conversation—something that took place all night long—the band was clearly listening to each other and responding efficiently, gathering musical momentum by the moment.
Following the danceable duo of “Wedge” and a particularly gooey “Moma Dance,” Phish debuted Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road”—a song that graced so many of my high school mix tapes—in honor of The E Street Band’s saxophonist, Clarence Clemmons, who passed away the previous day. Though admittedly a bit shaky on the song, Trey told the audience they had quickly learned it out of love—and to be honest—I thought it was an amazing and emotional moment for Trey and so many of us that grew up listening to the Big Man’s passionate playing. Closing the set with “Tube,” “Alaska,” and “David Bowie,” the standout of the three emerged in the patient, four-minded exchange of the set-closer. Page stood out within this “Bowie” while helping steer course of the jam—a trend of recent days as his playing has been at the top of his game. The band’s attentiveness was again on display as they echoed, responded to, and danced around each other’s ideas with marksman-like precision. Typical of the many improvisational passages throughout the show, the band collaborated in the truest sense of the word during “Bowie,” sculpting one of several equitable excursions.
And this type of jamming picked right back up after setbreak as Phish dropped into their third “Crosseyed” of June. This time, however, once the band annihilated the composed grooves of the song like a one-brained assassin, they pushed right beyond them, forging original territory that moved from aggressive playing into a darker experiment. Lingering in the jam’s sonic fallout, the band floated through space into “Walls of the Cave.” In centering the Round Room song in the second set for the first time since the post-hiatus era, Phish not added spice to their setlist, they also infused its jam with creativity for the first time in ages. Without leaving the “Silent Trees” textures, Trey played diverse leads over the driving rhythmic pocket as Page complimented him quite well on piano for the duration. A more honest conversation than the song’s usual guitar wankery, the new-era Phish breathed new life into the post-hiatus song that had turned quite dull by the time 2004 rolled around (with some obvious and notable exceptions.) “Walls” worked great in the second slot last night, and instead of returning to the song’s final lyrical reprise, the band took migrated into an ambient outro that bled beautifully into “Slave.”
Phish’s intimate communication was expressed powerfully in two wholly-divergent second set masterpieces—“Slave” and “Sand.” Touching on the divine and the demonic, though these highlights diverted in feel, they were united by their sublime and selfless jamming. The “Slave” carried a slower tempo than usual, providing each band member plenty of space to articulate his thoughts. What resulted is one of the most patient, emotional and soul-drenched versions of the song that we’ve heard in quite some time. Mike, Page, and Trey led the jam, collectively, and Fishman framed the musical portrait of catharsis. Then, following a “Fluffhead” that worked perfectly well within the set, and featured a gargantuan guitar peak, the band unveiled “Sand”—the show-stopping jam of the night.
If Phish grooves get you off, sit back, crank this and bask in the bliss of this musical crack. Having featured several standout versions of “Sand” this leg, the band punctuated tour with—easily—the song’s most impressive outing of summer. Going utterly ballistic, Phish hopped into a vat of boiling rhythms and came out with one of the most infectious dance sessions of this era. Connecting like they were marionettes controlled by a universal puppeteer, the band played a version that—on playback—resembles a filthy and disgusting joke. Locking into original and cooperative patterns, the guys never hesitated in crafting one of the swankiest joyrides of the season. Trey turned towards distinctly jazzier leads before stepping outside the box with his offerings within the context of a completely original conversation. The band was grooving and they were grooving hard—so much so, that upon the ending of this next-level jam, the band paused and broke back into the groove they had just left in a move that ignited the crowd into a frenzy.
Slipping into a “Sneakin’ Sally” that moved into “Light” without much of a post-vocal jam, the band kept when the band reached the fork in the road in “Light,” they more than made up for it. Trey veered from his atonal soloing for a more delicate whole-band textures. Allowing their modern-era epic to breathe far more than most versions of summer, last night, the band dropped into a wholly segment of wholly surreal jamming out of “Light.”
The show—and tour—ended on the upbeat trifecta of a delicate “Number Line,” a smoking “Suzy Greenberg” set-closer, and a rocking “Julius” encore. Using these happier songs to resolve a largely ominous set, Phish balanced the tone of their improv well throughout set, and show. Catching fire once again following Alpharetta’s largely contained, webcasted affairs, Phish finished up a spectacular opening leg with three strong shows in a row—a great sign of things to come as we take a quick ten-day break before meeting up again at Watkins Glen. If this summer is going to progress from leg one to leg two in the way Summer of ’09 and ’10 did, boy, are we off to a spectacular start!
I: Harpua, Brother, Down with Disease, Back on the Train, Funky Bitch, Timber, The Wedge, The Moma Dance, Thunder Road*, Tube, Alaska, David Bowie
II: Crosseyed and Painless > Walls of the Cave > Slave to the Traffic Light, Fluffhead, Sand, Sneakin’ Sally through the Alley > Light > Backwards Down the Number Line, Suzy Greenberg
*debut, Bruce Springsteen, dedicated to Clarence Clemmons
(I’m taking a couple days off to get back to my family. I’ll be back…)