And then Phish came home to Vermont. The prodigal band of The Green Mountain State put its best foot forward on Wednesday night to help in a statewide relief effort in the wake Hurricane Irene. Or if looking at the show from a Phish-centric perspective, Summer 2011 was so phenomenal that it needed an encore. And in their home state, the band delivered a high-powered performance with portions of stellar improv in a fun-filled summer finale. Legions of fans descended upon Burlington for the quickly-planned benefit—a bonus round of Phish tacked on to a marathon touring season that has finally come to a close.
An unpatrolled and peaceful free-for-all at Champlain Valley Expo was highlighted by the opening sequence of the second set, “Carini > Down with Disease > Slave.” Only the second appearance since August, the set-opening “Carini” (dedicated to Pete Carini, himself) built into a summer highlight—a refreshing rendition after several innocuous outings (less Hollywood Bowl’s). Diving deep into the song’s menacing sound for some quality time, just when many recent versions have ended, this one took off. Following a tremendous hard rock peak, Trey took a step back and the band settled into melodic three-man canvas. On top of this uplifting plane, Trey began to narrate universal tales of splendor. Dripping soulful melodies over an increasingly abstract backdrop, Trey garnered the spotlight as the band came together in a gorgeous mélange of harmony and melody. Traveling a blissful path of convergence between the spiritual realms of music and consciousness, Phish brought this jam to the Promise Land before coyly steered the ending into the murky, bass-laden intro of “Down with Disease.”
The entrance into another guaranteed launch-pad had the show in an elevated state and the audience raging right along. Sailing into the high-energy jaunt, Phish took this “Disease” in an exploratory direction without ever losing speed. Trey exited the shredding composed jam using hard-edged rhythm chops to bridge a very dirty solo with all sorts of rhythmic features as well as lead qualities. Mike stood head to head with Trey, crushing bass line after bass line while the band locked in for the long haul. Gradually peeling away layers, the guys entered a more percussive realm anchored by break-beat action from Fishman and larger than life offerings from Gordeaux. Page tickled his organ while Trey comped the exercise with a series of rhythm chords that offered a new progression into the mix. Passing through a constantly morphing groove, the band, collectively, migrated into a more ambient plane that was getting particularly heavy when the band resolved the jam rather quickly and entered “Slave.” A unique version, this “Disease” packs a heavy punch while exploring new ground. Combining with “Carini,” this set-opening combo formed a particularly meaty sequence.
I always like it when the band places songs like “Slave” or “Hood” in the middle of the second set rather than as closers. It is in these slots that they get the full treatment. And last night’s mid-set “Slave” was another perfect example of this scenario. Taking all the time in the world to float amidst the jam’s ethereal opening, it took a bit before Fishman even slid into a subtle groove. A patient and intricate rendition brought the audience through a mid-set catharsis, as the band juiced each note for full emotion. Picking up a powerful solo late into the collaborative piece, Trey tactfully picked his spot and struck, initiating the “Slave’s” final build.
And as soon as the first segment set concluded, the band kicked out a mid-set “Rock and Roll.” Sticking to high-energy rock for the duration of the jam, the band seemed to be building into more substantial music when Trey came in with the out of place beginning of “Twist.” The band adjusted quickly and the move came off quasi-smoothly, but any potential of a deeper excursion was quickly erased. On the back end of this one-two punch came a version of “Twist” that didn’t veer from its theme, but still managed to get into impressive interplay. The band’s well-honed communication skills shone in this succinct version that wrapped up the second mini-segment of the set.
Up through this point, the band had the audience in the palm of their handsand the high-quality set deserved a more emphatic closing sequence than it received. Following a spirited, guitar-led “Number Line” that Trey peaked with a geyser of emotive licks, and a soaring “Theme From the Bottom” that paired odes to friendship, instead of choosing a larger set closer like “David Bowie” or “You Enjoy Myself” that would have really punctuated this set with a “complete” feel, Phish took the “Suzy,” “Character Zero” route. And while each song’s individual performance was noteworthy in its own right, the combination fell a bit flat. A “Loving Cup” encore, though common this year, was a fitting end to a summer filled with so many beautiful buzzes.
And thus the night of bonus Phish— a pair of musical extra innings—came to a close. In a summer of thrills, the band scripted one more night for the benefit of its birthplace. Returning to the Vermont for the first time since Coventry’s 2004 debacle, the vibe could not have been more polar opposite at Essex Junction last night. And when Phish took their final bow in the cool New England air, concluding the special evening, joy was the pervading feeling—a far cry from the bittersweet farewell in Vermont seven years ago. Summer 2011 had finally ended. From Bethel to Denver and then to Vermont, Phish blazed a trail of fire throughout the country from late-May to mid-September, and did so in style as the undisputed pimps of the galaxy.
First Set Thoughts:
Vermont’s first set carried a very song-heavy feeling right from the start, and most of the songs were common first-set fare. “Moma Dance” featured the energetic funk that has fueled a summer revival of the recently-stale piece. Impressive versions of “Bathtub Gin” and “Wolfman’s Brother” bookended an “Alaska,” “Possum” sandwich before “Julius” closed the set. And coming from someone who has no love for “Julius” whatsoever, this version actually had something to it. Featuring more creative full-band interplay than normal, the set ended with a highlight version of the song. But the gem of the set lied in “Wolfman’s.” Taking the piece into growling, uncompressed realms, Trey directed the funk in a dirty direction right out of the gates. Page added his own layer of dissonance and Fish and Mike churned out a gooey pocket. Concluding a summer that has seen “Wolfman’s” transcend its straightforward funk of the last two years, the band infused the grooves of this version with aggressive textures. While never totally departing from the theme, the band crafted a heavy-handed highlight late in the opening set.
I: Chalk Dust Torture, The Moma Dance, NICU, Funky Bitch, Sample in a Jar, Cavern, Bathtub Gin, Alaska, Possum, Wolfman’s Brother, Julius
II: Carini > Down with Disease > Slave to the Traffic Light, Rock and Roll > Twist, Backwards Down the Number Line, Theme From the Bottom > Suzy Greenberg, Character Zero
E: Loving Cup