Throughout the Summer, Phish performed no less than four three-nights stands: to start the summer in Bethel, to end the Summer Tour in Denver, a mid-season festival in Watkins Glen, and a return to the intimate environs of UIC Pavilion in Chicago to cap Leg Two. Within these three-night affairs, the band was able to showcase the full spectrum of their playing styles, and got a chance to settle into one room (or one stage) and really let things loose. Without the pressure of only two sets and onto the next city, three nights allowed Phish to musically move any direction they so desired, while giving fans a three-day break from the road. Inevitably, as the band relaxed into these four stands, some of the best shows and jams of the summer resulted. Let’s take a look at last summer’s three-nighters in chronological order.
Bethel Woods, 5/27-5/29
Phish came blasting out of the gates at Bethel Woods last summer, kicking off June’s tour—and 2011—in mind-bending fashion. Though the band had gained considerable momentum during the second half of Fall 2010, and played a legit New Year’s Run, nobody expected to experience what went down in Bethel over Memorial Day weekend. When the band came out blazing after an almost six month layoff, many fans expected a warm up show for the first show of tour. But May 27th proved to be anything but a warm up, starting a trend of very significant tour-opening shows 2011.
The first night at Bethel Woods, though featuring an above average first set, was all about the second. Centered on the psychedelic joyride of “Boogie On > Waves > Caspian > Crosseyed,” the band played with far more confidence and audacity than we had observed at MSG. And the second night of the stand shook the Phish universe to the core. Putting together the most impressive two set show of the modern era up to that point, the band absolutely destroyed the northern New York venue with two sets of barn burning Phish. Highlights of this second night include, “Cities,” “Halley’s Comet,” “Runaway Jim,” “Bathtub Gin,” “Disease > Free,” “Number Line,” and “Harry Hood.” Everything Phish touched turned to gold on this night, and it was this show on May 28th that caused many fans to begin rearranging their summer plans—3.0 Phish had never been like this before.
On the third night in Bethel, the band ran out of creative gas, as they played a straightforward rock and roll show to their salivating crowd. And while this show has likely gotten little play on anyone’s iPod, the safe Sunday night affair seemed just fine on the heels of the improvisational exploits of the first two shows.
Super Ball 7/1-7/3
Though Indio provided an idyllic backdrop for Festival 8, it just didn’t feel the same. But when fans began to populate Watkins Glen International on June 30th, the entire infrastructure of the festival felt far more like the dreamlike weekends of lore. With themed art installations and notably smaller grounds, Super Ball was the user-friendliest Northeast festival to date. And boy did Phish respond. The first day with filled with fiery playing throughout both sets, with the improvisational highlight coming with an ethereal and ambient take on “Simple.” The second day of the festival began to heat up in earnest towards the end of the second set, setting up a monstrous nightcap. The third set of the day was one flowing highlight whose centerpiece sequence read “Golden Age > Piper > Caspian > Tweezer.” The bonus here was the only jammed out “Golden Age” to date, less a small funk jam at Darien. The exploratory spirit applied to this festival version would vanish during second leg of summer, as the TV On the Radio cover became an anthem rather than a vehicle for jamming. “Twist > 2001 > Harry Hood” provided the other highlight segment of the set before the band continued to play random singles, compromising the cohesion of the frame as a whole. But when this set ended, the true highlight of the festival began.
The Ball Square Jam. The Storage Jam. Call it what you will, Phish’s late-night surprise set—a rite missing from Indio—returned with smashing success at Super Ball. Guised within an artistic rendition of a self-storage shed and immersed in an hour-long rotation jam, the band explored some of the most experimental music of their career. This jam saw the return of Page’s Theremin, a gimmick he had used in 1996, that he brought back with a whole new skill set. This instrument would make its way into some of the most engaging Phish jams during the second leg of summer—The Gorge’s “Rock and Roll” UIC’s “Undermind,” and Denver’s “Piper. This dark and wholly abstract style of play that was broadcast to fans in surround sound, would establish a new style of improv for the second leg of Summer—“Storage Jamming.” And it would only take hours before this style began seeping into their live show.
On the final day of Super Ball, Phish came out and played, arguably, their strongest two-set show of the year. The band tore every piece to shreds, whether it was the first set’s “Destiny Unbound,” “A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing” or “Reba,” or the second set’s “Disease -> No Quarter, “Light,” or “Waves -> What’s the Use?.” Phish had IT on July 3rd, and played a memorable show laced with full-band interplay that is among the best of the entire year.
UIC Pavilion 8/15-8/17
Phish had a rich legacy at UIC Pavilion before stepping foot in the venue last summer. With two standout ’94 shows and a legendary three-night run in the fall of ’98, the band returned to a venue where they had exclusively spat fire. And for the first two nights, that is exactly what they did. “The Elements Set” needs no introduction, as the second set of 8/15 has become fan favorite from the moment it happened. The quintessential frame of “all killer, no filler,” Phish barely stopped for air while cranking through “Sand -> Light > Dirt, Waves > Undermind > Steam > Fire.” Not to mention a stellar first set that puts this show squarely in the running for the two-setter of the year
On the second night in the Chicago, the band came back with just as much gusto and creativity, applying their skills most furiously in the first set during standout versions of “Chalk Dust” and “Limb by Limb.” But the massive version of “Down With Disease” that opened the second set stole the show, moving through countless interesting realms before the band calmly migrated into “Twist.” Trey anchored the middle of the set with strong solos in “Number Line” and “Theme,” before the band got back at it with an increasingly rare “YEM” to close the night.
The third night opened in promising fashion with the old-school Gamehednge staple “Colonel Forbin’s > Mockingbird,” but considerably fizzled thereafter. The highlight sequence of this show was the pairing of “Crosseyed” and “No Quarter” to jump start the second set, but after that, though great songs kept coming, no musical excitement accompanied them. Thus when “Tweezer” and “Ghost” passed with virtually no jamming, the energy of the set deflated considerably. The band kept the fun high by continuing to work in vocal teases of “Still Waiting” in just about every song of the set, and after two nights of serious musicianship, though this show felt a little empty at the time, it suited the last night of tour just fine—kinda.
Denver, Colorado 9/2-9/4
Simply put, Phish’s Labor Day weekend run at Dick’s soccer stadium was their strongest and most consistent three-night stand of the year. Punctuating their touring season with three of its strongest shows—all including smoking first sets—this run represented 2011 Phish at its finest. Beginning with the “S” show, Phish threw down jams with airtight communication, highlighted by the forward-looking experiment that grew out of “Seven Below.” But beyond jamming, the band was playing inspired music all night long in a show that also featured “Sneakin’ Sally > Sparks,” and “Scents and Subtle Sounds > Slave.”
After a fiery opening set on the second night in which even song sprung to life with vitality, the band played one of the most on point second sets of summer. Kicking off with “Disease -> Tweezer,” the “Tweezer” jam immediately transformed into one of the IT moments of this era, as the band came together in a life-affirming musical masterpiece. After splicing a spirited version of “Golden Age” and a shredtastic “Kill Devil Falls” into the mix, Phish arrived at the second profound moment of the set—“2001 > Light -> Disease Reprise.” Taking risks and succeeding like champions, the band had the switch locked in the “On” position all night long, including the standout “Antelope” with “Disease” teases that ended the set.
And unlike any other three-night stand during the year, Phish came out and played their third, consecutive standout show in Denver. Opening with “Maze” and continuing with first set highpoints of “Tube” “Timber,” and “Bathtub Gin,” the band certainly meant business on their final night of summer. Centering the final set of Colorado around a sublime triumvirate of “Twist – > Piper > Harry Hood,” the band’s playing was at top level at this point in the year, as they flew through jams with immense creativity and immaculate proficiency. Add a surreal second-set “Roggae” and “Ghost -> the second “Guy Forget” of all time -> Ghost,” and we’ve got yet a third contender for show of the summer—all from Dick’s alone! A raucous “Walls of the Cave” closer slammed the door shut on Summer Tour 2011—by far and away—the most magnificent tour since Phish’s 2009 return.
These three-night stands provided benchmarks along the road of Summer Tour. When looking at the consistency of music throughout these four stands, one can easily observe the transformative nature of Phish music last year. Building off of 2009 and 2010, during 2011, the band began to forge new improvisational pathways for their music, craft timeless jams that stand up to any era of Phish, and rewrite the record books for what is possible in this era. It took a couple of years to get there, but in 2011, the band exploded with the type of consistently creative playing that I—and many others—had faith would return. From Bethel to Super Ball to UIC to Denver, the three-night stands in 2011 centralized the band and community for some of the most enthralling experiences of the year. We’ll see what 2012 brings, but if I had to guess, I bet we see a couple more of these musical trifectas.