Phish had a phenomenal 2011. There is no question about it. Playing creative shows and jamming on a level unseen in this era, the band raised the bar for themselves moving forward. But apart from their playing—the obviously most important part— there are some aspects of their live show that could use a little polish. With some attention to the following departments, I believe Phish shows can elevate on a more consistent basis in 2012.
Diversified Jam Vehicles
When “Light,” “Down With Disease,” “Rock and Roll” or “Piper” starts, everyone knows that we are almost guaranteed an exploratory jaunt. In fact, these songs comprised seven of my Top Ten jams of the year. At the same time, we all know—at this point—that when many other songs start, we are destined for a contained jam (or none at all), with “Tweezer” and “Carini” being two of the few songs that can still move in either direction. As a result, the element of improvisational surprise has largely been erased from Phish shows.
In 2012, it would be great to see the band diversify their launch pads and jam out of different songs regularly. This would lessen the predictability of shows and spice up the live experience. With the band’s chops fully in tow after an very creative year, it feels like it’s time to begin switching things up a bit. The jams that stemmed from the aforementioned four songs differed greatly and were prolific, spanning the spectrum of Phish’s repertoire. Thus, it’s not band’s jamming that has become predictable, just where the jams will come from. In all of 2011, the only times the band brought an unexpected song into exploratory territory was Bethel’s “Halley’s Comet,” PNC’s “After Midnight,” Blossom’s “Sneakin’ Sally,” Super Ball’s “Golden Age,” the Gorge’s “Roggae,” and UIC’s “Undermind.” Six times in 38 shows just isn’t that often. Though the band did bring “Waves” back into the improvisational mix this year, there are plenty of more pieces in their catalog that the could be brought back in similar fashion. Additionally, what if they took “Halfway to the Moon” for a ride? And this brings me to my next wish…
Because 2012 seems like it will be a light touring year, it feels relatively unlikely that we will see a host of new material infused into Phish shows. But in their fourth year of the modern era, the band sorely needs a new batch of songs. Having thoroughly played through their 2009 album Joy during the last three years, 3.0 Phish needs some more originals. If this is truly about moving forward, let’s keep moving. “Steam” represented the sole debut of 2011, a song that holds huge potential. But the rumors of a new Phish album have faded into the background. When the band dropped into “Steam’s” debut in Blossom’s second set, there came with it a freshness; this was Phish in the here and now. We were hearing a sick new music for the first time ever—it was exciting! It would behoove the band to roll out some more originals—including brand new jam vehicles—and bring a whole new element of excitement to their shows.
The Resurrection of Two Favorites
In addition to new material, the band really needs to bring two of their most open-ended jams back to prominence—“Tweezer” and “Ghost.” While Phish did throw down two excellent versions of “Tweezer” last year in Denver and Cincinnati, “Ghost” all but vanished from the scene with only one standout rendition in Charlotte. These two songs have traditionally been two of Phish’s most significant and exploratory jams; pieces that could go anywhere and would. And still, each time either of these songs started last year, that was the feeling I got. But aside from these three aforementioned examples—and they were spectacular—Phish never crafted a truly memorable jam out of either. Two of the band’s heaviest hitters should be highlights almost every time out of the gate, but neither has remained as consistent as in the past. The return of these two improvisational behemoths could greatly bolster any show they appear in.
More “Storage Jamming”
After playing a standout late-night set at Super Ball, Phish began to integrate this abstract, often Theremin-laced, style of improvisation into their live shows. As a result, some of the most original and groundbreaking jams took place during the second leg of Summer Tour. Hopefully, Phish will continue to explore this style of jamming during 2012. As in every era in their history, Phish may have found their newest “sound” within these abstract, psychedelic soundscapes. And as they continue to explore this style, nuances and tangential approaches will no doubt develop. “Storage jamming” represented Phish moving forward last year, as one would only hope that this innovative approach is built upon in the year to come.
Though Phish, far more often than not, threw down shows that flowed quite well last year, they also were prone to some boneheaded calls. For a band leader who, self-admittedly, used to pore over setlists for hours upon hours perfecting the way the show moved from beginning to end, Trey made some questionable off the cuff decisions during 2011. There are two separate—and minor—issues here: the abrupt ending, or cutting off, of jams, and song placement. Let’s look at the first.
Two times last year, deepening “Tweezer” jams (Alpharetta and Super Ball) were cut off abruptly for mid-set versions of “Julius”—talk about deflating the sense of intrigue. Two times “Ghost” got lopped before any sense of a jam really got going (PNC and UIC) in favor of more innocuous songs. Just on New Year’s Eve, when “Disease” settled out of its thematic rock and roll into a murky groove, Trey opted for the fade out. These types of instances were manifold last year, and most often it was Trey barging in with a new idea while his mates were still entrenched in a jam. And the irony of most of these occasions is that another thirty seconds of patience and communication could have allowed the band to merge the two songs with legitimate flow. Why does this continue to happen? I don’t think anyone will ever know.
The second aspect that occasionally plagued sets last year was song placement. No offense to the big guy, of course, but in the case of the two aforementioned “Tweezers,” “Julius” just doesn’t belong in the middle of the second set. Nor does “Guyute” or “Theme” or “Alaska” for that matter, all of which were featured in prominent second set slots throughout the year. In my estimation, finite rockers and intricate compositions don’t make for mid-second set pieces—there is simply no mystery involved. Everyone knows exactly where the song is going. Phish’s most powerful second sets are largely composed of jam vehicles and show stoppers, with natural landing pads, exhales and ballads mixed in. Sure, there are song-based shows where this paradigm flies out the window, but in general, “Julius” works far better at the end of a set as a rocking denouement than wedged awkwardly in the middle. Compositions like “Fluffhead” and “My Friend, My Friend” both which found their way into the middle of second sets during 2011, work far better as a closer and an opener, respectively. And straightforward songs like “The Wedge” or “Alaska” work best in the first set, not the second. These observations seem obvious to me and many others, and thus when they happen live, they seem all the more absurd. (See “Alaska > Velvet Sea” on NYE.) But alas, as I said to begin with, most shows of 2011 flowed quite nicely.
As we wait for the dates of 2012, it seems like the proper time to reflect on the year that was. And though Phish played better in 2011 than either of the previous two years, there are always parts of the show that could be sharpened. If the creative jamming continues to flow, perhaps some of these elements will fall into place. Or perhaps they won’t. But that’s my wishlist for Phish 2012.