With two sets of masterful music, Phish jumped into our hearts again. After a lackluster Holiday Run, it felt like an eternity since we had last seen a full throttle performance from the band, but that all changed over the course the first night in Worcester, Massachusetts. In one of their defining shows of this era, Phish played a second set that was plucked from a dream, restoring the faith of anyone who doubted their intent to continue to thrill and challenge our minds. The long off-season ended in colossal fashion last night, as Phish stepped onstage and immediately pushed deeper into their emerging style of 2011, which can only mean good things to come. In short, it’s sure gonna’ be an exciting summer!
After a standout opening set, Phish erased any memory of such happenings with a profound second half that touched upon the very essence of their musical experiment. Focused on whole-group improv throughout the frame, the band pieced together a once of those sets where every piece turned golden and added up to far more than the sum of its parts. The result was a non-stop musical suite that will—unquestionably—stand the test of time, and provide a soundtrack for many drives this season and for the rest of our lives. With magic in air in one of the land’s Phishiest venues, Summer Tour 2012 began in the most compelling way possible.
Kicking off the second half with “Runaway Jim,” the set immediately took on a different feel with the lost jam vehicle returning to a place of prominence. As they guys passed through the song, the plinko-fied section was still in place from 2011, but once the jam hit, everything else was quite different. Instead of noodling around the song’s theme, Trey morphed the usual jam into a series of light grooves that still carried the chord progression of the song. As he laid back with rhythm licks, Mike seized the opportunity to step up and direct traffic. Adding a banging lead bass line that wrapped around Trey’s offerings, the band was, all of a sudden, creating from a song that has lied dormant all era. Trey moved out of these lighter licks and into co-leadership with Mike, and together, they began to push their mates away from these grooves and into a more abstract sound. As Fishman changed the beat, Mike came along with him, while Trey and Page continued to paint sound over a slowing and darkening pocket. Evolving into a grinding piece of psych rock, the jam was reminiscent of the style of ’95 with the sounds and maturity of 2012—quite the combination!
With Mike and Fish locked together in this sequence, Mike began teasing a rolling melody that sounded quite familiar. Fishman was right with him as Trey noticed the shift and glanced over at the two. Seeming to catch onto something, he slowly began integrating choppier licks into this framework. About thirty seconds later, Trey used a series of full band hits to precisely nail the opening chords to “Light!” All the pieces came together in a glorious transition that occurred over the course of a minute. The Centrum exploded with energy as the band had torn apart “Jim” and crafted one of the more fluid and dynamic segues in memory into a sure-to-be launch pad. Never had the band entered “Light” with such fluid grace—or really any at all—so when they pulled off this maneuver, it was all the more impressive.
As the guys exited the vocals of “Light,” Trey laid into a well-phrased, atonal solo that set the table for big things to come. As Red backed eventually backed off , the band, like a machine, snapped into a four-minded exchange in which Trey, Page and Mike played heartfelt melodies that seemed to complete each other. One of those moments where the band simply “clicked” onto the same page, the set took an even deeper dive with the onset of this jam. Anchored in cathartic melody for the first section, the jam took a turn when Page came in with a darker piano melody that Trey caught wind of and immediately echoed into a lead guitar line. Fish, following Trey, synced his beat with the axe man, and the band—as a whole—began to slowly descend into the netherworld.
Flipping the course of “Light’s” uplifting jam, the four-headed monster reared its head as the music became less and less driven my melody and more about loops, layers and effects. Often times, with such overlapping textures, it was difficult to discern just who was making what sound. Mike thumped a descending bass line behind this madness that served as an adhesive to real world, while aliens invaded the venue. Kuroda seized the moment and blackened the room, leaving only several green “search light” beams moving throughout the room, in his most innovative display in a while. Amidst this beautiful cacophony, Page looped a pronounced synth lead as the jam followed an increasingly demented path. Then, out of nowhere, we began to hear the long, eerie tones of the Theremin amidst this primordial excursion!
And just as Page switched instruments and began to offer sounds that pushed the musical paradigm into another realm, Fishman subtly shifted into the beginning drumbeat of “My Left Toe.” For the first time since 1999 , Phish dusted off the Siket Disc track, and they chose the deepest of situations for its reemergence. If one wasn’t conscious of the abstract instrumental, they wouldn’t have thought the song had changed at all, as the band continued along the path they were traveling in seamless fashion.
Transforming into the no doubt centerpiece of the night, “My Left Toe” provided Phish the freedom—with just enough structure—to extended into the outer realms of the galaxy. Featuring original and spiritual interplay, this is one of those cases words can do no justice to the surreal nature of the astounding moment. The band engaged in unabashed soulful exchanges that sprang from the depths of their thirty-year musical and personal relationships. There seemed to be little thinking going on between the cosmic conduits as the sounds spilled graciously from their beings in a way we have seen only a handful of times in this era. Moving from amorphous and abstract beginnings to the most heart-tugging heights and just about every place along the way, his jam is Phish—no era qualifier necessary. Remaining completely cohesive throughout, “My Left Toe” was pure and uncut IT; the stuff all fans relish in regardless of age, number of shows, nation or creed. It was that good. I’ll let the music take it from here.
And when the guys descended from the mountain top via an ambient denouement, one had to think they would stop and relish the moment before selecting the next song. Well, it’s safe to say that my head wasn’t the only one that nearly exploded when Trey slowly trickled the “Tweezer” lick onto the abstract canvas! Not all at once, but a few bars at a time, while the whole band caught wind of his wonderfully outlandish idea. And just like that the band seeped into “Tweezer!” Was I dreaming?! I had to slap myself to make sure this was real. The band had started the set with “Runaway Jim” and had simply not stopped jamming. And with the outrageous roar of the indoor New England audience, off we went!
“Tweezer’s” gooey funk odyssey provided a dance party release from the deeply spiritual playing that had defined the entire set. Splashing into the jam with utmost enthusiasm, Trey looked like a goofy teenager who cared nothing but annihilating the upcoming jam. As the audience roared with approval, the band dove into a section of lock-step plinko-funk that torched the arena with rhythmic fireworks. After an extended series of this modern styling, Phish morphed into a more retro-styled funk groove a la ’97 / ’98. Trey laid into a series of rhythm licks he rarely break’s out these days behind the larger-than-life offerings from Gordeaux, and it felt as though we pushed through a wormhole to some Worcester show in history. The band stuck to this gorilla-sized jungle funk for what seemed like an eternity before Fishman hit a groove on his ride cymbal that urged Trey and company into a more upbeat pace. Trey took this cue to substitute his traditional guitar solo with an original and congruently upbeat lead line that became the spontaneous theme of the jam. Triumphant and powerful music through and through, the band could do no wrong at this point, playing improvisational music as if it were composed.
As the band chugged along, Trey altered his lead line, note by note, until he had built the entire melody to “Simple.” Mike was on it immediately, and instead of starting from the very first note of the song, the band just jammed on the melody until they were ready to sing. Another move that illustrated the uncanny flow to the set, “Simple” provided an arena rock punctuation to an unforgettable and non-stop string of music. Carrying out his solo in usual form, the band backed Trey with mellow textures that suggested the summer breeze—even if it was taking place in a overheated arena. As the band broke form, they engaged in a soft ambient sequence that seemed like an incredibly appropriate way to end the set. But just as “Simple” was vanishing into nothing, Fish bled into the hi-hat intro to “David Bowie.” Signifying the end of a jaw-dropping set, the crowd met the transition with an roar of excitement. As the band precisely nailed the opening half of the song and moved into the jam, everyone in the venue dug deep one more time. Moving from usual “Bowie” vamping into a noodly jam, Trey coyly teased “Simple’s” melody within the darker music. This small move, however, led the band to reprise the blissed out ambient outro of “Simple’s” previous jam as they made a switch into a major key. Creating a uniquely soothing vibe, the band actually stuck with it for more than eight measures and expounded on the idea over an intricate, though urgent, rhythm section. Peaking this sequence with explosive, feel-good leads, Trey then turned around to his bandmates and they simultaneously swooped back into the dark “Bowie” jam. The vibe throughout the building was electric, as everyone understood it was a night for the ages. The band tore apart the gnarling final sequence and passionately careened towards the last note—undeniably united. As they put took a breath, put down their instruments, looked at each other and then out at us, a palpable sense amazement arose. A collective catharsis connected every person the building—a victory for the universe on a night that was pulled from the stars.
Was this heaven? No, it was Worcester.
I. Wolfman’s Brother, Reba, Tube, It’s Ice, Spock’s Brain, Funky Bitch, Stash, If I Could, Antelope -> Catapult -> Antelope
II. Runaway Jim -> Light -> My Left Toe* -> Tweezer -> Simple > David Bowie
E: Sleeping Monkey, Tweezer Reprise
* Page on Theremin