Everything sounds different now. Whatever took place during the off-season has resulted Phish has coming out of the gates in 2012 with a renewed intent to do things differently than they have in the past few years. At every musical fork in the road, the band is choosing the path less traveled—and that has made all the difference. Examples of this were strewn throughout the show—in both sets—and it made for power-packed night of adventure. From the first “Roses Are Free” jam in 12 years—and only the third of all-time—to the slowed down 180 degree polar opposite take on “Bathtub Gin,” the band set a precedent in the first set of the show that fulfilled Trey “Kill Devil Falls” lyrical prophecy—“This time it’s gonna” be different.” And from the first two nights of tour, its sure looks like that will be the theme Summer 2012.
One of the most profound diversions of last night show was the re-emergence of the first set. We’ve been waiting for this to happen for most of this era, and perhaps last night’s opening half could be a sign of things to come. Using both sets equally last night, the show elevated right off the bat as Phish promptly moved from the end of “Roses Are Free” into a compelling and exalting jam in only the third song of the show! Trey began soloing over a sparse and nuanced pocket in a tone reminiscent of the Cypress version, as the band set sail on a jam that has little to no precedence. Anchored by a sublime four-piece conversation, the band moved fluidly through one of the most spectacular jams of the night, and one of the moments so many fans have been waiting for since the dawning of a new millennium. Weaving totally original music on the spot, mere minutes into the show, it was clear that the re-energized and revitalized band we saw in Thursday’s tour opener is here to stay.
Following a fourth-song landing pad (!) in “Theme,” the string of “Axilla,” “Julius, “ and “Bouncin” kept the energy high for the heavy end of set couplet—“Maze” and “Bathtub Gin.” “Maze” featured some of the most ferocious Page and Trey interplay of the night as Trey comped Page’s outstanding organ solo with hard-edged, atonal offerings. And then it was Big Red’s turn to take center stage. With a fiery solo that illustrated a finger dexterity of lore, Trey assumed the role of guitar assassin in “Maze”—and throughout the show—in a way that he didn’t on night one. He was on fire all night and it not only reflected in the jams, but also in song choice as everything seemed hand selected for Trey to really expound on his six-string theatrics—but it all happened naturally. Not one element of the last two nights has seemed forced or thoughtless at all, and that—in itself—is a huge change for the better.
The band continued their inventive takes on old songs with a “Bathtub Gin” that was different than any in this era. Favoring a slow and rootsier cadence, with a heavy, wobbly bass—similar in feel to last night’s “Ocelot”—the band moved away from the upbeat and linear versions that have been so prevalent in 3.0. And by stepping back and allowing the music to breathe, they created a whole new dynamic in a jam that had turned fairly stale over the past couple years. Slowly climbing out of the initial gooey textures, the band was actually able to reach a far more effective peak than they would have if they had headed straight for the top. Trey and Mike stood out in this “Gin,” as the two guitarists’ interplay anchored the atypical experiment. Finally reaching a furious pace, Trey’s solo led a chugging and cohesive band to the peak of the jam, and the end of a spectacular opening frame.
While the second set didn’t necessarily contain the impeccable fluidity of the Thursday’s main event, the playing throughout was no less spectacular. Sidestepping the twenty-pound “Tweezer” sitting in the room, the band launched into the second set with one of their most consistently creative jams of this era, “Down With Disease,” and this version would be yet another notch in the song’s belt. At risk of sounding repetitive, the most exciting fact of this extended jaunt was how the band allowed things to ebb and flow naturally; the contours of song never once felt predestined. Allowing their improvisational chops to do the work instead of their thinking minds, the resulting music was surreal. Exiting the composed jam, the band opened the piece into an equitable three-piece conversation backed by some of the smoothest break-beats you’ll hear Fishman play. Truly a jam that equaled more than the sum of its parts, the band concluded this sequence with with Floydian denouement that—if I had my druthers—would have continued for quite some time. But as the jam came to a close, Trey brought in the opening riff of “Sand”—and this would be a spectacle to behold.
When my buddies and I looked at the Live Phish app after the show last night and saw that “Sand” was listed at 8 minutes and twenty seconds, we at first considered if it was a typo. But upon listen back, it just may be the most densely packed groove leviathan to ever see the light of day. At points within I was so overtaken by what was blaring from the speakers I felt like I could hardly dance. If you are ever in major withdrawl from straight up Phish crack, mainline this “Sand” and you will be taken off to never, never land. Crystallizing all that was right about the groove era and moving beyond it with modern accoutrements, the band let things hang out in a dance jam like none other in recent memory. When Trey infused a “plinko” melody into the already textured-funk, the roof blew off the The Centrum for the second straight night. Soon, taking a melody he had played earlier in the jam, Trey led the band away from the darker textures and actually moved fluidly—in a WTF? move—from “Sand” into the bluegrass stylings of “Nellie Kane.” And they somehow pulled it off without missing a beat.
The heavy-handed groove would continue, as the band fit a smoking, though succinct “Mike’s Groove” in the middle of the set with a dubbed out “Makisupa” interlude. On point and hard-nosed playing, though nothing outlandish, characterized this mid-set sequence that was back-weighted in “Weekpaug.” It seemed that the band had time for final set closer, but instead of going for a larger song, they chose to bust back into the groove-based theme of the set in a scorching “2001.” And what a great decision it was, as the band finally put some balls behind the usually compact funk instrumental. The opening half of the song featured more laid back Trey, while in the second half, he got on top of things with a swagger. First using swanky rhythm chops and then moving into jazz-fusion leads, he painted the uber-infectious dancescape multiple shades of red. Following the final helping of funk, the boys headed for home with “Character Zero.” And keeping it fresh until the very end, “Zero” even featured an uncharacteristically grimey breakdown.
After only two shows, Phish has set the bar quite high for Summer 2012, and right now the sky is the limit with the fluidity and one-minded playing on display in Worcester. As the band heads down for a show at Bonnaroo and then back up to AC next weekend, this summer is just getting started. Be it the Mayan mythology of new beginnings and spiritual evolution, Phish seems to be locked into the themes of the ancient calendar as we evolve—as a community—into Phish 2012.
I: Free, Kill Devil Falls, Roses Are Free > Theme From the Bottom > Axilla, Julius, Bouncing Around the Room,Maze, Bathtub Gin
II: Down with Disease > Sand -> Nellie Kane, Mike’s Song > Makisupa Policeman > Weekapaug Groove, Wading in the Velvet Sea, Also Sprach Zarathustra > Character Zero
E: The Oh Kee Pa Ceremony > Suzy Greenberg