Throughout the modern era, it has been proven time and time again that sometimes the guys just like to play songs and have fun with out flirting with exploratory jamming. In what amounted to one long first set, Phish ran through 26 songs—crushing each and every one—with airtight interplay and obvious precision. The musical highlights of the night were weighted in the first set, while the random song generator was in full effect for the second straight second set of tour. Phish’s “Shuffle Mode” set in after the break and they spat out songs with no rhyme or reason. The set craftsmanship of 2012 that we saw on display in Worcester and for most of Atlantic City was nowhere to be seen in Virginia last night, as the show lacked any coherence, whatsoever. Laced with fun antics in the second half, the band seemed to decide on songs with little thought as to the nights contour—a very odd juxtaposition to first week of summer. But Phish will be an enigma to the end, and all we can do is enjoy them while they are here in whatever form they take. And we got that going for us, which is nice.
The first frame set things up quite nicely for the second with highlights of “Tube,” “Babylon Baby,” “Bathtub Gin,” Stealing Time” and “Antelope.” The band followed up AC’s standout “Tube” with another swanky first setter, as Trey got creative with rhythmic comps and palm-muted leads while Page went buck-wild on his clav. With Mike and Fish playing together as smooth as ever, the pocket was deep and the band came together in an early throwdown on a humid summer evening. The second appearance of Mike’s “Babylon Baby” also stood out as the band moved through its jazzy interplay with precision and urgency, upping the ante from UIC’s debut. This jam carries a fresh sound into the mix, and I think can it can really become a modern staple if the band allows it into the regular rotation. Check it out.
The set really picked up in audience energy with “Bathtub Gin.” The band palpably upped the crowd’s enthusiam as the jam concluded the hot summer day and brought us into the “cooler” evening. The music took an upward swing as Mike and Fishman shifted out of conventional “Gin” territory with a dancier pocket that carried Page and Trey into a jam that had a rocket on its back. Blasting through this sequence as if a one-minded beast, the band proved once again that their state of playing is clearly not an issue this summer. Annihilating this “Gin” and taking it to the top with a fury, they sustained the last note and splashed into yet another first set standout—“Stealing Time.” The band has finally added a jam to this song after two years of existence, and with each play it’s getting more and more engaging. In a crystallization of the post-hiatus sound, the band entered a dirty, sparse, and swinging groove while Trey unleashed his uncompressed growls within the jam as opposed to an overpowering solo—really quality stuff. Look for “Stealing Time” in a second set coming to an amphitheatre near you soon!
Of all things, a Fishman appearance set the tone for the rest of the show. During his vacuum solo in “I Didn’t Know,” he made a joke about tucking his dress into his underwear—and the proceeded to do just that as he played the Electrolux. Ridiculous to the core, the joke of “tucking” ran through the rest of the show, altering the lyrics of several second set songs, as well as the final chorus of a burlier-than-thou, first set closing “Antelope.”
When Phish came out for the second half with “Back on the Train” and “Rift,” it certainly seemed we had a case of “Jukebox Phish” on our hands. Things got far more serious in an instant, however, as the opening beats of a “Split” rang through the intimate pavilion. Coalescing in this jam like they haven’t in any recent “Split,” the band’s polished playing made this version pop with terrorizing artistry. A slowed tempo allowed the music to breathe, and the band to really be able to listen and respond to each other with intricacy. Fishman—perhaps the emerging star player of this early summer—held down this jam with alternating beats that kept the guys on their toes, without room a moment of complacency. This dark excursion ebbed and flowed with Fish’s leadership, and when all was said and done, the band had—easily—crafted the most menacing and cohesive “Split Open” of this era and the no brainer highlight of the night—must hear Phish.
But just like in the final Atlantic City show, here started the run of questionable second set song choices. While “Mango,” “Number Line,” “Limb” and “Shine a Light” are all stellar songs, stringing them together as the “meat” of the second set just doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense. But one can’t criticize the playing of the band for a moment, and that is a lot more than we have been able to say over the past few years.
The show got particularly funny when Trey picked up a light saber while Fishman invited any guys that were wearing a dress in the crowd onto the stage to “tuck” during “Lengthwise.” Well, the first “tucker” had absolutely nothing to tuck his dress into and wound up bare-assing the entire audience to the humorous dismay of the band. Then, as Fishman called a girl to stage, Trey began waving the light saber as a Jedi, while mimicking the voice of The Emperor saying “The force is strong with this one” while pointing at the second audience participant. Embracing his own Jedi mythology, Trey continued his Star Wars antics as the band slid into “Maze,” playing some parts of the intro with light saber on guitar. Needless to say, the “Jedi Maze” absolutely crushed, but it did little to salvage a second set that had been long lost.
Finishing the night with “Cavern > Fire,” and a “Mexican Cousin,” “Slave” double-encore, the band went offstage having played quite well from note one of the show right through the last, but without crafting any sort of flow in the second set, the first set of this show has far more playback power. But that “Split” is some truly demonic music from a song that hadn’t produced any in quite some time. When we look back at this tour, the first night of Portsmouth won’t be one of the shows that pops out as a highlight, but that’s totally due to song choice and placement rather than any lack of musicianship. Things are looking quite good in the Phish universe these days, now if we can just get the second set back in order, everything should progress just fine.
I: Sample in a Jar, Party Time^, Simple > Axilla, Tube, Kill Devil Falls, Water in the Sky, Horn, Babylon Baby, Bathtub Gin > Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan, I Didn’t Know* > Run Like an Antelope
II: Back on the Train, Rift, Split Open and Melt*, The Mango Song, Backwards Down the Number Line, Limb By Limb, Shine a Light, Lengthwise* -> Maze, Cavern > Fire*
Encore: Mexican Cousin > Slave to the Traffic Light
^w/ Carl Gerhard of GCH on trumpet, * w/ “tucking” references