Having just re-listened to Star Lake’s second set, I nearly shed a tear of joy upon the ending of “Slave”—this is the place I knew Phish would get to upon their comeback in 2009. Amidst so much skepticism, I believed that this band once would again blow our minds on a nightly basis. I had faith. In fact I knew it in my core. And in the mythical year of 2012, the time has finally come. Performing—what I can confidently say—is the best set of this era, Phish wrote another page of history in a venue of legend somewhere between Erie and Pittsburgh. Centering 42 straight minutes of connected, improvisational bliss in a second set that flowed like water, the band continues to set new standards for themselves this summer by the show. With stylistically innovative and self-referential jamming throughout the second set Star Lake provided a gleaming portrait of Phish 2012.
Following a standardish first set, and a fiery, though wholly regular, “Jibboo,” “Mikes” opener of the second, I thought we could be on our way to a “Saturday Night Special.” But when the band blossomed from “Simple” into the most engaging musical suite in memory, any thoughts of a glossy show vanished into the summer air. Easily the most astounding jamming we’ve heard all year took place in long form over the coarse of the second set, and it all started here…
Bubbling out of “Simple,” evoking memories of the Omni’s third set version in ’96, the band soon dissolved into a haunting sound sculpture that had “Storage Jam” written all over it. This four-piece mind-meld illustrated a desire to move beyond conventions, and as the piece was patiently floating further into the outer reaches of the Milky Way, Trey concluded the first movement with the opening to “Light.” One immediately felt that this jam would transform into the centerpiece of the show, and lo and behold, that is exactly what happened. Trey took an alternate type of lead out of the lyrics, favoring more notes rather than his usual pitch-bent melodies, a move that encouraged the rest of the guys to get involved early on. Transforming into an equitable and innovative conversation, this jam put a spotlight on the here and now with jamming that could only have come from 2012. With nobody in particular out front of the exchange, each band member patiently contributed exactly what needed to be played, forming a whole far greater than the sum of its parts. Over an eerie, beginning—driven my Mike’s envelope filter—Trey tastefully picked his spots with laser-like precision, dropping in the perfect rhythm chords to urge his bandmates into a fully-percussive exchange. Page used his clav to direct the jam into “plinko” land, and Trey responded appropriately, forming an aweing sonic tapestry. Picking up one of his own patterns and transforming it into a melodic theme, Phish had ascended into “plinko” heaven with the most forward-looking musical experiment we’ve heard since—well—the night before! As the band smoothly navigated the polyrhythmic exchanges, “Light” bent the boundaries of Phish music further than we’ve seen in a quite a while with some of the hippest, freshest interplay of the summer.
And as the band wound down, Trey coyly strummed the intro to “Weekapaug” and the band immediately jumped into the intro to the song laced with the exact vibe of the previous “Light” jam. And as the band set smoothly on sail the seas of “Weekapaug,” they continued to reprise elements of the previous jam throughout, while pushing the song much further than we’ve heard in this era. I cannot remember a “Weekapaug” as engaging as this one since the Island Run—and though I may be forgetting a version or two—that’s saying a hell of lot. When it comes to the modern “Mike’s Groove,” “Weekapaug” has transformed into the new “Mike’s Song”— the half where the improvisation really goes down. And that was never truer than at Star Lake last night within “Mike’s Simple Light Groove.” Getting into wah-based stop/start jamming, amidst a multi-tiered escapade, the band was in robotic crush mode and could do no wrong. As they came to the end of “Weekpaug,” however, they weren’t looking for applause. Tweaking the final note with drone-like effects, Trey brought the band into a demented outro that kept everyone enraptured. Artistically connecting this ambient interlude with the intro to “Seven Below,” “Mike’s Groove” may have been over, but Star Lake’s Suite was still going strong.
As the band precisely played though the song and dove into the minimalist jam, the virtuoso improvisation just kept unfolding. Trey immediately took the piece on a harder edged, yet melodic, course as the guys—particularly Page—responded with a delicate backing. As they momentarily settled, Page came in with a “Weekapaug” tease and the whole band jumped right on it, crafting a reprise of the jam and a legitimate mash-up of the two songs, bringing this monumental—and inseparable—musical sequence full circle with a stunning conclusion. Another fresh sounding and new-school jam blended perfectly back into the “Seven Below’s” theme, and Phish—finally—stopped playing for the first time since the start of “Mike’s Song” 50 minutes earlier!
In absolutely classic fashion, the band followed up their most complex musical sequence of the year with the song that lured so many of us towards this magical scene to begin with—“Boucing Around the Room.” Executed to perfection, this performance of the song reawakened me to how phenomenal the oft-maligned single really is. Part of the fabric of Phish’s essence—which is very much what this set was all about—“Bouncing” fit perfectly in the late-show spot. And following another slayed “Julius,” the band sealed the set with a cherry on top with a cathartic, heart-wrenching “Slave.” Building off the stellar versions from tour, this was the perfect slot for the soul-quenching anthem. Meticulously dripping into the ether, the words patient, refined and tasteful don’t begin to approach the utter majesty of this set-closing rendition. Peeking out of the mix, Trey’s final solo began climbing for the mountaintop and every open heart ascended with him. “Wow!” As the band left the stage, that’s about the only thought that crossed my mind. This was a whole new ballgame. This is why I kept the faith. This is why I believed.
To close the evening, the band came out and played the first song that ever hooked me—and at this point an absolute rarity—“Lizards.” How fitting that on a night that redefined Gamehendge as we know it, the band concluded the show with the song in which Colonel Forbin, himself, first discovered the mythical land. It’s 2012, and this is the Phish for which we’ve all been waiting. They have arrived, and the summer isn’t even halfway over. The adventures that still await us are beyond imagination, but I can’t wait to turn each and every corner with the most magnificent band on the planet.
Set One Notes: The first set, though nothing to freak out about, was certainly no slouch either. Stringing together some high-octane favorites to start the show, the band immediately set a high-energy tone and never looked back. The rarity “Scent of a Mule” featured a drawn out—first musical and then comical—“Mule Duel” in which the band stretched out the ending lick of the jam ad infinitum, even bringing Page’s Theremin on the stage so he could play the lick with abstract acumen. After a quick “46 Days,” the first “You Enjoy Myself” of the year finally rolled from stage, and the band closed the set with a laid-back jam session on their seminal opus. I’m all for infrequent “YEMs” if they routinely breathe and expand like this one. All in all, a solid, tight, rocking opening half.
Set I: Funky Bitch, Backwards Down the Number Line, Gumbo, Maze, Torn and Frayed, The Moma Dance > Scent of a Mule, 46 Days, You Enjoy Myself
Set II: Gotta Jibboo > Mike’s Song > Simple > Light > Weekapaug Groove -> Seven Below, Bouncing Around the Room, Julius > Slave to the Traffic Light
E: The Lizards