Despite Phish’s modern renaissance, set craftsmanship hasn’t exactly been one of their strong points since their ’09 return. Their days of meticulous attention to setlist flow have gone by the wayside and, most often, their highlights come as improvisational passages within less than tenacious frames of music. Many times, the band has had a powerful second set in the making only to have its cohesion disintegrate with a haphazard second half. (See 7/1, 8/19, or 9/1 for prime examples.) In their heyday, each song played had a purposeful role in the contour of a set, whether it was an opener, a launchpad, an interlude or a closer, but in the modern era, things have been a bit more piecemeal. Occasionally, however, Phish harnesses their artistry of old and sculpts a set that amounts to more than the sum of its parts, evoking the type of setlist continuity that was once second nature. Today, I present a handful of 2012 sets that fit such criteria. Below the capsule summaries is a poll to see which set you like the most. Enjoy!
6/7 Worcester II: Carini -> Taste > Ghost > Boogie On Reggae Woman > If I Could, Quinn the Eskimo, Harry Hood > Cavern > Buried Alive Reprise
Since 2010, Phish has most often come out on the first night of tours and dropped a monster show. Last summer’s opener in Worcester followed this pattern congruently. The second set of 2012 holds up as one of the year’s best, containing several standout, stylistically diverse jams. One of the hallmarks of strong sets throughout history has been a significant jam right off the bat, and in Worcester, “Carini” provided just that. Migrating from its dark feel into atypically melodic and ambient interplay, this jam stands up as one of the year’s most impressive and overlooked pieces. Spilling into “Taste,” in an unconventional pairing that worked quite well, the band then wasted no time getting back into the thick of things with a sinfully smooth sequence of “Ghost > Boogie On.” By melding “Ghost’s” creative, open jamming with a rousing, guitar-led shred-fest in “Boogie On,” Phish touched on several aspects of their skill set within this non-stop run. After using a gorgeous rendition of “If I Could” as a come down from their improvisational theatrics, the band plugged in “Quinn the Eskimo” as an interlude before closing things out with the classic combo of “Harry Hood > Cavern.” The band brought the night full circle while adding some Phishy spice to its ending by busting into a “Buried Alive Reprise,” revisiting the song that had opened the show.
6/15 Atlantic City II: My Soul, Birds of a Feather -> Back on the Train > Heavy Things > Twist > Piper > Billy Breathes, Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley > David Bowie
This set from Atlantic City is one of the more glossed over stanzas of Summer Tour. Boasting a liquid-like flow and non-stop jamming, there is no doubting its rightful place among the year’s best frames of music. Phish has long used punchy set openers to get things moving before getting their hands dirty, and in this case they employed “My Soul” in this fashion before diving into a long-form “Birds of a Feather.” “Birds” traveled far outside its conventions into an engaging, high-speed ride that eventually morphed into transcendence, serving a hearty dose of improv at the front of this set. Crafting an unlikely and seamless segue into “Back On the Train,” Phish maintained drill bit focus as they moved into a beefier-than-usual version of their Farmhouse era staple. When they came to the end of “Back on the Train,” Trey used his looping pedal to hint at “Heavy Things” and the band hopped aboard a smooth change into the song, continuing the turn-of-the-millennium era vibe to the set. The action continued with the classic song pairing of “Twist > Piper,” replete with a band-audience exchange of “Woooos” right through “Piper’s” introduction. “Twist” received some extra love, foreshadowing Cincinatti’s break-out version a week later, and AC’s “Piper” exists as one of the year’s most underrated renditions, featuring airtight and melody-based interplay throughout. The rare ballad “Billy Breathes” served as a poignant cool down and immediately following the breather, the guys dropped a fierce set-closing combo of “Sneakin’ Sally > David Bowie.” I have been perplexed why this set hasn’t gotten more attention in the overall discussion of 2012 as it was far and away the band’s strongest Atlantic City offering. Combining high-quality jamming and out of the ordinary song choices, everything came together on the first night down the Jersey Shore.
6/23 Star Lake II: Gotta Jibboo, Mike’s Song > Simple > Light > Weekapaug > Seven Below, Bouncing Around the Room, Julius, Slave to the Traffic Light
Phish’s second set at Star Lake stood out the minute it ended. With impeccable flow, clear structural intent, and plenty of improvisation, this one had it all. Firing collectively on this Saturday night, the band dropped a timeless frame of music in their Pittsburgh-area venue of lore. “Jibboo” got the party started as the band doled out some candy grooves before the scintillating meat of the show. The following 50 minutes—“Mike’s > Simple > Light > Weekapaug > Seven Below”—contained a unified suite that could be argued as the band’s most outstanding playing of the month. Though “Mike’s Groove” dictates a certain structure, Phish hadn’t exactly given the sequence much attention in the 3.0 era. But on his night that all changed. A fiery “Mike’s” gave way to a “Simple” that dripped into ethereal textures, moving things into a more cerebral realm. As the band dissolved into a sparse canvas, Trey came in with the onset of “Light,” and in this selection Phish delivered one of the indelible jams Leg One. Migrating from atonal loops into outright grooves and then into a now-famous calypso paradise, this version set the improvisational bar quite high for the song of the year. Phish closed out the “Groove” with a retro ’97 style take on “Weekapaug” that immediately popped as the most dynamic modern version. One expected the band to insert a breather after this focused four-song run, but instead Trey initiated “Seven Below,” tacking yet another jam onto this mid-set smorgasbord. “Light > Weekapaug” has overshadowed “Seven Below” ever since the show, but “Seven Below” has plenty to offer with its cathartic, full-band exchange. Punctuating the suite with this refined jam, the band concluded the centerpiece of the set. “Bouncing” is often reserved as a classy cool down from a particularly hot sequence and it absolutely fit perfectly in this slot. It appeared that the band would close the night with a serving of blues-rock in “Julius,” but upon its ending, they moved directly into a set-closing “Slave,” thus cementing the artistic contour of the frame.
8/15 Long Beach II: Rock and Roll > Ghost > Limb By Limb, Guyute, Dirt, Harry Hood > Good Times Bad Times
When Phish hit the west coast to start Leg Two, everyone had Long Beach circled as a potential blowout. A tour opener in an old-school area before a high key, three-night weekend in San Francisco had all the ingredients of a must-see show. And when the dust settled, Phish had dropped another spectacular tour opening bomb that contained, arguably, the set of the year. Many of the most successful sets in Phish’s career have started out with an improvisational monstrosity, and “Rock and Roll” kicked off Long Beach’s second half with exactly that. After a stellar opening leg of summer tour, fans looked for the band to stretch things out during Leg Two, and with a twenty-five minute exploratory epic in their first show, the guys got right to business. Spanning so many musical feels, all connected with notable fluidity, this “Rock and Roll” made a massive impact on the fan community. The band was loose, yet so connected, and they allowed this jam to take an organic course. Not focused on a single theme, but rather rolling through many, “Rock and Roll” represented the style of open-ended jamming that the band had been building towards over Leg One. This colossal foray into both darkness and bliss was just what the doctor ordered on a hot August night Southern California. Resolving this madness with a “Ghost” that peaked with ferocious and unrelenting catharsis, the band had crafted one of the year’s most spectacular sequences—and it didn’t take a re-listen to know that. Often overlooked in this frame’s opening run is the seamless move into “Limb by Limb,” a high-flying version that carried all the energy of the previous pairing. “Guyute” served as a well-placed composition after all the wide open jamming, and the band absolutely nailed it. “Dirt” slid in seamlessly as the emotional breather of the set before the most intricate and dynamic “Hood” of the year brought the crowd to its knees. Phish offered a ration of classic rock with “Good Times, Bad Times” to stamp this flawless set complete.
9/2 Denver II: Sand -> Ghost -> Piper > Twenty Years Later > Lizards, Harry Hood
Though Denver’s best music came during the weekend’s first two shows, Phish’s final set of summer was the tightest of the weekend. Only six songs long with no questionable calls, this stanza can make a strong argument for tops of the year. The now-revered Dick’s “Sand” kicked off this fiesta with an extended, three-tiered jam that moved from straightforward groove into a to-die-for middle section of ambient laced rhythms and concluded with a scorching rock peak. Instead of ending the song, however, the band made a silky smooth, calculated segue into “Ghost.” Though this version of “Ghost” didn’t stand out, especially in comparison to the other versions of the year, it served as a solid second-song jam that bridged to “Piper” via another seamless segue. “Piper” launched into the stratosphere quickly, as Trey fired off high-paced licks one after another. The level of interplay in this jam may, in fact, be the most locked in the band was all night as they crushed the compact piece. Phish descended from 50 minutes of non-stop action into a meditative cool down of “Twenty Years Later,” a modern song that was powerfully juxtaposed with “Lizards,” the classic Gamehendge composition that followed. These two songs symbolized the bookends of the band’s career on the final night of a transformative summer tour. And to close out the last set of the season, there was no better choice than “Harry Hood.” This thematic set-ending triumvirate closed an impeccably constructed frame whose craftsmanship hearkened back to a former era.
12/30 MSG II: Down with Disease > Twenty Years Later > Carini > Backwards Down the Number Line, Julius, Slave to the Traffic Light
The second set of December 30th provided the most musically impressive and conceptually crafted stanza of the New Year’s Run. This frame contained a darkness-into-light progression, though the entire vibe changed a bit to abruptly to necessarily label it artistic. The initial sequence of “Disease > Twenty Years Later > Carini” delivered a potent juggernaut of Sith-like sorcery whose menacing pathways were the stuff of dreams. The wide-open improv in “Disease” hit on several different themes while “Carini” got into the most abstract psych rock we’ve heard in this era. Bridged by “Twenty Years Later,” a dark single in its own right, this three-song run is a true anomaly in modern era Phish—the type of sinister music that has been absent from their current repertoire. However, the moment Trey decided that they were done with “Carini,” leaving a blissful tangent hanging in midair, likened someone scratching the record to a stop at a dance party, as he started the awkward intro to “Backwards Down the Number Line.” An iota of forethought could have made this move far smoother, and the jarring transition created the only speed bump in the set’s flow. This change of vibe ushered in the second half of the set, which continued with “Julius” and ended with a staggering “Slave” that immediately put its hat the ring for the top version of 3.0. To compare six-song stanzas, this one contained more impressive jamming than Dick’s, though it lacked the seamless segues that wove together the band’s summer swansong. Which is more important? Well…that is up to you.