Greeting Hotlanta with a big time second set on, ironically, the coolest night of tour, Phish migrated South on Tuesday without missing a beat and opened their two-pack at the best conventional amphitheatre in the game, Verizon Wireless in Alpharetta. Centered on the theme of Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker,” which the band jammed into from the set-opening “Rock and Roll,” the second half featured continuous teases of the hard rock anthem in virtually every tune. But unlike some similar sets that have become gimmicky, this one had plenty of musical meat throughout. Page seemed to take charge in many jams on Tuesday night, following a show at Merriweather in which Fishman anchored the improvisational effort, showcasing the democratic nature of modern Phish and allowing Trey to lay back and continue to dial in his whammy pedal—a tool, that believe it or not, will—and has already started to—bring the band’s new sound to the next level.
The guys played an incredibly standard opening set—especially in juxtaposition to Sunday night’s smoking first half—that even started to drag with the four-song sequence of “Army of One,” “Rift,” “Horn,” and “Possum.” But the show kicked into gear with the summer debut of “Pebbles and Marbles,” and from then on, the band meant business. Following a quick spin of the post-hiatus bustout, they dropped into a thick Southern “Ocelot” before “Cavern” seemed to end an uneventful frame. The second “Antelope” in as many shows, however, popped out of nowhere to give a bit of credence to the set’s final third. Though solid, this version didn’t pop like Merriweather’s or SPAC’s versions, let alone Bangor’s instant classic. Thus, when the lights came up on the incredibly spacious general admission dance floor after one of the least dancy sets in memory, it was quite clear that the flat cement playground would see its action after setbreak.
And just as predicted, when the lights dropped, the adventure started. Phish blew open “Rock and Roll” almost instantaneously, and only minutes into the set the band had found utter glory. Spinning into a blissful exchange, this jam elevated immediately—as if it only took a nod to surf the astral plane. The jam stayed in this happy place for some time, and when Trey played a descending lick that brought the guys out, it only took a few moments for Mike to begin tickling the bassline to “Heartbreaker.” Hopping on the Zeppelin tease, Trey led the band into the opening verse of the song, but when guys came out of that verse back into the jam, some of the filthiest music of tour went down. Page led, on clavinet, into a series of crunchy grooves that Trey painted in his uncompressed, post-hiatus growl. If you mainline Phish crack— which I highly recommend—check out this narcotic chunk of music. And while the audience was enveloped by this monstrosity, Trey orchestrated a back door segue into “Makisupa Policeman,” and the jam/song flow of the set began.
One would think that a 2013 Phish might give their reggae song some love for the first time in ages, but apparently they were saving it all for “Chalk Dust.” Placing their anthem square in the middle of the set, I couldn’t help but recall 2012’s heavily-improvised, leg two versions, while feeling we were about to witness another. And did we ever. While the aforementioned versions of 2012 were driven by melodic leads by Trey, the band opened up this jam into something different altogether and it blossomed into the highlight of the show. Launching from the actual “Chalk Dust” jam, Trey took a turn for the uplifting—similar to the initial shift of “Rock and Roll”—but this time, the band stuck with the vibe and scripted a stunning piece of new school Phish that oozed spirituality. Sounding momentarily like they were building towards “Architect,” they sidestepped the new song and continued to forge their wide-open path. Mike took the lead for much of this jam before Trey got a bit antsy and started up “Wilson,” a move that was all but forgotten when the band spilled into “Tweezer.” But how sick would it have been if they left out “Wilson” for a final section of “Chalk Dust” and segued into “Tweezer?” Hmmm…I digress.
As soon as “Tweezer’s” jam hit, Trey kicked into “Heartbreaker,” but when they dropped back into “Tweezer,” it was Fishman who took the helm, steering the ship into an ocean of hard groove. Trey played with a funky then ferocious sensibility, keeping up with Fish in a true dance floor throw down that took full advantage of the glorious concrete of Alpharetta. But just as the jam turned away from straight rhythms and began to transform into something greater, Trey dropped out, insisting the band come with him, thus they quickly—though artfully—put together a segue into “Silent in the Morning.” Call me a monkey’s uncle, but that “Tweezer” had about five more minutes of beauty left, but what can you do but count our blessings and come back tomorrow.
At this juncture, the set turned somewhat songy in contour, quasi-resembling a 2012 second half, but this time the music within those songs was far more impressive. Placing “Birds of a Feather” in the main event for the second time in three shows, they—again—tore the piece apart with creative, contained jamming. And then the parade of summer “Hoods” continued, this time highlighted by delicate rather than driving playing by Big Red. A beautiful version put a nice cap on the set, while balancing it with a final jam before “Character Zero” closed things out.
The first night in Alpharetta had “post-Northeast, mid-week let down” written all over it. If there was going to be an off night of Summer 2013 it was going to be Tuesday. Once the band hits Chicago this weekend, it’s all big time shows from there on out less Toronto. In the past few years, the guys might have come down South and tossed in a token effort last night, but that’s not how Phish 2013 rolls. In fact, they just keep on rolling and rolling and nothing in this universe seems like it can stop them. We are not quite at tour’s midway point and the sets just coming. Only one more show before Phish hits the Midway for a marquee trifecta—see you on the dance floor!
I: Kill Devil Falls, Mound, Bathtub Gin, Army of One, Rift, Horn, Possum Pebbles and Marbles, Ocelot, Cavern, Run Like an Antelope
II: Rock and Roll -> Heartbreaker^ -> Makisupa Policeman > Chalk Dust Torture^ >Wilson* > Tweezer* -> Silent in the Morning, Birds of a Feather, Joy, Harry Hood* > Character Zero*
E: A Day in the Life > Tweezer Reprise