Playing their best show of the summer—including a flawless second set—Phish raised the bar for 2013 on Saturday night at the Gorge. With a patience and a fluidity that has come to define their efforts at the Gorge, the band wove a stunning non-stop tale after dark, thick with virtuoso jamming and on point musicianship. With Phish as on point at they are right now, the variable of their shows is set craftsmanship, and last night they hit the nail on the head, sculpting a defining frame of music with nary a note out of place. It is nights like last that we will tell stories about for years to come. It is nights like last that bring us back again and again. It is nights like last that live forever.
The band eased into the early evening with the first ever “Architect” opener, working so much better than we ever did expect, and fitting the mood congruently. Dropping the first “Golgi” of tour in a surprise slot, the band had crafted an unmistakably afternoon vibe in only two songs. Expounding on this vibe with “The Curtain With,” the band treated the audience to an afternoon delight with a wide open, very slow take on the “With” jam, the unquestionable highlight of the show’s opening half.
Phish veered from the beautiful tone they had set with the squealing intro to “Kill Devil Falls,” and though their playing remained sharp, all of a sudden the set got standard. There were, however, two aberrations, and one bodes incredibly well for the Phish universe. After “Roses,” the band played a bluesy Americana-sounding song that many assumed to a JJ Cale cover, as everyone expected the band to honor the late guitarist. But when a friend told me that it was a Gordon/Murawski original called “Say Something,” my ears tuned in on a whole different level. And before long the guys were knee deep in some dirty grooves, foreshadowing yet another new jam vehicle, this time of the Gordeaux vintage. The band’s tribute to Cale unfolded songs later in a blistering run through his classic, “After Midnight,” a cover with all sorts of Phishy implications. But the best was yet to come.
With all of the heavy hitters on the table, the band chose to open the second set with “Down With Disease” for the second time in three shows—a seemingly odd move until I remembered that so many epic Phish tales begin with the classic spring board. Bouding to life with a creative narration, in retrospect—on respin—this “Disease” jam carried a rhythmic direction pointed towards “Undermind” from the get go. With no reason to consider this at the show, when listening back one can hear the band work towards “Undermind” for virtually the entire jam, creating one of the slickest segues of tour. Drenched in fresh ideas, and totally different from Toronto’s masterpiece, “Disease” opened the gateway to a mystical land.
If Friday night’s “Crosseyed” was one of the timeless jams we would leave the Gorge 2013 with in tow, last night’s “Undermind” was the other. As expected, when placed in the second set, this song was a lock for utter glory. Following up Dick’s 2012 all-timer (which actually closed the first set), last night’s second setter found the mountaintop and beyond in a one of the most profound jams of the season. Moving from the song’s playful rhythms and into soul-gripping music, the band rode Fishman’s celestial rhythms, elevating to catharsis and then stepping into the void with a spacescape that felt connected to the endless sky above. A dynamic jam that touched on so many musical elements of Phish, “Undermind” provided an improvisational centerpiece to the set, but the action was far from over.
The relentless flow continued with “Light,” an instant shot of adrenaline to any show—and we were already pretty damn high. Blasting into a tight-laced exploration, the band actually covered more ground than I remembered when I listened back, a certain case of musical density. And as the jam was chugging along, Trey initiated a back door segue into “Sneakin Sally,” a surprise move that blew the already imploded amphithetare to smithereens. But when then band dropped into the funk, things got pornographic. Kicking off a Gorge-sized dance party with a massive wah lick, Trey dug into his rhythmic playing and set things afire. It’s certainly great to be living in a world again where Trey wears t shirts on the regs and favors his wah pedal above just about all others. Yeah—life is good.
The best part about last night’s “Sally,” however, is that the guys didn’t stop at the funk, but transcended it with a driving, atmospheric passage of pure west coast Phish crack. This infectious segment morphed into a portal to “2001,” creating a dance pairing for the ages. Locking into the same groove they favored in Alpharetta’s version—a lick that emerged in last summer’s renditions—the band met their intergalactic surroundings with some music to match.
At this juncture, it was anyone’s guess as to what song would be next, and Trey collected from all bettors when he choose “Walls of the Cave.” The post hiatus song served as an introspective comedown from the monumental hour of music that had just unfolded, and just when you thought the band might play out some songs, they improvised out of the end of the “Walls” jam and segued into “Fluffhead!” Yup, it was that kind of night.
Once again placing their iconic composition in a perfect slot, it felt like they might let the feel-good anthem take us home. But surprisingly, they followed it up with a vigorous, open-air take on “Run Like an Antelope.” Boom. Punctuating, dare I say, a perfect set of Phish, this “Antelope” popped with both energy and creativity. On nights such as last, when the band bows in their post-show adulation, one can’t help but bow right back.
Whenever they are announced, it is all but assumed that Phish’s performances at the Gorge will be among the most special of summer. This year, however, these shows represent a new high water mark for the Vermont quartet as they begin their descent down the west coast for summer’s home stretch. Raising their game considerably from the Midwest, Phish has laid it on the line in the summer of their 30th year, and this final week should be something really special.
I: Architect, Golgi Apparatus, The Curtain With, Kill Devil Falls, The Moma Dance, Maze, Beauty of a Broken Heart, Roses Are Free, Say Something*, Ocelot, After Midnight
II: Down with Disease -> Undermind > Light -> Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley > Also Sprach Zarathustra > Walls of the Cave > Fluffhead, Run Like an Antelope
E: Show of Life, Good Times Bad Times