A Spellbinding Set

Ascend Amphitheatre [Rene Huemer]

Every now and then, Phish crafts a perfect set of music. Such statements are filled with top-shelf improvisation from start to finish, contain an impeccable set list, and feature jams that are stylistically diverse, illustrating just how dynamic this quartet can be at the peak of the their powers. On Wednesday night in Nashville, Phish dropped one of these sets. Twenty-four hours after playing a modest show to open their twin bill in Tennessee’s capital, the band returned to the stage and knocked it out of the park in what has to be considered the best frame of music of their young summer tour.

At their best, Phish are master set crafters who create flowing musical experiences that bring their audience on a thoughtfully contoured journey. Their once drill-bit focus on set crafting has fallen by the wayside a bit in the 3.0 era. These fully realized sets still happen, but they are fewer and further between than in Phish’s hey day. A number of variables create requisite flow for such an artistic statement—set list, transitions, jam length, and musical contrast to name a few. Once again, the band’s second performance in Nashville’s provide an illustration of all of these elements.

Phish sparked the night’s musical fire with an incendiary take on “Mr. Completely.” The band members immediately sounded in sync as they splashed into this jam, and they built a spirited journey that ran the sonic gamut from clean, delicate and nuanced interplay to vigorous, heavily effected soundscapes. Navigating this piece with notable patience, the band members listened and responded to each other diligently.

Breaking out of a quiet ending of “Mr. Completely” with a raucous jolt into “Birds of a Feather,” Phish injected some straightforward rock and roll into the set before stepping right back into adventurous jamming with “Ghost.” A creeping version of the late-‘90s groove machine saw Trey feature his Leslie cabinet to voice his contributions, giving the jam a notably eerie feel. Only towards the end of the piece did he pop back into his clean tone as the band began to consider their next move. It sounded like Mike and Fish initiated the pocket of “Bathtub Gin” well before the band moved into the song, but Trey responded with a tease of “Mr. Completely,” possibly suggesting a return to the set opener. Fish then went along with Trey, bringing back the song’s signature rhythm, but the band didn’t commit, continuing their open-ended jamming. Minutes later, however, they executed a smooth group-wide segue into “Gin” without breaking stride.

A fiery, guitar-led group romp through “Bathtub Gin” provided a stark juxtaposition to the more outward playing heard in the set’s opening two excursions. The clean, largely effect-less interplay invigorated the set with an rollicking energy that really hit the spot.

The final hit of “Gin” transformed into the opening hit of a syrupy “2001” with a tempo that likened the slower grooves of Deodato’s original composition and the Phish’s earliest takes on it. The thickness of the groove even translated through the audio stream, which means that shit was pure goo on the dance floor.

But even after all this action, the best was yet to come as Trey called for the set closer of “Split Open and Melt.” “Split” saw quite the renaissance in 2018, highlighted by the mind-bending epics from The Gorge, Hampton, Las Vegas and MSG. And Nashville’s master work belongs right along side these in the annals of all-timers. At its best, a “Split” jam will blur the line between pure dementia and tight cohesion, as its odd time signature, dark tonal color, and penchant for abstraction create a disorienting psych-laced adventure. This version did all that and then some. The set closing jam began with very intricate and connected interplay in which one could easily follow the conversation, though it ultimately reached a symphonic crescendo where the band collectively played one sound, muddying the boundaries of their four individual contributions into a whole far greater than the sum of its parts. This jam popped out of my speakers live, and held up just as well on multiple relistens —this is a truly elite Phish and the perfect exclamation point on a monstrous set of music.

As the first leg of Summer Tour 2021 reaches its halfway point this weekend, Phish has fully regained their footing after 17 months away. It feels like Nashville’s second performance is ushering us into the second stage of this comeback tour, where the sheer excitement of their return of a crowd has moved through the band and they are back to business in earnest. It is an exciting prospect to think of what the next week plus will bring to fruition, especially as they prepare to step into the hallowed cornfields of Deer Creek. The round two bell is ringing and we are here for it.

I. Evolve, Free, Ocelot, My Sweet One, Cool Amber and Mercury, Halfway to the Moon, Water in the Sky, Theme From the Bottom, Suzy Greenberg, Fluffhead

II. Mr. Completely > Birds of a Feather, Ghost -> Bathtub Gin > Also Sprach Zarathustra > Split Open and Melt

E. Character Zero



I am writing this piece in the air as I travel from the Bay to Indianapolis for Deer Creek and beyond. I made my decision before this show happened, but if there was ever anything to support it, this set was certainly it. I will wear a mask at the shows, first and foremost, by choice, but just as importantly, to respect the band’s wishes. If I feel comfortable at these shows, I will also be going to Hershey and Atlantic City. Thus, I am not sure if I will continue writing or at what pace. But it has certainly been fun to revisit this space after so many years away, so I suspect I will continue in one form or another.  Hope to see some of you out there this weekend!

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