Phish came back to the beach on Saturday night and showcased the exploratory and innovative side of their improvisational game, veering from the groove-centric affair on Friday night. With abstract improvisation dispersed through both halves, Saturday night’s show became a playground of the mind, leading the audience down dark corridors in every major jam. Musical diversity is Phish’s calling card, and tonight they focused their lens firmly on experimental playing.
One of the best developments of this summer has been band’s substantive first sets. It really changes the dynamic of a show when Phish plays two halves of engaging music, and that’s what they did once again on Saturday. The opening set centered on two separate three-song sequences, the first coming right off the bat in the show-opening trio of slow “Llama,” “Tube,” and “Destiny Unbound.” This run ignited the show with a bevy of dance rhythms right off the bat, a trend that wouldn’t continue. The other trifecta that served to deepen the music came in the form of “Reba,” in which Trey unleashed a delectable solo, “Soul Shakedown Party,” and the unquestionable standout of the opening frame, “Split Open and Melt.”
Following up Nashville’s all-timer, Phish uncorked another mind-bending version on Saturday that saw an incredibly patient band cohere to sculpt a hypnotic experiment in sound. Although the band was clearly listening and responding to each other meticulously, the resulting conversation presented as a single piece of abstract art. This jam showcased Phish’s ability to play as a single entity, focusing less on melody and rhythm, but more exclusively on textures and layers that envelop the listener in a fully immersive sonic environment—some truly avant-garde music.
The second set centered on the superb sequence of “Drowned” > “Ghost” that saw Phish craft completely innovative and original jams out of both pieces. The band took The Who’s rock anthem on a wild ride that passed through its rock-based structured outro and modulated through a melodic segment en route to a churning and mechanical musical space. In this astounding arrival, Trey favored repetition and darker tones in creating a drone-based and meditative mantra.
My favorite excursion of the night came next in an utterly original take on “Ghost.” This jam continued the trance-inducing improvisational vibe of the night, as the band crafted a slow-paced and menacing passage with each band member offering minimalist contributions that created a masterful whole. Fishman’s delicate cymbal work created a shimmering framework to the music, while his drumbeat formed a slow-burning backing groove that kept this piece glued together. And before one even realized what was happening, the band pulled off a seamlessly smooth segue into “Scents and Subtle Sounds.”
At this point in the set, much like when “Everything’s Right” started on Friday, it felt like we were on the verge of an all-time frame of Phish. But as the “Scents” jam started there seemed to be some miscommunication on stage. Even so, the jam was right there for the taking, but instead of righting the ship, Trey quickly grew impatient and bailed out hard into “Chalkdust” in an inexplicably jarring move that completely busted the flow of the set. Honestly, there are few decisions that would have made less sense at this juncture, and Fishman even called him out at the beginning of “Chalkdust” for the debacle.
The ensuing jam in “Chalkdust” actually got quite intricate and interesting, reprising the abstract feel of the “Split” jam from earlier in the show, but it certainly took some mental recalibration to get back into the flow of things. Blending this piece into “No Quarter,” the band recovered from the mid-set hiccup far better than they did on Friday night, continuing the set with high quality musicianship and not derailing into a string of disconnected songs. “Slave” put an exclamation point on the night before “Suzy” tacked on some extra fun to end of the set.
One night is left on the first leg of Phish’s mid-pandemic comeback tour, and the elusive fully flowing, complete set statement of Atlantic City still sits on the horizon. Whether or not it will transpire remains to be seen, but the past two shows have provided a plethora of extraordinary music and a whole lot of fun amidst a massive beach party down the shore. That said, I’m keeping the faith that tomorrow will be the night.
I. Llama, Tube, Destiny Unbound, Ya Mar, 46 Days, Reba, Soul Shakedown Party, Split Open and Melt, The Squirming Coil
II. I Never Needed You Like This Before, Drowned > Ghost -> Scents and Subtle Sounds > Chalk Dust Torture > No Quarter, Slave to the Traffic Light, Suzy Greenberg
E. A Life Beyond The Dream, Tweezer Reprise