Phish, Deer Creek (aka Verizon Wireless Music Center), Noblesville, IN- 6/23
FROM THE TOURING DESK: Scents and Subtle Sounds
After a friend of mine procured a ticket for the second night of Phish at Coney Island, he called me and told me that he realized what he would miss most about their retirement: the license, while in possession of a ticket, to be completely irresponsible. "I just haven't done shit since I got it," he told me. It's true. Since Phish tour began a week ago, my own daily routine has gone to the dogs. I've barely even glanced at a newspaper, let alone kept up with the grim machinations of the war, the Presidential campaign, or even my non-Phishhead friends' personal lives. The other day, driving through small dust storms and blinding mini-monsoons en route to Ohio (and then Indiana) for the Midwestern leg of Phish's summer tour, the outside world made itself known in the form of the absurd gas prices. (An incalculable question: If Phish had never developed a touring following, how much gas would have been saved? How much more ozone layer would there be?) But, hey, it feels real good to get lost in Phish's world. Why shouldn't it?
Nestled amidst cornfields, the Verizon Wireless Music Center – known once and forever to Phishheads by its Dead-era name, Deer Creek – is a popular venue. It is renowned not so much for its acoustical or architectural properties, but for the miles of jerry-rigged campgrounds within walking distance of the parking lot. With no major metropolitan area, save for Indianapolis, within spitting distance, it feels very much like a private venue for Phishheads. And for Phish themselves, for that matter. The first set started with a summery sequence of tunes. "Bathtub Gin" broke loose from its moorings, sailing off into a melodic jam with guitarist Trey Anastasio peeling off small waves of noise.
One of the many bummers about Phish's end will be the fact that Anastasio and drummer Jon Fishman won't have an official outlet to play together anymore — though, more than any other two members of the band, it's hard to imagine the pair never playing together again. In jams, they are usually the first two to really hook up, even unconsciously. The "Bathtub Gin" was no exception, Anastasio surfacing from his feedback every cycle for a one-beat accent with Fishman. Each musician in Phish has some kind of perpetual dialogue with the other three, different ways to fit around his bandmates. Their songs, frozen compositions, will last. The chance to hear their uniquely complementary in-the-moment dialogues will not. One hopes for as much improvisation as possible in the little time the band has left together.
The only other real jam in the first set came during a bizarre "Split Open and Melt," where Fishman enacted a Sisyphean musical variation of comedian Andy Kaufman's infamous bombing routine, where the performance artist would flounder onstage, not revealing his control over the situation until the very end. During the regular 4/4 groove, Fishman would let his drum part collapse, seemingly unintentionally, before suddenly waking when the band got to the trickily emphatic bar of 9/8. Then he would let it collapse again. I'm not sure if it worked, but it was fun to listen to. It was vintage Phish (and vintage Fish, for that matter).
The second set was a little meatier, though had an uneven flow. The jam on the opening old favorite "Halley's Comet" was cut short as Anastasio splice-cued the band into the Talking Heads' "Crosseyed and Painless." The hyper-Afro groove of latter built to an impressively full-tilt rage through a series of Anastasio-driven peaks, though burned itself out before it could develop too much depth, melting into an out-of-place mid-set "Slave to the Traffic Light," during which Anastasio sustained one note for several minutes while his bandmates constructed gentle climaxes behind him. Though the song itself sounded as if it barely existed, "Nothing" found the band sounding just plain relaxed as they urged an awfully pretty jam out of the tune’s sophomore appearance, one of the definite highlights of the night. Anastasio moved the jam out of key and time into a dissonant sequence. The band followed gamely and came up gracefully in the blues-funk of "46 Days," though bobbled the modulation into the correct key. Oh, well.
The band surely had to rehearse the second half of "Scents and Subtle Sounds" for their Monday appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman (which seemed to herald the official death of the still-not-played "The Connection" as Undermind’s "breakthrough" single) and the version they turned in at Deer Creek showed just exactly what Phish is capable of doing with their new material when they put their pointy little heads together and practice. Like the best of Phish’s songs, it was captivating and dramatic, sounding – with its pounding tom rolls and off-time accents – like a great forgotten outtake from one of Pete Townshend’s rock operas. The dynamics – which seemingly work in reverse: loud intro, graceful bridge, impossibly quiet outro, instead of the other way around – were perfect and unthinkingly confident. Yay. It erupted into the night’s best jam, too, which built very much like "Harry Hood" – an octave bass groove from Mike Gordon, great work by Fishman – albeit without the pressure of having to end it. Instead, it slipped into "Brian and Robert," one of the gentle triumphs of Anastasio’s late ’90s output with songwriting partner Tom Marshall. Lovely, indeed.
Summer camp continues.