Phish, Deer Creek (aka Verizon Wireless Music Center), Noblesville, IN- 6/24
FROM THE TOURING DESK: It’s Still Deer Creek To Me
"It's still Deer Creek to me," read a sign held by a man near the entrance to Phish's show at Noblesville, Indiana's Verizon Wireless Music Center. Last night, during their final show there, an old favorite venue, Phish played at least a set-and-a-half's worth of nearly flawless music. It wasn't deeply adventurous so much that each piece of music acted exactly as it was designed. For the first two-thirds of the night, the band was in total control.
Perhaps it's idealistic, but I think that anybody who listens to Phish with any degree of seriousness – i.e. someone who has seen them more than, say, five times – has some kind of dialogue with the band — some specific element (or series of elements) that keeps him paying attention. These are the standards by which he judges the band, things that make for a good show: listening to the way the four musicians complement each other during their improvisations, using obtuse lyric fragments to reflect on the whole of the Phish experience, waiting for that moment of huge tension-and-release explosion, or just dancing. Though the ultimate goal of Phish's improvisation, it would seem, is an abandon that allows both band and listener to forget these dialogues, it is also these themes that provide for a framework to get to that point.
This quality of Phish's music stems from the fact that, more than anything else, perhaps, Phish is a creative process. Just about everything they've tried over the years, over the past week of their final summer tour, and over the course of last night's show at Deer Creek, has grown from a curiosity about different ways of making music. They have tried with guitarist Trey Anastasio as leader (the screaming guitar solo during "Down With Disease" near the end of the first set) and as a completely democratic unit (the improvisation which followed), irony (Anastasio's take on Jay-Z's "Girls Girls Girls" in Las Vegas in April) and sincerity (the band's runs through Jay-Z's "99 Problems" and "Big Pimpin'" with the rapper himself in Brooklyn last week), intense self-reflection (the hidden-camera post-set scrutiny featured in Bittersweet Motel) and uninhibited existence (the "no analysis" rule they introduced shortly afterwards). Every piece of music in their 20-year old songbook was, at one point or another, designed to serve some function – in the band’s live sets and greater body of work – grown organically out of the principles the band set for themselves.
Anastasio's solo during "Down With Disease" is a prime example. Though not among the deeper pieces of music he has written, over the years, the solo has grown into the equivalent of pop within the Phish universe. It's guaranteed to make a whole lot of people scream. Last night, Anastasio delivered it with aplomb, an enthralling reminder of why he has become one of the world's premiere arena-rock guitarists. As it is supposed to be, the solo was dramatic and impressive. It gave way to one of the night's best full-band improvisations, a tightly rhythmic uptempo jam which capitalized on the focus of Anastasio's solo, climaxing with a series of Who-like power chords and a shimmering upper-register arpeggio before transitioning gracefully into The Velvet Underground's "Rock and Roll." Every song did this, more or less, from the full-bore rock of the opening cover of The Rolling Stones' "Loving Cup" to the cryptic funk of Talking Heads' "Cities" to the crystalline double-time segue into the simple parable of the band's own "Back on the Train."
The second set began this way as well, with a long and excellent jam on Jon Fishman's "Tube," which remained danceable and funky without being obvious. Likewise, "Run Like An Antelope" built majestically towards its climax, Fishman (ultimately, the guy in charge of whether or not the band goes out or not) leading the band on a series of cool rhythmic tangents as they thundered towards its peak. With an unfocused rendition of "The Wedge," the band's control began to slip. The rest of the show was an up-and-down. "Timber" was big and jagged and weird, Fishman holding a galloping low end as Anastasio fired off peels of atonality. Like "Slave to the Traffic Light" on the first night, "Prince Caspian" was finely played, though seemed oddly placed. "Simple" saw the band bringing the song's cyclical chord changes down to a delicate twinkle, Fishman trying to bring the song outwards, shifting first into a swinging cymbal pattern, then a simple march before the jam ended gently.
The encore "Squirming Coil" – once written to convey a specific emotion – did not do what it was supposed to do, and it seemed to piss off Anastasio. Amidst a hail of roses from the front rows, the guitarist could hardly remember what he once breathed, losing the translucent piece of composition to feedback and memory. He fiddled unhappily with his amplifiers. As soon as the song reached the jam that ends with Page McConnell's piano solo, Anastasio removed his guitar and skulked off stage, exiting behind the band's gear. It was genuinely emotional, what Anastasio has long strived to be, though certainly not how he intended.
Fishman and bassist Mike Gordon soon tied up their own ends. Gordon departed first, then Fishman, to thunderous applause, characters exiting the scene for the last time to many fans. "Keep going, Page!" somebody yelled behind me. Eventually, McConnell ended the song, stood, and smiled warmly at the crowd, savoring what might have possibly been his final "Squirming Coil." He walked slowly around the front of the band's gear and, soon, he too exited.