Phish, Nikon at Jones Beach Theater, Wantagh, NY – 7/3-4
Phish began their two night holiday run at Jones Beach in grand fashion, busting out “Skin It Back” for the first time since the late 80’s, much to the pleasure of everyone in attendance, but especially the guy standing in front of the soundboard section who was holding a large yellow “Skin It Back” sign. The song started with something sounding a bit like “Spanish Moon,” but maybe it just sounded like Little Feat, and ended with a really excellent jam, Trey soaring over a big groove—a bit like “Birds of a Feather.” It was a very strong opening card in a summer filled with truly stunning performances and extremely interesting and engaging set lists.
By contrast the most common song in 3.0 followed, “Possum”, a good version, fun, but nothing too special, even a little unbalanced. In fact most of set one would fall under that umbrella: good, fun, pretty at times, but not amazing. “Tube” was tight; “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” was totally unexpected and smile inducing. A classic “Mike’s Groove” began with great drumming right away, and the improv opened under red, purple and blue lights that shifted to inverted yellow cones in the darkness, painting the stage like some shimmering lunar cityscape during the peak plateau. “Weekapaug” had a playful edge to it as the guitar meandered through the middle of the tune to finish a nice, straightforward take on the suite. A bouncy “Halley’s Comet” followed, with an aggressive burst at the end that quickly turned into “Axilla”, and then eased into that summeriest of tunes, “Ya Mar.” During the final passage of “Joy” big gusts of cooling wind passed through to accompany the swollen bass, a very effective complement from Mother Nature that made way for the set’s last big moment, a slick “Jesus Left Chicago”. It smoldered through Page’s solo and blazed through Trey’s, with Mike and Fish always driving it on. Hot, hot, hot.
While the first set was good and fun, the second set had people howling, but that’s often been the case in the past couple of tours: first sets are largely first sets, strong and song based, and second sets offer room to spread and grow. “Chalk Dust Torture” opened, Trey adding neat vocal inflections and declaring a theme in the fills that he used to start the jam. A slightly down tempo movement, it was broad and open, second set material that could have flourished but closed instead, making way for a great version of “Sand.” With the exception of Big Cypress, TAB really owns this tune and simply does it better, but this one was excellent, everyone digging in under reds and yellows. Clav sounds coated the music as Trey picked little lines through the center, the groove always chugging on toward a real nasty pseudo start/stop bout of funkiness. Page’s piano redirected the music toward more open territory, Mike rising up to riff and Trey bending notes toward the Mothership. The moment fell into indigo plinko chittering before sliding as smooth as could be into “Golden Age.” The TV on the Radio cover has assumed its proper status among a storied collection of second set covers that Phish has made their own and that function as launch pads for extended, open improvisation. (The Phish audience does not have the clapping down at all, however, and needs a little education to make that work; they’re a quick study.) This time that improv drove darkly downward, with the moon high and hazy behind the clouds. Mike set up a solid line and everything dispersed around it, bottoming out in a haunting, loudly quiet space—like a transition to “Mountains of the Moon” or more apt for this tour, “No Quarter”, which has seemed to hover around the edges of so many ambient moments. Really heavy and totally fantastic, especially as it stretched out and lifted briefly before drawing to a stop. A brilliant piece of playing, and the highlight of the night.
Another strong pairing followed, opening with “Wolfman’s Brother,” which as soon as the singing ended was wrenched, maybe by Mike, into an entirely different, angular, syncopated jam, something not recognizable as “Wolfman’s” at all, with a cool vocal jam sliding over top. It wasn’t too long though, and moved into “Walk Away” on a transition that started cool, but faltered slightly only to come back strong. But then again, all 3.0 versions of the cover have been strong. Trey was doing his little side step dance as the song rose to its height, like it was “Tweeprize”. During the dead air that followed, the guitarist said they were pausing to catch their breath.
“Bug”, a big “Bug” with throbbing purple and green, blue and green lights, seemed to point toward the end of the set, but there was still at huge triumvirate to follow, starting with “Fluffhead”, complete with “Fluff came to New York,” lyrics. The band was playing super-slick through “Fluff’s Travels”, especially Page, and he laid in some crazy organ for the bundle of joy too. A great version, it slipped into “The Wedge”, which had a very cool overlay of Trey’s lead early on and then was blazing by the end—admittedly not a word one is likely to use to describe that particular song, as favorite a tune as it is. Finally, the quartet kicked up “Antelope.” It could have been a total throw away, a quick version to close, but it was so much more. A nice long beginning gave everyone room to toy around a bit and set the stage for the variety of asides and alleyways that permeated the rest of the song, including a sweet up-tempo shift moving into the third section. But by the end it was just a monster, a raging monster. The perfect capper for an excellent set in a summer of excellent sets.
The scene outside Phish’s July Fourth show was a strange one because Jones Beach is also a huge state, and the lot was literally a 50/50 mix of heads and seaside holiday revelers. Also, Independence Day being such a party/family holiday, many of the ticketless stayed away and entrance to the venue was easily gained. Inside, the band opened strong for a second time: “Alumni Blues” > “Letter to Jimmy Page”> “Alumni Blues”, with an especially rocked out ending under red and yellow lights that were somehow clear despite the hot sun. The following “Head Held High” was a surprise but not entirely unexpected as so much of Loaded had filtered out over the course of the tour. After the bop rocker, a third treat in a row, “The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday”> “Alvenu Malkanu” > “The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday”. The Gamehenge prelude is a beautiful, haunting melody, always a pleasure to hear when it creeps out from the archive, and the Hebrew traditional set people to dancing and spinning with sparking bass and drums. The whole opening segment was fantastic, even if the obscurity of the Velvet Underground cover and the slow quietness of “TMWSIY” seemed to catch many off guard.