Phish, Randall’s Island, NYC- 7/11-13
Photo by Dean Budnick
The sign over the entrance to the concert grounds at Randall’s Island read “Welcome to Our Joy,” and that brought smiles to everyone’s faces, not just because of the kind sentiment, but because such signs have often marked the gates of Phish festivals in the past; and as such that sign alone helped establish the vibe for the whole weekend. A giant general admission field, relaxed security and a small garden of enormous flowers that changed colors throughout the night all worked toward the same effect. Randall’s just felt good. And once the show started, it sounded spectacular, even way in the back by the restrooms (even out by the shuttle buses to Manhattan, I heard from someone who left before the encore the first night). The stage was certainly set for a great weekend, but what the band delivered was something much closer to legendary.
The first set on Friday opened with a rockin’ “Moma Dance”, complete with nasty bass fills late in the song, followed by “Kill Devil Falls”. The energetic start was complemented by the first “Ya Mar” of the year, perhaps the most summer-time, outdoor, feel good song in Phish’s cannon. There was more great work from Mike at the end, the rest of the band playing stop/starts with a one count, a two count, a three and a four; but it was with “Bathtub Gin” that the band moved into more serious territory (if you can say that about a song that includes purple humpback whales). The jam leaped to life immediately with a straight-forward flying movement that kept picking up speed and picking speed and picking up speed before somehow plateauing. That was thrilling enough, but then it shifted modes, leaving the song behind and transforming into a Type II segment. Trey picked a bright, glorious line, and Page buzzed below as the idea developed and then was subsumed by ever-increasingly dense and gnarly thundering. It was the first of many spectacular moments throughout the weekend, and it settled into a nice Page groove before Trey brought the song to a close.
After a long pause and some welcoming comments, the band dug into “555,” a deeply satisfying song that seems to function the way “Moma” does in a set, but which is also often enough in the same set as “Moma”. The end section found Trey twisting out a ragged solo while piano and drums crashed. Heavy, heavy. Next up was a nice old fashioned trio of songs, “Rift,” “Simple,” and “The Wedge,” the last having a pleasing jam that didn’t really go anywhere, but knocked around within the confines of the piece. Later in the set, the closing “Stash” offered a second open-ended exploration as dusk began to settle over the city’s skyline. The jam started by heading down a narrow, dark trail, but sounds grew bigger and ominous with swollen drums and bass. As the guitar began to lash about, the light show was finally in full effect. The transition to the climb to the finale was especially nice, as was the climb itself: clear but patient.
The second set began with a rare “Steam,” big and dark and open. Great organ and drums roared as Trey’s power chords piled up, eventually unleashing a wicked passage punctuated by fast flashing lights. It’s worth noting how effective the new lighting rig is, how different its range is, and how much that adds to the show. The movement was on the verge of something when it became tangled, as if Trey were trying to force a transition, and popped back to the conclusion of the song. The following “DWD” began with a powerhouse jam, lights tumbling down the towers, and rather than easing into a new groove, it jumped the rails and kept plowing forward. Eventually the players began to separate and then reshape the music, forming a groove around an idea from Page, with Trey slip-sliding over it and Fishman shuffle drumming from behind. The passage worked its way to a short series of “Woo!” pauses before melting down into a blue space of piano and beauty. No other band can find the places that Phish finds.
“Golden Age” had some vocal falters, despite the lyrics’ encouragement, but its jam began bright before inverting and dipping into a low, funky strut. It didn’t last long, though, stuttering and opening on “Limb by Limb”. The show closed with a reserved “Fuego,” at least compared to the pair that preceded it, into an excellent “David Bowie” that bristled with electricity. As the band rocked out with “Character Zero” for the encore, it was clear that despite the rough transitions in the second set, the band was ready to settle in for the weekend and more than willing to continue the exploratory approach and interesting setlists that marked the half dozen shows that opened the tour.
As expected, thousands more people turned out for Saturday’s show than Friday’s, but there was still plenty of space to spread out and dance. A nice, energetic pairing of “AC DC Bag” > “46 Days” opened the first set, fat bass and wailing guitar shining on the latter. The proceedings continued with “Yarmouth Road,” a great offering from Mike that really took on a new life during the Spring Mike Gordon Band tour, and “Devotion to a Dream”; but with “Free” the band made a gesture toward shifting gears to something weightier. Mike’s solo late in the tune was especially strong, but the flow of set slipped as the band took a step back, playing “My Sweet One”, and then playfully joking about meaning to mess up the end of “GBOTT,” which they replayed three times. The choppiness continued with “Halfway to the Moon” being paired with the second “Sparkle” in three shows, and that being followed with “A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing.” A strong moment in the set, the jam had Page riding in on bright organ riffs, lifting the whole endeavor briefly before the movement slid into dense, chaotic fireworks. The set closed with “The Line” and “Antelope,” which was dedicated to the Dude of Life’s kids, who were at their first Phish show, but in the end, the set was a bit of a write-off, lacking the consistency in tone needed to tie everything together.
The second set was a different story, however. Even though the slightly extended, disco party “PYITE” had rough spots in the verses and during the “Landlady” too, what followed was absolutely top-shelf Phish. A monster version of “Carini” drove forward with screaming leads under flashing lights, powerful bass roaring up from beneath. Just as the song began, I was struck how bizarre Phish music can be; wonderful and special, sure, but mostly bizarre, twisted and thrown sideways. Fog machines spewed forth their colors, and the jam bottomed out with fuzz bass bombs, clav and sharp guitar loops. The faze passage matured into something beautiful that looked to rise ethereal, but instead set out on a gorgeous journey into the distance. The “Ghost” at the end of that voyage hit with forceful potency, just bursting throughout the song, and opened on a nice, focused groove that developed into an upward climb under blue and red lights. The colors shifted to hot pink and stark white as the jam began to howl and then soar. Like so many of the great jams thus far this tour, whether they’ve been 20 minute monsters or shorter pieces grounded in more familiar territory, this one was incredibly well developed, patient and controlled, relishing the form as it took shape.
A new, breezy passage appeared and turned goofy and strange, the flashing blocks of lights bouncing around the stage fitting the music perfectly. The movement seemed like it might rise again, but instead it melted and pooled into near stillness before “Wingsuit” began. The psychedelic tune, with its Pink Floyd inflected jam was played with passion and perfectly placed, poignant punctuation on a truly golden suite.
The brilliance continued as the band unleashed a full bore “Rock and Roll” into the second exploratory “Harry Hood” of the tour. Like the Mansfield version, the music turned its face from the traditional trajectory the moment the jam began, Mike indicating the direction a bit on the foggy, green stage. The music hovered low and lost in the mist, light drumming glimpsing through. As the sounds warmed, they blossomed into a fine, flowing groove that spun so easily around and around, before heading back into “Hood”. Here too the patience with which the band created the moment was brilliant, really just letting it reveal itself.
To cap off such a phenomenal set Phish performed a phenomenal three song encore, catching everyone off guard with “Tube,” and then after “Joy,” shocking everyone again with a swollen “First Tube”. The second the final song started, masses of people who were heading toward the gate whirled around. I heard one guy shouting, “Turn around! Turn around! Go back! Go back!”
As much fun as that encore was, going back for Sunday’s show was what really mattered, as night three at Randall’s Island was one of Phish’s very best performances, certainly the apex of 3.0. The show kicked off with the first ever “Sand” opener, a big cheer coming from the crowd as the band plunged right into the groove. Trey picked an escalating line but twisted it back on itself before bringing the none-too-long version to a nice climax. The following “Winter Queen” seemed like an odd choice after the opener, but as much as this tour has been about big jams, it’s also been about toying with song placement; not leaving all expectations or patterns behind, but definitely moving the pieces about and looking at new configurations. Also, “Winterqueen” feels like a song from another era, something from 97-00, so maybe backing it up to “Sand” actually did make sense… Regardless, it featured some beautiful playing.
“Reba” continued a streak of really gorgeous versions, and as with other longer songs, had a well-developed peak that unfolded perfectly, some cool organ fills marking the last minute. Trey thanked someone in the audience for the suggestion before launching into a rippin’ “Birds of a Feather,” everyone seeming to notice a small group of geese flying over the stage as the song began. Sunday’s show had an early start due to the threat of strong rainstorms later in the evening (although it’s funny that Phish would let everyone know that they were going to start the show 15 minutes late rather than 30 minutes late, and then actually hit the stage right in the middle, 22 minutes past ticket time), so they were tempting fate by playing a virtuoso “Water in the Sky”. The mid-set “Possum” maintained the energy of the super-strong first set, filled with wicked-fun organ and excellent, subtle rhythm guitar, as did the following “Runaway Jim”. Excellent shifting drums marked the forward propulsion of the ever-so-slightly extended jam, the lights beginning to show, reds and purples and yellows.
“Bouncing Around The Room” kept the early-era vibe in place before Fishman began the trademark intro to “Maze”. During Page’s rage, Trey was way up against the keys, watching and playing so hard, poking and prodding and comping the lead, in a bouncy, ecstatic moment that boiled right over.
“Maze” looked to be the closer, especially if the band were actually trying to end a little early, but without a pause, and to the delight of everyone, they started “Split Open and Melt” instead. Mike immediately slid the jam sideways, with white fan lights moving slowly across a blue stage. As long steps started to settle, the song began to pulse and then turned into a darkly cartoonish march. The movement bubbled and burbled, becoming overwhelming, with Trey hunched over, calling out pleading riffs. Mike unleashed a series of shaking bass notes as prismatic lights colored the stage, and the music began to scramble back toward “Melt” for yet another nice finale to a closed jam vehicle. A very, very strong set, start to finish.
The second set. How do you even try to make sense of what is already a legendary performance? Just listen and listen and listen again, I guess. The expansive, unfinished, 28 minute “Chalk Dust Torture” exited the song structure immediately after the vocals, opening onto a bright run—one of the joys of a Type II “CDT” is that they turn so shiny despite the angsty lyrics. The music wound around and around, and began to pool before a heavy bopping groove came into being. It was a passage of quickly shifting moments, falling to droning briefly before starting to move again and turning even sunnier as it bounded up steps, and then melted back to the pulse. It was simply unlike anything else, and we were only a fraction of the way through the journey. The pulsing seemed to be searching for the “Woo!” but thankfully moved on to cover new territory, becoming warped carnival music and exploring the sideshows and alleyways. Finally a spinning space shriek echoed out and everything tumbled toward an ambient jam. It was at this point that people began to ask, “What song are we in?” or state, startled, “This is still ‘Chalk Dust’?” The space at this point was so deep and cavernous it could have stretched on forever, but eventually gave birth to “Light”. The end passage alone would have been a highlight, even without the absolutely stunning 22 minutes that preceded it.
“Light” was windswept at first, the instruments tossing about, but in an instant everything became delicate and gentle, a great bass line and a quick “St. Thomas” lick setting up an amazing, twirling piano dance that sounded like a blending of “Dear Prudence” and “Harry Hood”. It rocketed up to a glorious height with bright white lights and huge cheers, ebbing only to effortlessly thunder into an ecstatic “Tweezer.” Like the early section of “Chalk Dust Torture,” “Tweezer” had such a changeable form, lumbering into a cool groove that halted in herky jerky tempo shifts and bounced back to the groove. Very cool swaying lights again communicated the moment perfectly as the sounds plunged down through an opening, following the trail of glowing guitar. And it was from this new space that the most utterly breathtaking pinnacle was born, striving and rising up to become a towering beacon of light that shown across the whole vista of the set, all the side paths and byways that had led to glorious moment. What a truly blissful and achingly beautiful apex!
A picture perfect “Velvet Sea” and a pop-rockin’ “Monica” followed, but it was admittedly hard to digest anything after that opening salvo. Only with “Slave to the Traffic Light” was I able to get over the giddiness and simply sink back into the buzz of the night, the finale bringing back wave after wave of the glow that surrounded everything. It was an immediately and truly epic night to cap a perfect Phish weekend.