Phish 3.0, Now Stuffed With Type II & III Jam
I started seeing Phish in 95, the fall Cap Center show in MD with the 30+ minute “Free,” and have managed to see them in 8 of the 10 years since that they’ve been performing (barring, of course, the Hiatus and Breakup periods). I’m establishing this from the get-go to illustrate my perspective and explain what I mean when I say that the last 2 Phish shows I attended have felt like I was Mr. Peabody taking my boy Sherman on a trip in the wayback machine to the late 90’s to witness the golden age(s) of Phish. Adding to that is the fact that every show I’ve been to since Hartford last year has been with a young music student in tow.
Again, some brief perspective, the last show I was at was SPAC II this summer, which I still describe as a perfect pre-“Ghost”-funk mid-90’s Phish show (and based on the song selection, that easily could have been true). It brought me back to that feeling of seeing Phish for the first time, watching them navigate their set and deliver solid performances of a complex array of compositions.
The first night at Jones Beach triggered similar flashbacks, but this time more of the late 90’s groove/funk-centered Phish. Given the designation of Type III as jamming typified by groove manipulation and minimal overt soloing, Set I was a picture perfect representation of that jam concept. The “Fluffhead” opener didn’t actually portend the tight, punchy funk to come, and was in fact a little slow and uneventful. Good for getting the crowd involved though, and in keeping with this leg of the tour’s habit of opening with uncharacteristic openers. “Kill Devil Falls” kicked in after a short pause, and while I’m not a big fan of this tune, it’s proven over the summer to be a good energy source, and was the first signs of the ultra-slick funk that would populate the rest of the set. This was also when my 12 year old guitar student, who I had in tow, started his practice of holding up a finger for each peak in a given jam, a process that became very entertaining halfway through the 2nd set. Then the funk DROPPED, in the form of an almost-Tower-Of-Power-esque rendition of the Talking Heads classic “Cities.” I don’t know if it’s just the new Languedoc, but Trey in particular sounded like one of James Brown’s classic guitarists, focusing his loose, jazzy approach with tight closed-voice 2 and 3 note high-register chords. The rest of the band was right in the pocket with him, with Fishman killing the 2 and 4 right in time with Mike, and Page layering on deep rhythmic motifs on his arsenal of keys.
Speaking of Page, I have long held the theory that every truly amazing show in Phish’s history has shared the distinct characteristic of Page being particularly on his game. Tonight was no exception, as demonstrated by a burning “Funky Bitch.” Coming out of that “Cities,” you knew this was going to be a throwdown, but I couldn’t possibly have expected the chunky thick Page-as-Medeski solo that brewed forth from this tune. Trey was more than prepared to respond with his solo, a very Warren-like, meaty tear through this blues form. The band dropped in to “Wilson” so quickly afterward that the audience barely had time to collect themselves for the chant. The audience made up for being caught sleeping during the third chant, where we all stopped after the third “Wilson” so perfectly that Trey missed his entrance back in to the tune. Not to worry though, he would atone for his error by busting out a toy guitar (previously a resident of his apartment’s living room) for the big solo, which was, as my show notes stated, “the dumbest, most amazing shit ever.”
Bringing the crowd back to the beginning of the set, the band launched in to a light, skittery “Reba,” with all the band members manipulating their rhythm patterns throughout the composed section. The jam was an exercise in restrained tension-and-release, ultimately very mellow and relaxed, and building to one singular peak at the end of the whistle-less jam (much to the confusion of my peak-tracking companion). Perhaps realizing that they were in with the funk for the duration of the set, the band hit the revived-standard “Walk Away” with an unbridled fury, which resulted in possibly the sloppiest 3.0 take on the James Gang classic, but tons of fun regardless. Wolfman’s Brother was a no-brainer at this point in this set, and was the perfect vehicle for the groovy Type III jamming that the band had been executing all night. I figured the outro of Wolfman’s was too chill for a set-closer, and as such we were treated to a very typical 3.0 “Possum,” replete with whale-call soloing from Trey and a ton of tension/release towards the end of his solo (enough so that my companion lost track of the number of peaks). Set I complete, you all now have 30-some minutes to dry off your funk-soaked clothing.
During the setbreak, we added a couple more kids to our viewing party, and elected to move to the small fenced-in area Page Side for some commonly associated raging. Apparently the band was in the same mood, coming on stage and having Fish coughing in to the mic, until the gentle strains of Lengthwise started to emanate from the speakers. After explaining to the kids what was happening, while Fish supplemented his vocals with a straight-eighth hihat pattern, I added “and they’re probably going in to ‘Maze’”. Lo and behold, the vocals fade away and are replaced by that familiar bass drum pattern, until all you hear is Fishman drumming. Normally Mike kicks in along with the kick, but in this version the drum groove got a few bars to establish the groove solo, which made the impact of the other instruments filtering in that much more significant. The composed section was strong, with the aggressive playing of set I carrying over in to this set, and Trey’s first solo was solid, standard-issue Mazework. Then there was Page’s solo. Perhaps it was my Page-side perspective, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen Trey so focused on Page…ever really, much less during one of his solos. In this instance, Trey had him in a death stare throughout his KILLING solo, musically latching on to every note and articulation from Page and supporting it with some of the finest rhythm playing I’ve heard out of Trey. Clearly in the mood to play, Trey’s subsequent solo really pushed the tension/release concept, stretching the solo section out to a significantly longer period than usual, peppered with peaks of increasing intensity. The finish was tight as ever, and almost without skipping a beat, Mike stepped up to the mic to kick off “Halley’s Comet” and a segue-fest the likes of which haven’t been seen since long before the hiatus. Continuing the evening’s motif of tight aggression, the jam in “Halley’s” resisted the urge to ramp up to double-time, instead maintaining a heavy quarter-note funk from start to finish.
Or, rather than finish, immediate commencement of “Mike’s Song.” The perfect bridge between the masculine funk of the first set and the Type II sequences to ensue. Trey took his time getting in to the solo in “Mike’s,” much as he’d done earlier in “Reba,” allowing the groove to really cement before contributing his melodic prowess to it. This also gave some time for the glowsticks to really start flying as well (at the time, I made the observation that glowsticks are to 3.0 “Mike’s” as they were to pre-hiatus “Hoods”). Similar to Trey’s involvement in Page’s “Maze” solo, Page rode sidecar through Trey’s solo here, interjecting tiny melodic phrases on the piano throughout, while still providing a solid harmonic foundation on the organ. The transition section was a little sloppy, and Trey came in on Simple just a little early, but it was a good sign that this was now 3 out of 4 opportunities to segue executed with significantly more precision that, really, most of the early summer’s transitions. That said, one of my favorite things about 3.0 has been the abandonment of “Mike’s”>“Simple.” Not that I dislike “Simple,” I just really dislike it instead of a host of other tunes that could be sandwiched by “Mike’s” and “Weekapaug,” not the least of which is Hydrogen. All that said, this “Simple” was solid with the possible exception of Trey (his only real less-than-stellar spot in the show). The jam was significantly more relaxed than the bulk of the show that had preceded it, and at times wrapped you in a warm embrace that felt like an old friend.
Speaking of old friends, towards the end of “Simple’s” jam, things started to get very Type II, maintaining the harmonic core, but twisting and manipulating the rhythms and allowing for some very pure cooperational improvisation. In fact, the jam traveled so far in to the arrhythmic atmosphere, that “Backwards Down The Number Line” was easily the last song I thought would follow it. On paper it would seem that the energy would have dropped between “Simple” and “Backwards Down The Number Line” but given the relaxed spacy nature of “Simple’s” jam, “BDTNL” actually served to very gently bring the energy level back up. It certainly didn’t hurt that Trey hit the opening vocal notes with a much greater accuracy than usual. One note I have about this tune is that I really wish Fish would commit to turning the beat around in the bridge, but that’s neither here nor there. The jam kicked in a little less forcefully than usual, however that seemed to be the theme for Set II’s jams, which is to say “building slowly.” Rather than the frequent increase in peak count my companion and I had been debating in the first set, most of set II’s jams built to singular, specific peaks followed by journeys in to the sonic and harmonic potential provided by each song. “Backwards Down The Number Line’s” jam quickly moved in to Type II territory, with Trey ultimately leading the jam, this time closely accompanied by Mike, with Page providing atmospheric embellishments. A bit of funk gets introduced to the jam about 6 minutes in, which surprisingly pushed the jam in to a more Type I/rock god domain, and unfortunately some visits from our whale friends. Despite the brief intrusion by Trey’s Whammy pedal, this may be one of the best “BDTNL’s” yet, relaxed and warm in the composed section, robust and adventurous through the jam. Building to an amazing peak, the release comes in the form of…“Fuckerpants.” I mean “Prince Caspian.” This version was mercifully short, with a gentle jam section that seemed to allow the band to regain their footing after the prior few tunes’ extended explorations, and it never reprised the harmonic theme of the tune’s head, instead quietly segueing in to “Rock & Roll.”
Much like “Backwards Down The Number Line,” I can confidently say that I had no idea they’d go here at this point in the set/jam. I was expecting that “Caspian” would end, “Weekapaug” would hit, and we’d get a couple quick rockers to close out the set. I have to say I’m really loving Phish’s current obsession with contradicting their own established conventions, playing second set openers as show openers or mid-set jams, putting long-retired songs back in to regular rotation (holla at “Dinner And A Movie”), and really just trying to outdo themselves again. This “Rock & Roll” didn’t necessarily have the impact of a set opening version, and the vocals were a little dodgy, but they got the engine nice and hot again by the time they kicked in to the jam. Trey starts getting a little abstract about 3/4 of the way in, almost battling the hard push of the rhythm section, until locking back in with them for some very enjoyable interplay between the whole band, resolving with a frenzy of almost-blast-beats and trills, which itself resolved in some more left-field exploration and vocal insanity. The song concludes sounding like a non-accapella version of the “YEM” vocal jam which finally results in the long-awaited “Weekapaug.” Fish quietly brings the beat in under the vocal jamming, a la the earlier “Lengthwise”>“Maze,” in this case resulting in a better-and-tighter-than-average-for-3.0 kickoff to “Weekapaug.” The vocals were still a little shaky, but the instruments were all right in the groove with each other. The jam was really pretty stellar, with Page bringing in some super-funky clav to contrast Trey’s nearly-country pickin’ solo work. What really made this jam shine was despite very involved playing from all four band members, they all left each other massive amounts of space to play around in, resulting in a pattern of light, frenetic builds with meaty rock releases. The finish is a little sloppy, but forgivably so for the energy maintained throughout.
Bow? No, “Loving Cup,” my first one ever (a travesty according to Zyzzx’s stats page). Fish is a little late on his entrance, and everyone’s voices are clearly worn out, but this tune is all about playing a mean guitar, which Trey is more than happy to do. In fact, the increasing signs of exhaustion only serve to push the band’s performance in to an even more convincing take on the Stone’s classic swagger and sway. Trey rips apart the solo with deliberate and commanding phrasing throughout, and by the end of the set, both band and audience have clearly spent all their energy.
The “Show Of Life” encore was fine enough, I don’t feel like this tune has really found its legs yet, and would therefore prefer to hear it mid set where it can be more carefully developed, but following that up with a tight, solid (if somewhat slow) “Golgi” is fair reward. Especially given that the last “Golgi” I saw was the trainwreck that was Hartford’s version from earlier this summer, it was nice to hear them get the tune right. With its composed solo, there’s generally not much to comment on regarding “Golgi’s”, so I’ll leave it at an appropriate and resolute ending to a fantastic voyage of a show.