This past weekend, at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC), I can confidently say that Phish concluded their best tour (or at least, first leg of one), since at least 2003. Coming out of the gates with a top effort at Worcester’s Centrum a month earlier, the band did not let up – at all – throughout the next 18 shows. Combining some elements that make Phish, well…Phish, the fearsome foursome of Trey Anastasio, Page McConnell, Mike Gordon and Jon Fishman crafted a riveting frame of music that certainly has fans a buzz about the possibilities for the remainder of the year.
[All Photos by Joe Ringus From June 30 - Alpine]
Allow me to take a look at a few aspects that I feel truly set this tour apart from any other of the modern Phish era.
One of the easiest things to notice about Leg 1 of 2012′s Summer Tour was the number of “bustouts” that the band played. Generating buzz from a Rolling Stone article before the band hit the road, McConnell mentioned the band wanted to play “over 200 songs” this summer. Little did we know the depths of the repertoire the boys would dig into to accomplish this feat – and all during the first leg! From Shaggy Dog at Riverbend to the mega-bustout of Skin it Back (first since 1988) at Jones Beach on July 3, the impossible again seemed possible – which, is one of my favorite aspects of Phish. Expect the unexpected. This was something that the band was lacking in with their “safe” setlist choices since the return in ’09, save a few exceptions. But, with a steady slew of rarities gracing the setlists, the band was primed to do what they do best: knock your socks off.
Now, not only did they break out the Pledge and Windex by taking these songs off the dusty shelves, but they also played them exceptionally well! The aforementioned Skin it Back (which definitely sounded like Spanish Moon to start) at Jones Beach was not only an awesome effort for the first time in public in 24 years, but was also a great 10-minute jam that set the tone for the final five shows, all in New York, of the summer’s first leg. It was also one of the best show openers we’ve heard in quite some time.
The band also dug deep and recalled their Halloween shows of past, playing most of The Velvet Underground’s Loaded at various points, including the first renditions of Head Held High and Sweet Jane since 10/31/98. Jones Beach also saw Phish perform The Beatles’ Happiness is a Warm Gun for the first time since 10/31/94, which admittedly seems like a lifetime ago. But, it was bustouts like these, amongst many others, that showed the band was truly determined to make a statement this summer and show everyone that they – above everyone else – still remembered where they came from and what got them here.
Concise, Purposeful Jamming
While the days of 30+ minute jams may be gone forever, that’s not a terribly bad thing. The more “mature” (and sober) Phish of the modern era has had a knack of packing a powerful punch of “more killer, less filler” in many of the jams they have been playing. While there are numerous individual jams we could look at to prove this point, I only need to look at one song: Sand. The song of the tour in my mind, Sand has become the quintessential example of what modern day Phish – and their jamming – has become. Layering their textured grooves that define the song, along with skipping the foreplay and getting right to the point, each and every version of Sand this summer absolutely blew the hinges off. And I doubt any version eclipsed 12 or 15 minutes – tops.
With only two songs the whole first leg that topped 20 minutes (the only two versions of You Enjoy Myself – another point that blows my mind), the band got down to business nightly with less noodling and more focus. Hell, I even remember thinking during ”normal” songs this summer that certain versions were exceptional standouts. The version of Ocelot, for example from June 7th in Worcester led me to tweet: “That cougar had some TEETH.” We can also look at one of the most lauded versions and jams of the summer to further prove this point: Atlantic City’s Birds of A Feather – a jam that clocked in at a healthy, but not overwhelming 14:40, the song not only sprouted wings and flew on a different course than usual. But it took a turn into the cosmic outreaches of space, which shows me that Phish can still go “deep,” as I often referred to it with friends this year, when they want to.
Also of note is the strength of opening nights of early tour versus late tour. The first show of this summer still ranks in my top two or three of 2012. The Ghost > Boogie On Reggae Woman > If I Could segment represents such a fluid piece of improvisation and jamming. The band came out of the gates firing, much as they have in early spots since the return show in Hampton. The Ghost from Worcester is incredible and the Boogie On was one of the best versions I’ve ever heard, having plenty of extra mustard in its funk. Where one moster jam used to dominate a show, the modern day band uses two or three songs to pack just as powerful a punch. It’s like more bang for your buck and keeps the energy at an all-time high, instead of lulls and darker spaces in the action. It just goes to show that when the band puts their mind to it, and practices, they can deliver from the start, a la Bethel last year and Worcester this year.
The last example that I want to point out about “jamming” is more from a “mash-up” perspective. Several times through the first 20 shows of the year, the band interjected themes, quotes or full songs at several points throughout the second set, often leading to a perfect bookending type of show. The second night of Bader Field in Atlantic City was one example. A complete juxtaposition from the first night of the run, Phish opened the final frame of this show with the Talking Heads’ Crosseyed and Painless and managed to mash it up/quote it no less than three or four more times throughout the second set and encore that evening.
Also, after opening the very first show of the tour with Buried Alive, Trey closed the second set with a proper reprise of the song, setting a tone and recurring theme for the summer. The second night of SPAC also saw the first take on Blister in the Sun since Barcelona ’98, and found the band singing the first verse several times throughout yet another playful set. Keeping the full attention of the fans with such moves, while segueing in and out of anything they chose, these sets remained amongst my favorite of the summer for the fluidity and effort that the band put into them from start to finish.
In short, Phish delivered a number of complete efforts that not only made for great shows as they happened, but will hold up on tape as complete, concise jams and sets – a promising sign for the future of the band in the modern era.
One of the other aspects that has always made Phish Phish is their inside jokes, playfulness and often off-the-wall sense of humor. Remember getting the Doniac Schivice in the mail announcing the Great Went festival in Limestone, Maine? “An easy drive from any direction” was the tag line, with a single red line tracing the one road that led to the absolute tip of the state. Still hysterical to me after all these years. Well, some of that playfulness still rings true today.
Even in the few shows that will end up being the least talked about this tour for the musical aspects, like Portsmouth’s first night, the band made up for it in other ways: namely, humor. Having Fishman “tuck” his dress into his boxers, and as the tour went on calling him “Friar Tuck,” as well as incorporating “tucking” into some vocal jams and in other playful ways, Phish again built on a theme that allowed them to be their regular, goofy selves. And while they might not, at times, have been blowing a jam apart, they settled for chastising the audience who came onstage that night with “You suck at tucking!,” among others examples at which one couldn’t help but smile.
More examples of the “fun” returning were Trey taking a lightsaber from the crowd in Portsmouth during the tucking show and playing his guitar with it during Maze, Kenny Rogers joining the band at Bonnaroo for a debut rendition of The Gambler and other hi-jinx over the past month. In short, another reason that Phish is one of the most lovable, creative, prankster-esque bands still around.
Overall, the Summer 2012 combined much more than these three aspects. But, they were, in my mind, three of the biggest reasons that Phish regained a sense of self and delivered their best tour since at least 2003, if not 2000. While many may be cringing that I am calling this “the best tour in a decade,” I’d like to point out that I saw every single Phish show from ’00 through Asheville in ’09, including all of “2.0.” I was there, and witnessed some of the most intense jamming the band ever performed. However, with this tour, the band packed a punch and didn’t wander for 15 minutes just to deliver five minutes of GLORY. Instead they got there in a quicker, more consise way. Apples and oranges for sure, but call this modern era the more “mature” Phish. I love both, and for different reasons.
The highlights from the first leg of Phish Summer Tour 2012 are plentiful, and I can by no means capture them all in a single column, but I am confident that no matter which shows you seek out, you will like what Phish – the modern day band that has evolved in front of our eyes over the past month – has to offer.