Over the past three weeks we have watched Phish 3.0 yet again re-invent itself on the first leg of their 2011 Summer Tour. Having more than 5 months off since their last gig at Madison Square Garden on January 1st, Phish rolled into Bethel, NY on a mission.
And did they ever deliver.
From Bethel, NY to Portsmouth, VA, Phish set the country ablaze with some moments that gave even the most jaded of vets a feeling of nostalgia. This was no nostalgia act though, this was pure, unadulterated Phish, and they set out to prove that in 2011. Read on as I talk about the ten things we learned on this leg, and why the haters were left grasping at straws by the end of the tour.
1. The “Phish-ness” is Back
There’s no doubt that the focus in 2009 was to be a tight, focused band and get back to the basics that seemed to get lost in the 2.0 years. In 2010 it appeared as if that looseness was starting to come back, especially in the Fall Tour and New Years Run, but the chops still might not have been there. In 2011, Phish was back. We saw a band up there play with confidence and intensity while still having a great time and doing what they’ve been so great at for the better part of 25 years.
The “Phish-ness”, so to speak, was back. No performance is more evident of this than the “Makisupa Policeman” from the tour opening run in Bethel. The running “House” joke that would last all the way through Portsmouth was a fan favorite, and showed how much fun the band was having on stage. Explaining it doesn’t really quite do it, you have to watch and listen to fully understand the greatness of this Makisupa. Take a trip to Phish’s House in this fan-shot video from Bethel.
If that wasn’t enough for you, good, because Phish wasn’t done yet. An interesting, yet funny trend developed during the Merriweather Post Pavilion shows towards the back half of the tour. During the “Suzy Greenberg” on the first night of the MPP run, Fish found himself lost for words during the vocal breakdown before the chorus. So lost for words in fact, that all he could muster out was a loud and boisterous “WHAT?!” before launching into the always exciting Suzy chorus. This joke ran throughout the song as all the band members joined in at the end yelling “What?!” before ending the set. However it didn’t stop there. The “What?!” trend would once again continue all the way through the rest of the tour, showing up at just about every stop in some capacity.
It’s the little things like these that seemed absent in the 3.0 era. In the early 90′s it seemed as if nothing was off-limits for Phish, no matter how goofy or weird, it was all fair game. I believe we’ve returned to that mentality on stage, and that will only lead to more memorable, not to mention hilarious, moments on stage.
2. Phish 3.0 Plays For Keeps
If there’s one thing we’ve learned in the last 3 weeks, it’s that Phish 3.0 is it’s own animal. Not only have they created their own sound (more on that later), but in the process have created their own identity on stage. When we think of the early years (1.0) or the post-hiatus years (2.0), we get this picture in our head of the state of the band during those respective periods. With 3.0, that had been lacking in the first 2 years of it’s existence, but it seems like we’ve finally figured out what 3.0 is all about. Driving, rock jams with thick, funky bass grooves layered underneath have been the bread and butter this year.
The two best examples of this, and probably the two best performances in 3.0, are the Cuyahoga, OH jamwich and the Pine Knob Disease. In Cuyahoga, the band started the middle of their 2nd set with Sneaking Sally Through the Alley. As the Sally jam began to take shape, Mike Gordon used his new Moog pedal board to drop some thick and crunchy bass bombs on the crowd while Trey and Page settled into the Plinko-Funk style we’ve become so accustomed to in 3.0. This is dark, heavy funk boys and girls and should be handled with care. As the funk dissipates we find ourselves right into Harry Hood. Trey takes control and brilliantly leads the band through a nice improv section that finds it’s way into Have Mercy. As the beautiful ballad ends, Trey and Page hop on it and bring the band back into the ending of Harry Hood very delicately and efficiently. As for the Pine Knob Disease, you’ll just have to watch the video to fully appreciate it. Three words: A Love Supreme. Enjoy.
That’s the type of musicianship and ridiculous precision the band is playing with these days. While there still may be flubs, as the band is still human, for the most part we’ve seen the type of tightness that was prevalent in the mid-90′s. Yeah, I said it.
On that note, the biggest individual improvement this year without a doubt has to be the return of Jon Fishman. The hair-raising drum fills we’ve seen in tunes like Fluffhead, Harry Hood, and David Bowie (not to mention Reba and Slave) have been nothing short of incredible. Fishman’s return to glory has finally rounded out the sound that is Phish 3.0, and it can no longer be called a “nostalgia act”. These years are a separate Phish era and will fall in line with the rest of them when it’s all said and done. The band is clearly moving forward rather than running in place, and this year is a prime example of that.
3. Trey Loves Signs….Who Knew?
We’ve all heard the clips. We know how the band, particularly Trey, feels about song-request signs at shows. Well, that’s all changed in 2011. Over the course of 9 shows (Darien>Portsmouth), the opening song of the first set was decided solely on sign requests. Trey quipped before “Buried Alive” at Merriweather Post, “I’m going to take one of these and then ask you guys to put the rest of them down so the people behind you can see.” This kind of playful humor is exactly what people have wanted out of Phish since the Hampton reunion, and this latest spur-the-moment gag led to some heavy-hitting openers. The fun started in Darien, NY when Phish opened a raucous first set with the bluegrass number “Nellie Kane”. The bustouts didn’t stop there as they polished off the Bob Marley tune “Mellow Mood” as well as the always funky, “Buffalo Bill” featuring some earth-shattering bass work from Cactus himself. The openers at the end of the tour proved the fans have great taste in music, we saw “Daniel Saw the Stone” make an appearance as well as the sought-after “Buried Alive” and “Harpua”. In Charlotte we saw the sign game and a particular tour joke come together as one, as a “Mike’s House” sign appeared. Trey picked it up and began to pluck the opening notes of “Mike’s Song”, appropriately enough. All in all, this is just another small, yet perfect touch to a very classic and fun-loving tour.
4. Plinko is King
Affectionately named “Plinko Funk” by the interwebz, a form of staccato jamming that Phish has deployed over the last year or so has begun to define the band’s sound within improvisations, and elsewhere. The first Runaway Jim of the summer occurred at Bethel, and it may have been one of the most unique Jim’s in a long time. As the band entered the middle section, you know- that quiet part right before Trey hits those big notes propelling the band into the jam, they extended it through the use of this Plinko Funk. This particular Jim clocked in around 9 minutes, but featured the insertion of Plinko Funk to it’s song structure. We’ve seen this sound develop through the various Cities, Sally’s, Sand’s, Ghost’s, YEM’s, and the like, but it’s mostly been in an improvisation format. This time we saw it find it’s way into the structure of a song, and that showed me that Phish has found a sound to develop for the future. It’s not only one that they trust, but it’s one that they feel comfortable expanding and building on.
What, you didn’t think I’d forget Possum, did you? The Summer’s most played song thus far got mixed reviews for the most part. Was it played too much? Certainly, but that’s not to say that Phish didn’t do their best to mix it up. They had fun with Possum this year, and I won’t harp on this too much because I feel like Possum has been discussed ad nauseam, so watch the most unique performance of Possum from the June 4th Cuyahoga Falls show and enjoy.
6. MVP of Summer I: Kevin Shapiro and LivePhish
Need I say more? On behalf of the entire Phish community, I think a giant “THANK YOU” needs to be sent out to Phish Archivist Kevin Shapiro and the entire crew over at LivePhish and Nugs.net. Incredible work was done by those folks this year to not only set record times every night for posting the crisp soundboard copy of the show, but organize the Phish Vimeo account as well as the Alpharetta Webcasts.
The webcast trend started last year at MSG for New Years, and since the shows were sold out, no harm was done to ticket sales. For a cost, you could sit in the comfort of your own home and experience Phish in High Definiton. For someone like me who lives in South Florida, going to MSG would’ve been cool in theory, but these webcasts were the next best thing. Phish has constantly bridged the gap between the band and the fans and connecting them like no other. 2011 was yet another step in the right direction for this aspect. I think I speak for mostly everyone when I say- let’s do it again!
7. Steam’s Got Everyone Feeling Steamy
Ghost and Seven Below spent a romantic weekend together on the beach somewhere, and nine months later “Steam” arrived. The newest tune in the Phish repertoire certainly turned some heads when it was debuted at the Cuyahoga Falls show on June 4th. We hadn’t seen any new songs this year up until this point, and I think the feeling was fairly unanimous. Steam is a hit. The hypnotic vibe that Trey’s looping riff produces as Mike and Page mirror it is unlike anything I’ve heard before. The Merriweather Post version is the go-to performance of this song as the band extends on the main theme and stretches this version out to 10 minutes. As Chris Kuroda fills the stage with fog, reminiscent of the 2001′s of old, Trey and Mike bob and weave through each other’s riffs while Fish carries the beat and Page adds a subtle yet funky layer over the top. The best part about Steam is how cohesive it is throughout, and the Merriweather version definitely shows that. This is the next big Phish jam vehicle, mark my words.
8. Old New Covers and New Old Covers
Another trend throughout this leg was the ever-expanding list of covers that Phish is keeping in rotation. This year we saw a return of a few old favorites, and a couple new covers find their way into the mix. Obviously, let’s start with the beautiful rendition of Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter” that Phish broke out in Holmdel, NJ at the beginning of the tour. An incredible version of this delicate Zeppelin tune which featured Page piping his vocals through his organ creating a spacey effect that captured the feel of the song so perfectly. You could tell Phish rehearsed this several times as the song that eclipsed the ten minute mark was executed flawlessly. Well done, Phish.
Let’s not forget the covers that finally found their way back on stage this year. Most notably, the Talking Heads number “Crosseyed and Painless” which shined towards the end of 2010. Standout versions in Charleston, SC and New York last Fall gave the Phish faithful that Crosseyed was going to come back in a big way in 2011. While no version has yet to eclipse the 13 minute mark, the jams have been powerful and driving, only giving further hope that this song will continue to hang around as the year progresses. Another old cover that has been rejuvenated is the always reliable “Roses Are Free”. Of course, everyone loves the Island Tour Roses, but we’re far removed from that performance, but we could be headed back there soon. The latest versions of Roses have started to open up a bit, prompting thought that maybe, just maybe, the band will have the motivation one night to extend it out for another (City Name) jam.
There were also a handful of covers that made an appearance just once or twice on this leg, but they were welcomed additions. The Ballad of Curtis Lowe, Bold as Love, After Midnight, Rocket in my Pocket, Light Up, Instant Karma, and Ride Captain Ride were all thrown in throughout the 18-show tour, along with the usual Cities, Boogie On, and Sneaking Sally of course. One cover of note took place in Portsmouth and was certainly the most notable of them all. As a tribute to the late, great Clarence Clemons, Phish launched into the Springsteen classic, “Thunder Road”. Although the vocals were shaky at times, Trey’s solo channeled The Big Man himself beautifully and took us all on a melodic roller coaster ride. The plethora of covers is yet another thing to notice about this tour, and we hope to see even more in the near future. Spanish Moon anyone?
9. Where’d All the Haters Go?
Phish 3.0 has been an easy target for criticism, particularly from the self-proclaimed “jaded vets”. Now, sure, are there some legitimate complaints? Of course. This is live music, not everything is going to be perfect, and Phish has always been that way. Has Trey ripcord’d a few jams here and there? Absolutely, but in my opinion you’d have to really nitpick at these last 3 weeks to find a lot to complain about. Let’s run down the general opinions of Phish 3.0 and see how they’ve dispelled these notions just in this tour.
Phish can’t jam? See: Pine Knob, Cuyahoga, Bethel, Cincinnati, Charlotte, Portsmouth
Phish is just going through the motions? See: Bethel Makisupa, Portsmouth Sand, No Quarter, Cuyahoga Set II
Trey can’t play anymore? See: Merriweather Crosseyed and Character Zero, Bethel Kill Devil Falls, Alpharetta Funky Bitch, Holmdel Maze
These are simple examples off the top of my head that required little to no thought. I’m sure I could find an example of each of these at every show they played this year. The haters are certainly silenced, and seeing them grasp at straws when Trey cut Page off during the Alpharetta Suzy (SuzyGate) was incredibly entertaining. That shows me how good Phish has been this tour, when the nay-sayers resort to making up problems within the band.
Now that we’ve reached number 10, it’s only appropriate that I thank and congratulate the people who have made it this far. Thanks for reading, really. It takes a a little bit of work to compile these thoughts and organize them to sound somewhat coherent. I hope you all enjoy what we’ve got planned for you here, because we’re certainly excited about it. So, with that out of the way, and without further ado, the last thing we’ve learned about Phish on this tour…..
10. Phish Has Left The Nest
That’s right. The Phish has officially left the nest that is the Northeast. The friendly confines of the Northeast region have been so good to Phish, and rightfully so. They’ve had some of their best moments ever up there. However, we’ve seen a trend develop over these last 3 weeks, and over the last year or so that suggests Phish is beginning to enjoy playing outside of their home region. This year, from Alpharetta through Portsmouth, we saw some incredible moments. From the hysterics of the Birdwatcher->Kung acapella performance, to the bustout heavy Charlotte performance, the South got it all this year. And I think we’ve talked about the Midwest throughout this article for you to get the picture that they got some ones.
Let’s run down the best shows from the last few tours. Best show of Summer 2010? How about July 4th in Alpharetta? Best Fall Tour show? What about the Throwdown in Chucktown? Best Summer 2011 show? How can anyone deny that Pine Knob heater? What happened to the Northeast? I think we’re moving into that era where Phish loosens up when they leave their hometown folks, the pressure seems to be taken off of them when they’re playing for a fairly unknown crowd. Now, that’s not to say that no Northeast shows have been great. I mean, Utica from Fall 2010 and several Summer 2011 Northeast shows were fantastic, but the cream of the crop seems to be in the South and Midwest. To be honest, it’s refreshing. As a non-Northeast resident, it’s nice to know that Phish has been blowing the doors off of venues all around the country. Breaking that mold is exactly what they need, and will further expand the holdings they have on the music world.
So, to sum it up, what does all this mean? That I have too much time on my hands? Definitely, but it also means that what Phish did over the course of their first leg was incredibly noteworthy. Every night we were left with some sort of thought, whether it be positive or negative. In all of this, there’s so much that I failed to mention. Try out the jammed out Halley’s from Bethel, or the stop/start Sand from Portsmouth. How about the Harpua/Brother Father’s Day stunt? The epic Merriweather 2 encore? There were so many highlights that it’d take a week to explain them all. I don’t think that can be said about any other tour in 3.0. Phish spoiled us this year, and showed just whose “house” it was. They are a wrecking ball rolling straight towards Watkins Glen, NY, so until then I leave you with one comment.