Phish Offers Both Tension & Release Over Holiday Weekend


By: Aaron Stein (@neddyo) | Photos: Rene Huemer (via @phish_ftr)

There are few things greater in the Phish arsenal than the build/release jam. The anticipatory tension that can only be resolved satisfactorily with an epic climax, the moment when all four musicians (and usually the lighting director, too) hit their mark at the same time in blissful fashion -- it’s a feeling all fans chase show after show.

While the climax is great -- the highest of the highs on any given night -- it is nothing without the build. They are two sides of the same coin; each nothing without its counterpart.

This dual-nature phenomenon permeates the Phish universe: it is all the songs they’ve ever played and will play, but just as much the jams between and within.  

It is live music at its most potent, but streaming+couchtour+livePhish is an equal part of the experience.  It is nerdy, goofy fun and no-nonsense powerhouse rock and roll.  It is the nostalgia of the old songs and every version played before, and it is new songs finding their footing or yet to be discovered.  It is the set-up of the first set and the potential of freeform in the second.  

It is fluffers who love it all and the critics who hold everything to the highest standard.  Iit is the noob seeing his first show, and also the veteran seeing his 100th (or 200th or 500th).  It is a dark, dank arena and it is open-air sheds.  It is fall tour and summer tour and the New Year’s run.  

It is a playground for the intoxicated and a place to party 100% sober.  Lawn or pavillion.  GA floor or seats.  Weekend runs and. mid-week one-off. 

You can’t have one without the other, and without both sides in tension with each other, we don’t have Phish, or at least the Phish that we know and love.

These are my thoughts after catching four straight Phish shows during an extended holiday weekend. Over three nights in Saratoga and a mid-week indoor arena show in Portland, Phish and their fans showed off all sides, often in tension. Dizzying highs, creamy middles and, depending on who you ask, terrifying lows. Show-by-show rundowns are readily available around the internet, from your mid-show texts from friends, or rando parking lot run-ins. But taking the long view, certain themes develop.

Let’s start with the tension between jams and songs. The list of extended jams over the weekend is short, but that in of itself shouldn’t be a disappointment. I, personally, don’t judge shows by numbers of songs per set or length of longest track, although I can appreciate why people do so.

Still, in that category there were at least two price-of-admission keepers. The "Chalk Dust Torture" on Friday night may be pantheon worthy.  The jam found at least four distinct sections, alternately toying in themes light and dark, straightforward and weird, eventually including a section that had Mike joining Page on keys (but still holding down the low end, thrillingly so) and Trey hopping behind Fishman to play “lead” on his Marimba Lumina.

This sort of double-duo Phish somehow combined the offbeat with the melodic.  It wasn’t a respite from the already heavy improv, but an integral part of it.

Perhaps even more inspired was Sunday night’s “Moma Dance” which emerged from a second-set starting “Soul Shakedown Party” that at first had you wondering if the first set was getting an old fashioned do-over. But the "Moma" released from its mold with a satisfying pop, getting the “Type II” treatment the song seems ready-made for, the band collectively letting the base groove permeate into extra-curricular improvisation.

It was a superlative version, the kind of surprising “where did that come from?” turn that many fans probably feel could be possible with pretty much every song.  The kind of turn that keeps everyone on their toes with the hope that the build will find its climax.

Another standout jam came on Wednesday night in Portland during "Tweezer". While most list-worthy "Tweezers" typically reach 20 minutes or longer, this one was short and more crystalline than some of its more amorphous cousins. Still, within that short span, Trey crammed all sorts of giddy ideas, almost too many to count, overlapping and usurping each other on the way to a fabulous climax.

If these jams found unexpected places to go, the same could be said of the sets at large. Nearly every one of the eight sets I saw found unexpected left turns where most in the crowd (or listening at home) saw only straightaways. In some ways, this is cool: why should certain songs only appear in certain places, why can’t the “throw a dart at our repertoire” style of setlist formation prevail? In a few instances, it worked fine, the space between Friday night’s expansive "Chalk Dust" and the set closing funk>rock pairing of "2001" and "Fire" was filled with a host of songs that seemed to have no business popping up where they did. And yet, flying high with the wild improv energy of the set’s start, the band made it work with cheddar-sharp playing and a crowd that relished the joy of the first night of three and the possibilities contained within.

Later in the weekend, that modus operandi found results that were mixed, Saturday’s second set, in my opinion, being a particularly bad offender.  Ironically, a solid start of four straight 3.0-era jam vehicles that seemed to be building to a certain high point fell apart with some rough playing on some older material. The band’s admirable eagerness to infuse a show with as many songs as possible and, by some oblique extension, unpack as much of their repertoire as possible over the course of the tour, has opened them up to some ragged "when’s-the-last-time-they-played-this?" playing on material that’s still dusty from its spot on the shelf. What’s kinda interesting is that the new songs aren’t necessary the culprit you might expect them to be, they only played a couple over the last 4 shows when you’d think more reps were warranted to find their footing in the swing of things.

What’s somewhat lost in the translation of setlist to the armchair review writer is the age-old “you had to be there” factor. There is always tension between the setlist readers and show streamers and the bobbing heads at the show and I’m not sure it’s ever been as true as over the course of this summer (at least the 4 shows I just came home from).

The absurdly perfect weather in Saratoga Springs Saturday and Sunday, sipping beers in the park outside the venue listening to soundcheck… these things don’t make it into a setlist.

The Wednesday night show in Portland is a prime example of this tension. A rare indoor summer show in the northeast (I can’t recall ever seeing Phish indoors in the summer, personally) in a smallish arena with some historical significance made for a tough ticket and a serious powder keg inside the venue.

While the band could have responded with a 40-minute exploratory "Tweezer" / "Ghost" combo, their reading of the room was to light fuse after fuse and watch the place explode as many times as possible. Being in the room that night, I cannot personally complain with this philosophy.

The arena was a sweltering steam room, but that didn’t seem to temper anyone going all-out at every chance they had and Trey responded in kind. "Blaze On", "Kill Devil Falls", "The Sloth", "My Friend, even "555" (a song I find myself loving in the live setting especially, Mike’s bass)… each one efficiently found its climax, had the room spinning with delight and ensured that people quickly forgot the cringe-y moments in "Billy Breathes" or the stutter-stop "Things People Do" / "The Line" combo. The first-set-closing "Stash" was a pinnacle of a set that left me sweaty and smiling, Kuroda wisely turning off the LED screens and peppering the back-of-stage crowd with funky pastel pulses that perfectly matched the music’s ebullient mood.

As far as the second set, it opened with "First Tube" and encored with "Tweezer Reprise", my top two let’s-see-what-this-old-body’s-got-left songs.  It was a blissful, head-banging, high-jumping workout to beat all other exercise regimens out there. In between there was some good and some not-as-good, but with a raging "Mike’s Song", a scintillating "Wingsuit" a well-executed, build/release "Fluffhead" and an endorphin-releasing "Weekapaug", each elevating the energy of the room to that place -- all in addition to the aforementioned "Tweezer" -- I suspect there were few in the ole Civic Center that didn’t leave with a sweaty shirt and a big smile on their face.

And if they didn’t… well, it takes all types. Depending on your tastes, the show may or may not have too much to offer in the relisten-pantheon, but that’s only one side of the coin.

In the end, each night there was nowhere I’d rather have been: the venues, the people, the energy. Over the course of four shows I sat in the pavilion behind the soundboard, amidst the anarchy of the lawn and in the second row off the rail dead center.  I hung out with some of my favorite people -- folks that I’ve literally been seeing this band with for decades -- and I got sweaty with some dudes I’ve never met, doing their best to get up to speed with the longtime veterans in the room. I saw the debut of a quirky-even-for-Gordon new song (and wondered if and where it might find its place in the repertoire) and I raged hard to songs I’ve been seeing for decades.

I enjoyed the thrill of those three-hour-long moments as if nothing else mattered in the universe and I’ve nodded in agreement at a lot of the truth-hurts criticism of the very same shows. That tension/release analogy goes for the entire arc of Phish’s career, with certain tours building to peaks in the next ones and themes arising and disappearing unexpectedly. Tonight may make the turn towards the climax or go the other way for another surprise. Trying to guess before the fact is a fool’s errand, but they’ll get there eventually.

Best to be ready to dance your ass off when they do.


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