So far, So good…

IT changes your life, and as transcendent music, it simultaneously surprises and awes us. Harnessing that power, Phish have demonstrated over the course of almost 27 years why they are one of the most versatile touring acts in rock history. Today, Phish still continues to earn new fans, while charming even the most belligerently jaded of their aging base by tossing them a bone now and then.

This is not to say that it’s “all Hood.” Phish is not the same band that played non-stop for ten hours at Cypress ten years ago to festively baptize a millennium. They are not improvising as boldly and routinely as they did, say, in August 1993 or December 1995 or November 1997. But, in context, the highlights of their shows these days are just as meaningful now as they were back then. Phish is playing well, and almost all of their shiny new original songs, which debuted on this tour, appear to show at least as much promise as any Rift, Hoist or Joy tune ever did.

The Summer tour so far can be summarized in two words: bust outs. Trey, Mike, Page and Fish are having fun, and the music and shows reflect it. Setlists have been entertaining, similar to – but not as jaw-dropping as – the setlists of Furthur shows from the perspective of veteran Deadheads. (Perhaps Trey will visit the Fantasy Setlist Generator on for ideas.) Phish seems to be on track to break last year’s Most Unique Songs Played in a Year record. Chris Kuroda continues to be pure genius behind the light board, and sound engineer Garry Brown is doing brilliant work with difficult venues. Bottom line? There are many reasons to be thankful that Phish is still at it. And while the typical “jamming tune” is generally shorter than what it once was, and while the music may not always be the best you’ve ever heard from them, Phish’s shows will likely contain enough for you to enjoy yourself.

In fact, Phish’s Summer tour, which is presently on a brief hiatus before it continues in August with three shows at Berkeley’s Greek Theater, has already covered all of the bases that fans have come to expect from Phish on every tour. While no show has been a start-to-finish, hear-at-all-costs shredapulooza, almost every show had something noteworthy. There were huge bust outs, blistering jams, goofy gimmicks, and now-legendary encores. In sum:

BUST OUTS: A setlist-whore’s dream, the most shocking bust out was the immortally obscene “Fuck Your Face” on July 2 in Charlotte. Prior to this date, “Fuck Your Face” had been performed by Phish only once publicly on 4/29/87 at Nectar’s (1,413 shows earlier), and privately during a soundcheck on 11/10/91 in Charleston, South Carolina. Other bust outs of old Phish originals on the Summer tour included “Alumni Blues -> Letter to Jimmy Page -> Alumni Blues,” which surprisingly opened the June 25 Camden gig (“Alumni” had not been played since 7/24/99 (222 shows earlier) and “Letter” had not been played since 7/15/94 (587 shows)), and “Walfredo,” which opened the June 27 Merriweather show and fortunately had not been played since 9/30/2000 (131 shows).

Phish also debuted a handful of new originals (Trey’s “Show of Life,” “Summer of ’89” and “Dr. Gabel,” Page’s “Halfway to the Moon,” and Mike’s “Idea”), which are described below, and covered numerous tunes for the very first time: “Look Out Cleveland” (The Band) and “Instant Karma” (John Lennon) on June 12 in Cuyahoga Falls, OH; “Cold Water” (Tom Waits) on June 15 in Portsmouth, VA; “Lit O Bit” (Rita Clarke and The Naturals) on June 22 at Great Woods (now the “Comcast Center”); “The Rover” (Led Zeppelin) on June 24 in Camden; “Free Man in Paris” (Joni Mitchell) on June 25 in Camden; “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” (Neutral Milk Hotel) on June 26 at Merriweather; “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” (The Rolling Stones) on June 27 at Merriweather; “I Am the Walrus” (The Beatles) on June 29 in Canandaigua, NY, during a strong “Mike’s Groove”; and the tremendously popular “Killing in the Name” (Rage Against the Machine), during “Harpua” on July 4 in Alpharetta, GA, with Fish on drums and lead vocals. Phish even brought back three old-school covers in Raleigh, NC, on July 1: “Time Loves A Hero” (Little Feat, last played 12/31/2002, 127 shows earlier); “Have Mercy” (The Mighty Diamonds, last played 12/10/99, 189 shows); and “Light Up or Leave Me Alone” (Traffic, last played at Cypress on 12/30/99, 181 shows).

MUST-HEAR: Your extensive Phish listening has trained your ears over the years to tell the difference between an average, typically great version of a song, and a version that reminds you why you still care about what Phish does and when it does it. (If you aren’t sure if you know the difference, then compare, for example, any version of “Mike’s Groove” from 2009-2010 with any version from December 1995.) Must-hear versions of tunes often involve “Type II” improvisation, which is old fanboy-speak for when a song’s jam leaves its traditional form or modus operandi. It is often marked by a time signature change or changes accompanied by improvisation that carves-out a distinctive, original path (e.g., the Bangor “Tweezer” from 11/2/94 on A Live One; the Paradiso “Stash” from 7/2/97; “YEM” from both 12/9/95 and 10/10/99 in Albany; “Seven Below” from the Gorge on 7/13/03 and more recently on 11/28/09 in Albany; and so on). So-called “Type II” jamming, however, can sound dreadful. It is risky improvisation that usually sounds like risky improvisation. But when it soars like melodious, composed music, one basks blissfully in its transcendence.

This tour featured a few versions of tunes that might please even a jaded veteran: the “Chalk Dust Torture” from June 25 Camden, the most thrilling version since 8/9/04 Hampton, and one of the best improvisations of “Phish 3.0”; the June 17 Hartford “Down with Disease -> Sand” (even though “Sand” ends awkwardly when Trey starts “Horse”); the “2001 -> Billie Jean / Thriller Mash-up Jam -> 2001” from Camden on June 25, the first anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death; the Merriweather June 27 “Piper” (which cruised out of whale-calling aimlessness into an intense “Birds of a Feather”-like jam); the return of “Fuck Your Face” on July 2 in Charlotte; and the potent cover of “Killing in the Name” on July 4 in Georgia. There’s more that is arguably “must-hear,” of course, and it is discussed below.

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