To read Trey Anastasio’s thoughts on some of the new Phish material, check out his commentary on Relix.com.
IT has been said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Dancing about photographs of architecture, or writing about a live musical performance, is perhaps even more absurd, when you have not experienced that performance or that architecture in the multi-dimensional world, with your eyes and ears wide open and your senses fully engaged. But sometimes that’s the best one can do, and whether you’re a fan of architecture, dancing or writing, Phish’s music this tour — with its focus on songs more than jams — may nevertheless feed your soul.
Phish continued their Summer Tour in August after a month-long hiatus with three shows at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, California, followed by pairs of shows in Telluride, Colorado (Telluride Town Hall), Noblesville, Indiana (Deer Creek, now known as the “Verizon Wireless Music Center”), East Troy, Wisconsin (Alpine Valley), and Wantagh, New York (Jones Beach). Although this “second leg” of the tour contained far fewer bustouts and far more repeats than the first leg of the tour in June and early July, which is discussed here, Phish continued to deliver the goods to its fans this month. But those “goods” typically contained less improvisation than Phish has performed in most of its shows in the last 20 years. Whether you think that’s good, or bad, please read on. Judging a Phish show by the length of its songs makes as much sense as judging a website by the scheme of its colors. As informative as limited information may be, being somewhat ignorant is still ignorant, and anything less than a shrewd perspective is ill-advised. That said, the claims by some that Phish outdid themselves yet again on this tour are adorable, but readicculus.
Phish is a GREAT band. They play GREAT shows. It’s what they do. Even on their worst nights, they have still managed to improvise in an awe-inspiring fashion (see, e.g., Coventry’s “Split Open and Melt,” or the last six minutes of its “Drowned”). They typically give you at least two and half hours of music over two sets with an encore, involving more than twenty songs, at a reasonable ticket price, when many other touring bands charge you a lot more for a lot less. Phish have been doing so for decades, taboot. They still have a fantastic crew, what with one of the most talented lighting directors in the business (Chris Kuroda), a soundman (Garry Brown) who continues to do justice to the esteemed legacy of Sir Paul Languedoc, and a mix engineer who is creating brilliant matrix recordings for downloading from LivePhish (Jon Altschiller). That last Phish show you went to that wasn’t all that great musically, whenever it was? You probably still had a hell of a lot of fun with your friends, the light show was amazing, and the setlist was still cool (all things re-considered), because you heard some of your favorite songs — even if Trey stumbled a bit here and there in the composed section of “You Enjoy Myself,” “It’s Ice” or, heaven forbid, “Divided Sky.” Phish puts on a show that’s a bargain given the cost of the ticket. They always have.
That said, Phish’s Summer Tour was heavy on songs, but light on jams. Light on jams? JUDAS! This may not seem like a fair criticism, because Phish did jam at every show this year, of course, consistent with past practice. In fact, they played several “must-hear” jams this month, as they did in June. Check out the Greek “Cities,” “Simple,” and “Light” (well, at least the last 8 minutes or so); the Telluride “Piper” with its “Maze”-like and “Birds of a Feather”-like jams; the Alpine Valley “Down with Disease” (with its vigorous jam and perfect segue into “What’s the Use”); and the jaw-droppingly divine four or so minutes of the jam in the Jones Beach “Backwards Down the Number Line” (aka “BDTNL”). Trey’s intermittent — as opposed to routine — use in August of the pitch-shifting whammy pedal, which occasionally produces a whale-calling-like effect, was also a highlight to be applauded, as was his use of a new Languedoc guitar.
But compared with previous tours (e.g., in 2003-2004, and even last year to some extent), this Summer’s tour seemed light on jams. Original songs that would be busted wide-open at least once or twice in past tours were not prolonged at all on this tour: “Stash,” “Tweezer,” “Runaway Jim,” “Tube,” “Antelope,” “Bowie,” “SOAM,” “YEM,” “Ghost,” “Mike’s Song,” “Weekapaug,” etc. Don’t get me wrong. These and other “traditional jamming tunes” on this tour did jam (some a lot more than others). For example, the relatively new-ish song “Light” has certainly become a routine jamming vehicle. It is more of a jam segment than a song, anyway. And every version of “Harry Hood,” “46 Days,” and “Bathtub Gin” this month were at least (typically) great. But it nevertheless has been surprising to see so many of Phish’s “jamming tunes” not go anywhere new and different this Summer — setting Camden’s dazzling “Chalk Dust Torture” aside, of course.