Jon Fishman a few nights later – photo by Dustin Weiss
Sundays are supposed to be mellow comedown days, but when Phish opens the show with “Tweezer…” you know it’s gonna be cold. Even disregarding the outstanding play of this Midwest jaunt, there’s something heart-wrenching about the setlist arrangements that helps to further erase the memory of Phish 2.0. Even though we knew this wasn’t going to be the mind-boggling psychedelic excursion that had been hanging over our heads all weekend, it was Phish opening the show with “Tweezer,” and that’s enough to get the pulse racing.
In a way, it was the first solid, old-school step into the freezer in ages, big rock and roll peak and slow, grinding dissolution; when was the last time a “Tweezer” actually ended? The rest of this set can only be seen as a showcase for the Ocedoc; Trey was on a tear, in control of the band as he had not been since before the breakup. Highlights included a soulful reading of Little Feat’s “On Your Way Down” (Page’s vocals shone as brightly as Red’s wailing), a powerhouse “Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan” and a sweet, rich “Farmhouse.” It all culminated in possibly the best “David Bowie” of the modern era. First Page took the reins, then he battled Trey for supremacy, then Fishman wrested control and orchestrated the build with a patience he did not have in 2009. The whole jam was at once measured and frantic, resulting in a natural climax that hit from behind and scorched to a close. It may not have been freaky, but this set was every bit as choice as it looks on paper.
With the big “Ghost” and “Piper” still looming over our heads, plus the guaranteed “You Enjoy Myself,” setbreak was a blur. Sure enough, Phish dove headfirst into “Ghost” (or should I say “glowst?”) to open the second set, still unsure on that vocal re-entry before the jam. What followed was a fairly typical but full-throttle 3.0 monster of rock>ambient comedown, out of which Trey tickled the intro to “Theme From The Bottom.” This was a bombastic Trey workout, largely fulfilling but a bit stunted in its climax. The best part was when, before the dust could settle, “Big Black Furry Creature From Mars” careened viciously out of the ending cacophony. This is as heavy and unruly as Phish gets, and Trey’s guitar was clearly out to fuck our collective face tonight.
“You Enjoy Myself” is much more welcome in the middle of the set; you avoid the bittersweet twenty minutes of knowing the set is over. Tonight’s a cappella jam was loose and playful, not a slave to the percussion/funk/didgeridoo/moan formula. It gave the distinct impression of an instrumental Phish jam plunked out on vocal cords, the way it’s meant to be, and it was over too quickly. Except it did give way to “Piper,” so nobody was complaining. The “Piper” that arose just days before in Telluride had been a gorgeous autobahn specimen, so rather than attempt another drag race tonight, Trey picked his way melodically through the storm before seizing on some dizzying trills and then descending into a wailing sinkhole of sound, no ordinary ambient jam but one of the most heart-melting, Phishy waves of sonorous noise the band has yet conceived. In a medium that threatened to become an endjam crutch last year, this year’s model is finding its sea legs in amorphous mode.
You could smell “Also Sprach Zarathustra” a mile away. By its very nature, it never disappoints; it’s clinically designed for tonal ecstasy, although some might still be hoping for the gigantic funk exploration the tune used to trigger (*raises hand*). The grand ascending melody served as the de facto climax of the set, as we were left with only a couple of axe-pop exercises to close out the frame; nothing could have been more apropos, though. Mike dominated the first sixteen months or so of Phish’s third act, and now he finally has some competition (without losing a step himself). Trey brought the heat to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Character Zero” to wrap up a colossal weekend.
Well, not quite. The countdown to “Tweezer Reprise” began with Velvet Underground’s “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’,” continuing the trend of magnificent cover choices on this run. “Cavern” was the elated singalong everybody needed, sweeping through the crowd with intrinsic finality. But to our delight, “Joy” followed it. This song toes a curious line between ballad and anthem, depending on how you choose to view it at any given moment. It struck me as a tribute to human togetherness, fitting after four nights of band members and fans willing each other on to immeasurable heights of, well, joy. The “Reprise” bookended the night in a rare expression of symmetry and completion, exuberant beyond what most musicians could ever hope to convey. All I could think in the afterglow was that Phish had just given me everything I hoped for plus a smorgasbord of things I didn’t even realize I wanted. Again. A feeling I truly forgot for a long time.