Phish: Hampton, Sets Three through Six
Posted 03/10/2009 by cal
I promise this will be my last Phish piece for a while. Hang in there, non-Phishheads. Or better yet, jump on board!
Now that Night One is out of the way, some of the steam has got to be blown off. But then again, it’s tough to imagine the persistent pressure of the most anticipated comeback in the history of American rock music. “Back On The Train” isn’t known for blasting off into space, and this one doesn’t, but it does feature Trey in fine form, wonking away like a man who knows where he is and what he’s doing. “Runaway Jim” also is no revelation but it does not disappoint. Then you’ve got your mellow “Brian And Robert” interlude, and then “Split Open And Melt”. This is one of the hardest songs to really jam, with its screwball time signature, and the boys understandably let go of the beat for a while, sinking into a swamp of noise. It’s not pretty, not ugly; this could be as dangerous as things get this weekend, but they pull out of it like champs in a situation where a lot of “Melt”s will just dissolve into ambiance. The key here is that they’re listening to each other, still in the process of re-tuning into each other’s frequencies. But this is already more bravado than we saw at all the previous night.
“Heavy Things” is a good example of Trey singing the words like they’re another part of the song to be played with. I’m so used to the vocals seeming like an afterthought that this is kind of a treat. A typical short jam follows, the band seeming sooooo much looser than last night. Then “PYITE”…I’m beginning to feel transported back to a time before I ever had to hold my breath for a difficult change. And then they murder the transition into “The Landlady”, but Trey keeps ‘em rolling and they recover quickly. “Gumbo” follows; it may have been a rarity, but it’s perfect vocally and just feels completely natural, short, old-style jam included.
“Reba”: the fact that there are no major fuck-ups makes this feel good. It’s just a run-of-the-mill jam but it’s not slop. It’s getting easier and easier to believe in Phish. And out of that rich, vast repertoire, after all these years, why do they persist in playing “Mexican Cousin”? That is one of your 80+ essentials? Whatever.
The band pulled off a reasonably fluid “It’s Ice” next, but it’s so complex and fast at times that every little slip-up made me nervous. “Halley’s Comet” actually sounded fresher than it has in a long time, not even considering that second hiatus. The debut of Page’s “Beauty Of A Broken Heart” rolled right along; it is definitely worthy of Phishdom. And then “Guelah”; this was a bit of a surprise. It didn’t seem rusty until the “Asse Festival” interlude, when Page started the whole thing off rhythm, and he and Trey proceeded to chase each other around sloppily. I couldn’t really complain, though; it’s a tough piece. Get it in the rotation and it could smooth itself out. What we need here is a tour.
“Lawnboy” was fine. But “Antelope” honestly highlighted the fact that this band is still trying to figure itself out again. If I’d been in the room, I’m sure I would’ve been caught up in the rush, but this one was only out of control in the sense that nobody took control at any point. Fishman even lost the rhythm during the end of the song. I’ve never heard Fishman drop the beat so many times in Phishtory as I have so far at Hampton. But I think a part of it is that he tries to overcompensate when somebody else loses it. These guys are so busy second-guessing each other that they don’t trust themselves enough to just keep playing through and let whoever might have fucked up, catch up. So far, the Coventry “Antelope” was the only version of any song that topped the Hampton version; I hope there aren’t any more examples to come in the second set.
Towards the end of the first set, it had occurred to me that no official Gamehendge material had appeared yet. I momentarily braced myself for the potential destruction of “Mockingbird”, then thought about how amazing that first “Wilson” is going to feel. But out of the gates for set two was “Rock And Roll”, and this, people, was a real jam, a deep, multibeast group improv session, quintessential post-hiatus groove and the most joyous portion of the weekend so far for me. This is the way second sets are supposed to start. The slow, teasing intro to “Limb By Limb” I just loved for some reason, and once the singing was done, I felt like Phish and I were finally done looking back. This set was starting to feel like a real turning point even before Trey and Page crafted an intricate and uplifting outpouring to propel “Limb” skyward. We are witnessing the remembering. Nothing scary yet, but there is energy.
It honestly sounded like “Twist” at first, but it was “Ghost”. This one was not terribly funky, more of a circa-2000 earnest rock jam, nothing mind-blowing but it sure as hell sounded like Phish and nobody else. Plus, it gave way to “Piper” in the end. Ahhhh, the sweet sounds of that strummed intro, Fluffhead’s mischievous stepchild…it was a fast-burner, the rest of the band recognizing Trey’s furious “Birds Of A Feather” just in time. Not bad, and then the Wolfman made his appearance. The set was clearly designed for funk; it just wasn’t being channeled that way, not necessarily a bad thing. “Caspian” continued a run of fairly rote jamming, but it was all quite frankly blowing away the first set. But where was Trey on the end of “Caspian”? Whether it was the mix or what, I don’t know, but all you could hear was Page and Mike, which ruined a song that pretty much relies on that payoff for all its oomph.
“Mike’s Song”: will they finally stick “Simple” back in here where it belongs? It would have been nice to make up for the ugly ending to “Mike’s”, but no luck. They must have figured that one would be like riding a bike and thus didn’t need to be rehearsed. “Hydrogen” was no better. The Groove is one to put on the list over the next three months, guys. “Weekapaug”, a little less to remember, was okay, but it was probably tough to get too excited knowing how badly you’d just massacred the first two-thirds of the thing. “Character Zero” did not quite punch anything home but this set had done enough already. Even though the steam slowly leaked out of it after “Piper”, I wasn’t even bristling during “Hydrogen”; it’s not like Phish has never played a set that blew its load early. This is just how it goes sometimes, but we can stop fearing that it’s inevitable.
Regardless of what was to come after, opening the third show of the reunion with “Sanity” was genius. More than any post-hiatus moment, this was that generosity, that acknowledgment of the mythology, and the pure excuse to laugh that fans were waiting for. And then “Wilson”, wonderful from start to finish…”Foam”, I think everybody had been sort of waiting for. Page has had his moments in each show, but this was his best extended solo thus far. Trey’s solo was not bad but did not usurp Page. They even landed it clean! Pretty exhilarating.
I know everybody was waiting for “Gin”, and it was textbook turn-of-the-century “Gin”--almost by-the-numbers, but it's just so nice to have it back. To be honest, the criminally underused “Undermind” was a more interesting groove. How did it manage to evolve into quintessential Phish, hiding in the catalog like that? I can envision this song going way off into imagination land in the future.
“AC/DC Bag” was a rock solid version, thrilling in its context, Trey rocking out like the song’s namesake. Page really took over on “My Friend”; Trey was not so crisp, but not terrible, and following this he surely loses the Muel Duel, all thumbs for quite a bit of it, although the vigor with which they sing the end of the tune almost makes up for it; the harmonies are dead on. “All Of These Dreams” is similarly well-sung, and while it has only been intermittently notable, it was one of my greatest hopes that we’d see a renewed commitment to singing for 3.0, and I can’t stress enough the fact that the vocals were better than they’ve been in at least ten years, particularly from Trey. Hell, I was almost hoping they’d take a stab at “Roggae”.
“Maze” gets off to a bit of a cold start, but the heat gets cranked on the jam; this one gets dangerous, and Trey finally catches fire in a way he has not all weekend, drop-jaw smokin’. They follow this up with the George Jones classic “She Thinks I Still Care”; I don’t recall ever hearing them play this. After this they pulled out ”Army Of One”, which worked well, and followed it up with “Tube”. I know this set is typical in length for this weekend, but it really seems to keep going and going, and the way you want that to feel. This “Tube” was not long but they executed it without a hitch. “Cars Trucks Buses” actually fit really well following “Tube”, and Page dominated it as well he should.
The running list of “essentials” in my mind was getting shorter, but “Free” was certainly lying in wait. The opening was weak, but the lyrics “I feel the feeling I forgot” came on like never before, and from then on it kept building in intensity until Trey’s guitar during the recapitulation almost completely drowned out the singing, but the guitar at that moment was definitely what needed to be heard; he was throttling the funk out of it. “Frankenstein” was that pressure-drop set-closer that we still craved, and that, friends, was a set that will warrant multiple listens. After night one I wasn’t sure that would happen. Now, gee, let’s see, what could POSSIBLY open the second set? Gosh, I just can’t imagine what it could be.
With the iconic bass intro of “Disease” and its ensuing jam, I felt I could be listening to any post-Hoist era of Phish. There are threads running through “Disease” that belong solely to that song. I know that a fading part of my critical mind was still looking for reasons to peg this as the work of a band out of practice, but this “Disease” contains no such reason. You will hear this and realize you no longer have any reason to fear that Phish cannot jam like it used to. This one dissolves completely, and a separate jam just rages back out of nowhere, pure JEMP magic. This one might warrant its own entry in The Phish Companion. I can only guess at how amazing it had to have been for everyone who was there.
I had surely hoped “Seven Below” counted as essential; it has colored some of my very favorite post-hiatus memories. This was no barnburner but it was sufficient to assuage the craving.
And let me just say thank you, guys, for playing “Silent In The Morning”. I never could figure out why this one slipped out of the rotation. Although on this occasion, I couldn’t really say that this exact thing happened to me just last year.
”Twist” may have been the last thing still percolating in my mind as something that absolutely had to be played (my “Meatstick” dreams were slowly dying). Trey was really coaxing some cool shit out of his guitar in the beginning of the jam, and as it slowed down a bit, it felt like Mike was trying to lead it back into “Seven Below”, but this didn’t catch on; instead it just led to some mesmerizing space travel that bled into “2001” once Fishman got tired of piddling around. This was not a very crisp “2001” at all; they got through it but it didn’t really serve much of a purpose. People get pretty generous with the “>” these days.
They could’ve just gone right into “Moma”, although this one turns out to be just the bare-bones song. But then comes one of the biggest treats of the weekend: “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”. The newly focused Trey really sang it well, then picked the untouchable Clapton solo note for note, then coaxed the essence of the song and himself out in the end. People bitch about Trey’s dominance sometimes, but there are times when we need it, ego and all, and this was one. That ego comes from a place of pure reciprocal love, the fan/band support group that keeps us all in this together.
“Velvet Sea”. I forgot about that one. The memory of its significance can’t be felt on tape, so it will fade over time, but I doubt words can touch what people felt who were there. Then, in another of many nods to the halcyon mid-90’s, “Slave” to end the set, in fine form.
I couldn’t help thinking of “The Curtain”, but I think there was a hint of “Contact” even before the “Happy Birthday” to Fish’s dad. But "The Curtain" wouldn't have fit; this weekend is the anti-Coventry. And suddenly I wondered how “Cavern” and “Golgi” had gotten left out of this. And then I remembered how many songs this band has, and how many of them are essential to different people for all different reasons. And all of these people, if we’re patient and have faith, will eventually be rewarded. Because Phish is definitely back, there’s no doubt about that.
Man, they really love that “Bug” song, don’t they? Why is that? I have to say, though, that Fish was astounding on this one, alternating between all the things he does best, overshadowing the rest of the band like a storm; it was breathtaking. Now I have a new reason to love this song. And finally, the “Reprise” roared to life. After three nights of nearly four hours each, this band was nowhere near exhausted; it was energized.
Possibly the happiest moment for me, though, was Trey’s words during the final cacophony of “Slave”: “Thank you so much, we’ll see you…soon!” June cannot come soon enough. I can’t conclusively say that all the cobwebs are shaken off, but they’re an old car that’s been sitting on blocks for four years. After only three nights back on the road, they’re running waaaaaaay better than you’d expect. And the improvement between Friday and Sunday quite convincingly suggests that these four men have reunited because they believe they can create for us, and themselves, things we’ve never quite experienced before. What can I say? I believe it, too.