Phish: Midwest Run 2014
Posted 07/23/2014 by cal
Reviewing Phish is quite a different undertaking than reviewing other music. For one thing, there's a whole dictionary of jargon and mythology that's taken for granted, making the critique virtually unreadable to the uninitiated, but going about it any other way would make the review tedious for almost anyone who might be interested in reading it. Also, rather than just take into account the experience of a single show, it's important to put it into a thirty-plus-year context and assess where it stands in the pantheon of live Phishdom. There's also a lot of puzzling over the intentions of the band, particularly Trey, and conjecturing about how much effort he's putting in and what sort of statement he might be making--mostly by people who've never had a conversation with the man himself.
I didn't feel like thinking about all that crap on my birthday weekend this year. I just wanted to relax and enjoy myself. In the long run, though, I have a lot of thoughts about the Midwest run, and I can't keep them all to myself. So here are some of them.
Historically speaking, there are only two defensible positions regarding Phish's peak years: 1994-95, and 1997-98. It was during this latter era that the myth of the elusive four-song set developed, forever placing the notion subconsciously in the minds of many fans that fewer songs inherently means a better show. The ideal show for such fans features long, flowing stretches of improvisation interrupted as infrequently as possible by actual songs.
I love long, flowing improv as much as the next guy, but at heart I'm in the '94-95 camp. The improv was more dynamic, and the notion of flow took a backseat to unpredictability; you never knew what might be around the corner. In the late 90s the jams got progressively less distinguishable from each other, but the flow got deep, and if this is your preconceived parameter for How Phish Should Play, this Midwest run was a definite letdown for you, especially compared to the admittedly astounding Randall's Island run the weekend prior. But if you like tight, fiery, unpredictable Phish, Northerly Island was a big win.
Of course, some jamming is essential to a good Phish show, making Wednesday night's show in Detroit a bit of a head-scratcher. The second set was undeniably unpredictable, making it a thrill to experience in the moment, but it contained almost no music worth going back and revisiting. There were a few worthwhile minutes and a searing peak in "Ghost", and the end of "Weekapaug" was a wicked descent into droning darkness, but overall it felt like Trey was toying with us severely, dangling no fewer than a half-dozen songs that have historically yielded massive jams but yanking them away cruelly once they reached any sort of fruitful stretch of creativity. There's no meaner dickpunch than a four-show run that features only a single, utterly unexploratory "Tweezer". That still stings just a bit when I think about it.
But the show wasn't by any means a total loss. It showcased a lead guitarist playing with far more precision and imagination than he had for most of last year, approaching normally rote compositions in new and interesting ways, and getting unusually creative within scripted type-I jaunts like "It's Ice", "Number Line" and one of the few notable "Possum"s of the modern era, following the first "2001" encore in the band's history. It was beginning to seem like all the mucking about with pedals and gadgets at the expense of proper guitar playing last year was actually cohering into a potential major evolution in Trey's style. Still too much sour whammy bullshit for my tastes, but a major step up from 2013.
The mid-week shows should've served to dismantle all expectations for Chicago, but they might've actually artificially amplified expectations for a lot of folks--they barely jammed at CMAC and DTE, so now they have to jam. These folks aren't getting the message. Like last year's equivalent run, this one confounded the stopwatch-watchers, offering up brilliant bits of improv in relatively brief bursts. The difference was that the weather was gorgeous this year, the playing was overall much better, and the improbability drive was cranked.
I can't say I got everything I was hoping for from this run, not by any stretch. Like every day of my life, I wanted that monster "Tweezer", but Phish has chosen to leave Chicago Tweezerless since UIC 2011 (and that one barely counts, come on; you have to go back to 1.0 to find anything resembling a great Chicago "Tweezer"). The Midwest is just not Tweezer country and I'm gonna have to face that fact I guess. I wanted some dark, evil jams, but Phish has evidently grown comfortable being what many of its detractors have always claimed (and what I used to be able to categorically deny): all happy, all the time (even out of "Carini" for fuck's sake). I wanted some serious first-set type-II, especially now that the seal has been broken via the Randall's Island "Gin", but first sets were back to mostly hit-parade run-throughs and oodles of formulaic funk-rock. I wanted any of a hundred or so underplayed songs that have been swept under the rug in favor of repeats from Pine Knob of Fuego tunes and "Wolfman's" and "Moma" and "Yarmouth" and "46 Days" and OH WHAT'S THE USE? I WANTED A "SIMPLE", DAMMIT. You'd think between two Mike's Grooves I might finally get one, but no.
Within the parameters of what is possible, though, I was able to go into these shows with very little on the expectation front and dwell in the moment during the music rather than focus on what wasn't happening, which I've admittedly had problems with in the past. The result was simply some of my favorite Phish ever. I won't bother getting all adjectivey about the jams themselves, but I can no longer hate "Wombat" after Friday night, and the Northerly renditions of "Golden Age", "Light", "Hood" and "Ghost" are some of my favorites I've ever heard--and that's not to mention the first-ever type-II launch out of "Wedge", which came at a point Sunday night when I was about ready to walk out after a theretofore bafflingly unimaginative second set. But personally, I prefer shows that end with a bang rather than frontload the second set and then peter out, which is the 3.0 norm.
The big jams are just part of the story, though. On Friday, "Reba" and "Stash" were both robust and intuitively fluid, combining with "A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing" for a pretty smokin' first set (despite the underutilized 2.0 gem beginning with a sloppy thud akin to every single 3.0 "Ghost" drop). "Piper" was intermittently great, no masterpiece (though the fact that Trey instigated a stop/start section and the crowd did not go "WOOO" was a glorious victory), but after crumbling into stasis, it got reimagined as driving funk and spontaneously birthed "Halley's Comet" in whatever key it happened to be in at the time, one of those crazy things that Phish used to do quite a bit during its heyday but has scarcely occurred in the past five-plus years. There was also a hot victory-lap "Chalk Dust" and a "Slave" that built so patiently and beautifully at first and then got saddled with moans of ugly feedback as Trey either struggled to control his machinery or deliberately continued an attempt to dupe us into liking moans of ugly feedback in between actual notes. I think I hate this crap more than the whale, truth be told.
Saturday night we were hanging out with a gentleman whose first concert ever was Deep Purple in 1973; how appropriate that Trey would randomly find his way into a "Smoke On The Water" mini-jam inside "Tube" for this cat's first Phish show. The tease subsequently returned in "Antelope", and cranked into high gear like that, it dawned on me how similar that riff is to the theme from I Dream Of Jeannie...and apparently, it occurred to Fish how similar it is to "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)", prompting him to sing the chorus repeatedly in the background. The perfection of a dreamy, concise "Waves", the out-of-nowhere "Little Drummer Boy" tease in "Fuego", the red-hot lead guitar in "Twist", these were all significant factors in one of my absolute favorite sets of Phish that I've ever been present for. After the "Suzy" encore, everyone in our vicinity was glowing with the feeling that only comes from very high-level Phish.
Sunday was the most bizarre show of the run. The first set started remarkably with the second "Gumbo" opener ever, and a playful, echoplexy one at that. We also got "Tela", one of the few songs in the repertoire that's essentially worth gold just for appearing. For their next trick, Phish made me eat my thoughts as they played "Scent Of A Mule", which I don't normally care for, and turned the duel into a four-man percussion experiment, with Trey sitting at the kit and Fish on Marimba Lumina. I don't care whether you call it type II or not; if this didn't tickle your Phish fancy, go home and stay there. "Gin" put our hearts in our throats as, after wanking on amiably for quite some time (but not without a "Mule" tease, played faster than he ever seems able to do when he's actually playing "Mule"), Trey struck upon a mildly tense potential point of departure, but within seconds it was back to Bathtub as usual and we breathed again. Page's "Maze" solo was outstanding, featuring a brief Mission: Impossible groove. Everything was going so great. Then it was "Ocelot" and "Walls Of The Cave", closing the set with twenty minutes of useless cock rock and formulaic prog nonsense. Ah well, set two will be church.
Obviously, it would begin with "Disease". The only real question was whether they'd try to cram in rushed, mediocre renditions of "Tweezer" and "Ghost" as well as squeeze in "YEM" at the end, thereby potentially ruining the weekend, or leave one or more of those bitches out. For whatever reason, I never mustered up any faith in this "Disease"; it felt forced from the start, obligatory, and while it had its moments, it never elevated to greatness. Points for effort, but what followed got me progressively flustered. "Winterqueen", the worst Phish song yet, was unavoidable, making its horribleness slightly tolerable. "Theme" is a song once full of unlimited potential; nowadays it has almost none, except being a great lyric and a fairly well-arranged piece of music. The last thing I was expecting was another "Mike's Song" (which preceded "Theme" last year at this venue, go figure). It's a fine song but FUCK OFF, we're in the middle of the second set and you don't fucking jam this song. When "Wedge" started, my wife turned to me and said, "I don't think you're really diggin' this set." The look on my face must've been eerily reminiscent of December 19th, 2010, after the Patriots defeated the Packers and I declared the season "over".
When the Packers subsequently won the Super Bowl, I wasn't crying about the painful 1-3 run towards the end of the season. We'd just won the fucking Super Bowl. I.e., "Wedge">"Ghost">"Weekapaug">"First Tube". No, these weren't among the greatest jams of all time. They merely constituted an absolutely brilliant, inspired, mind-boggling end to a Phish show (not counting "Character Zero", also the final encore last year). "Ghost" was probably the jam of the weekend; the stunner was not only the liquid segue into 'Paug, but also the flawless interweaving of "Ghost" for a few bars in the middle of 'Paug. What makes Phish Phish. And in case you were wondering, the guy who created this site (no, not me--youphoric of course!) had been waiting twenty-plus shows to get that elusive first "First Tube". And there was much rejoicing (and pogoing).
If you got everything you wanted out of a weekend of Phish, why would you ever go back, right? Getting a "Simple" is a totemic red herring. I may or may not actually care if I'm ever present for one. All I really want from Phish is more Phish shows.